Collins Winn, Christian T. “Jesus is Victor!”: The Significance of the Blumhardts for the Theology of Karl Barth. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 330 pp. $38.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce (June 30, 2016)

Anyone with more than a superficial interest in the theology of Karl Barth has encountered the name “Blumhardt.” But many Barth scholars would have little to say if asked about the Blumhardts and their influence on Barth. One the one hand, some might mention their watchwords “Jesus is Victor!” or “Thy Kingdom Come!,” which are prominent themes in Barth’s thought. On the other hand, we might hear something, perhaps with some embarrassment, about the spiritual struggle in Möttlingen and the reported case of demonic possession and an exorcism performed by the elder Blumhardt. And perhaps one or two might even echo Bultmann’s exasperation with ‘obscurantism and superstition” and quip, “The Blumhardt legends are to my mind preposterous” (Rudolf Bultmann, “A Reply to the Theses of J. Schniewind” in Kerygma and Myth I, ed. Bartsch, trans. Fuller; London: SPCK, 1972, 120). Yet it is a fact that that this father-son duo, Johann Christoph (the elder) and Christoph Friedrich (the younger), exercised a considerable influence on modern Protestant theology; not only Barth, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, Jürgen Moltmann, Eduard Thurneysen, and even Paul Tillich, all claimed to be influenced by them in some fashion. Indeed, in a 1936 essay aimed to introduce an American audience to “Contemporary European Theology,” Emil Brunner wrote:

The real origin of the Dialectic Theology is to be traced, however, not to Kierkegaard, but to a more unexpected source, to a place still farther removed from the main theological thoroughfare—to the quiet Boll of the two Blumhardts . . . Both men experienced the reality of the power of the Spirit of the living God in a specially vigorous and powerful way. They were not theologians but they could make theologians think. Theology has worth only when there lies at the root of it something other than theology—that insight and life which were powerful in both Blumhardts. (Emil Brunner, “Contemporary European Theology” in The Church Through Half a Century: Essays in Honor of William Adams Brown, ed. Cavert and Van Dusen; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936, 141-42.

So, “just who are these Blumhardt characters anyhow” and how did they influence Barth? It is these questions that Collins Winn seeks to answer for his readers. And answers he provides! Collins Winn persuasively demonstrates that the Blumhardts “were of decisive importance for Barth’s theology” (xiii, 281). Moreover, this influence was not isolated to the earlier stages of Barth’s career as commonly thought; the Blumhardts’ influence is present at every stage of his development, explicitly influencing, e.g., the content and structure of the final volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

It is worth noting that one of the strengths of this book is that the Blumhardts are presented as neither proto-Barthians nor of interest only because of their relationship to Barth. Rather, they are allowed to speak for themselves and are revealed as significant resources for contemporary Christian thought in their own right. Despite the title, this is a book about Barth and the Blumhardts and only as such about the significance of the Blumhardts for Barth.

The book consists of the five chapters, which, after a lengthy yet valuable literature review (Ch. 1), can be divided into two parts. The first part provides an introduction to the life and thought of the elder (Ch. 2) and the younger (Ch. 3) Blumhardt. The second part explicates the significant role played by both Blumhardts in Barth’s early (1911-19) development (Ch.4), and their enduring presence in his theology from Romans to the final volumes of the Dogmatics (Ch. 5).

In the first part, Collins Winn gifts English-language readers with what is one of the best, succinct introductions to the life and thought of the Blumhardts presently available. Regarding the elder Blumhardt, readers are introduced to both his biography—his deep, if complex, roots in Württemberg Pietism, his ministry in Möttlingen and especially the struggle involving demonic possession and exorcism and subsequent spiritual revival in the village, and the community he formed at Bad Boll – and his thought – his Christocentric reading of the Old Testament, his understanding of the Kingdom of God, his pneumatology, and most importantly his eschatology. The same pattern is followed for the younger Blumhardt. In careful conversation with German secondary literature, Collins Winn focuses his attention on the Blumhardt son’s hope for apokatastasis, his eschatological Christology, and his emphasis on God’s love and its revolutionary consequences, particularly solidarity with the poor and oppressed. This latter emphasis leads to the younger Blumhardt’s political involvements, which would have a profound influence on Barth. His turn to religious socialism – seeing in it a parable of the kingdom of God – and subsequent theological disenchantment with socialism, has obvious parallels with Barth’s life and intellectual development

In Chapter One, Collins Winn provides an analytical review of previous scholarship on Barth’s development that gives attention, or does not, to the influence of the Blumhardts. While there is wide acceptance among Barth scholars that the Blumhardts influenced Barth, this influence has, until now, only rarely been explored with any depth. According to Collins Winn, the Blumhardts’ influence has nether been fully understood nor had much effect in accounts of Barth’s development, with the result that Barth himself has not been fully understood. Von Balthasar, e.g., does not mention the Blumhardts at all. Others, such as Berkouwer and McCormack, in different ways and to different degrees, recognize the importance of the Blumhardts, but give little space to their contribution to Barth’s development. Still others, particularly those who focus on Barth’s political commitments and activities (e.g. Marquardt, Gollwitzer, and Gorringe), do recognize the central importance of the Blumhardts, particularly their teachings about the Kingdom of God. Yet these interpreters give insufficient attention to the Blumhardtian influence on Barth’s dogmatic theology. Those who have recognized that the Blumhardts played a central role in Barth’s theology as a whole, e.g. Joachim Berger, Hans Frei, Eberhard Jüngel, and Gerhard Sauter, tend to limit their attention to the early stages of Barth’s career. This results in the misleading impression that the Blumhardts were only significant for the early stages of Barth’s development. Moreover, these interpreters either fundamentally misunderstood the Blumhardts and their relationship to Pietism (Frei) or their work remains mostly untranslated (Berger, Sauter, and to a lesser degree Jüngel).

Through a careful dialogue with prior scholarship, Collins Winn moves the conversation about the Blumhardts and Barth forward by focusing on eschatology as the central loci of the Blumhardts’ influence. Following the Blumhardts, Barth understood eschatology not merely as “last things,” i.e. as victory of Jesus leading to the eternal life of the individual, but as the victorious in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into the here and now andits revolutionary consequences for the Christian community and the world:

The material transformation that occurred in the victory of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection has implications for the larger social and political life in which human beings find themselves . . . There is no area of human life that is not affected and taken up into the transformation wrought in Jesus Christ . . . The influence of the Blumhardts’ eschatology reaches across doctrinal lines. This is no less the case in its influences on Barth’s theology. It affected his approach to theological language; it contributed to the shape of his particular integration of theology and ethics; and it most certainly shaped certain aspects of Barth’s Christology, ecclesiology, anthropology, creation and theology of election (64).

In the second part, Collins Winn aims to show just how the Blumhardtian eschatology influenced Barth’s theological oeuvre.

In Chapter Four, Collins Winn narrates an episode of Barth’s early development, focusing on his encounter with the Blumhardts. He closely follows and builds upon McCormack’s account of Barth’s genetic development, providing a congenial complement to McCormack. This chapter contains a detailed account of how and when Barth encountered the Blumhardts. The Blumhardtian influence began in Barth’s youth. His father, Fritz, was one of the last students of JT Beck, whose work is prominent in both the first and second editions of the Römerbrief. Beck was a classmate of the elder Blumhardt and a significant theological influence on the younger. Barth himself made note of his maternal aunt, Elizabeth, who often stayed at Bad Boll and whose Christian devotion and piety made a mark on the young Karl. Barth’s direct engagement with the Blumhardts came later, primarily mediated at first through his close friend Eduard Thurneysen, who arranged Barth’s “decisive” face-to-face encounter with the younger Blumhardt in 1915. The most valuable aspect of this Chapter however is the engagement with Barth’s earliest writings on the Blumhardts. By interpreting these texts with a careful eye to the socio-historical content, Collins Winn convincingly demonstrates that the Blumhardts were among the main catalysts for Barth’s break with Protestant Liberalism and turn to “the Strange New World in the Bible.” Collins Winn’s discussion of Barth’s 1919 Tambach lecture is especially valuable. He shows that the Blumhardts were a significant force behind Barth’s association of the Kingdom of God with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and that this remained a central feature of Barth’s thought throughout subsequent developments. Collins Winn is absolutely correct when he writes, “if there is a center to Barth’s theology then it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (200). This section should be considered as required reading for those interested in the Barth’s development.

It is Chapter Five however where Collins Winn makes his strongest contribution to Barth studies. Throughout this chapter, Collins Winn reminds his readers of “the critical independence that Barth showed vis-à-vis the Blumhardts” (211). He highlights the fact that Barth’s “primary allegiance was not to a specific theological tradition, but to the living Christ who was, is and will be the kingdom of God” (214). Readers of Barth are well aware that he freely corrects, supplements, critiques, and even dismisses the thought of even his closest interlocutors when they are found wanting. This is no less true of the Blumhardts. But Collins Winn demonstrates that Barth’s conviction that the living, risen Christ is the standard by which all theology stands or falls was something he came to by means of the influence of the Blumhardts. There is much to commend in the final chapter. Highlights include Barth’s response to Berkouwer in CD IV/3.1 concerning the charge of Barth’s ‘triumphant’ christocentrism. Collins Winn demonstrates in detail that the Blumhardtian theme “Jesus is Victor!” is central to Barth’s thought and uses this to show why Berkouwer’s critique misses its mark. Barth is not working “with a Christ-principle” as Berkouwer supposes, something analogous to the Reformed orthodox principle of election and divine decision, but rather “with Jesus Christ himself as attested to by Holy Scripture (232, citing CD IV/3.1, 174). Barth’s Christology does not operate with an abstract “cognitive concept or conceptual principle of grace” but “with the living history of Jesus the Victor, as attested in Scripture, and as experienced anew by the Blumhardts… rooted in the narratives of Scripture that points beyond itself to an actual concrete occurrence” (245). In addition, the chapter includes helpful treatments of the form and content of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation in CD IV.1-3 and on the theme “Thy Kingdom Come!” in the posthumously published fragment The Christian Life.

There is one potential problem with the book that is worth noting. While Collins Winn never makes such a claim explicitly, and, as noted above, rightly recognizes that the living Christ is the center of Barth’s theology, there is a danger of perceiving the Blumhardts as the primary influence behind several of the loci of the Church Dogmatics. Calvin, Luther, and Schleiermacher, e.g., are discussed only in passing and there is almost no discussion of Barth’s philosophical influences. This is understandable as this is a book on Barth and the Blumhardts and Collins Winn is striving to overcome the relative neglect of the Blumhardts in Barth Studies, which he so amply demonstrates in Chapter One. Nonetheless, it is essential that Collins Winn’s book be read along with other, broader, accounts of Barth’s genetic development and the content of his theology.

I signal this danger because Collins Winn has so convincingly proved his thesis: “that not only were the Blumhardts of great importance for Barth’s break from the Protestant liberal theology that he had been trained in as a student, but that these two men… and the powerful theological vision that animated their lives and thought remained of great importance to Barth, even to his mature theology” (281). This book should be considered required reading for future researchers working on the development of Barth’s thought. Moreover, the influence of Blumhardts should no longer be neglected as regards the content of Barth’s theology. Finally, it is the hope of this reviewer that this book will lead contemporary students of theology to take and read the Blumhardts themselves, be it with, beyond, or even against Barth.

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.