Tuesday 14 March 2006

Karl Barth and the Enlightenment

Many scholars have explored Karl Barth’s relationship to the Enlightenment. Barth’s admirers (e.g. T. F. Torrance) have often argued that he entirely repudiated the Enlightenment, while some of his critics (e.g. Bultmann) have argued that Barth simply retreated behind the Enlightenment, back into the theology of Protestant orthodoxy.

But one of the most interesting and most provocative essays on Barth’s relationship to the Enlightenment takes a different approach: the essay is Trutz Rendtorff, “Radikale Autonomie Gottes: Zum Verständnis der Theologie Karl Barths und ihre Folgen,” in Theorie des Christentums (Gütersloh, 1972), pp. 161-81.

Rendtorff argues that Barth built on the Enlightenment’s ideas about human autonomy, but directed these ideas towards God in order to develop a new emphasis on the autonomy of God. Thus, according to Rendtorff, Barth neither rejected the Enlightenment nor retreated behind it, but instead he ushered in “a new Enlightenment”—an Enlightenment whose focus was the “radical autonomy of God.”


Anonymous said...

Yes but, as Rendtorff surely knows, 'radical autonomy of God' is likely to mean a God that has no compassion on man, and takes no real irrevocable action on his behalf. This would undo the incarnation, leaving us again without real relationship with God.

Perhaps we could say that Barth represents a better enlightenment than the Enlightenment – he only rejects a poorer enlightenment in order to receive a better one. I think this is the argument of Neil Macdonald 'Karl Barth and the Strange New World Within the Bible: Barth, Wittgenstein, and the Metadilemmas of the Enlightenment' (Ashgate).
According to the publisher’s blurb:
'it dares the thought that, if Barth is right, the Bible understood the Enlightenment better than it understood the Bible, and, indeed, better than the Enlightenment understood itself: according to its own canons of inquiry it ought not to have lost faith with the Bible in the way that it did.'

Richard H said...

It's been 20 years since I looked at the question, but I remember my old research (comparing Barth with his own studies of Kant) sure made him look like one who had not gotten beyond the Enlightenment. Of course the ENlightenment is a big complex thing, so while he could fairly be described as moving beyond it in some areas, he remained distinctively Enlightenment-ish in others.

Anonymous said...

Barth's quasi-modalistic trinitarian theology (God the Subject - three "ways of being") does, perhaps, lend Rendtorff's thesis a prima facie credibility.

On the other hand, was it Mao who said that it's much too early to tell whether or not the French Revoluton was a success? Perhaps it's still too early to run a truck through the Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment distinction (cf. modernist, postmodernist, late modernist, etc. world without end . . .)

Ben Myers said...

As some of these comments point out, a purely formal concept of God's "radical autonomy" would have serious problems. I think Rendtorff is right to highlight the importance of divine freedom in Barth's thought -- but it's crucial to see that Barth doesn't understand divine freedom in a purely formal way. For him, God's freedom is his eternal decision to be the gracious God, the God who is with us and not without us. Or, to be more precise, for Barth's God's freedom is Jesus Christ, who is himself the subject and object of the free decision which constitutes God's being.

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