Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0-19-966116-9 (hardcover) – 288 pp. Price $125.00

By: Kenneth Oakes

I want to say thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology& Philosophy for review. The following will not be a comprehensive review (i.e. of the whole book), but will focus on the last chapter of the book where Oakes provides a summary of Barth’s thinking on philosophy and theology; and then highlights some fruitful ways forward towards how Barthians might think about this relationship (and non-Barthians as well).

This book is a revised version of Oakes’ PhD dissertation which he finished under the watchful eye of the late and great, John Webster at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In order to have an understanding of what Oakes covers throughout his development in the book here is the table of contents:

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Hopefully this whets your appetite to get your hands on this invaluable resource offered by Kenneth; you won’t be disappointed. It is indeed pricey given its academic title status, so maybe check your local theological library, or maybe request a review copy yourself. I have read volumes of secondary literature on Karl Barth’s theology, and I would have to say that Oakes’ book is among the best and most insightful that I have read. He writes in a clear, concise manner; providing coverage that is comprehensive, but at the same time does not sacrifice on detail. It is a well written well balanced book that any scholar could aspire to achieving in his or her own work.

Oakes’ Summary Insights on Barth’s Philosophy of Philosophy and Theology

According to Oakes Barth’s career of understanding relative to the relationship of philosophy and theology can be reduced to three recurring thematic entailments:

In the final years of his life, Barth’s thoughts on theology and philosophy changed little. The primary argument of the essay ‘Theology and Philosophy’ was a lengthy and rehashed presentation of material from GD: theology moves from God to creation and back again; philosophy moves from creation to God and back again. Both have the same tasks, although they undertake them in inversed and contradictory orders. This essay even repeated the clock imagery found in GD and the ChrD. There was also little new material in his post-retirement interviews and round-table discussions. Barth was constantly asked about theology and philosophy, and his usual response included (1) the independence of theology from philosophy (a classic Hermannian or ‘liberal’ point); (2) the exercise of Christian freedom when reading Scripture (as against Bultmann and his demythologization programme); and (3) the inevitable presence of philosophy within theology. All three of these points have precedents within the Göttingen Dogmatics. (pp. 249-50)

Personally this has been of issue for me ever since I came to the realization that I couldn’t read the Bible without presuppositions; that I couldn’t read the Bible nakedly as it were. And just as that tension is present in biblical exegesis, it is, as corollary, present when we think about how theology and philosophy implicate each other; or don’t. For Barth, as a modern, there were always the underlying currents of his context (which Kenneth just noted in sum), and how he brought those to his own theological project in one way or the other. But as is signaled by what I just shared from Oakes, Barth cannot be relegated to a facile place when it comes to considering this question; viz. in regard to how philosophy and theology relate. Barth was clearly committed to theological theology, as Webster might say it, and in that he believed that Christian theology ought to operate under its own terms and conditions as those are prescribed by the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

I think the best example of what the reader will find in Oakes’ work, in regard to the relationship between philosophy and theology, comes at the very end of the book in the last few pages of the last chapter. It touches upon the most salient point I can think of when attempting to engage with the question of philosophy and theology; viz. the question of correlation. Oakes writes (at length):

For the Barthian, the primary task and modality of theology is not correlation, for humans already live and think from within a multitude of philosophies. Correlating various and different myths, gods, and scriptures cannot be a major or necessary concern, as what is at issue is difference. Theology sees other philosophies and theologies being attentive to other scriptures, and concerned about the criticism of human knowing, being, and acting (or if this seem [sic] too anthropocentric, the world, objects, causes, etc.) in accordance with these scriptures. From the perspective of a philosophy that is attentive to Christian Scripture, these other objects may or may not exist, they may be better or worse named, and they may or may not be pertinent to the hearing of Scripture and the correction of church proclamation in accordance with Scripture. Yet why would one purposefully correlate YHWH with Zeus, some first cause with the transcendental unity of apperception, das Nihil with the State, money with inner experience, the infinite with the dialectic  of history? Why would one purposefully correlate Scripture with the US Constitution, Financial Times, Cosmopolitan, the Nicomachean Ethics, or of Grammatology? The issue for the Barthian is not correlating but differentiating, as the most pressing task of theology is the continual identification and worship of God as against the misidentification of the gods with God.

In its work of differentiation, theology reaffirms and follows God’s own active self-differentiation from the gods. Humans follow a multitude of gods, scriptures, and churches and so require a God to differentiate, identify, and present himself, his Word, and his works of love and rule. For the sake of following God’s own self-differentation, comparing and evaluating a whole range of other claims and pursuits may be helpful, and indeed necessary (as in the practice of Vergleich in CD III). Theologians may and should explore the differences between the ethics of Dionysius and the Crucified; between the freedom of the transcendental ego, the patriot, and the Christian; and between the optimism of technological progress and that of Christian hope for the restoration of all things. For the Barthian, such comparisons can be a mode of Christian theology if they are performed for the sake of acknowledging and confessing God’s own self-disclosure and differentiation, and not modes of curiositas or gestures towards the exigencies of academic politics. Of course, in the process of differentiation that which is being compared my turn out not to be so different, and this result would cause no surprise or embarrassment to the Barthian inasmuch as all intellectual and practical endeavors take place within a world created and loved by God and in which God became incarnate (CD III/2). (pp. 260-61)

As is typical for Barth, according to Oakes, the preponderance of the theological task is always Self-determined not by the theologian, per se, but by the Self-exegesis and regulation of all things in God in Jesus Christ. As such the ‘Barthian’, following after Barth, will work from the primacy of the Gospel as its own sui generis non-analogous reality, and understand that differentiation not correlation will be the common mode by which the Barthian theologian will engage in the theological practice. As we see in the quote from Oakes, there is almost a kind of accidental correlation that may well happen in say comparative analyses between various truth claims that can be found in the world at large. But the correlation would be from the top down rather than the bottom up; meaning the reason other truth claims might come upon “truths” in the world at large is because the world at large is circumscribed by the domain of God’s recreative and gracious life in Christ. For Barth the genuinely theological task is always a scandalous one precisely because it starts and ends in the foolishness and weakness of God as revealed in a particular man from the backwater of Nazareth.

But none of this is satisfying for the non-Barthian theologian/philosopher. They might detect certain informing theologies, maybe even correlations funding Barth’s theology; they might see Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and even Aristotle in the midst of Barth’s theological activity. They might attempt to use this as an ‘external criteria’ by which to disqualify the supposed Gospel-determined “foundationless” theologizing that Barth ostensibly engages in. Yet as Oakes develops; to attempt to read Barth too deeply in this area, while an interesting engagement, fails to appreciate the overriding commandeering that the Gospel plays in the material conclusions that Barth’s theology produces. Oakes writes:

Theology, for the Barthian, names the assemblage of philosophies that is attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth can swiftly dismiss a line of thought or an argument as ‘philosophical,’ and yet he never means by this epithet that theology is being to reasonable or thoughtful. Usually this label is functionally equivalent to ‘insufficiently scriptural,’ or what is essentially the same thing for Barth, ‘insufficiently Christological.’ Conversely, labelling an argument, theme, or method ‘theological’ cannot mean something very different from ‘scriptural.’ Barth is especially interested in the influence of philosophy upon the interpretation and exegesis of Scripture, because philosophy and ‘natural theology’ always remain so close to theology and to theology’s very source, Scripture. Yet he seldom shows much interest in these background philosophies or the influence they might exert, for undue attention to them might distract one from the actual task of reading Scripture and thus hinder the transformation these philosophies undergo when Scripture is read.

The ‘isolation’ of theology, if it is not to be established apologetically, can only be derivative of its attentiveness to Scripture and to the things to which Scripture is mindful. When Barth speaks of theology’s ‘independence’ he does not mean that theology is or should be insulated from other discourses. Theology can and should listen to those who have also been attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth will sometimes use a variant of the word ‘pure’ to describe theology, but this adjective does not represent a theology anxious to defend itself against foreign despoilment or alien elements. ‘Pure’ does not mean that theology ought to be devoid of all things ‘philosophical,’ ‘foreign,’ or ‘human.’ As Barth notes, ‘let theology avoid all interests but its own, then it will not be isolated. It is isolated so long as it is afraid that it will be isolated.’ (pp. 256-57)

This might be the most basic and important observation of Oakes’ development, in regard to how philosophy functions in Barth’s theology. Personally I find this to be the most inviting thing about Barth’s approach; there is a genuine movement to use philosophy, but only in a way as if it is ‘passing away’ and as if the ‘Word of God will endure forever.’ In other words, as Oakes points out (my paraphrase), Barth doesn’t make much of the philosophies he may or may not slide in and out of, and this is because he’s more concerned with the theological task of allowing Jesus Christ to reinscribe the verities provided by the philosophies by the ultimate reality revealed in the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. That noted, Barth clearly sees many of the modern developments (i.e. Kant, Hegel, et al.) as the most pertinent categories towards articulating a theological grammar for the 20th century wherein Jesus Christ can be magnified most intensively; and in the lingua franca of Barth’s modern context. And yet, even if the hues of these various philosophers can be detected in Barth’s own theologizing, precisely because of Barth’s own locatedness, for Barth the philosophies themselves are only incidental for the task at hand; which is to produce theology that magnifies Jesus Christ. For Barth, as I read Oakes’ presentation, the categories he wants to think through are those revealed in and through Jesus Christ; because of the priority of the Christ’s reality, all other human languages (i.e. philosophies) will ultimately have to bow down to their Lord, who is the Christ.

Final Impression

I found Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy to be one of the most insightful books I’ve read when attempting to get at the way philosophy functioned within Barth’s theological development. The only weakness with the work that I can think of is that it wasn’t long enough; I wanted more, I didn’t want the book to end.