More than a decade after its publication, this superb study still offers a solid, fresh and provocative entree into the genesis and development of Karl Barth’s thought. Gary Dorrien convincingly depicts Barth as a complex, original thinker who remained permanently, even if ambiguously, rooted in the legacy of Schleiermacher’s theology, even while he was vigorously criticizing the same liberal tradition. Moreover, as this book shows, Barth drew from distinct strands of nineteenth century theology when framing some of his most trenchant criticisms of his peers who emerged from or were influenced by the dialectical theology movement of the 1920s. Though his argument is primarily historical—and he does not count himself among the Barthians—Dorrien shows a keen interest in retrieving key aspects of the Swiss dogmatician’s thought to enrich contemporary constructive work within a pluralistic and postmondern context. To that end, he seeks to show that Barth’s thought is more radical, open, and dialectical than conventional “neoorthodox” readings have suggested. Dorrien, who currently holds the Reinhold Niebuhr professorship at Union Theological Seminary, New York, is perhaps most renowned as a social ethicist. Still, this work shows that he is equally adept as an historical theologian.
Dorrien’s densely packed monograph, whose modest length is deceiving, deserves a very careful reading as contemporary scholars continue to revise the picture of how Barth related to his nineteenth century forbears and his twentieth century peers. Newer theology students will find much sure guidance here, and this is a must-read for advanced researchers who delve into Barth’s work from a genetic-historical perspective. Dorrien’s work stands squarely within the three-decades old stream of revisionist Barth scholarship that began in Germany and continues apace in Anglo-American research. More specifically, he embraces the paradigm shift (by now well established) that challenges von Balthasar’s account of Barth’s theology as shifting from “dialectical” to “analogical” thought forms after the book on Anselm.
At first blush, one might read this book as yet another debunking of the myth of the “neoorthodox” movement—an older but persistent account that depicts Barth as leading a cadre of disillusioned young thinkers from the brink of modernist idolatry back into less perilous pastures of Protestant system building. Dorrien, indeed, does deconstruct this received wisdom, and he accentuates the problematic character of such movement labels as “neoorthodoxy” and “crisis theology” (treated most extensively in chapter two). Barth’s relationship with 19th century liberalism—explored more recently in works by McCormack, Gockel and Chalamet—is complicated, to say the least. Dorrien’s work goes a long way toward clarifying the main issues. In this reading, Barth adopted, with some critical modifications, his mentor Wilhelm Herrmann’s iconoclastic stance against all apologetics, his defense of the self-authenticating character (autopistia) of Christian faith, and his insistence on the event character of revelation. Barth is shown to be a startlingly original thinker who sparked a revolution yet was never able to rally his peers into a lasting and coherent theological movement.
Dorrien’s argument hinges upon his reading of Herrmann’s theology and its lasting impact upon Barth’s thought. Herrmann, according to this account, initiated a revolt of his own from within the heart of the Ritschlian school. He did so by retrieving and integrating several discrete threads from the Reformers and German idealists, in particular: Kant’s critical philosophy, which cordons religion off from scientific reason; Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith, which transcends human reason and must be received as a gift and never held as a possession; a right-Hegelian emphasis on revelation as divine self-disclosure, which emphasizes the actualist character of revelation; and, most of all, Schleiermacher’s non-cognitivist account of Christian experience, which grounds piety in the living power that emanates from Jesus’ personality (see pp. 15–27).
As Barth would famously do later, his mentor at Marburg rested upon the perspicacity and power of the gospel to shape the theological agenda, thereby eschewing all apologetics strategies, whether these are based upon epistemology, metaphysics, practical ethical reasoning, or historical spadework into the life and teachings of Jesus. Herrmann convinced Barth that such a conception of revelation and faith as sui generiswas the only effective defense against the corrosive relativism and skepticism emerging from the more radical history-of-religions proponents such as Troeltsch. Barth, Dorrien argues, would always retain a commitment to an open-ended dialectical theology that defied all conservative Protestant efforts to fix dogmas as strictly objective propositional truths passed down through some ostensibly static core of apostolic faith (see pp. 13).
According to Dorrien, the course of Barth’s subsequent career served to mask this constitutive dependence upon his mentor’s work. As the foremost advocate of a return to the pre-Enlightenment wellsprings of theology, Barth had good rhetorical and political reasons to soft-pedal (and probably also to conveniently misremember) the scope of his debt to Herrmann and the liberal tradition. Consequently, scores of Barth’s interpreters have been thrown off track and this confusion has abetted caricatures of the Swiss theologian as a neo-conservative biblicist who repristinated Protestant Scholasticism while dabbling in the dusty tomes of Aquinas and Anselm. On the other hand, Barth does not replicate Herrmann’s program in toto without some critical modifications. He rejected his mentor’s religious individualism—a transition catalyzed especially by his immersion in the socialist struggle and his anti-Nazi political work. He replaced the Romantic fixation on Jesus’ inner piety with a more Kierkegaardian view of the divine Word that speaks freely in the present moment—a move that came to fruition in the second Romans commentary (see. pp. 61–64).
In this reading, Barth’s project is so radical and creative that scarcely even his most fervent admirers follow him down the line. Indeed, it would seem, his interpreters are just barely even beginning to understandBarth, let alone assimilate his insights fully into contemporary projects. According to Dorrien, Barth refashioned “nineteenth-century liberal motifs into a neo-Calvinist theology of Word and Spirit that reclaimed ancient orthodox ways of speaking of Christ as Logos and of God as Triune mystery” (pp. 2–3). Put another way, “With Paul, Calvin and Wilhelm Herrmann, but in a way that made him a more distinctive thinker than he ever acknowledged, he demonstrated the possibility of doing theology as a Word-following dialectic of divine hiddenness and presence that trusted in the sufficiency of the revealed object of faith” (p. 3).
The argument unfolds, more or less, within a chronological framework, the broad lines of which will be familiar to most students of Barth, and ends with a discussion of the critical questions Barth’s work continues to elicit today. A brief summary is in order here. Once he had managed to study at all the major German Universities, the young Barth stormed into the pastorate, green and cocky, as a Marburg liberal who discerned the essence of the gospel in Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion. His liberalism was stretched but not broken when he entered the fray of socialist activism in industrial Safenwil. Encounters with bold theo-politics of such radicals as Kutter and the younger Blumhardt rattled his bourgeois liberal certainties even further as he groped fitfully toward a more historically realist and politically relevant conception of the liberating divine Kingdom. The outbreak of the First World War shattered whatever was left of his trust in the liberal establishment as he, dismayed, witnessed most of his former teachers legitimating German nationalist imperialism. From the embers of this disillusionment, a bold new “crisis” theology burst onto the scene. By the time of his second- edition Romans commentary in 1920, Barth and his fellow travelers were in open revolt against their liberal forebears.
As Dorrien deftly shows, the circle of young radicals who coalesced around the Zwischen den Zeiten journal was fissiparous (if not in a publicly visible way) from the very outset in the early 1920s onward, and the doom of the movement was sealed already by the time Barth began teaching Reformed dogmatics at Göttingen. Barth had always kept Gogarten at arm’s length and he began to mistrust Bultmann as soon as the latter began embracing Heidegger’s existentialist anthropology (Barth, conveniently, seems to forget the existentialist themes in Romans II). Brunner, who was never part of the inner circle of dialectical theologians to begin with, had reason to both exaggerate his ties with Barth and, alternately, to stress his differences from Barth as his own interests demanded.
The German Church struggle in the 1930s launched a new chapter, the final one, in the troubled story of the dialectical movement. Differences that had simmered for a decade become painfully public in round after round of mutual recriminations. For his part, Barth began to insist, ever more stridently that any attempt to place natural theology (Brunner) or philosophical anthropology (Bultmann) in the forecourt of the gospel was a step down the path toward idolatry and a move that, he believed, would inevitably aid and abet the National Socialists. To be fair, in some cases he was goaded into the fray—e.g., when Brunner’s strong criticisms of Barth vis-à-vis natural theology prompted Barth’s trenchant Nein! (see pp. 106–111) Dorrien’s account of how Barth deflected all Bultmann’s gestures toward reconciliation and political collaboration at this time makes for particularly painful reading. From the other side, Barth’s former colleagues expressed increasing dismay as he became immersed in orthodox Protestant dogmatics, engaged in dialogue with Roman Catholics thinkers and reasserted such seemingly anachronistic dogmas as the Trinity and virgin birth as non-negotiable for theology.
Misgivings about Barth continued to proliferate during and after the war. Bonhoeffer protested that Barth was piling a heavy-handed revelational “positivism” on the backs of modern believers—“like it or lump it.” Tillich and Thieliecke chided Barth for his putatively retrograde “supernaturalism,” and Reinhold Niebuhr faulted Barth for not entering the lists against Soviet communism. Barth remains resolute in all this, a towering yet solitary figure in Protestant theology. Divine revelation vindicates itself in the life of the church centered on Christ and empowered by the Spirit. The gospel narrative speaks for itself and needs no demythologized props. The theologian stands upon the Word and Spirit without weapons, naked in battle yet free to embrace God’s mission in the world in openness and humility.
According to Dorrien, Barth’s strong suit is also the source of his weakness. He clearly admires Barth but, somehow, the epic dogmatic project as a whole just does not quite hang together. Barth’s dialectical framework, which he never abandoned, manifests an inherent tension that riddled his debates with other dialectically-minded thinkers: His “theology and the movements it inspired contained too many liberal elements to become a genuinely third way in Protestant thinking” (p. 46). The Barthian agenda engenders this dilemma. If it owns up to its liberal roots the old questions resurface: What about the historical Jesus? How can one human faith tradition claim to be unique? How can older, more genteel models of theological discourse address the challenges of radical religious pluralism, not to mention a host of social and political crises?
On the other hand, if the Barthian moves toward articulating a new orthodoxy—a move that has precedent in the master himself—they risk losing the critical edge of the Herrmannian background that Barth never fully lost. In that case, revelation becomes propositional, something (allegedly and practically) within human control. System building ensues, which runs the risk excluding critical voices on the margins. Barth’s own stammering responses to feminist criticisms is a case in point. An interpreter like Thomas Torrance—who becomes something of a straw man in Dorrien’s argument—can push Barth toward a “critical realism” that risks compromising its dialectical edge by engaging in a questionable project of reconciliation with scientific rationality (see pp. 160–63).
Clearly, Dorrien prefers Barth the Herrmannian to Barth the Heppian. In my view, perhaps this is one reason the somewhat stereotyped specter of the crypto-orthodox Barthian functions as a foil for the main argument in this book. It is perhaps somewhat telling that Dorrien, having shown in his introduction that “neoorthodox” is a questionable signifier, later slips into using the term in his own exposition—this time without the quotation marks—as denoting some of Barth’s gestures toward traditionalism that the author finds questionable. Having learned much from this book, I would suggest a somewhat different take: The freedom to be “orthodox,” if the Spirit so moves him, is part and parcel of what makes Barth who he was as a theologian. The freedom to affirm the virgin birth and the Trinity without apologetic somersaults is a key part of what it means to be “dialectical” in a Barthian rather than a Bultmannian sense. It might exhibit a freedom to embrace voices from the past without being enslaved to them. The liberty to be confessional, without equivocation yet also without weapons, might be a way that Barth can embrace aspects of his liberal past without lapsing into neo-Herrmannianism. It might show that Barth really is attempting to do theology in a new key, and that is exactly what Dorrien so persuasively argues that Barth is trying to do.
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.