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Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth…
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Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History

by Karl Barth

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Very worth it. ( )
  aegossman | Feb 25, 2015 |
There is a rider to the title of this book that is implanted firmly, emphatically almost, in the subtitle: "its background and history". Labour through this book (and it should be a labour of love) and it will become apparent that, despite the title, we are not reading about nineteenth century theology. Or, at least, we are not reading nineteenth century theology. By page 383 we are finishing with Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg), who died in 1801. We then, it is true, launch into Hegel and Schleiermacher, giants of the nineteenth century, but their voices were silent by 1840. No: this is background and history to that great and complex era of post-Enlightenment theological optimism. We end with Ritschl, whose influence on von Harnack was enormous, but whose influence then spluttered into silence - for many decades - once war split the optimistic heart of Europe. Or did so at least until the Spongs and Cupitts and Geerings arose from the ashes of Hiroshima.

Barth's own theology, of course, is all but antithetical to the progressive and humanistic optimism of the nineteenth century. Barth's God will not be questioned, and his will will be done. Yet Barth, unsurprisingly for a man whose theology is so focussed on grace, is a man of grace. While it would not be true to say he never disparages those forms of optimistic theology that so failed Christian witness when world wars finally shattered humanistic complacency, he rarely does so. As is the case on his respectful dedicated writings on Schleiermacher, these studies (originally lectures) are generally treatments carried out with dignity and respect. The key to his refusal to disparage is hidden away in his Foreword: "We need openness towards and interest in particular figures with their individual characteristics, an understanding of the circumstances in which they worked, much patience and also much humour in the face of their obvious limitations and weaknesses, a little grace in expressing even the most profound criticism, and finally, even in the worst cases, a certain tranquil delight that they were as they were." Barth exemplifies this, his own dictum.

The studies are not biographical, except in the most skeletal passing. They are not "a coherent history of theology", either, taking rather a more representative and formative approach to minds that sailed between pietism and liberalism. They are Continental: you will look almost in vain for an English-speaking theologian here (though David Hume makes one or two brief cameo appearances). The theologians are not household names, even in theological circles: Rousseau, Lessing, Kant, Hegel, Baur, Strauss and Schleiermacher may be well known in some circles, but even Barth acknowledges that Kohlbrügge is hardly a household name! They are representatives of a tumultuous thought-line, demonstrating the interlocking impacts of Enlightenment presuppositions on pietism and liberalism alike. They are pastors and ivory tower philosophers, brilliant successes and all but abject failures, a magnificent potpourri of thought that might well, in large part, have been lost to us who have dwelt in the post-Barthian era had he not respectfully told their tale, their cautionary tale.

Which for me will always be the point of this book. It is a cautionary tale. To a man (and they were men) these theologians and philosophers and all points in-between started their work with the Enlightenment virus thoroughly enmeshed in their theological corpuscles. The man of Nazareth and of Easter had to be reduced and assimilated, by all except perhaps the almost manic Blumhardt, to measurable dimensions, even in large part by the pietists (albeit in different dress). The lessons of Barth's theological neo-orthodoxy are, a half century or more after these lectures, all but lost, and we are once again lapsing in many theological circles into a lowest common denominator christology, Christ made in humanity's image. The otherness of God and the uniqueness of Christ are verboten in much theological speech in the twenty-first century, as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Barth's is a cautionary tale of a discipline that at least once before lost its way and found it had nothing to say when human crisis shattered optimism from 1914-1945. Written often with humour, almost always with respect, just occasionally with caustic verve, these tales of theological method should be rediscovered and re-emphasized for new generations. ( )
  zappa | Feb 11, 2013 |
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