Thursday 3 March 2011

Densil Morgan, Barth Reception in Britain

A review by Kim Fabricius

D. Densil Morgan, Barth Reception in Britain (T&T Clark 2010)

This is a learned book, informed by wide and deep reading of both Barth and those who received him – and those who received him not. But it is not just a history of ideas: the theology is concisely socially and culturally located.

This is an important book, a kind of exercise in reader-response criticism, perhaps not unique in tracing the history of what later or modern theologians have made of an earlier one – Fergus Kerr’s excellent After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (2002) comes to mind – but it is nevertheless rare in the thickness and colour of its thread. Indeed I hope it may serve as a paradigm and inspiration for others to do the research and writing on, say, Bonhoeffer reception in the UK and US.

This is an exciting book. Morgan cites Hans Frei’s observation that “reading ‘Barthians’, unlike Barth himself, can often be painfully boring.” This book is not boring. It reads like a road movie, moving in two tracks as it follows both Barth’s own Porsche of theological development, as well as the ensuing vehicles in the inside lane, upmarket and second-rate, that keep up, break down, or turn into cul-de-sacs. And if it starts off slowly, that’s because the reception was slow – Adolf Keller, the Swiss ecumenist and conveyor of continental theology to Britain and America, was the herald of coming good – but it quickly speeds up until by the Second World War, you are watching a thrilling, exhilarating chase.

This is also a fair book. Morgan is a theologian who clearly holds Barth in esteem and affection, but although he is not averse to the odd swipe (as he puts it in one instance) at the “spectacularly wrongheaded” response to his mentor, his criticisms are always judicious and often delivered with wry Welsh wit. Indeed the author is clever enough to provide sufficient quotation to let the good run free while the ugly are hoisted by their own petard.

The major disciples are all here, from Edwin Hoskyns and Daniel Jenkins, to T. F. Torrance and Colin Gunton. So too are theologians and church leaders who may and should be known in Britain but about whom the response “Who?” may be forgiven among non-Brits: the Scot John McConnachie, the Englishman Nathanial Micklem, and the Welshman John Edward Daniel, for example. And then there are the “minor” figures that turn out to be not so minor at all, not least the contingent of Welshmen who were as fired by Barth as the phalanx of Scots, but who thought, taught, and preached in the language of angels.

The usual suspicions are all here too: in the post-Römerbrief years, concerns about human agency in Barth’s ethics, about the impact of his rediscovery of eschatology and the divine transcendence on history and experience, about his rejection of natural theology and alleged cultural pessimism; in the post-war years, Nieburhian dismissals of Barth’s neo-orthodoxy and Cold War politics, and evangelical distrust of his soteriology and even the state of his soul (the famous Welsh fundamentalist Martyn Lloyd-Jones virtually asking, “But has he been saved?”); and during the sixties, the patronising liberal banalities about his datedness and irrelevance in a “world come of age”.

And there are surprises, like the indolence of the English Presbyterians in contrast to Congregationalists, and the enthusiasm of certain Anglo-Catholics rather than evangelical Anglicans, during the initial stages of Barth reception in the 1920s. There is drama, like the eyewitness account of the Welsh student Ivor Oswy Davies on the public dismissal of Barth from his teaching post in Bonn in December 1934: “there, in that ritual of darkness, I witnessed the University of Bonn losing its very soul.” And there is hope that the tide-turning resurgence of British Barth studies in the late twentieth century might continue to follow the trajectory on which we find it in the second decade of the second millennium.

Are there no flaws? None as far as I can see in the execution of what Morgan set out to do, what he calls “an exercise in Bangor theology”, a descriptive history of British Barth reception (though I wish he himself had followed the trajectory beyond the nine-page “Postlude: Barth in Britain 1968-86”). Morgan is a fly on the wall, and only occasionally a mosquito. If you want a Barthian bee making honey, you will have to go to Morgan’s delightful The Humble God: The Basics of Christian Belief (2005). But I do have one huge complaint: Barth was a great admirer of Bonhoeffers’ The Cost of Discipleship, but I don’t think he had in mind paying £65 for a book. (So diolch yn fawr for the review copy!)

Note: This review will also be published later this year in the Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society.


Anonymous said...

Lloyd-Jones a fundamentalist?? I think not.

Mike E

Anonymous said...

I think Lloyd-Jones was very fundamentalist but I will not give you reasons

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