Karl Barth: Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl

I must confess I find it hard to read Barth – the Barth of Kirchliche Dogmatik I mean. So I have taken the lazy approach to Barth, reading several of his smaller works, like the Anselm book and Dogmatics in Outline and so on. I chanced upon this one online while looking for stuff on Schleiermacher, and this really is a book about Schleiermacher, at least in this version, since it is a shortened version of Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert where most of the 19th century theology is left out. So most of it is the philosophical background – essentially Barths reading of the enlightenment thinkers and beyond, and that is why this book is so interesting. In a sense it is Barths attempt to understand his own background, i.e. the background he mostly rejects but obviously still builds upon.

The chapter on Hegel in particular is interesting. Among the philosophers discussed here (Rousseau, Lessing, Kant, Herder and Hegel), Hegel is the only one Barth is unsure of. He is in complete command in his reading of the others, pointing out their inconsistencies and errors with perfect confidence. When he gets to Hegel it is almost as if he is careful not to mess up. His attitude is basically: ”perhaps Hegel after all was the one that got modernity right”.

The chapter on Schleiermacher is the center of the book in the sense that the chapters before and after it points towards it. Barth is ambibvalent towards him: as a historian he approves of him, as a theologian he is critical. Here he is mostly playing the historian and that is what makes the treatement exciting. We know that Schleiermacher in a sense represents all that Barth wants to get away from, still he cannot deny his importance.

As a whole the book complicates my understanding of the development of modern protestant theology in several ways. For one thing, how completely lost the Christian narrative seems to have been in the 18th century academic theology – which means that in some weird way liberal theology must be seen as a recovery of Christianity’s historical truthclaims. Another thing: I was not aware that not even the reformation thinkers were well known in this period before the great Luther-rennaissance in the decades before and after 1900. As so often we discover that what we believe is traditional  (in this ”classical lutheran theology”) is much younger than we think.

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