Karl Barth and the Path of Theology Into the Twentieth Century: Historical Observations -- By: Richard A. Muller

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 51:1 (Spring 1989)
Article: Karl Barth and the Path of Theology Into the Twentieth Century: Historical Observations
Author: Richard A. Muller


Karl Barth and the Path of Theology Into the Twentieth Century: Historical Observations

Richard A. Muller

The theology of Karl Barth has never, to my knowledge, been examined by a neutral observer. Barth’s theology is so massive, so powerful, and even at times so strident in its utterances that those who approach it in order to observe its workings become, almost immediately, admirers or opponents. In addition, virtually everyone who has studied contemporary theology since the end of the second or certainly the third decade of this century has had to deal in some way with Barth’s thought. This combination of facts has made Barth’s thought exceedingly difficult to assess historically. This difficulty is apparent from the rather unconvincing picture of the movement of twentieth-century thought and of Barth’s place in it found in most surveys of recent Protestant theology—and it has been apparent from the very first of such attempts to describe patterns of thought in the twentieth century.

Two works written just before the outbreak of the Second World War well illustrate the problem: H. R. Mackintosh’s Types of Modern Theology and Walter Marshall Horton’s Contemporary Continental Theology. The scope of the two books is, of course, quite different: Mackintosh surveys the great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl, Troeltsch, Kierkegaard, and Barth (in that order); while Horton proceeds by churchly category, Orthodox, Catholic, German Protestant, and non-German Protestant, to survey some dozen theologians including Berdyaev, Maritain, Barth, Hirsch, Althaus, and Nygren, living at the time and influencing the then-present course of theology in Europe. Despite this formal dissimilarity, both Mackintosh and Horton assume that the point of departure for contemporary German theology is “the almost complete

collapse of liberal Protestantism.”1 Both also see Barth as the leader of the assault on worn-out liberalism and both view Barth from the vantage point of having seen the first half-volume of the Church Dogmatics. Both, too, recognize the importance of Kierkegaard to Barth’s early dialectical or crisis-theology—Mackintosh by his abridgement of chronological sequence (dealing with Kierkegaard after Troeltsch in order to provide a basis for his discussion of Barth) and Horton noting explicitly the broad appeal of Kierkegaard to the German audience during and immediately after the First World War. And both find in the kerygmatic quality of Barth’s theology a reflection of the style of Luther and Calvin.2

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