Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 1

The Annual Karl Barth Conference hosted by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary officially began on the evening of June 17, 2012, with a banquet. This was followed by a short introduction by Prof. Bruce McCormack to the conference’s theme: Karl Barth’s Trip to America: A Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Evangelical TheologyIt was in 1962 that Karl Barth made his one and only trip to America, during which he spent 7 weeks at various locations, including time for lectures given in Chicago (University of Chicago), Princeton (Princeton Theological Seminary), and New York (Union Theological Seminary). The lectures with additional material were later published in English as Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, hereafter referred to as ET.

Prof. McCormack also gave a short tribute to Dr. theol. Hans-Anton Drewes, who served from 1997-2012 at the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel Switzerland, and who is a co-editor for the ongoing project of editing and publishing Karl Barth’s collected works (Gesamtausgabe).

Monday morning, June 18, the conference began in full swing with two papers. The first was by Dr. Hans-Anton Drewes who delivered a paper entitled, “…’In the Same Solitude as Fifty Years Ago…’ The Way from CD IV/3 to Evangelical Theology. In his paper, Drewes noted that Barth’s whole theological corpus might be understood from the motif of “solitude” as expounded upon in ET. As Drewes explained, the solitude of the theologian is to be expected (even if not essential) insofar as the theologian seeks to ensure that what he writes corresponds to the one subject matter of theology, the God of the Gospel. In this regard, Drewes gave documentary evidence within Barth’s corpus of how Barth himself sought to pursue the truth of God as a matter of turning afresh each day to be attuned to the free Holy Spirit, even if it meant parting ways with friends and colleagues, and indeed, with his own work. For example, at one point in the 1950’s, Barth was re-reading an essay he had published in 1916 on theme of waiting for the Kingdom of God–an article published in Barth’s student days and some time before the emergence of the “dialectical” theology of the Romerbrief. At that point, Barth lamented that perhaps “dialectics have become stable”–signalling to him a need to listen afresh to the free Holy Spirit, even if that meant entering once again into a period of solitude similar to the one he had experienced when the bombshell of the Romerbrief exploded on the scene.

The second paper was by Dr. Daniel Migliore of Princeton Theological Seminary. As Migliore noted, Barth’s presentation at Princeton in 1962 were under the auspices of the B. B. Warfield Lectures. It will be recalled that Warfield was principal of PTS from 1887-1921 and also the Charles Hodge Chair of Theology. Consequently, Migliore gave a comparative paper  entitled, “‘Come, Holy Spirit’: Reflections on the Role of the Spirit in the Theologies of B.B. Warfield and Karl Barth.”

Prof. Migliore started by asserting that there might be initial temptation to throw Barth and Warfield too sharply into contrast and thus fail to see some of their broad similarities. For example, both Warfield and Barth were deeply concerned to see theology rooted in scriptural exegesis, both were in battle against the forms of liberal theology of their day (including their common agreement that it was important to resist Schleiermacher!), and both were in broad agreement about general aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in an Augustinian/Calvinian frame, including a commitment to the filioque! (I had to get that in there!)

From there, however, Migliore sought to show some of the main differences between Warfield and Barth’s pneumatology in four areas: 1) The Spirit and the Free Science of Theology; 2) The Spirit and the Witness of Scripture; 3) The Spirit and Christology; and 4) The Spirit in the Triune Life of God. Despite significant divergences between Warfield and Barth in these areas, Migliore did affirm that the lesson to be learned is that there is significant room in the Reformed theological spectrum to stretch the theological imagination in regard to pneumatology. However, Migliore was significantly more critical of Warfield’s account, noting that Warfield’s pneumatology was either silent on some matters (such as the role of the Spirit in the activity of Christ’s life, or on the inner trinitarian life) or  unnecessarily restrictive (such as reducing the role of the Spirit in inspiration only to the production of the original scriptural autographs). In this regard, Migliore noted that Warfield’s commitment to theological apologetics (as the means of validating foundational theological axioms) did not allow him to move back into the Spirit’s role in the inner life of God, whereas Barth’s greater reticence of the use of reason in theology nevertheless allowed him to speak freely of God’s inner life. Migliore concluded by noting that whatever one thinks now of either Warfield or Barth, it is imperative to remember that the first century of Princeton’s history owes a debt to Warfield, while it is arguably Barth, who only appeared at Princeton once, has had greater influence in Princeton’s second century of existence.

After morning prayers and lunch, the conference reconvened with two afternoon papers. The first by Dr. Peter Paris (Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Princeton) was entitled, “The Church’s Prophetic Vision: Insights from Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr.” It will be recalled that Barth and Luther King, Jr. met only briefly at Princeton, pictured below at the door of Princeton University’s chapel.

In this paper, Dr. Paris noted both similarities and differences between Barth and King’s theological approach to how the church was to respond to political matters, especially when they felt they needed to speak out against the “terror of an unjust state.” Dr. Paris suggested that both Barth and King’s theologies were deeply rooted in the particularity of the Incarnation of Jesus, not merely as an abstract ethical principle, but in obedience to Christ’s example and command. In this regard, Paris argued that King’s view of Jesus’ command to love one another and Barth’s view of the centrality of forgiveness as the outworking of the Gospel were parallel ethical constructions.

A second paper of historical interest was given by Dr. Jessica DeCou, who has just completed a PhD at University of Chicago. Her paper examined an aspect of Barth’s 1962 visit which has been under-represented, mainly, his visits to three prisons while in America. She began her paper, “Barth’s American Prison Tours, 50 years Later” by citing from one of Barth’s sermons in 1952 delivered to the Basel prison inmates in which he argued that the two criminals who were crucified together with Jesus were technically the “first indissoluble Christian community.” She noted how Barth remained committed throughout his life to preaching in prisons and how when he came to America, he was eager to find opportunity to view the American prison system.

DeCou recounted some of the conditions of the three prisons Barth visited. The first, a particularly atrocious prison, was Chicago’s Bridewell City Jail–a jail which Barth called “Dante’s Inferno on Earth.” Shortly after seeing the prison and being in New York, Barth, upon seeing the statue of liberty, spoke about the prison he had visited (without naming it) as a “contradiction to what Americans believe the statue of liberty stands for.” Likewise, in response to Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticism of Barth’s failure to speak against the communist uprising taking place in Hungary, Barth responded by saying, “When Reinhold Niebuhr speaks out against the injustices of the American prison system, then perhaps I will be ready to speak out about Hungary.”

DeCou notes that the second and third prisons which Barth visited (San Quentin in San Francisco and Rikers Island in New York) were certainly in better shape and had significantly greater attention to the possible rehabilitation of prisoners. To his credit, Barth admitted that some of what he saw at Rikers was even better than what he saw in his home town Basel.

After DeCou’s presentation, attendees broke up into discussion groups. I was privileged to be part of the group with Dr. Drewes and we had an excellent discussion about the reception of Barth in the Ango-Saxon world. Dr. Drewes lamented that the renaissance of Barth’s thought in North American far outstrips that of Europe where to this day, Barth continues to be marginalized in the continental university theological system. When asked to explain why this might be, he suggested that at least three reasons could be given. First, he noted that Barth may have been simply too familiar and suffered somewhat of the “prophet in his hometown” syndrome. Second, the European system has tended in past decades to emphasize breadth of knowledge (i.e., knowing the contributions of many scholars) over against indepth understanding of a single scholar. Since Barth is such a difficult scholar to master, his work has simply been passed over as being too difficult to summarize when so many other scholars are also expected to be mastered. Finally, (surprisingly, I think to most of us present), Dr. Drewes noted that Barth’s German is simply too difficult for most German students to understand. Consequently, even German students tend to resort to English translations which have served well to make Barth more accessible–explaining why English speakers have tended to study Barth when Germans are more apt to give up!

After dinner, we were treated to a historical paper upon the friendship developed between Karl Barth and John Mackay, third Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary. Ms. Cambria Janae Kaltwasser, a current Princeton PhD student, delivered the paper entitled, “Transforming Encounters: The Friendship of Karl Barth and John Mackay.” After outlining the early life of Mackay and the friendship developed between Mackay and Barth in 1931 (where Mackay tutored Barth in conversational English in preparation for Barth’s first visit to Great Britain), Kaltwasser noted how Mackay’s initially was critical of Barth for what he perceived as a failure on Barth’s part to make room for personal, subjective encounters of Christ–even if he owed Barth a debt of gratitude for the language of encounter which he received from Barth. Later, Mackay invited Barth to participate in Princeton twice, but Barth turned down both invitations. Fortunately, Barth  accepted a third invitation (after Mackay’s tenure as president was complete) which became Barth’s Warfield lectures in 1962. Interestingly, at that time Mackay’s criticism has already softened as was evidenced in Mackay’s 1956 tribute to Barth in an article in the journal, Theology Today, which Mackay was instrumental in launching.


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