Stefan Holtmann, Karl Barth als Theologe der Neuzeit. Studien zur kritischen Deutung seiner Theologie, Forschungen zur systematischen und ökumenischen Theologie, vol. 118 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 444 pages. € 79,90

Reviewed by Christophe Chalamet (December 10, 2008)

This remarkable dissertation is – as the author himself indicates – less about Barth himself than about a certain circle of his interpreters in German scholarship. Rather than directly contributing to the theme “Karl Barth and modernity,” Holtmann wishes primarily to help “clarify the implications” (18) of that theme. He does so by first presenting and evaluating what Trutz Rendtorff (part 1), Falk Wagner (part 2), and Friedrich Wilhelm Graf (part 3) have written about Barth, before turning to two additional interpreters: Dietrich Korsch (part 4) and Georg Pfleiderer (part 5). This selection of Barth interpreters is critical. The first three scholars under consideration are sometimes referred to as members of the “Munich school” of Barth interpretation (a designation Holtmann avoids throughout the book in order not to blur the differences between these authors, as he makes explicit on p. 409). They are some of the major voices in what has been and still is a sharply critical appraisal of Barth’s legacy. Indeed, as I would put it, most of these scholars are associated with the “Troeltsch renaissance,” to which they have been key contributors in the last decades. So Holtmann focuses his attention on voices who have expressed some of the most stringent criticisms of Barth.The first part of the book, which is also by far the longest one, begins with a close analysis of Trutz Rendtorff’s early publications, starting with his 1958 dissertation on “The Social Structure of the Community”. In it Rendtorff analyzed the theme of modern society’s “autonomy”. The emancipation of Western European societies from their religious roots has led the churches to a state of “permanent” and acute “crisis” (26). This statement reveals much about Rendtorff’s methodology, in which phenomenology and sociology take precedence over the more traditional dogmatic approach. Already in 1958 his aim was to retrieve the broad methodological orientation used by Ernst Troeltsch – an orientation eclipsed by Barth and more generally by the “theologians of the Word” such as Gogarten and Bultmann (28-29, 72). It thus appears that Rendtorff was intent, right from the beginning, to privilege a phenomenological and universal starting point for his theological work, in explicit contrast with the particularism of the biblical and dogmatic approach preferred by several dialectical theologians. Theology had to be done once again from an external standpoint (”Aussenperspektive”; 53), in the footsteps of two towering Enlightenment theologians: Semler and Troeltsch. Rendtorff was seeking to construct a “rational,” “natural” theology (84-5).

Rendtorff’s method as well as his inclination toward Troeltsch might presage a strictly negative evaluation of Barth’s theology. In fact, things are not that simple. The most striking aspect of Rendtorff’s interpretation of modern Protestant theology is his thesis that, far from breaking from late 19th century thought (Harnack, Troeltsch), the dialectical theologians sought to retrieve modernity’s theme of autonomy and thus must be seen as a constructive extension of 19th century thought (100-7). Barth did not ignore the modern problems of subjectivity, autonomy and self-consciousness. Rather, he revitalized them theologically in his own way, namely by “relocating” them in his doctrine of God (107-113). Rendtorff’s thesis was first expressed in 1972, in a section from his book Theorie des Christentums. Historisch-theologische Studien zu seiner neuzeitlichen Verfassung. Rendtorff’s appreciation for Barth’s achievement is limited: he deems it a significant – insofar as the theme of autonomy is now placed at the center of the theological construct – but ultimately inadequate effort, and thus calls for its sublation. Holtmann briefly sketches what Rendtorff sees as inadequacies, but it appears to be related to Barth’s use of Scripture as an instance of heteronomy (112). Another important difference lies in the fact that Rendtorff refuses to distinguish the Church’s being from its phenomenological, sociological dimension, whereas Barth, following the Reformers, understands the Church theologically and confessionally in relation to Scripture and revelation (143).

In his short summary of the first part of the book, Holtmann states that the question whether Rendtorff’s sophisticated interpretation actually conforms with Barth’s own theological intention is not as important as evaluating Rendtorff’s constructive proposal per se. Reading between the lines, the reader may discern that Holtmann has not been convinced by Rendtorff’s program of a “theory of Christianity” based on Troeltsch’s insights (156).

Part two begins with what looks almost like an apology for Falk Wagner: Holtmann states that even though Wagner crudely misunderstood Barth and polemicized against him, it remains interesting to uncover the presuppositions which led to these misunderstandings and polemical attacks. To put it clearly: what led Wagner to see certain parallels between the material shape (”inhaltliche Struktur”) of Barth’s theology and the theoretical constructs (”Theoriebildung”) of Stalinism and Nazism (173, 218)? With his emphasis on Christ’s triumphant reconciliatory work, which takes place independently of any human cooperation, Barth has constructed a “ruinous” idea of the absolute, for it lacks the presence of a truly “other,” according to Wagner. God “plays with himself,” in Barth’s theology. An “assimilation” (the ominous word “Gleichschaltung”) and elimination of the “other,” i.e. of human beings as contingent and free beings, has taken place. God’s omnicausality resembles certain forms of pantheism and the assimilation of the human counterpart betrays signs of a “tyranny” (214-217, 246). God’s absolute sovereignty leaves no room for human freedom. Interestingly, Holtmann does not see such criticisms as mere polemics based on an erroneous reading of Barth’s works (219). Rather, they must be understood as the logical consequence of Wagner’s interest in a theoretical construct of the notion of absolute. Building on the philosopher Wolfgang Cremer’s “theory of the absolute” and wishing to transcend the divide between theology and philosophy, Wagner considers the “idea of God” as triune to be a necessary rational thought, attained speculatively, rather than a reality known only through revelation and faith (174-182). Wagner’s speculative idealism is also apparent in the way a logically necessary idea – the “idea of God” as triune – serves to ground human subjectivity and consciousness within a theory of the absolute (185). The doctrine of the Trinity is “reconstructed” by Wagner “within the framework of a theory of the absolute” to ground “the self-acquisition and self-foundation of self-consciousness” [”die absolutheitstheoretisch rekonstruierte Trinitätslehre als Selbsterfassung (und -begründungdes Selbstbewusstseins”]; 186). What is apparent is that Wagner has lost all confidence in the possibility of any kind of theological realism, which he simply identifies with “premodern supranaturalism”. Everything in theology is conditioned by and dependent on (human) subjectivity. There lies the starting point of all theoretical constructs, including the “idea of God as triune” and christology. Human consciousness, in its active mode (”die Selbstbewusstseinstätigkeit”), is not only the source of theological constructs, it is also the subject matter of theology (223). Now that is quite an antagonistic approach, compared to Barth’s intention! It appears that Wagner did not even try to take up Feuerbach’s challenge (yet he hoped to counter Feuerbach’s critique by speaking not just of the individual but also of the universal consciousness, which he identified as God; 226). Another problem lies in the instrumentalization of the “absolute” in Wagner’s project. As Holtmann points out, in Wagner’s theology “the absolute” is a necessary thought only insofar as it serves to ground subjectivity and consciousness (192). Finally, near the end of part two, Holtmann mentions how Wagner’s more recent criticisms portray Barth as a theologian who used theology to further his personal ambition and quest for power. Barth spoke of the absolute to absolutize his own finite position (251). Here Holtmann rightly takes the gloves off and admits that Wagner’s comments do not reflect a real attempt to understand Barth’s thought (250).

The third part of the book begins by showing how Friedrich Wilhelm Graf’s earliest critique of Barth’s theology, published in 1975, is partly indebted to Falk Wagner’s views on subjectivity and freedom, before arguing that Graf follows Troeltsch rather than Rendtorff and Wagner in his assessment of Hegel’s metaphysics: Hegel’s thought was directed at the right aim, but his “deductive metaphysics of the absolute” (Troeltsch), with its abstraction from the social, cultural and political context, can no longer be pursued, (275-6). Troeltsch’s decisive influence is apparent in Graf’s “historicization” (”Historisierung”) of Barth, which seeks to contextualize his thought. Modernity is essentially a revolutionary way of thinking historically (”historische Denkrevolution”; 286). Using that Troeltschian standpoint, Graf concludes that Barth’s theology is “antihistorical”. Unfortunately, as Holtmann points out, this narrow focus on the problem of historicism does not allow Graf to fully contextualize Barth and to consider what he might have learned from certain “positive” (or conservative) thinkers such as Johann Tobias Beck, Christoph Blumhardt, or Hermann Kutter. More importantly, it neglects material questions such as the question of God (288-9). Holtmann then provides an excellent survey of Graf’s critique of the impact of Barth’s “antiliberalism” during the Weimar Republic. In an article from 1986, Graf has stated that even though Barth’s attitude with regard to democracy and parliamentarism was unambiguous (read: positive), his theology did lead to a relativization of democracy (Barth’s theology “faktisch demokratierelativierend gewirkt hat”; 296). Holtmann disagrees with this assessment. In his opinion, Graf does not try to understand what might have motivated Barth to criticize “liberalism” (313). Certainly, Barth did express some regrets regarding his relatively few public pronouncements against the various antidemocratic forces in Germany in the 1920’s. As a foreign citizen and as a theologian who wished to focus on the center of Christian theology, he did not speak out as clearly and as often as he could/should have (313-4). But Holtmann admits, with Graf, that Barth did not attempt to ground democratic values theologically in any constructive sense until 1938’s Rechtfertigung und Recht(319). Contrasting Graf’s work with Wagner and Rendtforff, Holtmann signals the decisive difference between them: a constructive project on the basis of a critique of Barth’s theology is absent in Graf’s works. Rather, he is content to evaluate Barth’s thought from a Troeltschian perspective, locating Barth in his socio-cultural milieu (326). But even this “historicization” is not adequately pursued by Graf, for it ignores a number of significant authors and texts, including many volumes published in recent decades as part of Barth’s complete works.

The last two parts of the book consist of “side glances” at two additional interpreters: Dietrich Korsch and Georg Pfleiderer. Korsch’s positive contribution, compared to Rendtorff, Wagner, and Graf, has been to take into account the central motif in the Church Dogmatics, namely the “prior facticity of the Christ event and its contemporary proclamation” (340). Korsch thus corrects their insufficient consideration of some of the basic material decisions in the Church Dogmatics (355), and he is interested in identifying the conditions of possibility for furthering the legacy of dialectical theology after and beyond Barth. Also noteworthy is the fact that Korsch places Barth in conversation with Wilhelm Herrmann and Friedrich Schleiermacher, rather than using Troeltsch as a measuring stick (344). Korsch discerns the importance for Barth of the facticity of Jesus Christ’s self-attestation (”Selbstbezeugung”), a starting point which obviously differs from Schleiermacher’s and Herrmann’s interest in human consciousness and subjectivity. But Korsch leans towards abstraction with his analysis of the “structure” of Barth’s thought: the center of theology tends to become a “principle” rather than an event (355).

Moving on to his final interlocutor, Holtmann retraces in great detail Pfleiderer’s interpretation of the development of Barth’s thought, from his earliest writings to the early 1930’s (371-403). Holtmann sees the influence of all previous authors in Pfleiderer’s account (405-6). Pfleiderer’s overarching concern is to show the “practical” character of Barth’s theology, which aimed at constituting a “church” with a theologically clear collective subjectivity (361). Barth’s Tambach lecture, for instance, was a “performative act” meant to create a community among theologians. Grasping the content of that lecture was supposed to have practical consequences: the theme of the electing God simultaneously served as a theological call to discipleship (390). The “applicatio” was inherently present within the theoretical construct (402). This model, according to Pfleiderer, betrays the influence of Marburg neo-Kantianism, a philosophical school for which reason itself “generates” reality. If Barth’s theology is somehow compatible with modernity, it has much to do with these affinities. As Holtmann sees it, Pfleiderer’s main objective is to analyze the way in which Barth’s theologyfunctions. Barth’s own self-understanding, i.e. his way of locating himself in relation to the biblical-reformatory trajectory, is seen as a secondary decision and as a means to an end (405). This interpretation is in fact shared by Rendtorff, Wagner and Graf, who refuse to take Barth at his word when he claims or hopes to be a biblical theologian. What Barth did was merely “clothe” his own ideas in biblical garment (416). Imagining that he might have received theological impulses from Scripture would be utterly naïve and is unnecessary. Holtmann is correct to take issue with this interpretation. He asks: can Barth’s theology be understood if one does not take his use of Scripture seriously? Holtmann’s conclusion is that the five authors under consideration have not taken into consideration the most important reference for Barth’s theology.

Holtmann proves to be equally charitable and perceptive in his detailed presentation and analysis of these five authors. One senses that, far from simply condemning Barth’s critics, he genuinely wishes to understand them and to begin a conversation with them. It is to be hoped that his conversation partners (at least those who are still living) will respond to his critique. In the meantime, Holtmann’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in the critical reception of Barth’s 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.