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Theologie im Umbruch der Moderne

Pfleiderer, Georg and Matern, Harald eds. Theologie im Umbruch der Moderne: Karl Barths frühe Dialektische Theologie. Christentum und Kultur (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 2014), 244 pp. $39.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Matthias Gockel (February 13, 2017)



The specter of modernity continues to haunt Barth scholarship in the Anglophone world. While no serious interpreter claims that Barth’s theology signifies a revival of older Protestant orthodox systems, its stance towards modernity is contested. Interpreters concerned about the threat of “secularism” (for example, D. Stephen Long’s recent monograph Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation) read Barth’s dissent from liberal Protestantism as the full-scale rejection of essential tenets of modernity, above all, human autonomy. If modernity equals “secularism,” they suggest, Barth surely was opposed to both.

Fortunately, this narrative does not offer the whole story. Problematic aspects of modernity were acknowledged from early on, even by thinkers sympathetic to the modern project, most notably Hegel, Marx, and Weber. Clearly, the naïve belief in steady human progress would not pass their critical judgment. Moreover, important strands in the Christian tradition hold a positive view of the secular world as God’s creation and on this basis affirm its autonomy.

The book under review is an example of such a qualified affirmation. It regards Barth as an example of doing theology during “the upheavals of modernity,” as the title says, and offers papers from three public events between 2011 and 2013, which discussed new publications in the on-going Complete Edition (Gesamtausgabe) of Barth’s works. The co-editors are Georg Pfleiderer and Harald Matern from the University of Basel.

Their introduction explains the title of the book: Upheaval implies crisis, especially in the 20th century, which the editors interpret with Eric Hobsbawm as the “Age of Extremes.” They propose a reading of Barth’s dialectical theology as “theology of the crises of modernity” (7), referring specifically to the crisis of World War I, the cultural crisis thereafter, and the political crisis in 1933 Germany. They emphasize that Barth’s theology affirms God’s grace and care for “precisely this world” (13). The task for Barth scholarship would be to avoid one-sided perspectives, as if Barth was only the socialist, only the intellectual, or only the preacher. Hence, they advocate a more comprehensive perspective drawing attention to both historical context and theological innovation, not only in the earlier Barth but also in the Church Dogmatics.

The first part offers six papers on Barth’s writings during his formative years (1914–1921), when he served as pastor in the village of Safenwil, and an essay by Harald Matern on Barth’s dynamic eschatology, including its ethical dimensions, in Romans I (1919). Hans-Anton Drewes, former Director of the Karl-Barth-Archive, considers the thesis that in these Barth years developed a theology of “dialectical-theological socialism” (26). Drewes affirms the thesis and points to Barth’s reversal of the bourgeois belief that the world will always remain in dire straits, while religion may provide occasional relief. Barth claims that the world as it is shows us many good and hopeful signs even without religion. The true redemption and revolution for which it longs occurs not through religious relief but through the creative reality and power of the living God. Drewes also suggests that we should assume continuity rather than “ruptures” (45) in Barth’s thinking between 1920 and 1961.

Regina Wecker, a historian from the University of Basel, analyzes the main social conflicts between 1914 and 1920, when Switzerland was one of the most industrialized countries in Europe. Barth himself started to help organize textile workers and became involved in a conflict with a local factory owner. Wecker shows that the Swiss federal government used the beginning of the war to delay the implementation of its own moderately progressive factory legislation and instead propagated national unity. In November 1918, the Social Democratic Party (SP) and the trade unions called for a national strike after the government had refused to discuss demands to limit maximum working hours and to establish a social security system. Wecker concludes that the political demands of the national strike were gradually met in the following decades. One could add though that since the 1990s workers’ gains and social services have come under renewed attack also in Switzerland…

Andreas Pangritz, a systematic theologian from the University of Bonn, takes a closer look at the “socialist speeches,” as Barth himself called a collection of 43 texts or drafts written between 1911 and 1919. Pangritz focuses on two phases of these speeches, beginning in 1914 and 1917 respectively. Here, Barth radicalizes the concept of socialism theologically. He emphasizes the similarity between the message of Jesus and the goals of Social Democracy. Both call not for reforms but for revolution and proclaim a new world. Pangritz argues that this is the original context of Barth’s famous dictum of God as “wholly other.” The dictum does not say that God remains aloof but, on the contrary, understands God as being at work in the midst of society and “class struggle” (72). Barth’s concept of God’s kingdom recognizes God’s own movement towards the world (von Gott her), while remaining attentive to movements in the world towards God (auf Gott hin). Moreover, Barth participates in debates about the future direction of Swiss Social Democracy after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia 1917. The “socialist speeches” offer variations on the idea from Romans I that Christianity is “more than Leninism” (Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief (Erste Fassung)1919, ed. by H. Schmidt, Zurich 1985, 506). Finally, Pangritz remarks that the lecture on “Christian Life” from June 1919 served as starting-point for Barth’s Tambach lecture three months later and its dogmatic theology “in a nutshell” (78).

Georg Pfleiderer harks back to the two lectures just mentioned and argues that the triadic structure of regnum naturae, regnum gratiae, and regnum gloriae helped Barth to elaborate on his conception of knowledge of God (Gotteserkenntnis). Pfleiderer also emphasizes that although Barth’s dogmatic thinking matured over the years, he never ceased to think in terms of his early “dialectical theology of revelation” (101)

Bruce McCormack (Princeton Theological Seminary) reiterates that Barth did not reject modern theology per se but only those versions that ignored eschatology and operated with a concept of God curtailed to bourgeois morality. McCormack also brings recent apocalyptic readings of Paul into conversation with Barth and argues that Barth favored a cosmological apocalyptic, in which God’s victory over the powers of sin and death is the central metaphor. On this account, the self-sacrificial faithfulness of Jesus seems to provide the possibility but not the reality of redemption. What is missing, McCormack argues, is an explication of the cross in judicial terms, as in Barth’s later doctrine of reconciliation in CD IV.

Dirk Smit (University of Stellenbosch) offers “a South African reflection” on reading Barth in contexts of “radical transformation” (151). He points out that many theologians in South Africa who appealed to Barth hardly knew Barth’s own work and instead relied on North American interpretations or editions. Smit offers an overview of various aspects of Barth’s work that became important in theological statements about and against Apartheid. He also acknowledges that the new volume helped him to understand how intensely Barth participated in the political struggles of his day, and he expresses the hope that other South African readers also might be inspired by this “Barth,” as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

The remaining third of the book offers two papers related to the new edition of Barth’s second commentary on Romans (1922) and one article on the edition of Barth’s writings between 1930 and 1933. Cornelis van der Kooi (Free University Amsterdam) interprets Romans II as a “centenary book” (169). He starts with reflections on the book’s recent translation into Dutch and the excited puzzlement it provoked in an avowedly atheist reviewer from a major Dutch newspaper. Van der Kooi argues that Barth’s critique of Western Protestantism puts a theological end to Eurocentric thinking. He agrees with Pangritz that the concept of God as “wholly other” implies God’s presence, not absence, in the world, which he interprets as the proclamation of God’s “ultimate Yes” (175) to humankind. Even though man and woman might want to live without God, God does not want to live without man and woman. According to van der Kooi, this claim is Barth’s positive response to the process of modern secularization.

Folkart Wittekind (University of Duisburg-Essen) wants to find out how Barth’s emphasis on God as the “object” (Gegenstand) of theology functions, with the explicit goal of “superseding the mere objectivity” (186) of Barth’s dictum “God is God” in favor of a more sophisticated religionsphilosophische reading. Wittekind claims that Barth’s use of “religious contents” (188) is itself ‘religious,’ as if Barth wanted to develop a specifically new kind of “piety” (102). Hence, the theological proposition “God is God” would not refer to God (or “God”) but rather describe the act of faith, in distinction from “other acts of consciousness” (208). Wittekind blurs the difference between God and concepts or thoughts of God. God (or “God”) is the expression of “the strict absoluteness of the self-reflexive process of the linguistic symbolization of ‘religion,’” and God (or “God”) is present, “only” in this self-referential “linguistic process of self-description and self-representation” (210). God is God (or “God”) by making His self known in this process and as this process. Not surprisingly, the editors ask whether Wittekind’s highly formalized rhetoric, at times bordering on obscurity, can account for the rich “‘biblical realism’” (20) that undergirded Barth’s theology.

Finally, Michael Hüttenhoff (University of Saarbrücken) offers a meticulous analysis of the early formation of Protestant opposition to the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) in November 1933. During his discussions with the Pfarrernotbund (“Pastor’s Emergency Council”) of the Prussian Church, Barth insisted on a statement that clearly excluded the idea of a second source of revelation like the German Volkstum, alongside the witness of Scripture to Jesus Christ. He was afraid that his fellow Protestants were too concerned with questions of political expediency in order not to alienate the fascist government: “Time and again, one eyes the benevolence of the Nazis” (Karl Barth to Gerhard Jacobi, December 23, 1933, in: id., Briefe 1933, ed. by E. Busch, with B. Haase and B. Schenck, Zurich 2004, 585). Hüttenhoff claims that Barth pursued a strategy of “everything or nothing” (234). It could be more appropriate, however, to call it a strategy of “first things first.” Certainly, Barth stubbornly adhered to theological principles, but if one considers his strategy on a larger time scale, he hardly looks like a maverick, and he had no illusions about winning (or loosing) “everything” by himself. Hüttenhoff recognizes this much, when he says that a “broad consensus” (234) would have been unlikely, even if Barth’s proposals had received a more positive response in November 1933.

On the whole, the essays contain a wealth of interesting and diverse material. They show that the question whether Barth “affirmed” or “rejected” modernity is simplistic. The editors’ advice to read Barth as a contextual theologian is worth considering. At the same time, an Epilogue might have elaborated on the differences between the three “crises” between 1914 and 1933 and thus clarified the nuances of Barth’s response to modernity.

Matthias Gockel, University of Basel

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.