‘Introductory Remarks on the Theme, the Problems and the History of the Project’


“Dogmatics after Barth. Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy”. Introductory Remarks on the Theme, the Problems and the History of the Project

Günter Thomas / Rinse Reeling Brouwer / Bruce McCormack

1. “Dogmatics after Barth” – Misunderstandings and Possible Meanings

dogmatics after Barth – this title is not an indication of farewell to the theology of Karl Barth. It is however neither an invitation to copy or to repeat his theology. Instead, the essays in this volume .2 subtle and complex way of dealing with the theology of this church father of the 20th century. In the German language, the mother tongue of call Barth, the expression “Dogmatics after Barth” is playing with multiple meanings.

After Barth, this is first and foremost a formulation, pointing to a temporal distance. We are doing theology 44 years after Karl Barth wrote his last sentences. We are doing theology in a world, which is in many respects a different world: it is the world after the end of the classical East-West confrontation, a world with conflicting processes of globalization and a world in which social and cultural territory cannot anymore be described with the old maps of secularization; a world of terrorism and it open and secret repressing..

‘After Barth’, this is, at least in German, also the meaning of “beyond Barth”. We live not only in the time after, but also in a theological universe beyond Barth theology. We have seen the theology of hope, many strands of liberation theology, the blossoming of feminist theologies as well as the emergence of various kinds of indigenous theologies. While Barth’s participation in the second Vatican Council might have promsed a wider ecumenical horizon, today it is necessaru to observe the wane of Catholic ecumenical enthusiasm, or at least the involved relationship between Cathilic ecumenists and the official ecclesiastical position. In the political realm we see an obvious substitution of strong hopes by even strong types of apocalyptic fears. The fight for the future we can see in many ecological theologies is not driven by hope but by well justified fears. All these elements and factors make evident and obvious: we live not only after call Barth in temporal terms, but also beyond of what he thought, imagined, feared, and hoped.

‘After Barth’, can also have the meaning of “according to Barth”. Even in the 21st century we are doing theology in the long shadow of this theological master mind. While the last theologians, who actively studied with and under Karl Barth, are passing away, all contemporaries (unsere Zeitgenoosen) experience a new freedom to listen to his theology and to deal with his monumental work. The times, when the relation to Barth’s theology was a shibboleth dividing the field, are (hopefully) over. Today, we have the liberty to have a fresh look at his theological achievements, his far-reaching decisions and theological inventions. Looking back allows us to assess what has proven to be fruitful, helpful and supporting for the theological truth seeking of the Church. Not to be tied to the alternative of either repeating or rejecting Barth’s theology we can acknowledge where we are deeply indebted to his thinking and at the same time can take serious his theological command:  to begin again at the beginning!

2. Three Patterns of Doing Theology “after” Barth – the Structure of the Book

In real life, these three meanings of the term after are interrelated and form various patterns of theological relations to call Barth. In this respect, the three parts of the book reflect different patterns of doing theology today after Karl Barth, that is to say, of combining the three specific meanings of after Barth in peculiar ways. Without any doubt, the authors of the essays in this book all combine a notion of beyond with according to. To use a phrase from Matthias Gockel essay: the authors in this book want to go with Barth beyond Barth – even if they certainly disagree in the way they weight both components.

The first part of the book, for good reason, is entitled “Receiving and Transforming Barth’s Theology in new Geographical Contexts”. Without any doubt, Karl Barth was, already during his lifetime, in many respect a true international theologian. During the last four decades his theology was read, studied and adopted in a fascinating variety of geographic and cultural contexts. Karl Barth’s theology influenced South African theologians in their struggle with apartheid and reformed traditions (see Dirkie Smits essay). His theology breached the gap between the German and French speaking world (Benoît Bourgine). The transformation of Dutch theology and church life do during the last eighty years cannot be adequately understood without the influence of Barth (Susanne Hennecke). Moreover, what is even more surprising, is the vital and ongoing conversation with Karl Barth theology in Asia. He is one of the most important ‘almost contemporary’ European theologians both in Korea (Myung Yong Kim) and Australia (Benjamin Myers).

“Reconstructing and Developing Karl Barth’s Methodological Approach” is the thematic heading of the second part of this collection. In light of Karl Barth’s own reluctance of dealing with methodological issues in a methodologically precise way – we all know how Karl Barth handled the task of theological prolegomena in his church dogmatics – this focus appears to be an anomaly. And yet it appears to be a fascinating feature of Barth’s theology, that it is the manifestation of “openness through closure”. Not by claiming to be able to reach out to other discourses, but by stimulating cross disciplinary conversations his theology is practicing its openness. How is theology related to other more practically oriented forms of religious communication (Bent Flemming Nielsen)? What can be the starting point of a theology that is deeply theological (Paul T. Nimmo)? What can be the theological and philosophical surplus, when Barth’s theology is re-read in the light of Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy of religion (Rinse Reeling Brouwer)? What is the specific type of realism and objectivity we presuppose in our doing of theology and how does this relate to God’s own being (Matthias Gockel)? From what point of view can theology criticize the dominant ideologies? And, how close should theological discourse be to the linguistic and performative life of the living church (Árpád Ferencz)?

The third part of the book focuses on “Reconsidering Key Topics of Karl Barth’s Theology”. They center not so much on specific contexts but look at topics and problems crucial for the current theological mind and at the same time deeply rooted in Barth’s theology. His turn to on ecclesiology in which the sending of the church is not a specific task but the very being of the church is still a challenge for today (Darrell L. Guder). Given the current ecumenical climate it is still worth reconsidering Barth’s deeply ecumenical way of doing theology, not as a secondary task of communication, but as a way of struggling with various traditions in saying anew what always has to be said – for instance in the field of Christology (Bruce McCormack). But that reconsideration of key topics of Barth’s theology can also reverse its perspective. Can we theologically confirm today what some people might consider to be of permanent topicality and actuality? The Barmen declaration is a case where the reconsideration needs to be critical in order to retrieve and reconstruct its orienting potentials for today (George Harinck). How can we in our current philosophical environment think of the basic event, that is lying as a kind of leap of faith at the very basis of doing theology and any talk about God (Gerrit Neven)? At a time of new religious conflicts and heated public debates about politics and religion call Barth’s political theology deserves a fresh look and a willingness to distinguish what needs to be transformed and what key insights need to be uphold (Günter Thomas).

In all three parts of the book, the studies could be expanded and numerous other essays could be added. In light of the large field of theologians doing dogmatics after Karl Barth, the following contributions are very much exemplary in nature. Nevertheless, they all move in some way with Barth the beyond Barth, by weaving together receiving and transforming, reconstruction and development, as well as serious reconsidering.

3. Six Features of Barth’s Theology Attracting Current Theological Reasoning – running like threads through the Essays

This introduction is not the place to summarize the 15 contributions in this volume in detail. Instead, we would like to highlight several aspects of Karl Barth’s theology which seem to be responsible for the ongoing investment of serious interest in his writings. These six aspects run like threads through the theological texture of the essays. Without going into too much detail we would like to describe them with a few broad brush strokes.

• Karl Barth’s theology is in many respects very much contextual and we can assume that he himself knew that. And yet the contextual nature is not carried in front of his theology like a monstrance. By being contextual without claiming it Barth seems to be able to keep a kind of freedom to be not in principle but where it is necessary also countercultural. Because Barth is not using context and contextual reasoning as a strategic tool, he remains to be interesting to be read in quite different sociocultural situations.

• In a culture where everything has to be fun and at the same time the task of theology in drowned in administration, fundraising, intellectual self-justification and laborious searches for cultural relevance Karl Barth is a theologian not only of faith, but also of joy. There is joyfulness in his theology that is as a matter of fact “contagious”, that is to say, encouraging and inviting.

• Barth’s theology mediating and balancing a thorough faithfulness to the traditions and willingness to bold innovations. He is keeping up the conversation with the reformers and the early church, without fitting into the scheme of orthodoxy, neo-orthodoxy or radical orthodoxy. In his negotiation of traditions, current contexts and dogmatic innovations he always remains a modern person unwilling to imagine himself back into a lost past. Even his specific style of negation remains open to different interpretations, no one can deny Barth the deeply synthetic and creative character of his theology.

• For many people currently doing dogmatics, religious studies, or philosophy of religion call Barth’s prose is much too close to non-academic, church related teaching. They would affirm Adolf von Harnacks suspicion that Barth is mistaking the lectern for the pulpit. It appears, however, to be obvious, that it theology that is radically distancing itself from the church will be a theology the church is distancing itself from. Barth’s theology is breaking the spell both of the universities and the churches mutual self-immunization. At the University, it is a living reminder of a living faith and at the church it is reminding of that truth seeking nature of Christian faith – beyond and before all considerations of its usability, helpfulness, and pragmatic value. In this regard, Barth theology is representing an ongoing challenge for both types of communities.

• Closely related to Barth’s theology as mediation theology between University and the church is his relation to the Bible as globally universal medium of Christian religious as well theological conversation. The world of the Church Dogmatics is biblically oriented, but not in a fundamentalist way. It themes, tropes and most metaphors never lose contact to this specific world of imagination, to these foundational texts of Christianity. The shared world of the Bible seems to be a pre-requisite for the traveling of a theology through space and time. In this respect Karl Barth is working against a tool for reaching degree of internal differentiation in theological discourse. Contra the received opinion, Barth’s theology encourages active cooperation between the theological disciplines.

• What remains fascinating, challenging and even puzzling for many contemporaries dealing Barth’s theology is his specific sense of realism. In this truth seeking posture in talking about God can certainly be reconstructed in philosophical terms, it can contextualized, and it can be delegated to devotional discourse. And yet it appears to be a driving force of Barth’s creativity, of his joyful reasoning and his deep seated faith in God’s faithfulness. It is this realism that is provoking objections but also asking for a similar truth seeking posture in developing alternatives to Barth own theology. This very attitude aptly captured in the Anselmian dictum “faith seeking understanding” is asking for this combination of seriousness, curiosity and enjoy-even if alternative paths need to be followed.

4. The Project behind this Volume on “Dogmatics after Barth. Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy”

The fifteen essays in this collection did not ‘drop out of the sky’, so to speak. They were the result of a three-day conference in Doorn, the Netherlands, 7.-9. March 2011. This conference, however, was itself something which emerged out of a common, many yearlong project, whose history deserves to be sketched out.

Without any doubt, research groups of various disciplines in all parts of the world are involved in investigating Barth’s legacy and influence. Over the past twenty-five years various forms of co-operation have already taken place. To begin with, German-spoken conferences (‘Barth-Tagungen’) have been held regularly at the Leuenberg, Switzerland, and in the Netherlands. For over twenty years, the Protestant Theological University (PThU, Kampen, the Netherlands) has been publishing the Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie, an internationally renowned journal which is for a large part dedicated to research on Karl Barth. At Princeton Theological Seminary (Princeton, NJ, USA) the Center for Barth Studies is an international centre for Barth research. The initiative behind this book  started with Prof. Bruce McCormack from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), and Gerrit Neven, then professor of Dogmatics in Kampen, the Netherlands, founder and from 1985 until his retirement in 2009 editor of the Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie. They decided to start a cross-atlantic cooperation focused on Barth-Research, which led to common consultations of researchers from Princeton and Kampen, but also to the publication of the results of these consultations as well as of other contributions in the English volumes of the Zeitschrift, now called the Supplement Series (five volumes of which are already in print).

Both partners were aware of the importance of the bibliography of Karl Barth (both secondary and primary sources) as it was published by Markus Wildi in 1984 and 1992, and felt the necessity to convert these bibliographic data and make them – within the necessities of the 21st century – available in digital format. The key idea was to create a flexible and expandable tool, so that it would also be possible to add all the data of publications on Barth that were published after 1992 and to continually actualize the data. Therefore, the Center for Barth Studies at PTS and what is now (since 2007) the research group Systematic Theology of the Protestant Theological University, came to an official agreement regarding the online bibliography project in 2003.

However, already at that time it was clear for both partners, that it would be impossible to acquire, to extend and to keep a realistic survey of the publications on Karl Barth worldwide. The international Barth-Research is so vital and productive that additional partners from all over the world would be necessary to support this project. So, in 2005 the research group of Systematic Theology at the Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät of the Ruhr-Universität (Prof. Günter Thomas) joined the project, followed in 2006 by the Reformed Theological University of Debrecen, Hungary, in the person of Dr. Árpád Ferencz, Assistant Professor of Ethics, and also in 2006, the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at the Faculty of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa (Prof. Dirkie Smit).  

In the meantime, it was clear that the collection of bibliographical data in digital format could only be the means, not the aim of the project as such. So, at least other means would be helpful, as the Karl Barth Scholarly Research Network on the internet, which should make possible an exchange of lines of thoughts, ways of searching, and results of ongoing research between (senior and also junior) researchers and institutions, as well as a collaboration on common research projects.

Behind these initiatives there is a deep commitment to foster progress in Barth Research not for any ‘Barthianism’ in itself, but for the sake of the theological, historical, cultural and political relevance of worldwide research into the legacy of Karl Barth. That was the main reason that Kampen, Princeton, and Bochum together applied for a one-time grant for a project Theological, historical, cultural and political research into the legacy of Karl Barth with NWO (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). For this application we cooperated with the Historical Documentation Center for Dutch Protestantism (Prof. George Harinck). This is an important addition, for also the research into the legacy of a Systematic Theologian (as we know, Barth himself strongly preferred the name of dogmatician) very much needs the interdisciplinary interaction with historians. Eventually the NWO, after some requests for further clarifications, decided to supply a grant for the period from the autumn of 2009 until the autumn of 2011, with the condition that PThU, PTS and the Ruhr-University would all commit some of their own means to the project, and that the results of an international conference would be publicized. With this diverse support, it was possible to have an intensive meeting of the partners at the conference in Doord, to discuss ways to expand the network, and to enjoy three days of theological exchange, This collection, with its differences in perspectives, contexts and methodological approaches, represents well the charitable and fruitful nature of the Doorn consultation, It is also thanks to Doorn that the number of partners associated with this project expanded to include the Université Catholique de Louvain (Prof. Benoît Bourgine), The Department of Systematic Theology of the University of Copenhagen (Prof. Bent Flemming Nielsen), The School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh (Dr. Paul Nimmo), Prof. Myung Yong Kim from the Presbyterian College & Theological Seminary in Seoul and Dr. Benjamin Meyers from the the United  Theological College in Sydney.

So at the end we would like to express our thanks to the several institutions and individuals who made this volume possible. The NOW mad it possible by issuing a grant. The theological faculty at Kampen University orchestrated the meeting in Doorn. But we would also like to mention Matthew Bruce and John Flett for Elglish language editorial assistance, and Robert Lahmert from the team in Bochum, who, with paramout patience, managed the layout of this volume.

We hope Dogmatics after Barth: Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy will encourage the practice of dogmatics in and for the 21st century – after, beyond, and according to Barth’s theology.

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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