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.

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