Benjamin Dahlke, Die katholische Rezeption Karl Barths: Theologische Erneuerung im Vorfeld des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie 152 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 256 pages. € 79.00

Reviewed by Amy Marga (February 21, 2012)

Benjamin Dahlke tracks the Roman Catholic reception of Karl Barth’s theology from its early days in the Romans commentary (1922) into his Church Dogmatics (1958) in this reworking of his dissertation, written for the Catholic faculty at the University of Mainz, Germany. Dahlke’s work is organized into ten brief chapters and it takes the form of a survey that treats a long line of German-speaking Catholic thinkers who found Barth’s theology problematic but impossible to ignore.

As Dahlke demonstrates, Catholic intellectuals of the day generally considered problematic the aspects of Barth’s theology that were more deeply shaped by his dialectical orientation. But they welcomed Barth’s move back to a Protestantism that was not constrained by Liberal Protestant principles. Catholics saw this as a return to a genuine and honest Protestantism that would allow for substantial interconfessional dialogue. Dahlke’s research also illustrates how, once having established an anchor for their criticism of the other, each side may have lost track of the new developments taking place in the works of the other as the decades advanced. From Barth’s side, this anchor was the concept of the analogia entis, which the Swiss thinker took as the sign of a pervasive Catholic natural theology. Likewise, Catholics barely registered the major development of Barth’s theology in his doctrine of election and the reconstructed Christology that followed. They continued to see him as a representative of the dialectical theology that characterized his early years.

Chapters One and Two cover the first Catholic reactions to Barth’s Romans commentary by thinkers like Joseph Wittig, Joseph Engert, Erich Przywara, and Karl Adam, as well as general reactions to the movement of dialectical theology and its philosophical presuppositions. These early reactions centered on what Catholics saw as the unacceptable divide between God and the world posed by the dialectical theologians and their seemingly “antihistorical” theology. These criticisms recognized that dialectical theology was trying to think through the God-world relationship under the conditions of modernity but, instead of moving forward, Catholics believed that the dialectical theologians were only moving back to the thought-world of Kant. To Catholic thinkers such as Michael Gierens and Friedrich Maria Rintelen, dialectical theology drove theology into an impossible situation of subjectivism, agnosticism, and even speechlessness with its insistence on the “infinitely qualitative difference” between God and the human. What such reactions failed to see in Barth’s own theological development, as Dahlke points out, is that Barth’s thought had begun moving on almost as soon as he became the representative of dialectical theology among Catholics.

In Chapters Three through Five, Dahlke shows how the conversation between Barth and his Catholic interlocutors revolved around the common ground that both shared, namely, a continued commitment to the practices that accompany faith, and the reality of the Church. Catholic intellectuals like Bernhard Rosenmoeller, Robert Grosche, and Erich Przywara, all of whom were guests in Barth’s home and in his classes at one time or another, provided serious and honest engagement with the theological and dogmatic differences between the two confessions. The differences between Catholic and Protestant theology continued to come to light through these helpful interactions. Dahlke names the sacramental theology of the Catholic thinker, Damasus Winzen, and the robust Mariology supported by Robert Grosche, as examples of such differences. These conversations provided Barth with perspectives that eventually became significant elements in his Church Dogmatics.

Chapter Six treats the Catholic reaction to how Barth demonizes the analogia entis in the preface to Church Dogmatics I/1, where he calls it the “invention of the Antichrist.” Dahlke provides a survey of the various thinkers who sought to interpret Barth’s outburst and its significance for Barth’s work as a whole. Bernhard Bartmann, for example, argued that a rejection of a concept like the analogia entis and the possibilities it provides for talk of a genuine relationship between God and the world leaves Barth’s concept of revelation in the Church Dogmatics vacuous. Daniel Feuling came to a similar conclusion. Other thinkers like Jakob Fehr analyzed Barth’s attitude towards the analogia entis from a Neothomistic perspective. They too found inconsistencies in his concept of revelation. As Dahlke demonstrates, it was Gottlieb Söhngen who sought a way out of the seeming impasse between what Barth perceived as “natural theology” within Catholicism (represented by the analogia entis) and the Catholic perception of Barth’s doctrine of revelation. Söhngen perceived a new theological turn in Barth’s work, one that would avoid the philosophical abstractions of Neoscholastsicism and find its impulse in the historical concreteness of God’s own revelation within history. On this point, Catholic thought and the commitments of Barth’s own theology converged.

Dahlke dedicates Chapters Seven through Nine to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s the interpretation of Barth’s theology. He treats von Balthasar’s interpretation, and the “turn” to eschatology that characterized aspects of von Balthasar’s dialogue with Barth’s theology, in Chapter Seven. Von Balthasar analyzed through an eschatological lens the God-world relationship that had been the central locus of controversy between Barth and the Catholics. Dahlke helpfully shows that it was only through intense engagement with Barth’s theology that von Balthasar was able to penetratingly analyze Neoscholasticism and produce the kinds of insights into the Catholic commitments to nature and grace, the doctrine of analogy, and the relationship of natural to supernatural that would eventually lead to a renewal in Catholic theology.

The concluding Chapters Ten and Eleven comprise a brief exploration of Barth’s influence on the Nouvelle Théologie that spread through Germany and France. This includes further analysis of von Balthasar’s influence over Catholic theology with the appearance in 1951 of his book, Karl Barth. Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie. Dahlke analyzes von Balthasar’s development of Barth’s Christocentrism by means of his own constructive perspective on pneumatology, which deeply influenced both Roman Catholic theology and Anglophone Barth studies.

Overall, Dahlke’s volume contributes solidly to the growing body of research on Barth and Roman Catholicism that shows how important this conversation was for theological development in the twentieth century. The book gives important—if not ground-breaking—insights into the way that Catholics treated Karl Barth as a thinker who revolutionized Protestant theology. This engagement allowed modern Catholic thinkers to more fully and openly explore their own accounts of the God-world relationship. Dahlke’s treatment of von Balthasar as an interpreter of Barth and as a central thinker in the dramatic developments in twentieth century Catholic theology is also of great service to any student of this period. If there is a criticism to be made to this fine piece of work, it would be that the survey-like organization of the material does not always adequately capture the novelty, dynamism, and cutting-edge character of the relationship between Barth and his Catholic interlocutors that jump-started a new way of doing theology.

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.