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Dogmatics after Barth

Thomas, Günter, Rinse Reeling Brouwer and Bruce McCormack eds., Dogmatics After Barth: Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy (Leipzig: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), xvi + 203 pp. $18.20 (paperback).

Reviewed by Mark Lindsay (April 11, 2017)



Dogmatics after Barth? For some, such a question will sound absurdly unnecessary. For others, the suggestion alone will sound an ominous death-knell. And yet, it was to precisely this question that an international working group devoted themselves—a collaboration between the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Rühr-Universität in Bochum, and which culminated in a 3-day conference in Doorn in April 2011.

Rather obviously, this is not the only collection of essays that deals with the contested issue of Barth’s legacy. Michael Dempsey’s Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Eerdmans: 2011), Gibson and Strange’s Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: 2009), and indeed Princeton Seminary’s 2013 conference, “Karl Barth in Dialogue: Encounters with Major Figures,” together represent just a sampling of the many recent works that have sought to bring Barth’s theology into constructive conversation with our present day. Nonetheless, this particular collection provides us with something quite different. Rather than addressing the nature of Barth’s legacy in the context of a particular doctrine, or in dialogue with specific individuals, the essayists here explore the multivalent term in the book’s title, “after Barth.”

As the editors note, doing theology “after Barth” can simply be a function of temporality, recognising the self-evident point that Barth has been dead for nearly fifty years and so we cannot but do theology after him. But theology “after Barth” can and must also take into consideration the way in which the theological landscape itself has altered dramatically since 10 December 1968, with the advent (and arguably demise?) of liberationist, postliberal and ecumenical enterprises, and the more recent appearance of various indigenous and postcolonial theologies. Third, theology “after Barth” might, and for some will, mean doing theology in the manner of (though hopefully not in slavish devotion to) Barth. These three readings of the book’s title thus provide the structural shape of the collection, corresponding to new contextual readings (part 1), methodological challenges (part 2), and the reconsideration of key loci of Barth’s thought (part 3).

In part 1, we are presented with accounts of the multiplicity of ways in which Barth has been received in five different geographical contexts, from Europe to southern Africa, and across to Korea and Australia. Dirkie Smit notes in chapter one that, while Barth has had an enormous impact in South Africa, it has been, and continues to be, a contested and controversial influence. Whether it be the employment of Barth’s joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ as God’s great Yes against the natural religiosity of apartheid idolatry, or the refusal to excise the political implications of Barth’s theology, reading Barth in South Africa has always been a reading against the grain of popular civic and religious ideas. Yet Smit concludes with the possibility that perhaps the “South African Barth” is unrecognisable from the “real” (read “European”) Barth and that this caricaturised figure is likely not the best guide for the future of South African theology.

In chapter two, Myung Yong Kim records a fascinating history of Korean Presbyterianism, which has been characterized by a deep division between conservatives and moderates, and represented institutionally by competing Presbyterian seminaries (the Tong-hab and the Hab-dong). Spearheaded by two Korean graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary, each of whom emerged with diametrically opposed theologies, these seminaries have either repudiated Barth for his alleged liberalism, or championed him for his neo-orthodox credentials. Kim also notes a further set of tensions, namely the suspicion with which Barth is viewed by Minjung theologians, ironically by his not being liberal enough. In short, Kim’s depiction of Korean Presbyterianism is one in which the conservative (he says fundamentalist) wing has dominated the theological field and set the conditions under which Barth is to be understood. Yet, if Kim’s terminology accurately depicts the categories by which Barth has been read in Korea, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Barth has been caricaturised by all sides, with neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘neo-orthodox’ particularly helpful descriptors, but rather adjectives that have served merely to polarise and provoke.

Benoît Bourgine and Susanne Hennecke provide readings of Barth in his more ‘natural’ surrounds of continental Europe, particularly the Francophone countries and the Netherlands. For Bourgine, the challenge of Barth is how, in a secularised society, theology can exist as scientifically credible within the academy, constructively critical in the Church, and publicly responsible in society at large. Hennecke meanwhile, brings Barth into conversation with Kornelis Miskotte, noting how Barth’s Dutch interpreter contextualises Barth within the frame of post-war cultures of nihilism.

In the final chapter of section one, Ben Myers turns our attention to Australia’s reception of Barth. Noting the historic peculiarity that the study of theology has been almost entirely excluded from state-funded universities since the first of them were founded in the 1850s, Myers focuses his attention on the ecclesial reception of Barth. More specifically, he addresses the way that the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), which came into being in 1977 as a union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions, ‘was deeply shaped by Barth’s theology of the 1930s’ (54). Myers argues that the Basis of Union—the foundational document of the new Church—was intentionally structured to approximate the Barmen Declaration, with Barmen’s language of witness to Christocentric revelation infusing the whole text. In my view, while Myers correctly identifies the UCA as the Australian church most obviously influenced by Barth, I would suggest that he under-estimates the emerging vitality of Barthian scholarship within the country’s universities. Similarly, and I say this as an Anglican, I would also offer that he skews the picture slightly by condensing Australian church life to the UCA.

Section 2 of the book traverses key methodological issues. Bent Flemming Nielsen begins by exploring why Scandinavia, and Denmark in particular, has had such trouble understanding Barth. In response, he argues that too much effort has been expended seeking just the semantic meaning in Barth’s theology, whereas the real search for meaning must recognise the eventful activity of Barth’s speech. From the Elgersburg lecture in 1922, through Nein! and the “Anselm book,” Flemming seeks to demonstrate that the really interesting aspect of Barth’s theological endeavour is less the linguistic value and more the deep structure of implied subjective action. Such praxis not only speaks to the limitations of human “God-talk.” but opens up possibilities of rendering Barth’s theology as liturgy, which in turn facilitates a renewal of our understandings of corporeality.

The chapters by Paul Nimmo, Matthias Gockel and Árpád Ferencz take up the question of the task of dogmatics, both as Barth saw it himself and as it relates now to a post-Barthian world. Nimmo, enquiring into the way in which Barth understood the dogmatic task, reminds us that for Barth dogmatics functioned critically, scientifically, actualistically and performatively. Above all, though, dogmatics exists in and only in the Church, where alone it is meaningful. Yet Nimmo points out the irony that most of “Barth’s own career . . was in the context of higher education,” on which he never really reflected theologically (89). In an increasingly secularised society, therefore, what it means to do theology in the context of publicly-funded and non-religious education rather than within the church compels us to think “after Barth” in a number of different ways.

Similarly, Ferencz asks about Barth’s ongoing relevance within Church and Academy, but does so from the perspective of post-Communist Hungary. On balance, he seems ambivalent. On the one hand, he applauds the anti-ideological tone of Barth’s “de-centered” dogmatics that is grounded in the fragility of all human thought before God, and that thus serves all contexts that are oriented around authoritarian ideology. On the other hand, he betrays a reluctance to admit any practicality to Barth’s theology, saying even that its utility “finds its place elsewhere and not in the sermon” (128). One must ask whether or not Ferencz has adequately appreciated Barth’s commitment to preaching, and indeed to vitality of theology to congregational life.

Gockel returns us to the heart of theology, the knowledge of God on the basis of God’s Self-knowing, and thus the paradox that the object of theology is a Subject. Referencing Barth’s 1929 essay “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie” and his later more developed theological ontology in CD II, Gockel neatly demonstrates the connection between what it is possible to know and then say about God, and what God says to Himself about Himself, as the “One who loves in freedom.” Seeing this as the herald of Barth’s doctrine of election, Gockel concludes with the suggestion that dogmatics after but in the manner of Barth should abstain from any speculation about God’s being that divorces Him from creation and covenant. Thus, in a nod to the Trinitarian-election debates, Gockel—who has been aligned with McCormack amongst the “revisionists”—argues that if as Barth claims God is truly affected by His creation, then the full realization of the divine Self-identity is contingent upon the history of creation (121-122).

The final section of the book takes up specific doctrinal motifs that are found in Barth’s theology and that may be pregnant with utility for our present theological context. Darrell Guder again draws our attention to the deeply missional character of the Church Dogmatics. In particular, he argues that our own ability to critically engage with the non-churched world in which we live is heavily dependent upon our understanding of how that world got to where it has got, and how we parse that history through the lenses of God’s love and redemptive activity. Barth, says Guder, is a model for that type of missiological contextualisation that does not, however, prioritise context over gospel. Guder further suggests that other missional aspects within the Dogmatics include a reminder that sanctification cannot be divorced from a consequent sending, and therefore that for Barth talk of the “benefits” of salvation ought be replaced with language of vocation; and that a missional reading of Barth’s ecclesiology offers a challenge to inherited concepts of ministerial orders and ordering.

In Bruce McCormack’s chapter, we are encouraged to explore the future of Protestant ecumenism by considering Barth’s model of engaging with both Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and his eventual transcending of the polarities by which those sixteenth century debates were framed. This, says McCormack, is a more fruitful avenue for ecumenical endeavour than current Protestant theology that is, in his own view, these days neither confessional nor ecumenical.

Gerrit Neven brings Barth into conversation with French philosopher Alain Badiou—and, through him, Blaise Pascal—to ask whether theology as such even has a future after the Twentieth Century. Using the motif of “Event” (Ereignis) that is common to both Barth and Badiou, and referencing Barth’s second commentary on Romans, Neven affirms the possibility that future theologies may in fact have infinite possibilities, so long as they move beyond static ontology and towards the plurality of revelatory eventfulness. This, he argues, is what Badiou extrapolates from Pascal, and what can likewise be extrapolated from Barth. Nevertheless, while I think that Neven has correctly identified the iconoclastic nature of Barth’s Romans, my concern is that he has consequently so de-identified the eventfulness of revelation—“’the good and joyful truth’ may occur at any time or place, and in any domain of knowledge” (178) —that his version of contemporary theology is devoid of precisely the Christian specificity that Barth would require as theology’s sine qua non.

George Harinck offers a somewhat revisionist chapter on the historiographical reception of Barmen. While appropriately provocative, the chapter is, to my mind, one of the lesser lights in the collection. Notwithstanding his appreciation for the Declaration and the Synod as a whole, Harinck argues along familiar lines that Barmen was deficient in its silence on the “Jewish Question” and ultimately—and necessarily—a fatally compromised document. Such has been argued before. But his contextual contention, that the Confessing Church never fought against the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung (because its members were fundamentally sympathetic towards Nazism), flies in the face of the most reputable histories of the Kirchenkampf and fails to recognize that there in fact was a Church Struggle.

In the final chapter, Günter Thomas reprises the long-contested theme of whether and how Barth’s theology can intersect constructively with political engagement. Noting the necessary limitations (what he calls “disassociations”)—principally, that Barth’s hermeneutic of politics and culture was both underdeveloped, and conditioned by a context that is no longer ours—Thomas nevertheless sees some political utility in Barth’s dogmatics. In particular, he points to Barth’s manner of relating creation to covenant (CD III/1) as a repudiation of that postlapsarianism that, with the help of Augustine, reduces history to a cosmic battle between good and evil. With that dualism out of the way, Barth is able to contend that the political realm ought not be concerned solely with “limiting, fighting and suppressing the power of sin” (188). Similarly, Barth’s rejection of a theology of Ordnungen breaks open the Platonic categorization of world and society, making every aspect of social life available to an encounter with God’s fidelity and grace. Without therefore being an uncritical apologist for Barth’s political theology, Thomas seeks to retrieve the possibilities of utilising Barth’s dogmatic presuppositions for a post-Barthian political ethic.

In sum, then, this collection takes the reader on a fascinating geographical, methodological and doctrinal journey into a dogmatic world shaped by but not subservient to Barth’s particular insights. There are, inevitably, problems with the book. Aside from the variable quality of the chapters, to which I have already referred, the book is shot-through with spelling and typographical errors, and with an annoying inconsistency in the formatting of footnotes. To my mind, even the front-cover looks rushed, and in greater need of editorial discernment. If, however, one can get beyond these flaws, there is much here to be read with profit.

Mark Lindsay, Joan F W Munro Professor of Historical Theology, Trinity College Theological School - University of Melbourne

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.