Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal

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Submitted by Ginny Landgraf, ATLA Indexer-Analyst 

In June I attended the 2017 Karl Barth conference organized by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary Library.  Karl Barth (1886-1968), Swiss Reformed theologian, continues to spur lively thought nearly fifty years after his death.

What is the Big Thing about Barth?

“What is the big thing about Barth?” a church history PhD candidate once asked me when I was working on my doctorate in the theology department at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I was not writing my dissertation on Barth, but on another theologian influenced by Barth (Jacques Ellul), and I had written my master’s thesis on Barth, so I count as a Barth sympathizer.  The question was not directed to me individually but at the fact that the theology department as a whole had so many Barth scholars.  At the time, I said that Barth enabled one to run with classical Christian doctrines such as substitutionary atonement without using a doctrine of biblical inerrancy to get there.

Sociologically, in seminaries such as Princeton that belong to mainline denominations, Barth’s theology appeals to two constituencies that meet in the middle: former fundamentalists who find that their interpretation of the Bible allows for multivocal and figurative readings that are rejected by the church milieu they came from, and people of mainline Christian or secular heritage who are finding that assimilating theology to secular culture leaves one with no lever to challenge that culture.  This same attribute of Barth’s theology means that he has been castigated as too liberal by fundamentalists and viewed as suspiciously fundamentalistic by certain kinds of liberal thinkers.

Among the membership of American churches that are sympathetic to Barth, he may be most known for his resistance to Hitler, including his authorship of the Barmen Declaration (1934), which declared that Jesus Christ, not a government policy or a created thing like a nationality, is the one Word of God whom Christians must trust and obey. This document has passed into the confessional heritage of several churches.

Barth’s vast output (his main work of doctrinal theology alone, the Church Dogmatics, includes thirteen part-volumes, most several hundred pages in length), articulate wrestling with a wide variety of contemporary and historical thinkers, and engagement in the pressing issues of his day have provided grounds for many stimulating conferences at the Barth Center and elsewhere.

The Center for Barth Studies

The Center, founded in 1997, has been holding annual conferences since 2006. The conferences attract a mixed group of academics and pastors. Among past topics have been Barth and biblical interpretation; Barth and evangelicalism; Barth and mission; Barth, the Jews, and Judaism; and Barth and Pentecostalism. This year, in keeping with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a “Barth and Luther” or “Barth and the Reformation” topic might have been expected. However, the conference organizers thought that “Barth and Luther” had been discussed considerably elsewhere. Instead, they chose to narrow their focus time-wise to Barth’s post-World War I and pre-Church Dogmatics work and expand their focus discipline-wise to include other Christian theologians of the time, Jewish thinkers, and philosophers. The result was “Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal (1918-1933).” The context for these movements was primarily Weimar Germany. (Barth, although Swiss, held various professorships in Germany between 1921 and 1935.)

World War I had already been a shock to the young Barth, who had studied in Germany before beginning his pastorate in Switzerland. He was dismayed to see his German theology professors on a list of intellectuals who supported the Kaiser’s war effort. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the theology that he had been trained in assimilated God to human experience in such a way that it did not allow God to break in and challenge things that seem noble from a human point of view but are perverse from God’s point of view. As a result, his theology in the late 1910s and early 1920s emphasized God as “wholly other,” God’s judgment on all human projects, and the “strange new world of the Bible” as challenging human speculation in theology. These positions have affinities with Luther’s theology of the radicality of sin and grace and the fact that God comes to us under the guise of what seems opposite to God (the crucifixion of Jesus Christ).

Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal

The conference showed that Barth’s thought fit in with a matrix of theological and intellectual controversies spurred by the crisis of World War I and the turmoil of the Weimar years. Heinrich Assel’s paper, “Luther Renaissance and Dialectical Theology: A Tour d’Horizon 1906-1935,” discussed questions of Luther’s legacy and relevance for contemporary political positions among church historians and theologians of the 1920s and 1930s. Was Luther to be interpreted as sanctioning political conformism or the responsibility of the individual conscience? Does Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers lead to a doctrine of the “church of the people” interpreted along ethnic lines? Should the state be centered around the leader or constitutional law? These were not idle questions in the Germany of 1933.

Barth, although Reformed, worked closely with Lutheran theologians in the Confessing Church movement against the Nazis’ attempts to bar people of Jewish ancestry from church positions and to remake church theology along lines that portrayed a heroic, Aryan Christ. Volker Leppin’s paper, “Luther and Mysticism: The Case of the Seebergs and Vogelsang” showed how interpretations of medieval German mysticism’s influence on Luther increasingly emphasized the nationalistic aspect over the course of three generations of historiography.

Questions of theological retrieval arose in treatments of Friedrich Gogarten, Werner Elert, and Paul Althaus, all of whom had, at various times, supported some aspect of Nazi policy or ideology, although some later drew back. What aspects of their theology are worthy of retrieval, and what aspects led to collusion with evil? Isolating the two categories is not a cut-and-dried task.

Papers on Hermann Cohen, Rudolf Otto, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, and Martin Heidegger added to the philosophical and interreligious context. Besides the political issues already mentioned, recurring themes included the nature of revelation and language (revelation as presence vs. revelation as content) and the relation of hope and faith to negativity and the void (in times of crisis, when what one has hoped in has proved disappointing, negation may seem more hopeful than a false optimism).

All in all, it was a very stimulating conference, and the Barth Center hopes to do it again next year with “Barth and the Future of Liberation Theology.”

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