The Reveille That Awakened Karl Barth -- By: William W. Wells

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 22:3 (Sep 1979)
Article: The Reveille That Awakened Karl Barth
Author: William W. Wells

The Reveille That Awakened Karl Barth1

William W. Wells*

The Danish writer, philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard devoted his life to chiding, arguing against and even laughing at the ideas of G. W. F. Hegel and F. Schleiermacher, the two monumental figures who set the philosophical and theological tone of the nineteenth century. But in spite of a voluminous literary effort he was largely ignored in the historical flow of ideas until rediscovered by a Swiss pastor named Karl Barth. Since Barth is the man who established the theological tone of the twentieth century, a look at Kierkegaard’s reveille may help clarify the roots of modern theology and suggest questions regarding that original foundation. More specifically, an examination of Kierkegaard’s influence on Barth’s theology will show that the Dane had much more of a role in the development of Barth’s mature work than the latter was willing to admit.

Hegel asserted that there is a fundamental unity between the human and the divine, and that ultimate reality (the divine) is rational. Consequently man can comprehend God through the exercise of his reason. At about the same time Friedrich Schleiermacher, one of Hegel’s contemporaries, was proclaiming that religion must be built on the foundation of an immediate awareness of God through an experience of the universe or on man’s “feeling of absolute dependence.” Both men, therefore, asserted that there is a point of contact between God and man, a point that is permanently accessible to man.

Kierkegaard was the first major thinker to see that the adoption of this “identity principle” in the work of Hegel and Schleiermacher involved a radical break with the theology stemming from the Reformation. He insisted in opposition that a relationship with God cannot be based on a man’s immediate awareness of the infinite, either as found through the use of reason or as experienced in the feeling of absolute dependence.

Kierkegaard asserted that the man of faith will acknowledge a dichotomy between the finite and the infinite; he will manifest a permanent awareness of the otherness of God. According to Kierkegaard, the loss of the individual is implicit in any principle that absorbs the finite into the infinite. According to Hegel, this dichotomy is overcome when the philosopher through the use of reason comprehends the underlying identity of man and God. Kierkegaard demurred, and his insistence on the infinite and qualitative difference between God and man is as basic to his thought as the identity principle is to Hegel’s.2 To deny this differ-

*William Wells is associate professor o...

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