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The Affirmations of Reason: On Karl Barth’s Speculative Theology

Sigurd Baark. The Affirmations of Reason: On Karl Barth’s Speculative Theology (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), xiii + 291 pp. $109.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Justin Coyle (September 09, 2019)



Twenty-two years ago, Bruce McCormack unsettled Barth studies with his book Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (Oxford, 1997). This work capsized the Balthasar-Torrance thesis that in his 1931 Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (FQI) Barth, Saul-to-Paul-like, scrapped dialectic for analogy. No, McCormack insisted: Barth’s theology remained dialectical after 1931, even if more christological. The Balthasar-Torrance camp had inflated the “negligible importance” of FQI on Barth’s development (McCormack 1997, x).

Sigurd Baark demurs, though not by rallying Balthasar. Baark’s trouble with McCormack’s critically-realistic-dialectical Barth is not that he’s too dialectical. It is rather that he’s too Kantian (15-17). Kant’s first critique, remember, denied theoretical knowledge of God. We cannot know what we never experience, and we cannot experience what cannot breach space-time. Only, God did exactly this in Christ. And so, McCormack’s fiercely christological Barth boasts knowledge of God after all—and this quite without succor from the latter’s FQI.

But what if Barth did not accept Kant’s critique so blithely? And what if Barth is to be believed when he confesses that FQI remains “the key… to my Church Dogmatics” (13)? Such would, Baark proposes, cleave Barth closer to Kant’s patricidal sons: Fichte, Novalis, even the great and terrible Hegel. Indeed, Barth himself copped to “doing a bit of ‘Hegeling’,” did he not? Taking Barth at his word here means learning to see a “speculative aspect” in his thought (1). What all this comes to is what Baark’s The Affirmations of Reason: On Karl Barth’s Speculative Theology labors to show.

The argument proper commences where German Idealism does: with Kant. Chapter Three précises Kant’s kritische Philosophie from the first to the third Kritik. It rightly shows how Kant develops his necessarily amorphous “apperceptive I” in response to Hume’s challenge: “How to account for the normative status of our most basic concepts” (41)? Kant’s answer is by now cliché: We carry some of these basic concepts with us. Kant stays skepticism, then, by relocating the universal from what’s “out there” to our own categories of thought. All of which raises a question: What exactly is out there? As Reinhold would charge, Kant’s refusal of access to the things in themselves threatens to strengthen the very skepticism it means to scuttle.

Enter Kant’s heirs presumptive, each of whom claimed to be “more Kantian than Kant” (66). Chapter Four spotlights three, and at uneven intervals. Fichte first, who thought Kant’s letter kills but that his spirit gives life. By Fichte’s lights, Kant’s critical philosophy was not critical enough. It censed the Ding an sich in palls of mystery while dogmatically assuming thought’s categories instead of deriving them. Yet Fichte’s ingenious solution to ground everything in the Kantian “apperceptive I” risks replacing skepticism with sheer solipsism. Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht offers a different tableau. Only by loving and losing his fiancé does Novalis encounter himself. We are not yet subjects, love’s lesson runs, until we are given to ourselves objectively in another. This begins to intone the procession of Hegel. For Baark, neither Kant nor Fichte could escape subjectivism. Could Hegel? Yes, but only by refusing to scry knowledge’s limits ahead of time. For Hegel, “absolute knowing” turns out to name a form of knowledge—not, notice, a content—which refuses to know what thinking can think before thinking itself. Hegel’s project, then, presumes a presuppositionless exploration of thinking and its deliverances. A speculative philosophy, to indulge some Hegelese.

Part Two finally opens upon Barth himself. Chapter Five sets Barth’s early theology in relief against romanticism. Baark identifies the shadow of Overbeck over Barth’s revision of Der Römerbrief. Between Römerbrief I and II Barth learns from Overbeck that death threatens our claims to knowledge. Thus, we know only night, only death, only not-God (Rom. 1:18-20). However, even this says too much; we scarcely know “God” enough to negate the concept. Paul’s letter radically reconfigures that concept. Readers learn that God turns out to name whatever is left over after Jesus exorcises our preconceived notions.

Exactly what is leftover, though, is not clear. Just so the Barth of Der Römerbrief I and II fights shy of speculative theology. He remains in thrall to Overbeckian negation—or in “danger,” as Barth himself had it, “of falling into an abstract negation of the world” (168). Chapter Six charts Barth’s course away from mere negation. On Baark’s reading, the Barth of FQI “leaves behind a… temptation to use unrealized eschatology as an epistemic model” (175). Loosed from his bonds to preconceived epistemic limits, Barth’s theology becomes properly speculative.

Anselm’s Proslogion tutors Barth on the form theology must take. A theologian’s credo, that is, bears a dialectical relation to her Credo. Subjective and objective mutually condition one another. But they do only because their form and final unity is given by their identical content, namely the indubitable thinking of God. The near isomorphism between conceiving God and God’s existing scotches the radical negativity of Romans II. After FQI, “affirmation precedes negation” (223). If Barth’s method remains dialectical, it is now a speculative dialectic.

Chapter Seven, Baark’s last, measures the wake of Barth’s shift through his Church Dogmatics. Most interesting here is how Baark brandishes his reading against McCormack. The latter’s infamous “Grace and Being” essay wondered whether Barth should not have thought election logically prior to or constitutive of God’s trinitarian act. Baark objects that anything anteceding God’s eternal act smuggles the very ens quo maius that Anslem and Barth insisted cogitari nequit. McCormack might counter that Baark’s acquittal of Barth’s counterfactualing—“even if God had not elected to be for humanity, it is inconceivable that this would have negated God’s freedom” (257)—in fact defends a non-Hegelian freedom abstracted from the acts by which God reveals himself. The charge of voluntarism, it seems, cuts both ways.

Baark mounts his case for the speculative Barth throughout with tact and charm and skill. Most remarkable to non-Barthian eyes (mine, anyway) is how he reads and understands not only Idealist texts, but also important secondary literature on them. That is a rarity, which is fast approaching extinction these days, at least among theologians. The book is a challenge and a gift, especially to those readers of Barth who cosset a Kierkegaardian skepticism about Hegel’s deliverances.

Yet the story Baark weaves of Barth’s relation to Hegel sometimes sits ill at ease with the one Barth himself tells. Consider Barth 1933 lecture on Hegel, penned after FQI and which Baark does not to my mind cite. There, recall, Barth “must finally say ‘No’ to Hegel” (Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century 383). Hegel’s “confidence in God,” Barth writes, turns out to be—note the warmed-over Feuerbach—“self-confidence” (Barth, 377). More, Hegel’s hubris issues in philosophical problems—the Hegelian identity between thinking and being, for instance (Barth, 377). Readers may wonder, then, why the philosophical vices Barth here identifies in Hegel end up being the very theological virtues (to crib a phrase from Nicholas Adams) Baark wants to spotlight in Barth. This tension scrawls a question-mark over Baark’s conclusion that “Barth’s theology… leaves the essence of the Hegelian framework intact” (281). Still, I dare to hope the future promises more from Baark on this question.

Here’s another question: Baark claims that for Barth “christology pertains to both content and form” (168), even that “the form of speculative theology is christological through and through” (252). But is not the certainty of FQI’s speculative knowledge christological only to the extent that it is Christ-compatible? Different things, these. FQI gifts theology certainty only insofar as “God stands outside the speculative economy as the ultimate arbiter of truth” (205; cf. Barth, PTNC 404-5). But compare Hegel, for whom it is not God qua divine nature who is ens quo maius cogitari nequit, knowledge of whom is therefore certain. Rather this “soil of certainty” (Boden der Gewissheit) is the God-man:

The necessity (Notwendigkeit) [that the divine-human unity shall appear] is not first apprehended by means of thinking; rather it is a certainty for humanity. In other words, this content—the unity of divine and human nature—achieves certainty, obtaining the form of immediate sensible intuition and external existence for humankind, so that it appears as something that has been seen in the world, something that has been experienced… God had to appear (musste erscheinen) in the world in the flesh. The necessity that [has] appeared in the world in the flesh is an essential characteristic… for only in this way can it become a certainty for humanity; only in this way is it the truth in the form of certainty (LPR III, 454-6, my emphasis).

Neither is there any question here of what God might have done otherwise. Hegel, like Maximus Confessor before him, is much too Platonist—or is it Neochalcedonian?—to equate divine freedom with unencumbered choice whose measure is counterfactual possibility. By contrast, Baark’s Barth hews closer to another (unmentioned) Idealist: the mature F.W.J. Schelling, who set his divine Sein-Können against Hegel’s revised Spinozism. Might Baark play Schelling to McCormack’s Hegel?

Whether Sigurd Baark’s brilliant The Affirmations of Reason will unsettle Barth studies the way his quondam advisor McCormack has remains a question. Still, the intellectual resemblance between them seems irrefragable: their command of Barth’s texts, their hermeneutical brio, their speculative mettle. Also common to both is the engagement all readers of Barth owe now them. Students of Barth simply cannot in good conscience ignore Baark. And neither, it seems to me, should any serious student of theology.

Justin Shaun Coyle, Ph.D., Boston College

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.