Barth in Context. The 19th Century German and 20th and 21st Century North American Evangelicals: Points of Contact as Commentary on Me [and maybe you]

20th and 21st century North American evangelical Protestant Christian theology has a lot in common with 19th century German evangelical
barthyoungtheology (according to Karl Barth’s accounting of the latter). Throughout the rest of this précis we will engage with a short essay that Karl Barth wrote entitled Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century. As we engage with this essay hopefully what will become clear (even somewhat self-evident) is how similar 19th century German evangelical theology is with what we know as 20th and 21st century North American evangelical theology today.

Like what gave 20th century (and now 21st century) North American evangelical theology its impetus (concern with answering her rather liberal ‘rationalist’ critics, who in turn were attempting to answer the rationalist critics of Christianity from without Christianity), so to, and previously (as far as chronology) 19th century German evangelical theology allowed its ‘cultural despisers’ to determine the shape that it took in regard to who got to set the agenda and questions that these 19th century German evangelical theologians attempted to confront and engage with. Barth writes in commentary on this:

The Key problem arose from the conviction that the guiding principle of theology must be confrontation with the contemporary age and its various conceptions, self-understandings, and self-evidences, its genuine and less genuine “movements,” its supposed or real progress….[1]

Barth, although being taught by and/or influenced by these German evangelical theologians (such as Hermann, Dorner, Schleiermacher, et al), as a pastor in Safenwil (Switzerland), during World War I, realized that this was not the right way to go; he realized that theology that allowed unbelieving or even believing people to determine the shape of who God was was really only an exercise in self-projection into the infinite (see his comment on Feuerbauch[2]).

As if Barth’s commentary above wasn’t enough he writes even more about the impact that this “worldly German evangelical theology” had upon the development of positive evangelical Christian theology (that he perceived the German [and Swiss] church was so thirsty for), and as he writes this time, it is at some length:

Theology, however, went overboard—and this was its weakness—insofar as confrontation with the contemporary age was its decisive and primary concern. This was true not only, as happened so often, when it addressed the outside world ex professo, in the form of so-called apologetics, but also when it dealt with the questions most proper to itself. Theology never failed to react, whether approvingly or disapprovingly, critically or uncritically, to impulses from outside, at times even with extreme nervousness. This openness to the world meant (1) that through the open windows and doors came so much stimulation for thought and discussion that there was hardly time or love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself. With all its energies captivated by the world, 19th-century theology achieved surprisingly little in terms of a new and positive understanding of Christian truth and truths in themselves, a primary necessity at all times. The winds were enthusiastically welcomed and allowed to enter freely through the outside doors. This meant (2) that not a few doors inside were slammed which should have been kept open as well. Nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment. Consequently it was forced to make reductions and oversimplifications, to indulge in forgetfulness and carelessness, when it dealt with the exciting and all-important matters of Christian understanding. These developments were bound to threaten, indeed to undermine, both theology and the Church with impoverishment and triviality. The outside winds brought not merely fresh air, but also notoriously foul air. This meant (3) that fatal errors blew in, were admitted, and made themselves at home. These errors, far from being simply tolerated, enjoyed birth-right, even authority. Countereffects to be sure were not lacking, but there was no fundamental agreement about the absolute primacy of the positive tasks of theology in and for the Church, over against the secondary tasks of relating to the various philosophies of the times. Finally, we miss a certain carefree and joyful confidence in the self-validation of the basic concerns of theology, a trust that the most honest commerce with the world might best be assured when the theologians, unheeding the favors or disfavors of this world, confronted it with the results of theological research carried out for its own sake. It did not enter their minds that respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics. Man in the 19th century might have taken the theologians more seriously if they themselves had not taken him so seriously. Even the best representatives of this theology have never overcome this limitation, in spite of their exemplary openness to the world. And this was the key problem of 19th-century theology.[3]

And all of this because these German evangelical theologians, as Barth says, “they tried to find that point of reference in the world views where voluntary acceptance of the Christian message and the Christian faith suggested themselves more less convincingly and were viewed at least as possibilities.”[4] In today’s parlance, and in 21st century North American evangelical sub-culture we would call what Barth is describing of these German theologians with the language of “relevance;” us evangelicals simply want the world to see how relevant Jesus is to their worldly lives, and we will go to untold lengths to demonstrate these ‘point[s] of reference’ between the Christian evangelical religion and the religion of the world.

Conclusion

On a personal level, I often get asked why I like Barth so much. Because, I grew up as a dyed-in-the-wool North American evangelical (my dad is a retired Conservative Baptist pastor). And as time has gone on (from my birth in the early 1970s) into the present, the rootage of Fundamentalist-evangelical American theology has only gone further into the muddy waters of its heritage; a heritage shaped by its reaction to the ‘liberal’ theologian’s infiltration into her evangelical reality (and this is a complex story all by itself). I haven’t grown up as a “Reformed” Christian, but an evangelical Christian; and the problems that Barth was faced with in his day (of a theology shaped by a desire to be “relevant”), I feel in my own day (in a personal kind of developmental way). And so in Barth I find not only an antidote, but someone who in the alternative not only reacts himself, but who critically understands his own situation and attempts to offer a positive evangelical theological alternative that reaches deep into early church theology (Patristic), and into magisterial and scholastic Reformed theologies; and he does so as a man situated in a context similar to mine in two various instantiations (19th century German and 20th and 21st century North American) of evangelical theologies (which have broad and pointed points of convergence).

Hope this has been somewhat insightful for you.

[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century in The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 18.

[2] Barth commenting on a consequent of 19th century German evangelical theology that starts within and from human psychology (so Schleiermacher): “… On this ground there was no effective answer to be given to Feuerbach who eagerly invoked Luther’s sanction in support of his theory that statements of the Christian faith, like those of all other religions, are in reality statements of more or less profound human needs and desires projected into the infinite….” Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid., 19-20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Bobby,
    I’ve got a similar trajectory – raised in an evangelical (baptist) church, and just this year reading some Barth. I love Barth for some of the same reasons: his method and his manner. Method: “Good dogmatics could be [what a great Barthian understatement!] good apologetics.” Webster picked this up too, and it’s what makes their ordo essendi method so powerful.

    I love Barth just as much for his manner. Even while criticizing 19th century theology, he does so charitably:

    “This of us who knew some of them will know what I mean when I say that from many of these persons there emanated an unforgettable air of conscientiousness, of churchly and spontaneous piety, of a peculiar combination of ethical earnestness and academic dignity. All this exists today only in weak imitations and as such might better not exist at all. I say this in order to emphasize that in dealing with the theologians of the 19th century, at least with the best among them, we are faced with the type of person that merits our highest respect.” (p. 17)

    I love the line you quoted: “carefree and joyful confidence.” That should characterize christian theology, not striving and arguing, but confessing confidently the Triune God and His wonderful works toward man.

    I love it man, I love the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey dtkleven,

    Thanks! I’m glad you appreciate both Barth and Webster too; they have been proven awesome teachers and as pointers to Jesus Christ. Thanks for sharing! By the way, I would still consider myself a Baptist 😉 .

    Like