Friday, 11 September 2009

On Barth's reception in Germany

The latest issue of Reviews in Religion and Theology includes my review of Stefan Holtmann's big study, Karl Barth als Theologe der Neuzeit: Studien zur kritischen Deutung seiner Theologie [Karl Barth as a Theologian of Modernity: Studies in the Critical Interpretation of His Theology]. The book is tremendously helpful for understanding the history of the Marburg-school interpretation of Barth. Here are the opening lines of my review:

One of the dominant trends in contemporary English-language Barth studies is to view Barth’s thought as a project that overcame the problems of modernity by returning to the roots of classical dogma; thus Barth becomes the champion of a renewed (because more deeply traditional) evangelical orthodoxy, while the problems and questions of the nineteenth century are passed over as obsolete. Coupled with this is the tendency to read Barth’s dogmatics as a kind of tour de force, a magisterial work whose authority is fundamentally beyond question, and whose thought can be apprehended without any reference to the historical context within which it was conceived. Even where Barth is criticised, Anglo-American Barth scholars will typically identify some ‘gap’, some relatively benign deficiency (usually creation or pneumatology) which requires supplementation.

Things are very different in Germany. Under the influence of Trutz Rendtorff and the so-called ‘Munich school’, several major German theologians have long pursued a stinging critique of Barth’s entire project. Here, his work is understood not as a triumph over modernity, but as one particular – and deeply problematic – product of the Enlightenment. In this impressive, meticulously researched study, Stefan Holtmann explores the history of this critical reception of Barth’s thought in Germany.

8 Comments:

Terry Wright said...

Sounds interesting, Ben; I know nothing about this angle. Are you willing to email me your review so I may read it?

ken oakes said...

This book is indeed quite helpful and I second your estimation of it.

I disagree, however, with your statement that the doctrines of creation or pneumatology constitute some "relatively benign deficiency" in Barth. Any deficiency in these areas, which I think are there, certainly will not be benign.

Todd said...

Any chance you could post this on the website?

nwcc said...

Undoubtedly Barth has a few questionable areas in his magisterial work. But he knows that now!

Someone recently told me that after a couple of times, reading books by those who had produced an introduction, or a key to, or critique of Barth's thought, he soon became bored with them. He preferred to read Barth!

I wonder if Stefan has also dropped a theological bombshell in the play-ground of the theologians. Or just added a bit more sand to the sandpit.

James Denney once said, ‘I haven’t the faintest interest in theology which does not help us to evangelize.’ Yep.

Halden said...

Ken, I don't think Ben was saying that such definicencies are in face benign, only that they are so identified by highly sympathetic American interpreters of Barth.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, thanks Halden. These deficiencies are "relatively benign" if, like most Anglo-American interpreters, you still assume that Barth is basically awesome — in contrast to those German critics who assume that he basically represents a malignant development in modern theology. Just to cite the most extreme example from this book: the German Hegelian theologian Falk Wagner insists that Barth's doctrine of God perpetrates tyranny; it eliminates all human freedom; it erases "the other"; it is structurally akin to Fascism!

Halden said...

Ben, could you perhaps write a bit more about this school of Barth interpretation? Frankly, I know very little about it and would really like to hear more. I would, of course, just order the book, but alas my German skills...don't...exist.

Terry Wright said...

Thanks, Ben, for acquiescing to my earlier request. I was especially interested to note Trutz Rendtorff's claim that Barth takes the Enlightenment idea of autonomous human subjectivity and practically projects this onto God, renaming it the radical autonomy of God. To echo Halden, could you post (or comment) further on these German interpreters, and on how far you think they have a point?

Not wanting to overload you, of course...

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