(1) After his dissertation under Barth on Calvin’s doctrine of reconciliation (Christ In Our Place, I highly recommend it), van Buren worked as a pastor and seminary professor. This pushed his interests toward the problem of communicating the gospel in the contemporary world. These concerns lead him to publish The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which Barth did not care for. There was something of a falling-out.
(2) In large part because of Secular Meaning, van Buren was labeled as one of the “Death of God” theologians. This further alienated him from Barth and “Barthians.”
(3) In his later career, van Buren worked intensively on the relationship between Christianity and contemporary Judaism. Until more recently this was not a topic that tended to excite “Barthians.”
All of this is to say that van Buren is due for some reconsideration, and the publication of his Austin Dogmatics lays the groundwork for that reconsideration. These lectures go some way in helping to explain how one gets from Christ In Our Place to Secular Meaning. Perhaps if they had been published in the time-period that they originated some of the misunderstanding of his work could have been avoided.
In any case, Ellen Charry – who edited this volume, van Buren having given the lectures to her – and others work to undermine the notion that van Buren was a “Death of God” theologian. But I’ll leave the full(er) argument to them. For the time being, I’ll leave you with two block-quotes from van Buren himself on the issue.
Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 358.
The “God is Dead Movement” is an invention of imaginative journalists seeking sensational slogans. It certainly is not a phrase I am given to using myself, its meaning being exceedingly ambiguous. My own work has been focused in recent years, not on the old question of the existence of God, but on the far older question of man’s puzzling language about God. By exploring various ways of taking this language, I am seeking and testing interpretations of religious faith that would not be wholly incompatible with the understandings of life that are characteristic of the age in which we live. That this complex and constructive work has been interpreted by poorly informed journalists as simple and negative is a matter I regret but over which I have been able to exercise no control. When the sensationalists have tired of this game and turned to other matters, the deep and important questions of human faith and life will remain. Until that day, it is a time for a sense of humor and patience on the part of those who care about the human spirit.And, on being called a “God is dead theologian,” . . .
Well, the expression is logically absurd. It is a contradiction in terms, strictly to say that God is dead. One might argue that there never has been a god; or one might say that the way in which Christian theology has spoken of God is such as to lead one to suspect it does not refer to anything; or one might say that the way Christian theology has talked about God has been misunderstood by those who think it refers to something. In any case, that about which theology has spoken doesn’t fall into a category in which being dead and alive seems to apply.Van Buren’s lectures are an engaging run through basic systematic theology from a Barthian-Episcopalian angle. They are worth the price of admission to encounter that interesting combination alone! I’ll be doing more posts on this volume, and I heartily recommend it to you.
Update: It has come to my attention that the sarcasm in my reference to "Barthians" (scare-quotes intended) in this post may not have been sufficiently obvious. It is necessary to note for the record that folks like Gollwitzr, Klappert, Marquardt, and Weinrich were very interested in - for instance - the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. There is a strand of theology done downstream from Barth that English-language Barth-reception has been a bit soft on, that van Buren was (perhaps) closer to, which (perhaps) played a part in van Buren's marginalization. Thankfully, this lacuna in English-language Barth-reception will be addressed in part at the next Princeton Barth conference, which is on Barth and the Jews.