Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 2


Two papers were given this afternoon, both of which sought to bring Karl Barth into closer conversation with theologians who have traditionally been understood as representing theological contrasts, namely, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann. [Disclaimer: Both papers presented were quite dense, and even then, due to time, were both shortened. I think most of us in the audience look forward to the day when the papers will be available in print form so we can follow the arguments a bit more closely, but I’ll do my best to give as short summary of each to whet your appetites for what is coming down the pipe in Barth scholarship! I’m fairly certain I will not do justice to the argument of the papers without making the post unnecessarily long, but hopefully readers can catch the gist of both. Exciting stuff!]

The first paper was given by Dr. Kevin Hector of the University of Chicago and was entitled, “Theology as an Academic Discipline: Reconciling Evangelical Theology and Theological Encyclopedia. Hector introduced the paper as an extended commentary on Barth’s own statement in the opening pages of Evangelical Theology where he says: “I wish to forgo any special explanation of the word ‘introduction,’ which appears in the title of this work. At the same time, I wish to refrain from any discussion (which would be both polemic and irenic) of the manner in which a similar task has been conceived and carried out by Schleiermacher, as a ‘Short Presentation of Theological Study,” and by various others, as “Theological Encyclopedia…” (ET, p. 12). Hector thus introduces his own paper as an attempt to show how Barth’s theological approach, despite Barth’s self-distancing to Schleiermacher, is nevertheless compatible with Schleiermacher’s approach. The failure to see this compatibility to date has been, Hector argues, at least in part, because Barth himself (amongst others) misunderstood what Schleiermacher was proposing as a valid approach to the task of theology.

The first section of the paper briefly outlined Barth’s view of the task of theology, which fundamentally, Barth says, is the task of the Church in clarifying, criticizing and, when necessary, correcting its own speech about the Word of God it has heard. Hector advocates one amendment to Barth’s view of theology which he thinks is consistent with Barth, but which Barth did not otherwise explicitly state, mainly, that not only is the Church’s speech tested by the normative Word of God, but also its doxastic, practical and emotional commitments (i.e., its commitments in belief, practice, and emotion).

From there, Dr. Hector went on to note that Barth’s worry is that Schleiermacher has essentially collapsed divine transcendence into human piety (i.e., Schleiermacher’s notion of Gefühl  or “feeling”), with the result that Schleiermacher’s theology has become entirely subjectively, rather than objectively, based. However, Hector argues that what is needed is a corrected, fuller account of what Schleiermacher meant by Gefühl, especially in light of the fact that the word “feeling” used in English does not accurately convey what Schleiermacher intended. (Hector observed that  Schleiermacher explicitly rejected the use of the word “feeling” as an adequate translation.)

So what does Gefühl mean for Schleiermacher? At this point, I can’t even attempt to replicate Hector’s exposition of Gefühl. But suffice it to say, Hector argued that Gefühl for Schleiermacher represents a nexus of beliefs, practices, and emotions which are pre-reflective harmonization of oneself to one’s surrounding circumstances. Gefühl is, to use Hector’s terminology, Schleiermacher’s way of specifying how one finds oneself in atunement with others in a community.  It is this Gefühl that Schleiermacher argues needs to be evaluated against the norms of Scripture. Consequently, for Schleiermacher, the task of theology is one in which the community of faith constantly seeks to make explicit not only the ground of its speech about God and his Word, but also the whole nexus of speech, beliefs, practices and emotions (including accounting for the sinfulness of the Christian community) toward God for the purpose of submitting it the assessment of Scripture’s description of the original apostolic community and its Gefühl. 

At least two implications of this, Hector argues, follow: 1) If one were to follow this rendering of Schleiermacher’s account of Gefühl (and the corresponding idea of God-consciousness wrapped up with this concept), it is apparent that there may be greater affinity between Barth and Schleiermacher than has previously been thought. (This is not necessarily to fault only Barth for his reading of Schleiermacher, but to recognize that the “traditional” understanding of Schleiermacher that was contemporary to Barth’s day has been increasing come under question and thus begs the question of whether Barth and Schleiermacher are as different as many have assumed.) 2) If one were to follow Schleiermacher’s theological vision, then it implies that some form of ethnographic study of the Christian faith community would become a vital component of what it means to subject the communities nexus of faith to evaluation in light of the Word of God.

The second paper was similar in intent to the first, but with a different theologian in mind. David Congdon (PhD candidate, Princeton) gave a paper entitled, “Theology as Theanthropology: Barth’s Theology of Existence in its Existential Context.” Congdon began by noting the remark Barth makes in CD IV.2 about the “quiet conversation” that he announced he had been having with Bultmann. In this light,  Congdon demonstrated how much of what Barth wrote in the last years of his life was an implicit response to the concerns and concepts raised by Bultmann. Even Evangelical Theology can thus be read as an indirect response to Bultmann! Or, to take another example, in 1957 Bultmann wrote his famous article, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” Bultmann’s answer, of course, was “no,” but Barth,  made it famously clear in ET that theology cannot have any presuppositions, but must ever be ready to respond afresh to the new Word of God spoken to us.

Congdon’s then paper went on to juxtapose Barth’s notion of “theanthropology” (introduced originally in Barth’s essay “The Humanity of God”) and Bultmann’s notion of “anthrotheology”. As Congdon argues, Barth’s complaint with Bultmann, while multi-fold, had primarily to do with Bultmann’s starting point in existential philosophy and moving from there to the Gospel. One can understand how for Barth, this certainly would have smacked of the same problem he saw earlier in his life in the liberal theology which he resisted. There, too, the methodological approach started in anthropology and was, in Barth’s eyes, ever in danger of making theology nothing more than anthropology writ large.  

However, Congdon argues, even Barth in the 1950’s had recognized that the deity of God is a deity that elected from all eternity to be a God with humanity, thus the recognition of Barth to speak not merely of “theology” but of “theanthropology.” Indeed, Barth had come to the place where he knew that to speak of God one is compelled to speak of Jesus in human flesh; to avoid Jesus in flesh is for Barth to speak of inadequately of God.

Despite Barth’s recognition of the need for speaking of God from a “theanthropologic” perspective, he nevertheless remained determined to resist Bultmann’s starting point in anthropology for fear that existential philosophy (or some other anthropological construction) would overtake or overshadow God’s own speaking in of himself in Christ.

But here Congdon argues that Bultmann and Barth are closer together than Barth was able to have thought possible. Though Barth is constantly aware of the question of how the human words of proclamation can be used by God to deliver God’s own Word–an identification of the missiological problem of translation–he keeps the issue of exegesis and translation separated by relegating the problem of exegesis to dogmatics and the problem of translation to practical theology. Bultmann, however, is also aware of this problem of the relationship of exegesis and translation, but rather than relegating translation to practical theology, he brings them together such that all exegesis is seen by Bultmann as already an act of translation.

Congdon concludes his paper by suggesting that the issue is not to decide on whether Barth or Bultmann are right, but to recognize that Barth’s “theanthropological” approach to theology needs Bultmann’s “anthrotheological” approach and vice versa. They are, in other words, complementary approaches rather than an aporia in which one must be chosen over the other.

After the evening meal, we had one more presentation from the staff of the Princeton Theological Seminary library. Although a big part of Princeton’s library development is the ongoing construction of a whole new wing of the library to replace the old Speers library, an online repository of over 50,000 Biblical and theological books available to anyone with internet access was presented. Although I’ve only begun to dip in, it truly does like like an amazing and generous contribution of PTS to the wider international Christian community. See the “Theological Commons” website here: http://commons.ptsem.edu.



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