The ‘Young’ Karl Barth and Wilhelm Herrmann’s Impact on Barth’s Anti-Natural Theologizing and other Miscellanies

I am currently reading Kenneth Oakes’ published PhD dissertation researched at the University Aberdeen entitled: Karl Barth on Thoelogy&Philosophy. The copy I have is a review copy graciously sent to me by Oxford University Press. I will be posting from this book along the way as I read it, which will culminate ultimately in a final summarizing “book review;” but I intend these barthyoungposts to be like mini-reviews of Oakes’ book along the way—even if what they really are end up only being my reflections upon whatever I am reading at a particular moment from Oakes’ book.

I am currently in the early part of chapter 1, the chapter is entitled, appropriately: The Earlier Barth. For anyone who has even spent a cursory moment with Barth they will be expecting some sort of mention of one of Barth’s more prominent teachers, the famed Wilhelm Herrmann (1846–1922). As Oakes develops the impact that Herrmann had upon the young Barth that stands out to me are the contours of thought that bleed through into Barth’s lifetime project; one of which is his segregation of “religion” from history and philosophy. Oakes’ sketches this type of development in Herrmann this way; you will notice the genealogy that not only impacted Herrmann, but as consequence of relation, impacted Barth’s theology one way or the other.

The struggle for the Selbständigkeit of religion in modern German and Prussian theology has a long and distinguished history. It found one of its most forcible exponents in a young Friedrich Schleiermacher and his Reden (1799, 1806). In the second of his Speeches Schleiermacher handles the Wesen, or essence of religion and distinguishes religion and religious knowing from both ethics and metaphysics. Piety or religion, a young Schleiermacher famously argues, is neither a doing (Tun) nor a knowing (Wissen), and so religion is independent of both ethics and metaphysics. Hermann adopted and carried on Schleiermacher’s quest for the establishment of religion’s independence. This task was most notably undertaken in his 1876 Die Metaphysik in der Theologie and 1879 Die Religion im Verhältnis zum Welterkennen und zur Sittlichkeit. In both of these works Herrman sharply distinguishes the ‘knowing’ characteristic of ‘knowledge’ of the world and of religion, granting the latter a free and independent sphere. These works antedate a similar attempt to distinguish faith and metaphysics by Albrecht Ritschl in his 1881 Theologie und Metaphysik. In this slim but influential volume Ritschl argued for the removal of metaphysics and philosophy (especially the philosophies of Aristotle and Hegel) from theology so as to extract any vestige of natural theology. Ritschl even thought that orthodox Lutheran dogmatics, and in particular the works of F.H.R. Frank and C.E. Luthardt, were guilty of dabbing in natural theology. In the cases of Schleiermacher, Herrmann, and Ritschl, establishing theology’ independence meant distinguishing between religion, ethics, and metaphysics.[1]

I am sure that none of these contours of thought, for those familiar with Barth’s theology in general will surprise anyone. But I find it interesting to have a trace understanding (if not more) of Barth’s informing theology since, for one negative reason, so many of Barth’s critics attempt to guilt him by his various associations and lines of thought. In other words, Barth’s critics often think that just because they can identify some sort of Kantian, Hegelian, Schleiermacherian, or other influences in Barth’s thought, that by virtue of that alone he should at best be regarded as heterodox and not orthodox. But honestly such criticism of Barth is simply engaging in, for one, the genetic fallacy, and for two, poisoning the well; there are numerous other fallacies engaged in when critiquing Barth along these lines. All I can say to such critiques is: so what! We all have informing voices, and we all are conditioned by those voices one way or the other. The salutary thing about Barth, the genius thing about Barth is that more than others, in some respects, he was able to become aware of his informing voices, critically aware, and in turn offer critique where it was necessary, and appropriate under the pressures of his christological concentration where it was appropriate to do so.

As Oakes continues to write he reiterates the impact that Herrmann had upon the ‘young’ Barth:

His commitment and dedication to Herrmann ensures that Barth’s earlier thought bears the marks of centuries of reflection and debate within Prussian and German intellectual life. His thought, like that of all pupils, is the outcome of wars waged and treatises made long before him. The education in which he was formed was not only broadly post-Kantian in its distinction between religion and culture, but also had dealt with and responded to higher criticism of Scripture, a secularized reading of church history and confessions, and the History of Religions school. This inheritance meant that some distinctions were already put in place for Barth: a strict split between faith and history and the God of faith and the god of metaphysics. Otherwise put, there was a strong distinction between (1) the individual’s experience of faith and God’s love and forgiveness; and (2) either a transcendental or empirical determination of the human subject and its knowing, and being in general. The work of theology falls within the first realm, while the work of psychology, history, and philosophy in the second.[2]

Again, for anyone who knows Barth these themes are not surprising at all. But what might be enlightening to realize is that just like any of us Barth had a context, an informing context; a context that shaped and conditioned Barth’s life’s work one way or the other. One thing in particular that stands out to me as we look at this sketch of Barth’s background is the aversion to ‘natural theology’ that his teacher[s] had. Often we will hear it asserted that Barth developed his anti-natural theology because of his German/Nazi context; indeed, it well may be the case that this reality heightened this mode for Barth. But as we can see through Oakes’ development this anti-natural theological bent was already seeded into Barth’s life by his teacher Herrmann and the context he was surrounded by, theologically, as just a young virtuoso. There is more to this background, particularly with reference to this aversion to natural theology, but we will have to get into that later. Nevertheless, I think we should bookmark this point in regard to Barth’s development. He indeed ended up being known for his anti-natural theology, but this was just one thing of many he inherited from his intellectual predecessors and informers.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.

[2] Ibid., 27.