Monday, 14 September 2009

Trutz Rendtorff and Falk Wagner on Barth

Okay, as requested, here's another excerpt from the aforementioned review of Stefan Holtmann's book, Karl Barth als Theologe der Neuzeit:

Trutz Rendtorff’s work has been one of the most important influences on the reception of Barth in Germany since the 1960s. Rendtorff does not regard Barth’s theology as a fundamental break with the nineteenth century; rather, he argues that Barth represents one particular constructive development of the nineteenth-century themes of subjectivity and self-consciousness. Barth takes these Enlightenment concepts and places them right at the centre of his dogmatic edifice: the notion of autonomous human subjectivity now becomes a doctrine of the ‘radical autonomy of God’. Barth thus represents a kind of ‘liberal theology’ writ large.

Rendtorff is not entirely unsympathetic to Barth in this regard; his criticism of Barth focuses above all on the nature of the church. As Holtmann demonstrates, the seeds of this critical stance towards Barth can be seen already in Rendtorff’s 1958 dissertation on ‘The Social Structure of the Community’, an attempt to subvert the dominance of the Barthian ‘theology of the Word’ and to recover instead a Troeltschian sociological approach to theology. Against Barth’s restrictive dogmatic orientation around the Bible and the theology of the Reformation, Rendtorff found in Troeltsch the promise of a renewed ‘rational’ theology grounded in a universal methodology. In short, his goal was to reinstate a ‘theory of Christianity’ as the proper theme of theology, and this necessarily brought him into conflict with Barth’s dogmatically grounded ecclesiology.

Holtmann turns next to Falk Wagner, one of many critics who have taken Rendtorff’s reading of Barth as a basic point of departure. But whereas Rendtorff’s own response to Barth was marked by a deep and sustained engagement with Barth’s thought, Wagner is clearly more interested in denouncing Barth than understanding him, though Holtmann observes that Wagner nevertheless represents a fascinating and important episode in the story of Barth’s reception. Based on his own commitment to a Hegelian ‘theory of the Absolute’ (mediated to him by the Frankfurt philosopher Wolfgang Cramer), Wagner insisted that theology must always find its ground and centre in the reality of the self-conscious human subject. As he puts it: ‘The “I”, self-consciousness, or subjectivity: this is the fundamental condition for the constitution of theology.’ Thus Rendtorff’s interpretation of ‘the radical autonomy of God’ can only issue in a bitter denunciation of Barth: for Wagner, Barth’s doctrine of God perpetrates ‘tyranny’; it eliminates all human freedom; it erases ‘the other’; it is structurally akin to Fascism! While it is clear that such criticisms cannot be taken seriously as an interpretation of Barth (Eberhard Jüngel icily described this interpretation as a ‘sin against good taste’), Holtmann convincingly demonstrates that such a polemical stance takes root on the soil of a particular set of Hegelian commitments to the utter primacy of the human subject.

Further note: A few comments on the previous post asked for further information about the "Munich school" interpretation of Barth. For a very clear and informative overview of this terrain, I would highly recommend John Macken's book, The Autonomy Theme in the Church Dogmatics: Karl Barth and His Critics – as far as I know, this is the only book in English to discuss all this in great detail. And for another example of this kind of approach to Barth, you could also see my review of Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer's book on divine subjectivity in Barth. Hope that helps!

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