Symposium Introduction

Karl Barth is often assumed to have been hostile to philosophy, wilfully ignorant of it, or too indebted to its conclusions for his own theological good. These truisms of twentieth-century theology are challenged in this original and comprehensive account of Barth’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy.

Drawing upon a range of material from Barth’s earliest writings (1909) up until interviews and roundtable discussions that took place shortly before his death (1968), Kenneth Oakes offers a developmental account of Barth’s thoughts on philosophy and theology. Beginning with the nineteenth-century intellectual background to Barth’s earliest theology, Oakes presents the young and ‘liberal’ Barth’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy and then tracks this understanding throughout the rest of Barth’s career. While Barth never finally settled on a single, fixed account of theology and philosophy, there was still a great deal of continuity regarding this topic in Barth’s oeuvre. Looking through the lens of theology and philosophy Barth’s continual indebtedness to nineteenth-century modern theology is clearly seen, as well as his attempts and struggles to move beyond it.

In addition to locating Barth’s account of theology and philosophy historically, this study also gives attention to the specific doctrines and theological presuppositions that inform Barth’s different portrayals of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Oakes asks how and why Barth used material from the doctrines under consideration-such as revelation, theological ethics, Christology- to talk about theology and philosophy. Barth is shown to have been concerned not only with the integrity and independence of theological discourse but also with the idea that theology should not lose its necessary and salutary interactions with philosophy. Finally, Oakes also considers the reception of Barth’s thought in some of the luminary figures of twentieth-century philosophy, and identifies the three main impressions philosophers have had of Barth’s life and work.

Jonathan Lett


Dogmatics as Apologetics

THE PROBLEM WITH KARL BARTH is that he is an obscurantist, irrationalist, and a fideist. He does not play well with others. To enter his theological world, one must exchange reason for faith, all other discourses of knowledge for divine revelation. So goes one common characterization of Barth at least. But Kenneth Oakes argues that just the opposite is true: “Barth’s lasting contribution to contemporary theology is not that theologians are free to ignore the concerns and criticisms of other discourses, but that these cares can be taken up and engaged within the process of discussing Christian doctrine and practice in a way free of anxiety and pretensions to self-justification” (253).

If Oakes is right that Barth helps theology be free to dialogue with other disciplines, what is the implication for Christian apologetics? If Barth assumes that theology entails engagement with other discourses to be faithful to its task, how should we think of the relation between dogmatics and apologetics? Although Oakes tackles Barth’s position on the relationship between theology and philosophy, the theme of apologetics runs through the whole argument. Indeed, one cannot discern the method in Barth’s dogmatic madness without understanding his radical rejection of apologetic strategies.

It is exactly this anti-apologetic streak that gives the impression that Barth’s “christocentricism” threatens to burn bridges at a time when Christianity desperately needs to build them. In a world that presumes to have left Christianity behind along with other repressive ideas like magic and alchemy, Barth seems unable to offer theology the conceptual traction it needs to justify its claims. And the desires for an apologetic approach are legion: influencing the political and social arenas, legitimizing theology’s place within the university, mobilizing movements for social justice, evangelizing one’s neighbor, keeping peace in a pluralistic society, proving one’s intelligence to other intellectuals, making a difference in the world (for Jesus), and, most basically, rendering oneself intelligible to those who do not know the story of the God of Israel who has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. In all these examples, Christianity becomes a solution to a very real felt need, whether politically, in the case of class disparity and race inequality, or existentially, in the case of being understood and finding belonging.

I want make the counterintuitive argument that Oakes helps us see that Barth’s anti-apologetic theology actually provides the best Christian apologetics. Despite the good reasons for apologetic arguments, the apologetic tack runs aground, or, rather, never quite gets off the ground, because apologetics is reduced to just another account of what we already know to be true. Oakes shows us that Barth’s notion of theology as a response to God’s Word actually leads to engagement with other disciplines rather than a retreat from them, but also that theology’s dependence on God’s Word means that theology cannot allow human words to set the agenda for theology. To do otherwise is to put the apologetic cart before the dogmatic horse, so to speak.

Barth’s Rejection of Apologetics

According Oakes, the key for understanding Barth’s conception of the relation between theology and non-theological discourses is the recognition that he is a “recovering Herrmann” (245). Barth inherited a crucial theological supposition from his Marburg teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann, that he never shed, namely, that theology stands on its own two feet, without the need to be propped up by philosophy, science, history, psychology, and the like. Theology’s legitimacy rests on God’s revelation, and not any other basis. Following his mentor, Barth eschewed all apologetic strategies that attempted to provide an ontological, epistemological, metaphysical, or philosophical rationale for theology. Barth feared that other discourses would set the terms and agenda for theology, and thus ensnare theology within an unacceptable schema, one doomed to fail from the outset.

In fact, Barth departed from Herrmann because he detected an apologetic orientation in his thought. And this apologetic strategy was at once political. Here, Oakes challenges the predominant narrative of Barth’s clean break with liberalism as an epistemological or methodological turn. Barth’s political commitments, coupled with the pastoral work of Scriptural proclamation, distanced him from his former teachers. He saw that theology’s independence had been compromised by capitulation to Germany’s political aspirations (58). Oakes’ research demythologizes the heroic story of Karl Barth, the orthodox prizefighter whose christological punches liberated modern theology from liberal captivity. Differing political commitments precipitated Barth’s “turn” from his teachers. In a significant way, Barth did free theology from alien epistemological constraints, but he did so only because the Herrmann student became the master: Barth followed Herrmann’s desire for a free and self-standing theology farther than his teacher knew was possible.

Oakes acknowledges the limits of framing an investigation into Barth’s commitment to theology’s autonomy in terms of theology vs. philosophy. This concession provides a crucial insight into Barth’s thought. Barth did not primarily think in terms of theology and philosophy, but God’s Word in the midst of human words. Oakes explains, “[T]here is the perpetual danger of the reification of philosophy or theology into some stable essence, freed from all contextual and political rootedness” (264). Since God and human creatures utter words in and about the same political context, theology and philosophy are inextricably bound as theology seeks to clarify and sharpen its proclamation. Moreover, theological speech always entails philosophical concepts that need to be interrogated. If theology is tasked with the hearing and proclamation of God’s Word in fray of human words, then we should not be surprised to find in Barth an ad-hoc, often polemical, oscillating articulations of theology’s relationship to philosophy instead of a hard and fast theory.

This brings us to what I take to be Oakes’ significant contribution to the relation between dogmatics and apologetics. Despite the ad-hoc nature of Barth’s position, Oakes argues that there are two ways Barth’s own supporters are prone to misread him. First, those who delineate boundaries between theology and philosophy in such a way that maps philosophical problems and concerns outside of theology’s purview. To draw a line in the sand that theology and other discourses cannot cross is to assume that they each occupy their own sphere. Second, those who presume that Barth’s “anti-foundationalism” insulates theology from either philosophical critique or making use of philosophical concepts also place theology on another plane. Both ironically deploy an apologetic argument: knowledge of God is one kind; knowledge of the world is another. Within this schema, theology’s independence presumes a binary between revealed theology and natural knowledge, an insurmountable gulf between “faith” and “reason.” Barth’s own disciples—those charging the hill, carrying the banner—unwittingly perpetuate the same apologetic desire to secure theology’s subject by a strict distinction between theological and non-theological knowledge that Barth rejected in Herrmann. Barth’s supporters, then, follow Herrmann’s two-source theory of truth instead of Barth’s belief that theology’s free and self-standing nature requires engagement with other disciplines in order to be truly free.

Creation’s Truth

Barth, of course, explicitly rejects the notion of a two-source theory of truth. He does so because such a bifurcation violates what a doctrine of creation requires of theological speech. Barth traces this pathological dichotomy back to the theological orthodoxy of the Reformers themselves. Although the church certainly worshiped and taught about Jesus, it did not really know how to exploit this knowledge that it had in him—the church did not know how to speak of creation in light of Jesus.1 As a result, nature and grace were torn asunder, creation abstracted from covenant. Knowledge of creation and knowledge of salvation were seen as separate but equal books to be read side by side. According to Barth, once an independent book of nature exists, the book of grace, extraneous as it is, lays closed and collects dust on the shelf. When a doctrine of creation begins without Jesus it necessarily renders God superfluous, and thus loses that which was never necessary in the first place!

Barth rejects the notion that we can know creation apart from Jesus Christ precisely because Jesus Christ has material significance for the nature of nature itself. Given Barth’s (in)famous Nein! to Emil Brunner’s attempt to establish a point of contact in nature between humanity and God, it is not surprising, then, that Barth’s doctrine of creation is often viewed as an extended polemic against natural theology in which the principal concern is to outline the proper order of knowing for a dogmatic account of creation. What may come as a surprise is Barth’s bold metaphysical claim that God’s election of Jesus Christ means creation has a covenantal ontology. How should we understand, on the one hand, Barth’s stringent rejection of natural theology, and, on the other, his belief that the creaturely world testifies to the God’s desire for covenant partnership?

God’s covenant is logically (not temporally) prior to creation, and this has metaphysical consequences for the nature of created reality. Barth writes, “Where there is genuine noetic connexion, we can always count on the fact that it has an ontic basis. This is the case here. Jesus Christ is the Word by which the knowledge of creation is mediated to us because He is the Word by which God has fulfilled creation and continually maintains and rules it.”2The epistemic priority Barth gives to Christology comports with the ontology of creation, which is determined by Jesus Christ. Creation is the grace of God because Jesus Christ is the Mediator and Executor of the eternal covenant between God and humanity.3 Creation, then, does not have an independent reality apart from Christ since he is the One who executes and fulfills the goal of creation. Indeed, Jesus is the very basis of creation! That Christ is the “firstborn of every creature” means nothing less than that Jesus is the original bearer of our human nature, eternally elected as the “basic form” of our humanity, and as such, “the ontological determination of [humanity] results from the fact” that Jesus is God’s true counterpart.4

Furthermore, God’s election of humanity in Jesus Christ gives a covenantal structure or pattern to the ontology of created nature. In Christ, God eternally elects humanity to be God’s eternal covenant partner, to share in the overflowing life and love of God.5 Following this logic, Barth describes the relationship between creation and covenant from two sides. First, creation is the external basis of God’s covenant. As the goal of the covenant, creation displays a kind of logic or pattern for a life of covenant partnership with God;6 God has oriented, prepared, and equipped creation to “promise, proclaim, and prophesy the covenant.”7 Creation is the arena in which God’s covenant purpose will unfold in history: “Its nature is simply its equipment for grace.”8 Second, God’s covenant is also the internal basis of creation. As the beginning of the covenant, creation “prefigures” and “anticipates” covenant partnership with God. God’s election of humanity as God’s covenant partner, then, shapes creation toward this eschatological end so as to determine and limit the creature in a sacramental way.9 Together, these two dimensions of the relationship between the covenant and creation show Barth’s conviction that creation has a covenantal ontology.10

Barth thinks that if creation’s covenantal ontology is real, then non-theological disciplines will bump up and against the reality of creation. Thus, as Oakes notes, Barth states that we should not be surprised to discover that “non-Christian wisdom” has produced “approximations and similarities” to theological claims (III/2, 277). Take the example of anthropology. Barth asks, “Even with his natural knowledge of himself the natural man is still in the sphere of divine grace; in the sphere in which Jesus too was man. How, then, can he lack a certain ability to have some better knowledge of himself as well as a great deal worse” (III/2, 277)? These similarities confirm rather than deny theology’s veracity because both forms of knowledge transpire within the sphere of grace. In this case, since human beings are ontologically fellow-humanity, they relate to fellow human beings “gladly,” and no amount of sin can eviscerate this fact. Here, created reality has its own integrity, an ontology that exerts itself in such a way that non-theological disciplines can approximate truth. Theology’s advantage is simply Jesus Christ, who “allows and commands it from the outset and with a final resoluteness and clarity to turn its back on that worse knowledge and ignorance” and move in the direction of rendering the fullest account of humanity.

Notice that Barth’s doctrine of creation remains unapologetic. He does not rely on any system or theory external to a Trinitarian grammar. As we have seen, Barth argues that creation qua creation can only be understood retrospectively of Jesus Christ.11 For Barth, knowledge of Jesus Christ precedes knowledge of creation because the Creator God is not some general divine being but Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We only come to know that God is creator because, in Christ, we first know the One whom Jesus calls Father. “It is as we know this Father that we know the Creator, and not vice versa.”12 Moreover, it is not self-evident that the world in which we find ourselves recommends itself as the work of a god, or even a good, benevolent god, let alone the Triune God in whom Christians believe.13 Barth realizes that the modern evocation of “God” imagines existence inside of a functionally secular metaphysics: nature as a self-sufficient reality independent of God, subject to the rule of an absolute individual, independent of God. Moreover, Barth does not suppose that knowledge of God can be read right off the surface of the physical world, like words on a page there for the taking. And yet creaturely reality bears the marks of God’s gracious election in such a way that non-theological claims can name and contribute to our knowledge of the world.

Some may think that Barth’s insistence on God’s particularity—and, indeed, the particularity of Jesus—prevents Barth from engaging in the kind of metaphysics that seems necessary to gain conceptual traction outside of theology. Whereas creation’s orientation toward the universal often becomes the occasion for apologetics, Barth believes only the particular history of God’s dealings with Israel in Christ can provide a true account of creation. This means that theology and other disciplines are often in conflict, but also, in virtue of his account of creation, possibly set in correspondence. But one cannot determine from the outset the contours of conflict and correspondence. Only as theology does its own work, formulating various theological doctrines and narrating the story of God in Christ, will the points of departure and overlap surface. Given the claim that creation has a real ontology and that creation can only be known fully through Christ, theology is free to engage in apologetic concerns, but theology does not allow its conversation partners to set the terms of dogmatic inquiry. In short, the best apologetics is a good dogmatics.

Hauerwas and the Apology of the Christian Life

I learned the phrase “the best apologetics is a good dogmatics” from Stanley Hauerwas.14 As it turns out, Hauerwas is not only “America’s best theologian,” but also its best apologist. His Gifford Lectures display Barth’s dogmatic method in order to show that the God modernity has rejected is not a God worthy of worship in the first place. After laying bare the tacit “conceptual machinery” that make figures like William James and Reinhold Niebuhr so intellectually and morally persuasive, Hauerwas identifies the lineaments in Barth’s theological metaphysics that make God’s existence necessary.15 Hauerwas posits that “our existence and the existence of the universe are unintelligible if the God found in Jesus Christ is not God.”16 The grain of the universe, he claims, is only intelligible inside of a doctrine of God. Hauerwas gives an apology for how Christianity can tell us something about the way the world is. To put it another way, an account of the world abstracted from a doctrine of God cannot truly render the world intelligible.

Hauerwas also shifts Barth’s belief that “witness” sums up the task of theology and the Christian life into an apologetic register. He writes, “Christian practices and theology are neither self-referential nor self-justifying. Christian practices and beliefs cannot be self-justifying because Christians, as Barth insists, must be witnesses to the God who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Just as the Son witnesses to the Father so the Spirit makes us witnesses to the Son so that world may know the Father.”17

For Hauerwas, this open-ended character of Christianity means that Christianity can be disproved in two ways. First, theological claims are falsifiable at the level of theory. For instance, the demonstration of the necessity of this world would show that either God is not free and thus no God at all, or that no God exists at all. Such proof would knock the legs out from the basic supposition that creation is the result of God’s gratuitous love and generosity. Second, theological claims are falsifiable at the level of practice. If what Christians believe about God and the world could be known and sustained without a politics called church, then knowledge of God and the world would not need witnesses telling the story of God in Christ.18 Of course, this sword cuts both ways for Hauerwas, for other forms of knowledge are not self-referential or self-justifying modes of inquiry, closed to theological critique.

The Christian life is itself an apologetic argument for the validity of the Christian faith insofar as only Christianity can make such a life possible. In fact, this must be so because to separate Christianity from the form of life it assumes is to misconstrue Christianity as another philosophical account of the world, where beliefs like God, Jesus, sin, and salvation become mere philosophical concepts by which Christians give an account of the world. Christians must give an account of God in such a way that presumes that Christian convictions are inexorably dependent upon God’s creation of a people called church.19

Hauerwas explains, “The problem is not that kind of metaphysical testing but is, rather, when metaphysics becomes an attempt to secure the truth of Christian convictions in a manner that makes the context of those convictions secondary.”20 In short, truthful witness can neither be separated from Christian truth nor accorded a secondary position relative to the primacy of theological argument.

The best apologetics is a good dogmatics because theology’s mode is most faithful when it pursues a faithful response to God’s Word, which presupposes a faithful form of life. In light of Hauerwas’ emphasis on the inseparability of theology and the saintly life, it is possible to understand Barth’s “break” from Herrmann as a rejection of a life lived against the grain of the universe: “Christians often get their theology wrong because they have gotten their lives wrong.”21 In general, the apologetic orientation that both Hauerwas and Barth reject is one that adopts some narration outside of the story of the God who does not want to be God without us. And both recognize that such an apologetic operation assumes that the Christian life can be narrated inside of some larger political project. This apologetic quest for power is at the cost of Christian particularity, which is tantamount to a denial of the lordship of Jesus Christ. But in faithful recognition of Jesus as Lord, theology and the church is free, as Oakes suggests Barth teaches us, to engage other disciplines without anxiety and worry, free from self-justification. I have attempted to buttress this claim by arguing that Barth’s unapologetic doctrine of creation displays a theological metaphysics that undergirds theology’s open-ended posture and makes conversation between theology and other disciplines possible, though not without deep conflict. Hauerwas reminds us that this conversation and, indeed, deep conflict does not merely happen at the level of intellectual debate, but transpires in the lives that embody those theological beliefs that presuppose a people ordered with the grain of the universe. For this reason, dogmatics is apologetics.


  1. Karl Barth, CD III/1, 413–14.

  2. CD III/1, 28.

  3. CD III/1, 39.

  4. See CD III/1, 52–55; III/2, 132–36.

  5. CD III/1, 363–64. See also III/1, 63–65.

  6. CD III/1, 95–97.

  7. CD III/1, 232.

  8. CD III/1, 231.

  9. CD III/1, 231.

  10. Barth claims, “If creation was the formal presupposition of the covenant, the [covenant] was the material presupposition of [creation]” (CD III/1, 232).

  11. CD III/1, 19.

  12. CD III/1, 39.

  13. Barth states, “It is not self-evident that the reality which surrounds [humanity], even his existence, is a reflection of the benevolence of the One to whom it owes its reality” (CD III/1, 38).

  14. The last class that Hauerwas taught as a full-time faculty member, which he co-taught with Sam Wells, was called “Dogmatics as Apologetics,” from which the title of this essay draws its name.

  15. Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001), 143–44.

  16. Ibid.,190–91.

  17. Ibid., 207.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Stanley Hauerwas, “On Keeping Ethics Theological,” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 72. “[W]hat was most original about the first Christians was not the peculiarity of their beliefs, even beliefs about Jesus, but their social inventiveness in creating a community whose like had not been seen before. To say the believed in God is true but uninteresting. What is interesting is that their very understanding that the God they encountered in Jesus required the formation of a community distinct from the world exactly because of the kind of God he was.”

  20. Hauerwas, With The Grain of the Universe, 37.

  21. Ibid., 215.

  • Kenneth Oakes

    Kenneth Oakes


    A Response to Jonathan Lett

    I am deeply appreciative of Jonathan Lett’s response. While I am committed to “getting Barth right” as a good in and of itself, there still remains the equally important good of considering what we ourselves find helpful and generative and what we ourselves find unhelpful and stifling. I am thankful, then, for Jonathan Lett’s development of the latter task.

    Lett is right to note that I worry about Barthian invocation of the “strictly theological.” I worry about this invocation in a couple different ways, one of which is how helpful it is in “getting Barth right.” Two of the common occasions in which the strictly theological raises its obfuscatory head are Barth’s responses to the outbreak of the Great War, and his rejection of natural theology. As for Barth’s anger and disappointment with his teachers, I hope that the book shows that the reasons behind Barth’s plunge into confusion were not “strictly theological.” In his letters to Martin Rade at the end of 1914 and the beginning of 1915, for instance, we can certainly see outrage at how the category of religion and the doctrines of providence and revelation were being used by theologians to justify Germany’s war efforts (even if, as in the case of Rade, the tragedy of the situation is acknowledged). Yet other factors are also at work, including Barth’s being Swiss, a radical socialist, fairly cosmopolitan in outlook, Reformed, and a part of a younger generation than that of his teachers. Better, then, would be to describe Barth’s outrage and confusion and reaction as at least theopolitical, if not simply political and national as well.

    The second common occasion in which the appeal to the “strictly theological” prevents us from getting Barth right is his understanding and rejection of natural theology. In his earliest writings up until the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth’s rejection of natural theology follows his understanding of the relationship between modern Protestant theology and critical philosophy. Just as with Herrmann, modern Protestant theology and critical philosophy were understood to be distinct yet mutually confirming pursuits. His arguments against natural theology invoked both modern Protestant commitments as well as Kant’s critical philosophy, and were thus simultaneously “theological” and “philosophical” (and there was even a third stream of “piety” or “religion” which is invoked to deny natural theology). To state that Barth’s rejection of natural theology, at least within this formative period of time in his development, is “strictly theological” is to get Barth wrong and to simplify what was a constellation of different arguments and concerns.

    The second worry about the “strictly theological” comes from the “Barthian” habit of labeling some pursuits or arguments “theological” and others “philosophical” and by doing so assume to offer justification for ignoring the latter. There is certainly an element of this in Barth himself, but he could also be dialectically messier than the Barthians on just this point. To call an argument, concern, or method “theological” should be an indication of how and from where this intellectual and spiritual pursuit approaches concerns and commitments, many of which will be shared by other pursuits and in which others will have a stake. It should not, then, be used to seal off a certain domain of inquiry from the critiques, questions, and worries of others. Like all rational and technical disciplines, theology has particular sources, tasks to which it must attend, vocabulary, criteria for warrant and justification, and styles of argumentation. Indeed, one of Barth’s enduring contributions to many theologians is precisely this sense that theology should, well, actually be “theological.” There is a profound truth here that should not be forgotten. What needs to be addressed, however, are the ways in which “thinking theologically” means that we are not sealed off from other discourses, but become more deeply implicated in them and in their concerns just as theology becomes more “theological.”

    One of the arguments of the Conclusion, and one which I think can be taken from Barth, is that theology should be attentive to those realities to which Scripture is attentive, such as economic relationships, sex, the care of animals and land, medicine, wisdom, law, and the use and abuse of power. Inasmuch as Scripture is concerned with these subject matters then theology should be concerned with them as well. Inasmuch as other discourses are also concerned with the objects to which Scripture is attentive, then theology will need to give its attention to them as well. Discourses regarding animals, law, and power will help illuminate the realities about which Scripture is concerned (and thus help theology be “theological” and “Scriptural”) just as Scripture will illuminate the realities to which these discourses are attentive.

    The origins of this argument lie within Barth’s interactions with philosophers and other discourses in his volume of creation. In Church Dogmatics III/1 and III/2 in particular, Barth devotes space, at times substantial, to non-theological “equivalences” or “counterparts” to Christian doctrine. This practice of Vergleich is a novum within the Church Dogmatics and Barth thinks that these interactions with Leibniz, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Heidegger on shared topics of concerns are salutary to theology. The point of these exercises is the refinement and enrichment of theology’s own description of its objects. Yet in its strict and rigorous dedication to these shared objects, theology offers a kind of witness to the practitioners of discourses concerned with the same or similar matters. Lett aptly encapsulates the implication of such a performance as “dogmatics as apologetics,” and while Barth engages in this practice primarily in his doctrine of creation, one could imagine it being performed across the whole range of Christian doctrine. In this way one could name Barth as one’s inspiration for dealing with Spinoza within one’s doctrine of God or Deleuze within one’s doctrine of the Christian life.

    The section on Hauerwas and the Christian life reminds me of Herrmann and Barth’s commitment to a “theology without weapons.” What would it mean for theology, and for the church more broadly, to be “without weapons,” to be freed of the impulse of self-justification and so vulnerable and receptive both intellectually and in terms of our lives with our near and distant neighbors? Could vulnerability, receptivity, and suffering others be marks of Christian freedom and faith, a constituent part of what it means to suffer divine things? Barth’s theology displays and embodies an enduring confidence and joy, and yet this confidence and joy come from trust not in ourselves, our institutions and communities, our cleverness, or even our own virtues, but in God in Christ. My hope would be that this type of confidence, joy, and trust would allow theology to be without weapons, to be aware (and to be made aware) of its precarious and objectionable nature without abandoning any of its confidence and cheer that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

    • Jonathan Lett

      Jonathan Lett


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      Ken, thank you for your generous response. You’ve concisely drawn connections between some of the specific arguments in your book and my constructive effort to show that doing theology requires dialogue with other disciplines and that a faithful form of life is itself constitutive of “doing theology.” Your last paragraph shows, I think, that we share important basic commitments when it comes to the task of theology—and these are a few wonderful sentences I would like to keep with me for a while so that they work their way into my bones (seriously!).

      I also think that you’re spot on when it comes to understanding Barth’s rejection of his teachers at the outbreak of the Great War and his rejection of natural theology. Barth’s theology may be an erudite exercise in dogmatics, but it is nothing less than a response to the challenges of his historical time and place. His work loses some of its color when we domesticate his thought to the exigencies of publishing a multi-volume systematic theology, or lift it off the soil of war-torn Europe and into the rarefied firmament of theory. Barth’s theology aimed to do more than merely shake up a few religious studies academics.1

      You’ve highlighted the social and political dimensions that shape Barth’s theology. In regard to Barth’s outrage at his former teachers, you say that his response is “at least theopolitical, if not simply political and national as well.” Here, I would like to move the discussion in a certain direction. How do you see theology’s relationship to the political, national, and social dimensions in Barth in particular and theology in general? Don’t worry; my question is not as big (and impossible) as it sounds. If I read your response to my essay correctly, you’ve made a tentative distinction between “theopolitical” and “simply political and national as well [as theological].” As I read ​​Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy​​, I also found myself wondering about theology’s relationship to these other dimensions. Does theology have explanatory power when it comes to narrating these “other factors” that shape Barth’s theology. Is there a theological account available (perhaps only to the theologian) for the historical and social realities that constitute theological work?

      Maybe Barth can help make a response to this question a little more manageable. I find Barth’s 1932–33 lectures at Bonn in which he gives a theological interpretation of 18th and 19th century culture and theology fascinating. According to Barth, the key to understanding the modern individual is to recognize the proper order of his or her formation: “He was primarily a citizen and moralist and then, as a consequence, a philosopher, critic, inventor of a new type of Christian teaching, purified by academic study. And his philosophizing, doubting, criticizing must not be understood as an expression of an independent concern but as a particular expression of the concern which was peculiar to his whole being.”2 Barth sees that the material conditions of a modern person set the trajectory for inquiry about God, the world, and the self. But his conclusion is layered: this human aspiration is at the same time an expression of the modern subject’s desire to be independent of God and thus take the place of God (for what is a being independent of God but a second God?).

      Given that you understand Barth as both liberal and modern in important ways (though you prefer to call him a “revisionist”), do you think you can read Barth (and others) in the same way that Barth, at times, reads modern figures, as those whose theology is embedded in a prior political and cultural matrix, which is at once also a dimension of a human creature responding faithfully or unfaithfully to God? And what difference would such a theological narration make?

      1. Edward Said suggests that to grasp a theory we must grapple with the “place and time out of which it emerges as part of that time” (“Traveling Theory,” in ​​The World, The Text, and the Critic​​ [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983], 241.)

      2. Karl Barth, ​​Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History​,​ trans. Brian Cozens and John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 2001), 87.

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Jonathan Lett

      Hello Jonathan (if I may),

      The proliferation of adjectives you’ve picked up on—the theopolitical, political, national—stems from my struggle, both historically and conceptually, to name what’s happening in a simultaneously banal situation (a young Swiss country pastor trying to lead and console his congregation at the outbreak of a war) and a pivotal moment in theology in the West (the suspicion that God might *not* be for us and our national interests and the loss of a great deal of innocence in thinking through who and what we are). Recognizing that many nameless and forgotten others performed far more courageous and significant acts during this time period, my own question is, what led Barth to the place where he was led? Being Swiss? A Christian Social Democrat? A young pastor? What rumbled up this resistance to an overwhelming confluence of political, cultural, and religious power which was the German war effort, an effort in which theology and the academy were readily complicit? I think that Barth’s theology, particularly as it was ever more concerned with concrete social conditions after his move to Safenwil (as well as his very early writings on and concerns with ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’) is one significant part of this story, but I suspect that there was more at work in generating his dissatisfaction.

      One of my worries is that the customary way of narrating this event ‘theologically’—the rise of neo-orthodoxy against liberal theology—simplifies and obfuscates what’s happening both at that time and in terms of the broader history of theology. I also worry that this ‘theological’ narration misdirects our attention, as focus is put on how that nationalistic and liberal theology led German theologians to say these terrible things about God being on their side as opposed to interrogating what it is about *Christian* theology and its tumultuous history which made them feel entitled to say these things with such confidence. All that to say, I worry that ‘theological’ accounts of these events actually tend to inoculate themselves against some difficult concerns and questions instead of opening themselves up to them.

      So is there a perspective on these simultaneously theological, theopolitical, national, and spiritual events which is available only to the theologian? I don’t know. My hope would be that theologians would be better equipped and sensitized to understanding the issues at hand, such as the German theologians’ use of Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, their appeals to divine providence, their distinction between the Deus absconditus who rules history and the rise and fall of nations and the Deus revelatus in Jesus Christ, etc. Given how much historians could inform this account from the perspective of the history of German and European nationalism, colonialism, race theory, etc., what would be left for the theologian to say? I think that after a good deal of soul searching, listening, a even a bit of lamentation, I still would hope that theology could offer a richer account of what happened and what it means for us that such an event could happen in the twentieth and be followed by another unspeakable horrendous event not too long after. My guess would be that theology and church life gives us a language, a vocabulary of sin, lying, self-deception, pride, wrath, greed, etc, which would move us beyond a mere catalogue of times, dates, and people, and would allow us to reflect on what this war means for Christians and for our Christian past.

      The lectures which make up Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century are indeed fascinating, not only for the sheer cultural knowledge and history on display, but also for some of the programmatic remarks regarding theological historiography in the Introduction (John Webster has wonderful piece on these remarks in his Barth’s Earlier Theology). I think that Barth’s rather admirable programmatic remarks in the Introduction actually conflict somewhat with his actual performance of narrating the theology and practice of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Protestantism. I’m in the midst of writing an essay on this particular issue right now, which means that I’m still thinking thorough them and hesitate to say much more. I will say, though, that I agree with Barth’s sense that narrating the history of theology, just as theology itself, is both an intellectual and a spiritual task, one which will require not only careful historical work but also reflections regarding the faithfulness of past witnesses. This is delicate work, and would require a healthy sense of our own failures and weaknesses to the extent to which we were not oblivious to them.

      I have more to say and there’s a couple of things that I wanted to ask you, but this is insufferably lengthy already. Many thanks for the further questions and so for the opportunity to think out loud.

    • Jonathan Lett

      Jonathan Lett


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      Ken, I think there is much to learn from a theologian’s “struggle, both historically and conceptually, to name what’s happening” for any given life or event, so thank you for your thoughtful response. I very much enjoyed it.

      I think a little clarification is in order for what each of us might mean by “theological narration” and “history.” Although I see them as discrete tasks, I do not see clean lines between them. Moreover, history is itself a conceptual apparatus, an act of narration and remembering. And you remind us that it is so by asking us to remember those history does not remember! There are, indeed, unnamed others who deserve the heroic light in which Barth is so often placed. I agree with you that theological historiography is delicate work that requires vulnerability and even repentance. That’s a good way to put it.

      I also believe that theological narration as a substitute for the complexity of the historical and political realities of Barth’s “turn”—or any other life we are trying to make intelligible, for that matter—is problematic. This would be tantamount to forgetfulness or misremembering. Perhaps we could even consider this sort of theology as an act of heresy: Gnosticism. Like you, I am thinking out loud here. I wonder if theology’s work of narration is an attempt to frame a life within a theological grammar (and you’ve more or less said this, I think).

      Let’s take Hauerwas as an example. Hauerwas would want us to understand Barth’s life in the context of a profound ecclesial failure. This act of theological narration incorporates the political and social realities of Barth and German theology as constitutive elements of his life. Such a theological description neither substitutes an abstract conceptual world for the earthy, material texture of Barth’s location in history, nor does it present Barth as a floating head. This way of making sense of Barth implies that an account of Barth as merely the product of historical and political forces cannot make his life truly intelligible. The same is true for an account of Barth that merely catalogues him sociologically or takes an inventory of the conceptual furniture in his theological world. Both are integral, but both require theological framing.

      But theology will not simply attach theological vocabulary at the end after history, sociology, and the like complete their work. At the beginning, theology must also interrogate the basic anthropologies and cosmologies that undergird these disciplines. And theology will also be subject to critiques from these disciplines. But there is no way to know from the outset where the agreement and conflict will lie. Here, I’m treading ground that we’ve already covered, so I’ll move on.

      As you say, this theological narration would move us (Christians and the church) toward repentance and faithfulness as we consider the significance of ecclesiological failure then and now. And such an exercise would also encourage our current theological practice to consider the political, economic, and social conditions in which Christians try to hear and obey Jesus in the here and now. This is just a general, tentative sketch; I think that if the delicate work of theological narration is to be done faithfully, it must be done ad hoc.

      I’d like to hear what you think about these half-baked ideas about theological narration and theology and other disciplines bleeding into one another? Or what do you think about Hauerwas’s performance of theology and theological description. In particular, what did you think about my suggestion that “in light of Hauerwas’ emphasis on the inseparability of theology and the saintly life, it is possible to understand Barth’s “break” from Herrmann as a rejection of a life lived against the grain of the universe: “Christians often get their theology wrong because they have gotten their lives wrong.” Or if you’d like to go another route, I’d be eager to hear what questions you had for me. Choose your own adventure.

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Jonathan Lett

      Hello Jonathan,

      Thanks for the comments detailing your understanding of history, theology, theological narration, and the complex interrelationships between them.

      I’m glad that you’ve brought Hauerwas back into the conversation, and I think that I’ll begin here. At some early stage of my dissertation I had written some remarks (now thankfully lost) comparing Barth’s understanding of apologetics, dogmatics, and church witness with those presented in Hauerwas’ Gifford lectures. If my memory serves me right, I think the comparisons were favorable.

      I’ve always been struck by the fact that right on the first page of CD I/1 we encounter these definitions of ‘theology,’ ‘confession,’ and ‘proclamation’ right after being told that theology is the function of the Church:

      “The Church confesses God, by the fact that she speaks of God. She does so first of all through her existence in the action of each individual believer And she does so in the second place through her special action as a community; in proclamation by preaching and administration of the Sacrament, in worship, in instruction, in her mission work within and without the Church, including loving activity among the sick, the weak, and those in jeopardy. Fortunately the Church’s reality does not coincide exactly with her action. But her action does coincide with the fact that alike in her existence in believers and in her communal existence as such, she speaks about God. Her action is ‘theology,’ alike in the former, broader sense, and in the latter, narrower sense.”

      I was and still am struck by the broad account of what it means for the church ‘to speak’ of God and the claim that even the church’s action is its ‘theology,’ and thus can and must be addressed by dogmatics. The church’s witness, its apologetics, its theology, simply is this preaching and administering the sacraments, its missionary work, and its ‘loving activity’ of being with the sick and weak. For the sake of this always and everywhere embodied witness, dogmatics exists, and part of its task is its intellectual work for the sake of this embodied witness, and here ‘general’ philosophy and ethics can be of use. I’d venture Barth and Hauerwas would dovetail nicely thus far.

      My guess, however, is that the distinction between the church’s ‘reality’ and its ‘action’ would worry Hauerwas, and it worries me too, although perhaps for different reasons. For Barth the church’s ‘reality’ is the being of Jesus Christ, the Word who speaks as and through the threefold word of his very person, Scripture, and church proclamation. Its ‘action,’ apparently, is only what we can see churches actually doing. I think that distinguishing between Jesus Christ and his church is a important dogmatic move, but phrasing it in terms of ‘reality’ and ‘action’ is fairly problematic for a host of reasons, not least of which is the ability to shore up ecclesial failure by retorting that we are only dealing with the church’s phenomenal and penultimate ‘action,’ not its pure and eternal ‘being.’ The extent to which ecclesiological idealism can creep in makes this distinction unhelpful. And yet Barth makes it! This rather un-Hauerwasian distinction between the church’s being and its action. The next question quickly becomes whether we could or should make the same distinction for individuals, between their ‘being’ and their ‘action.’

      I raise this topic only to signal what I understand broad agreement between Barth and Hauerwas alongside a deep disagreement. More could and should be said here, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

      Now for the role of theology and the theological within making one’s life ‘truly intelligible (and I’ll take ‘truly’ to mean something like ‘better,’ or ‘more honest’ rather than ‘completely’). I think you’re right to point to ‘how far down’ theology takes us at this point as opposed to recourse to other discourses such as politics or cultural influences. What grants the intelligibility of the lives of Christians is our origin in Adam, our dying in baptism in the Lord, and our final destiny of being with God. How all three of these events unfold in our own life would, however, require a great deal of most likely painful reflection and hearing from the voices of those around us. From this perspective, might we say that Herrmann and numerous others in the fateful years of 1914-1915 (and we ourselves now in different ways) returned to living in Adam and rejected the implications of their baptism? Certainly. Would a ‘break’ from Herrmann and a ‘break’ from the Kriegstheologie of some of his teachers ‘a rejection of the life lived against the grain of the universe’? I think we would have to answer in the affirmative again, and here I think you’re right to view these judgments as a matter of Christian witness in the here and now and as an opportunity for reflection rather than condemnation.

      I realize I haven’t spoken yet about theology and the saintly life, but I would rather hear more about your own understanding and evaluation of Barth’s and Hauerwas’s accounts of bodily witness, apologetics, and what ecclesial and personal failure means for theology. (Although please feel free to respond to whatever you’d like or not at all!)



Barth’s Theological Relationships to Philosophy, with a Short Parable

I. Theology’s Independence

IN KARL BARTH ON THEOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY,1 Kenneth Oakes has provided a great service to theologians who find themselves continually charged with the task of discerning the relationship between theology and philosophy in the wake of Karl Barth. I will waste no time in saying early on in this review that Oakes clearly and convincingly accomplishes the task he sets out to accomplish, that is, Oakes cogently dispels many of the usual myths concerning Barth’s alleged “diastasis” between theology and philosophy, showing that Barth’s own stance is far more nuanced and unsystematically interesting than most of his detractors allow. I will begin my review by providing a brief overview of Oakes’ clarification of Barth’s proffered view of ever-evolving and -maturing theological independence (Selbständigkeit), followed by posing some questions about the nature of Barth’s understanding of this relationship, and lastly, I will propose a parable of my own to hopefully further the conversation between the Barthian and those who, like myself, largely—though not exclusively—share in the sensibility offered by Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, and Graham Ward, et al.

The most enlightening aspect of Oakes’ Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy is his masterful handling of Barth’s large oeuvre with an eye toward clarifying the nature of Barth’s insistence on the “independence” of theology—but it is an independence that does not remain rigid but is a stance that continues to evolve over the course of Barth’s life. The earlier Barth stayed closer to Wilhelm Herrmann, who had a penchant for staying closer to Kant’s division between religion and Wissenschaft. Barth echoed Herrmann’s impulse, eschewing the rising tide of early twentieth-century metaphysics’ encroachment that often colluded with theology. As the decades progressed, however, Barth slightly altered his view, speaking highly of while also critically interacting with various philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Overbeck, and Nietzsche, to name just a few. At this stage, Barth was at least somewhat comfortable with indicating that the pre-Christian philosophers found their desires ultimately fulfilled in Christ: “Like the prophets, Socrates and Plato are related to Christ as promise is to fulfillment; the gospel may be new, but it is the realization and actualization of the righteousness of God which has been long foretold” (64–65).2 All the same, Barth still distinguished the two practices, reminding his readers that the Word is the final response to humanity’s longings, both as answer and to question humanity in return, which for Barth includes making sure theology is not a half-philosophy (and vice versa) (83).

Oakes shows how, in the 1920s, Barth’s thought made a slight progression, highlighting two central movements. (Oakes discusses more than two, but for the sake of space I will limit myself to two of the primary ones.) The first alteration is that Barth began to foreground his discussions containing philosophical discussions not with the Ritschlian/Herrmannian “treaty with Kant,” but with an emphasis upon doctrine. Above all, Barth makes it clear that the tasks of preaching and its subsequent topics should drive one’s theology; expounding upon Scripture is primary for dogmatics. Therefore, discussions about philosophy, or any accord between theology and philosophy—which are all well and good—“can only be retrospective, coming after theology has done its own work” (102).3 What this looks like in practice is that philosophical discussions only ever arise in “piecemeal” or “occasional” fashion, never as a systematic proposal in and for itself within dogmatic proclamation. In fact, as Oakes points out, these occasional excursions into philosophy reach their apogee when Barth discusses his doctrine of Scripture in his Göttingen Dogmatics (108).

The second movement Barth makes during this period is distancing himself (although not completely) from Herrmann, who he saw veering too close to apologetic work as well as steering too far down the path of rigid Kantian commitments. That is, Barth saw Herrmann’s separation between revelation and reason stretching to a breaking point where the speaking subject is lost; to put it loosely in other Barthian language, in effect for Herrmann the difference between the Word and (human) words is evacuated in favor of a kind of monism of the Word (this is my own gloss, but it should be noted here that Oakes is therefore right in pointing out later that John Milbank’s criticisms of Barth echo Barth’s own criticisms of Herrmann [172, cf. 128, 142]).

The late 1920s, spilling into the following decade, consisted of a variety of views offered by Barth on the relationship between theology and philosophy. There are a number of works here containing slightly different emphases (e.g., Ethics, “Theologische und Philosophische Ethik,” and “Fate and Idea in Theology”), but Oakes shows us that there is a clarification of Barth’s definition of philosophy between Ethics and “Theologische und Philosophische Ethik.” In Ethics, Barth highlights the disinterested, “object-less” self-understanding of the human person. Truly Christian ethics, however, can only proceed along these lines after being first orientated by the Word of God (131). Furthermore, dogmatics must include ethics, even philosophical ethics (but not as its basis). In “Theologische und Philosophische Ethik” on the other hand, Barth brings theology and philosophy closer together: for the very same reason that God is both God of the Jews as well as God of the Gentiles (Romans 3:29), “[t]heological ethics can affirm the meaningfulness of the question of philosophical ethics because theology can affirm the truth of its presupposition” (137).

Finally, in dealing with Barth’s Church Dogmatics and his later writings, Oakes shows that Barth continues to maintain a particular (if always shifting to fit the topic) stance regarding theology’s relationship to philosophy. That is, for Barth theology remains to a large extent “independent” while always being able to tarry alongside other disciplines, incorporate them, and yet never allowing the non-dogmatic disciplines to be the court before which theology must first answer. This tactic is perhaps best summed up by Barth in the following quotation that Oakes spotlights:

The study of philosophy is certainly necessary for the theologian, and I should say in a double way. First, positively, the theologian may learn from the philosopher a lot of things about the nature of the manner of consistent thought and speech; and there are many theologians who miss that teaching of philosophy. But negatively, the theologian must study philosophy in order to warn of traps into which he is not supposed to fall. As to the traps, I think of the world views making themselves absolute as ultimate reality and truth, systems built up (before theology begins) of preconceived ontology or anthropology. In order not to fall into those traps, a theologian must earnestly study philosophy. (237)4

Barth maintains a continued—but now much more nuanced—dialectical (paradoxical?)5 stance between theology and philosophy, as Oakes has shown in this book. Theologians (and philosophers!) only mildly conversant with Barth should at this point have no excuse for continuing to make very simplistic claims about what Barth thinks about philosophy, and Oakes has made that case well, and carefully.

II. Inquiring about the Nature of the Relationship

In this second part of my review, I want continue to build upon Oakes’ careful exegesis of Barth’s work in an effort to begin to open up some space for questioning Barth’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy. I am not interested in examining whether or not Barth’s account is “robust” or “satisfactorily systematic,” as those were not the questions Barth himself was asking (nor am I); on the contrary, I want to examine some more pointedly specific passages in Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy in an effort to pry at some of Barth’s assumptions.

Immediately above at the end of Part I of this review, I cited Barth’s positive and negative reasons for the theologian’s necessary study of philosophy. The quotation from Barth originates from a panel discussion that was moderated by Jaroslav Pelikan at the University of Chicago, and Barth was answering a question from Schubert Ogden about the relationship between theology and philosophy. Oakes helpfully recounts the details of the discussion, focusing upon Barth’s insistence that he is emphatically not proposing a theology dependent upon philosophy. Pelikan attempts to offer a clarification regarding his understanding of Barth’s theology: philosophy is to be borrowed from in its method, but not its contents. Barth replies, “Ah ha! That implies that I make use of it as a kind of tool. Take this glass of water, for example—I am not dependent upon this glass of water.”6 Pelikan moves the discussion along, but not before adding, “But you are dependent upon water in general—if not this particular glass” (238).7 While this particular account of a theology panel with Barth may appear at first glance like just an exciting glimpse—and it is this—into Barth’s personal interactions, I want to highlight Pelikan’s final quip, for it is particularly enlightening as one possibility for continuing the discussion of the relationship between theology and philosophy.

I will suggest, following Pelikan’s own abrupt allusion to something further, that what is at issue here is that Barth, while backing off from particular dependencies upon philosophy, must ultimately acknowledge his own general dependence upon philosophy. To be sure, Barth does this to varying degrees—especially early on in his career with his indebtedness to a certain kind of Kantianism and Platonism—but it would be illuminating to know whether Barth would be willing to specifically concede Pelikan’s point about a general dependence. For example, while Oakes tells us that “Barth prefers his philosophies to be local knowledges” (157, cf. 114), at what point do these creaturely efforts shed light upon theology? Would Barth be ready to accept Pelikan’s metaphorical gesture (with all the acknowledged limits of every metaphor) such that philosophy at least in general shares in the same humanity as the divine? Perhaps Barth would agree, insofar as it is first affirmed within a properly Christian dogmatics. And what about the particular “glass of water” upon which Pelikan suggests Barth may also be dependent? Would Barth allow the particular instantiation of water to have a share in water/philosophy as well, or would Barth leave these distinctions up to the ambit of philosophy alone? Would Barth allow for Christian dogmatics to make participatory distinctions such as this?

Barth would rightly argue that as long as the particular philosophy is not an ersatz theology (155),8 theology “should have nothing against a philosophy conscious of what it can and cannot do” (156). Barth also argues that everyone employs “allegorical exegesis” such that no one can truly jettison the philosophical background that make up their presuppositions. Accordingly, Oakes states that “Barth would no doubt respond that he never assumed to have cleansed his theology from all philosophical influences or think that such a thing was even possible, necessary, or salutary” (109). We know, therefore, that Barth would not go as far as Harnack (in his time) in evacuating all philosophical metaphysics, nor would he ultimately resonate with the different, later, and still unfolding tradition of a certain species of the Christian phenomenological tradition that abhors any intersection with metaphysics.9 Ironically, these traditions often wed themselves too closely to a Western, Heideggerian metaphysic in order to accomplish their own act of jettisoning, which is why Barth himself parted ways with many of his contemporaries. Thus Barth is also correct to reject Bultmann’s impulse in order to allow for some breathing room for both theology and philosophy: “it is also a fact that I have come to abhor profoundly the spectacle of theology constantly trying above all to adjust to the philosophy of its age, thereby neglecting its own theme”(123).10 For very similar reasons, Conor Cunningham—a Catholic theologian—states that, with regard to theologians and philosophers who tarry too close to the science current in vogue: “There is a saying that offers sage advice: the theology that marries the science of today will be the widow of tomorrow. It is good and constructive for theology to engage with science, but it cannot act as its ‘foundation.’”11

Positively said, at one point earlier in Barth’s career, he also calls into question the all-too-neat distinction made by many of his contemporaries between theology and philosophy for the very reason that “the Holy Spirit is the promise of both truth and salvation” (91).12 And, while Barth expects a convergence here between the two disciplines, the correspondence does not necessitate an identity, as there still remains a difference (91). What’s more, the role that Barth affords philosophy, religions, and worldviews is one of being in service to the Word due to the fact that these creaturely dynamics have a share in the human nature of Jesus Christ (183). I would suggest that a communicatio idiomatum exists here, one where the nature of the relationship is one of service (Hans Urs von Balthasar and Erich Przywara would readily concur). If so, in a sense Barth may agree with J. G. Hamann when he says, “This communicatio of divine and human idiomatum is a fundamental law and the master-key of all our knowledge and of the whole visible economy.”13 That is, this participation of exchange applies not just to the two natures of Christ, but also applies to all of human action in general.

With Barth’s above remarks in mind, I want to continue the (imperfect) metaphor of the relationship of water “in general” to the glass of water before Barth “in particular.” Would Barth be ready and willing, in light of his stated non-identical adequation of philosophy (etc.) to theology, to pronounce upon philosophy in particular if he conceded to being dependent, in some respect to its particular? My charge here is that there is too often a formalism found in Barth’s discussion between theological dogmatics and philosophy where he doesn’t always want to engage with a particular philosophy’s content for fear of appearing too dependent upon it. This is for good reason, of course, for all the reasons stated above, but would Barth therefore be willing to concede to Pelikan’s challenge?

III. A Parable: The Nature of the “and” as an Expression of Being Created

Questioning Theology’s “And”

In this final section I will offer a response to Oakes’ concluding comments upon the work of John Milbank. Throughout Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, Oakes provides ample material to show that Milbank’s famous “long footnote against Barth” can be easily discredited. However, there turns out to be a wealth of Barth’s thought highlighted by Oakes that would find happy accord with those who fall within the sensibility of Radical Orthodoxy. Even so, Oakes’ concluding proposal of a Barthian “positive protest” offers up various critiques of Milbank, et al., that I will argue (mostly) miss the mark.

Oakes’ protest is indebted to Barth’s own critique of “the whole of the modern theology of ‘and.’”14 Oakes add that for Barth, this entails “Christianity ‘and’ the nation-state, theology ‘and’ philosophy, faith ‘and’ reason, etc” (175–76). With regard to Milbank (et al.), Oakes sees him as proposing a theology of “theology and X” where X can be philosophy, economics, art, politics,15 music, etc. Oakes concedes that these endeavors may very well be legitimate for the Barthian “if they are legitimate concerns for Scripture” (261). The fear is that these accounts strive toward an “omni-competence” (262) that becomes an overly intellectual project of worldview-building that not only relativizes preaching for the sake of theological gnosis, but also at its worst conflates its own Christian worldview with culture (“Christendom”) and at its most heinous becomes another species of neo-liberalism. All but the very last of these are fair concerns, for the idea that Milbank (not to mention Catherine Pickstock, Alison Milbank, Graham Ward, Adrian Pabst, D. Stephen Long, and a host of others) would promote a commercially privatized commodification of Christianity is perhaps the only absurd claim in Oakes’ otherwise wholly laudable and remarkable book. Oddly enough, something like this reality exists in the United States in the form of “Christian bookstores,” so it is a valid concern in general, but not one that would bear any resemblance to the intentions, content, nor implications of the sensibility in which these theologians find themselves (a handful of whom are ordained priests engaged in preaching Scripture on a weekly basis).

There is much to respond to in Oakes’ remarks on Milbank that would exceed the space allotted here, but before I offer a slightly different vision as to why I find Milbank’s work to be much more dogmatically faithful than Oakes argues, it is important to note that while Oakes has shown that theology’s “independence” in Barth is something that must be constantly clarified in light of the occasion of its proclamation, likewise, the very notion of the “and” for Milbank must also be unpacked and continually clarified in each instance. Oakes himself admits that for Barth, “Revelation inevitably exists in relationship to reason, existence, and creation. The issue is not eliminating the ‘and,’ but developing strategies so that theology can continue to speak of the pre-eminence of God in its work and thus keep the first commandment” (176). This is exactly correct.

What follows is a proposal, contrary to Oakes and many others who find themselves in protest against Milbank and the sensibility of Radical Orthodoxy, of how I have always understood this sensibility to operate on a theological level. It is an extremely brief effort to paint a somewhat playful picture of how this notion of the “and” both meets the criterion of the Barthian, as well as how this “and” is primarily and deeply rooted in Paul’s understanding of the multi-gifted nature of the diverse body of Christ.

A Parable:16 The Gift of Being Merely the Left Foot

God is one. The God of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals God’s self to humanity in God’s son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. The followers of this Triune God wrestle for a long time about how to make sense of a God who is both one and three. One God with three “modes” wouldn’t do, for this denied the reality of the revelation of the Son testifying to the Father, and denied the real “personality” of the Holy Spirit; Jesus Christ as a lesser, “created” God wouldn’t do, for this denied his true divinity and communion with the Father; many attempts were made to make sense and solve the problem of the “one and the three.” However, it wasn’t a problem to be solved but a reality to be confessed in faith.

By virtue of this Triune God’s incarnation in the flesh, we continue to meet the reality of God in person, in the personal encounter with the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the neighbor, as well as particularly and uniquely met in the Eucharist. All the same, Saint Paul and Saint John in their letters stress that there remains a crucial “not yet” aspect to this encounter. For it is Jesus Christ “alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16).17 But this does not signal the end of the story, for Paul also says, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). In the same spirit, the Gospel writer John, in an epistle writes about the parousia, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Various articulations of this tension arose throughout history attempting to gesture toward certain aspects of the “distance” or “distinction” of this incomprehensibility. At one point, it was stated that for however great a similarity between creatures and God, there exists yet a greater dissimilarity; another expressed this divine reality as one of divine simplicity, at the time synthesizing many currents of the day to say that God’s essence is God’s existence—something we cannot say about creatures; and still another said there was an “infinite qualitative distinction” between humanity and God, and our sin made this worse than it needed to be, for the distinction wasn’t always such a broken one, but it is healed in the incarnation, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. All of these expressions attempted to testify to the same truth, but some latched onto one of these expressions, while others clung to another, and others still yet tended toward others (the “apophatic,” the “via negativa”), even though these approaches need not be mutually exclusive.

One subset within the group of followers of this God gravitated toward some combination of the “ever greater dissimilarity” and the notion of divine simplicity. Those who found themselves within this expression said that because God is one, everything we say about God in God’s perfections (and not mere metaphors, like “God is a rock”) simply are God: God is love, God is one, God is goodness itself, God is life itself, the living water who will never make us thirst again, etc. But entailed in this belief, because as creatures our existence is not our essence (i.e., we didn’t have to be here), and because our minds are only particular, we cannot conceive of all of God’s perfections all at the same time, but can only take them one at a time because of our limitation.

This limitation, however, is not merely a lack, but a gift of our not-necessarily-having-to-be. When we see the adorable little boy selling poorly made lemonade on the corner, we announce, “He didn’t even ask to be born!” And the response should be, “Beautiful! We need the gift of his person then. Also, he’ll get better at making that lemonade, and surely I don’t have those gifts. I pray that he’ll need me and my gifts too.” In this vision, the limitations of finitude are seen as positively different, and the difference here is one of gift, of celebration. We could not do everything ourselves, and so we asked one friend to teach us about art, another to teach us about music, and still others to teach us about politics, economics, and philosophy, and so on. This was not because we wanted to possess and dominate the truth of the whole body, but so that we could continue to paradoxically celebrate that, “we never have the truth; at best it has us.”18 Accordingly, the right hand of this “body” could not tell the left foot that it was not needed. The very notion of this suggestion of the left hand “and” the right foot, of the right hand “and” the left foot, was not therefore grasping toward total knowledge, but was instead the distance of gift.

Like their fellow brothers and sisters who gravitated more toward the expression of the “infinite qualitative difference” between creatures and God, these people also held firm to disavowing science parading as ersatz philosophies that say we are “nothing but” genes; they disavowed economics that tried to supersede a table of plenty with a table of jealous scarcity; they disavowed art and music that did not bear witness to the fact that Being is love;19 and they disavowed politics that did not uphold the dignity of the human person. Along the way, they borrowed the shared insights of their fellow sisters and brothers (and many of whom who did not explicitly testify to the truth, even some who explicitly denied it), for all of these creatures were made toward the image of God in Christ.

Yet despite all of these efforts, we all—whether we gravitated toward a divinely simple, or infinitely distinct God—remained, to some extent, “widows of tomorrow.” Hope abounds, however, for we have faith that at the wedding banquet, the poor, the orphans, and the widows will all be taken care of, on earth as it is in heaven.

  1. Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Philosophy and Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). All in-line pagination will be references to this text.

  2. Johan Georg Hamann and Søren Kierkegaard were also known to have counted Socrates amongst the prophets. Hamann: “He who would not suffer Socrates among the prophets must be asked who the Father of Prophets is and whether our God has not called himself and shown himself to be a God of the Gentiles” (James C. O’Flaherty, ed.,Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967], 175). Kierkegaard, who was very much influenced by Hamann, clung to Socrates from the beginning to the very end of his authorship, using Socrates to “prophetically” critique his fellow Lutheran Christians, ultimately announcing that he himself was not a Christian. Perhaps the closest we have to Kierkegaard’s positive statement of Socrates, aside from an exuberant “last hurrah” in The Moment, is when he states, “True, [Socrates] was not a Christian, that I know, although I also definitely remain convinced that he has become one” (Søren Kierkegaard, “The Point of View for My Work as an Author” in The Point of View, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998],54). For Kierkegaard’s final paean to Socrates, see The Moment and Late Writings, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 341.

  3. Similarly, Oakes states that “theology relearns its own discipline is Barth’s dominant wish, not merely theology’s isolation or independence from the other sciences and culture as such. Theology’s relative autonomy can only be provisional and tactical, and not a stable programme” (117). Barth argues, therefore, “that theology learns again to keep its own order in its own house” (Karl Barth, Die Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf. Vol 1, Die Lehre vom Worte gottes, Prolegomena zur Christlichen Dogmatik [Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1927; 1971], 155).

  4. Karl Barth, “Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago,” in Gespräche 1959–1962 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1995), 461.

  5. As is well known, the issue of whether Barth is a dialectical, paradoxical, or ultimately analogical thinker in the end continues to be a live issue, one which I will leave up to other friends and colleagues much more conversant in Barth than me.

  6. Barth, “Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago,” 462.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Karl Barth, “Fate and Idea in Theology,” in H.-M Rumscheidt (ed.), The Way of Theology in Karl Barth (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1986), 25–61, here at 53.

  9. E.g., Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte, 2nd Ed., translated by Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). However, see Marion’s later amendment and clarification on Thomas Aquinas, which is contained in this second edition, 199–236.

  10. Letter 48, Barth to Bultmann, 12 June 1928 in Karl Barth, Karl Barth—Rudolf Bultmann Letters: 1922–1966, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, edited Georffrey W. Bromiley and Bernd Jaspert (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1982), 41.

  11. Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 266.

  12. Oakes is using the translation from Ross McGowan Wright, Karl Barth’s Academic Lectures on Ephesians. Göttingen, 1921–1922. An Original Translation, Annotation, and Analysis (PhD diss. St. Andrews, 2006), 99. For the original see Barth, “Erklärung des Epheserbriefes W.S. 1921/22,” in idem, Erklärungen des Epheser- und Jakobusbriefs, ed. Jörg-Michael Bohnet (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2009), 132.

  13. Johann Georg Hamann, Writings on Philosophy and Language, edited and translated by Kenneth Haynes (Leiden: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 99.

  14. Karl Barth, “The First Commandment as an Axiom of Theology,” in the Way of Theology in Karl Barth, 63–78, here at 73.

  15. I am perhaps not alone in both finding myself within the sensibility of that which is “Radical Orthodoxy” while also distancing myself from some of the political proposals of Milbank, and especially that of Philip Blonde’s “Red Tory” project. My own Hauerwasian-leanings prevent me from siding with any one political party, whether Red Tory, Blue Labour, Republican, or Democrat. Granted, something like the Red Tory/Blue Labour projects would at least be a welcome and interesting development if North America had the imagination for it, but at the moment I don’t think it would be possible, and the jury is out on whether it would be desirable as well. Milbank himself has noted that stances like my own tends be very common amongst North Americans. Likewise, I find Milbank’s tendency to conflate theology and various political projects to be a distinctly Anglican, or perhaps better said, British tendency. I do not think, however, that this is a necessary outgrowth of his theology.

  16. “[T]here remains nothing relative which is not relatedness, nothing concrete which is not a reference to something beyond itself, nothing given which is not also a parable,” (Karl Barth, Romans II, 258, as cited on p. 75 by Oakes).

  17. This and the following Scripture references follow the NRSV translation.

  18. (Emeritus) Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, translated by Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2010), 50.

  19. Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 90.

  • Kenneth Oakes

    Kenneth Oakes


    A Response to Eric Austin Lee

    Eric Austin Lee is a friend, and so I am grateful for his questions, his own thoughts on theology and philosophy, the evident care in which he read and responded to the book, and for his pushback regarding some of my characterizations of what are complex matters.

    Would Barth “pronounce” on a particular philosophy? In the mid to late 1920s Rudolf Bultmann and Emil Brunner, each in his own way, pressed Barth on this topic. In response to some lines from the 1927 Christliche Dogmatik which seemed to relativize all philosophies before Scripture, Bultmann (rightly) asked Barth whether such a sweeping relativization can recognize that not all philosophies are created equal, that philosophy is a dedicated and self-involving concern with truth, and that there are good intellectual and existential reasons for preferring one philosophy to another. In an exchange of letters from the mid 1920s, Brunner also argued that theology has a reason to prefer certain philosophies to others, and asked whether Barth could admit this. Barth’s response to Bultmann focuses on the venerable tendency to tie theology too closely to one single philosophy and his response to Brunner emphasized that any philosophical “foundation” for theologians should remain “open” and “broken.”

    Barth’s hesitancies about Bultmann and Brunner’s enthusiasm for one particular philosophy were in large part due to his nervousness that his earlier works gave the impression that he was endorsing a specific philosophical tradition (and they were). Already by the mid 1920s Barth wanted theology to be able to speak in and through a variety of philosophies so as to be able to converse with any manner of intellectual positions. Such philosophical diversity within theology was to serve as reminder that theology’s sole source and criterion in revelation and as a declaration of the freedom of theology for its own tasks. The position being advanced, then, could be described as a tactical eclecticism, and could be seen as a kind of radicalization of Schleiermacher’s attempt to “borrow” propositions from ethics, the philosophy of religion, or apologetics. Barth’s decision to turn down the proposals to follow “critical philosophy” (meaning Heidegger for Bultmann and Kant for Brunner) runs against a long tradition within modern Protestantism and is designed to open theology up to any number of intellectual and existential positions. And while I am sympathetic to Bultmann’s concerns regarding adjudicating between philosophy’s truth claims qua philosophy, I also think that Barth’s recommendation for eclecticism is preferable to being instructed as to which philosophy is the one true philosophy which theology should accordingly adopt.

    As for pronouncements on his own philosophical presuppositions, Barth would at times admit that there were Platonic, or Kantian, or existentialist residues or “eggshells” in his thought, but no detailed specifics were usually given. The topic, apparently, was not sufficiently interesting to hold his attention for very long. In fact, he might even consider such a pursuit to be a kind of distraction from what he considered to be more interesting and pressing work within Christian doctrine.

    At various places within the book I attempt to deal with John Milbank’s characterization of Barth, particularly his reading of Barth on theology and philosophy as offered in “The Theological Critique of Philosophy.”1 This programmatic essay (as well as the Introduction to the Radical Orthodoxy volume) levels criticisms at Barth on a range of issues, including the issue of “theology and X.” Barth and “neo-orthodoxy” are accused of ceding autonomy to other discourses such that these other (nihilistic or atheistic) discourses determine for theology what it is to be, to know, and to do. In tacitly accepting rather than criticizing and combating secular presuppositions, in particular those of modern philosophy, Barth’s theology remains liberal. Milbank’s own theology of “theology and X,” which attempts to “mediate” various discourses through theology, transfiguring them in the process, is presented as one element in the overall movement beyond liberal or modernist theology. Despite these criticisms, Milbank also notes at several points that “at times” Barth and neo-orthodoxy can sound like Radical Orthodoxy.

    There are indeed times when Barth and Milbank seem to converge regarding what we might call theology’s “omni-competence.” In the context of theological ethics and philosophical ethics, Barth can forcefully declare, “the grace of God protests against all man-made ethics as such. But it protests positively. It does not only say No to man. It says Yes. But it does this by completing its own answer to the ethical problem in active refutation, conquest and destruction of all human answers to it.”2 Theological ethics takes up all the concerns and questions of philosophical ethics, brings to greater clarity and brilliance the goods and sources under discussion, and actively refutes and destroys “all human answers” to ethical questions, all the while developing its own understanding of its themes. There are times, then, when there seems to be genuine convergence on the issue of the scope and range of the theological. It is within this convergence that I try to get at the differences between “the Barthian” and “the Milbankian” account of theology’s omni-competence.

    I attempt to identify and name these differences by imagining “Barthian worries” about Milbank on theology and philosophy and in the process reverse the direction of critique. I note that “The Barthian might worry about how this synthetic theology construes the task and place of theology, particularly as theology is imagined to be dedicated to the development of counter-accounts of other cultural discourses and quickly becomes a matter of worldview-building, of gnosis, of theological encyclopaedias.”3 (Here I had in mind Milbank’s vision of theology in Theology and Social TheoryRadical Orthodoxy, and The Word Made Strange.) The first worry is that the relationship between theology and church witness, in particular the work of exegesis on behalf of the preaching and ministry of the church, becomes unclear. The second is that Christianity becomes defined in terms of specific (typically my own or my own group’s) beliefs, stances, or tastes towards certain cultural artifacts. The last worry concerns what specific forms, either private or public, Christianity can assume once it becomes a complete worldview or culture competing against other worldviews and cultures. The worries I mention are that its public form can become enforced politically and that its private form can be a matter of the production, branding, and selling of commodities deemed “appropriate” or “safe” by cultural authorities. The worry is not that any specific theologians “promote a commercially privatized commodification of Christianity,” but a more general concern that theology undertaken as worldview-building, as a theory of everything, as an adversarial neighbor, might be more prone to the dangers of identifying Christianity with a specific culture. Any and all theologies or theological movements are subject to these temptations (as seen in Eric Lee’s allusion to the phenomenon of “Christian book stores” in the States), and so I spend some time in the Conclusion attempting to circumvent this temptation in a potential Barthian account of theology’s omni-competence. The question I wished to pose in this third worry is whether a total “theology and X,” where “X” stands for “everything” and “theology” stands for “counter-discourse,” renders more difficult avoiding these temptations. It is a genuine question, not an accusation, about the dangers to which this understanding of the theological task might be more prone than others (which would have their own demons to exorcise).

    I suspect, however, that this temptation to a total theology might also be present in how Milbank characterizes the “other times” when Barth fails to be properly mediatory or participatory and shifts into the “ploddingly exegetical”;4 when Barth seems indifferent to philosophy and its dreams and worries; and when Barth appears to cede other discourses a legitimate and autonomous space beyond theology. Milbank tends to view these “other times” as a failure or a capitulation to secular discourses in which Barth’s theology becomes “more accommodating” and “less mediatory.” I would suggest, however, that these “other times” are not failures or capitulations, but are instead instance which indicate how theology can become more accommodating, more confident and willing to allow the cares and concerns of other discourses merely to be themselves and to confront theology in all of their irreducible difference. In attempting to account theologically for this space beyond theology, Barth had recourse to irony, the fellow-humanity of the philosopher, or the sphere in which Jesus Christ lived and lives, and at one point even tried to developed a “Christian ethics” which would not need the mediation of the theology to be Christian (cf. Ethics). As part of theology’s independence, however, theologians always remain free to offer their own elaborations and judgments of the cares and concerns of other discourses (some of which may be deemed illusory, misguided, or insufficiently protected) when these cares and concerns are those of Scripture.

    1. John Milbank, “Knowledge: The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi,” in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, editors, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 21–37.

    2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, trans. G. W. Bromiley, et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 523.

    3. Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, 261.

    4. Milbank, “The Theological Critique of Philosophy,” 2.

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Eric Lee

      Hello Eric.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read through the book and to offer your thoughts on it and on some issues of fundamental theology more broadly. You mentioned the problem of Barth’s ‘formalism’ on theology and philosophy, as well as his hesitancy to acknowledge his own philosophical influences. Given your interests and background in philosophical theology, I would be curious to hear more about what you might find unhelpful or lacking in Barth on theology and philosophy (which I realize can be quite different at different times).

      I found your parable interesting, especially as it suggests a comfort with a kind of pluralism within theology. What I think interesting about this pluralism is that it would allow Barth simply to be Barth, and Milbank simply to be Milbank. If this is the case, then do you think that Milbank’s criticisms of Barth for not providing theological analyses of culture (or his criticisms of the apolitical nature of the nouvelle théologie) in the original RO volume are somewhat off? In the sense that one way of doing theology, albeit a creative and wide-ranging one, is championed over and against others?

    • Avatar

      Eric Lee


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      Hi Ken,

      Regarding the formalism that I seemed to detect, I think you largely addressed that in your original response. I do not pretend to know a great deal about Barth as he is not one I have read extensively by any means, to my own detriment. My initial concern arose from a formalism I felt I detected in your description regarding Barth as the content of his engagements were largely left undescribed in your bok. But mainly this shows my ignorance as I am not familiar with these engagements. Your accounts of Bultmann and Brunner were very helpful here in “coloring in the lines.”

      With regard to the pluralism within theology, I have been writing a longer response along these lines to help unpack what I was attempting to get at, and I will post that below in a separate comment. But to answer your question for now, I do think that Barth needs to be Barth and Milbank Milbank, yes, but I am also not one to think that this means that we now give up engagement and dialogue for the sake of being ships passing in the night (I know you weren’t suggesting this, but I’m just covering my bases). That is, while I would readily concede that Barth and Milbank both speak from particular contexts and confessional stances, I would not forsake critical engagement precisely because we all do seek–the truth. This will always be a struggle and a risk, but hopefully a fruitful and friendly one. So yes, while Milbank should not refrain from criticism, in this case I actually think he is largely incorrect about Barth in that (perhaps now infamous) long footnote. Your book was incredibly helpful in this regard, and I hope I was able to show my appreciation above in my original article on this score (especially with regard to Milbank mistaking Barth to the extent that he was repeating Barth’s owncritique of Herrmann).

      To address the concern of championing one ‘theology’ over against others: this, to some extent, may remain inevitable. I had a brief couple of sentences in my original article (that I deleted for the sake of scope) where I remarked that John Milbank himself is often a very ‘dialectical’ writer with regard to his rhetoric, despite his own championing of paradox and analogy (at least in content). So, as you repeat above, while Milbank detects that Barth and/or neo-orthodoxy may very much sound like ‘radical orthodoxy’, of course this would be an anachronism as it would be the other way around. I am not sure, therefore, that Barth (and ‘the Barthian’ or the ‘process theologian’ or the ‘transformation theologian’ [hailing from Kings College London, e.g.]) can entirely extricate her or himself from offering up some sort of narrative that they believe is more compelling than others. The fact that Milbank (and even Hauerwas to a lesser extent) is more open about just what goes on and what is at stake in providing a theological narrative means that, for better or worse, he becomes more of an open target for such a claim. This is an entirely crude guess, but I’ve long thought that one of the reasons that RO and many Barthians are often at such dismissive loggerheads is because rhetorically, they share much of the same rhetorical vivacity, if that makes sense (although it depends who is speaking), while speaking from often very different vantage points.

      In sum (if I could be any more opaque), and at least speaking for myself, I believe there needs to be more of a positive reading of Barth by those who find themselves within the sensibility of RO. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people drop their criticisms on either side, as I still find the analogical imagination of Przywara, Balthasar, et al., to be more compelling than, e.g., Barth’s dismissal of of the analogia entis as the “invention of the antichrist.” I fully understand that Barth himself was leveling his critique at a certain species of both Protestant and Catholic natural theology, even though it also appears that he was leveling this critique at the analogia entis itself. And, speaking as a Catholic I also fully endorse the kind of natural theology that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart endorses — I’m with Thomas Aquinas on the fact that you cannot derive the Trinity by looking at nature, as you still need to affirm this in faith: as Aquinas says, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else” (ST I, q. 2, a. 1 resp. 1). In its fullest sense, Revelation is eminently personal.

      But back to Barth and RO, as should now be clear, as much as I endorse most of what Milbank proposes by way of theology, I do not agree on every score; there is no “divine simplicity of John Milbank” (if I may) under which we must all necessarily agree. For example: Graham Ward and Rowan Williams, are much more positive on Hegel than Milbank; many of us on the American ‘side’ of RO–as Milbank himself as commented upon elsewhere–do not endorse the political visions of ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blue Labour’, as many of us (speaking for myself at least) comes out more on the side of Hauerwas and Cavanaugh with respect to the Church’s relationship to the modern Nation State; etc. The list is rather varied and too numerous to recount. John Milbank is a good friend of mine, but I also expect him to be honest with me (or whomever) when it comes to offering critique; likewise, he expects the same responsibility to the truth of his own students.

      I will leave this comment here for now, as this is now getting into the territory of my other comment that I will post within the hour.

    • Avatar

      Eric Lee


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      [This is my initial response to Oakes’ first reply above entitled “A Response to Eric Austin Lee.” I wrote most of this before Ken wrote his comment and my reply above, so there may be some overlap with regard to content.]

      There is an anecdote that Dr. Simon Oliver often shares about one of his sons who, when asked what his Dad does for a living, says that he is a ‘theologian’, and then when he’s asked what a ‘theologian’ is, he leans in and whispers: “Nobody knows!”

      Dr. Oliver tells this story in part to illustrate that the theologian’s task, in attempting to utter words about God (based upon Revelation and the witness of Scripture), ultimately always falls flat because we do not possess ultimate knowledge about God, despite encountering Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Father given by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Dr. Oliver says, because we only enter into reality from our particular vantage points (and not sub specie aeternatis), we must “read everything.” That is, we do not restrict ourselves merely to our own theological ghetto, but in addition we must also do our best to read as much as we can from philosophy, the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, virology, etc.), history, psychology, sociology, politics, etc., etc.1 The ‘everything’ that I, following Dr. Oliver, is I think what is at contention here regarding Oakes’ labeling of the ‘Milbankian’ view as one of “omni-competence,” even admitting that Barth himself can tend toward such a view.

      While I do not pretend to speak for Professor Milbank, I am under no illusion that one of the reasons that I was invited to participate in this symposium is because, as an indirect student of Milbank (Conor Cunningham being my Doktorvater), I do happily find myself somewhere within the sensibility of that thing called “Radical Orthodoxy.” That being said, I have long thought, inspired by an article Oakes himself wrote some years ago,2 that Milbank is wrong concerning certain aspects of Barth (and likewise, the way I read Oakes’ article puts Barth’s understanding of nature and grace closer in many ways to the Catholic understanding in terms of ‘covenant’).

      Notwithstanding, I have attempted to offer above in my pithy parable how I actually see the ‘and’ functioning in the “theology and X” relationship within how I understand the wider catholic sensibility, which is to say that it is—if I may remove some of the veil from the parable—one of an acknowledgement of one’s finitude in the face of “the whole.” While Oakes sees follows Barth with his own narration of the ‘X’ standing in for ‘everything’ for the ‘Milbankian,’ I see it rather as a particular kind of ‘X’ (be it a discipline, some topic on whatever) that we very well may not have the competence (or time) to actually research for ourselves. Put another way, this relationship to whatever ‘X’ may be involves not any kind of “omni-competence” in the way Oakes suggests, but, like I intimated above, hopefully suggests the work of the verybody of Christ. In a sense that means having a kind of understanding of “the whole,” but more along the lines of understanding the gifts within the body of believers.

      D. C. Schindler has written cogently and beautifully on this topic,3 particularly in Ch. 1 of The Catholicity of Reason.4 Having an inkling of the Gestalt or “the whole” is the ecstatic nature of reason itself. That is not to say that reason is greedy or jealous (as Schindler rightly says about Hegel’s Geist),5 but precisely the opposite for its nature is also—and this will always be in tension—the paradoxical refusal of the totalizing impulse. Because we acknowledge our own limits, we as theologians—just like reason itself—must find fulfillment and some sort of completion in an other. In this sense, philosophy can never be conflated with theology in a theological omni-competence, nor vice versa, for this would deny the otherness and distinction (we could also say ‘Selbständigkeit’) of the other. Of course with God we can only analogically say that this relationship is asymmetrical, for technically speaking God does not ‘need’ Creation to be God, but on the creaturely level I do think this relationship holds (and therefore we can say that theology can be the “queen of the sciences” in the sense of an ecstatic ‘ordering’). To suggest that all of creation is a parable, as Barth does, would seem to me to say that all disciplines (academic or otherwise) themselves could very well ultimately be parables pointing toward something or someone. As Thomas Aquinas says (and I’m paraphrasing), the seemingly endless diversity of creation in some mysterious way images and imitates the actually infinite oneness of God toward the ends of divine goodness.6 The relationship between theology and anything, therefore, is one of non-possession (as D. C. Schindler has also put it with regard to a concept of knowledge).7

      To take an example: in seeing the form of a face adorned with a smile in delight at the sunrise (or alternatively, earlier tonight seeing the grimace upon my face in frustration after seeing my 9’ tall sunflower being knocked over by either the wind or a person pulling a prank) is to see “the whole” of the face, of the person, not in a totalizing effort, but in an act of encountering the other. To regard one’s delightful countenance is also therefore to peer into the soul of that person at that moment. On the other hand, to reduce the face to a finite series of neuronic impulses and movements of facial tissue set upon bone, while these are very much a part of what makes us up on one level, is never what we merely are in the encounter with the other (despite many recent accounts of what G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis called “nothing buttery”). Thus, endless finite descriptions that pronounce that they have “got it,” like much of the encyclopaedic impulse, can, in keeping with this example of an encounter, be impersonal at a very real level.

      Being situated first and foremost as a Catholic, I’ve never been concerned necessarily about “theology and X.” It comes up often, but not as a primary measure. We—all of us, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant alike—have many guiding sets of theological relationships, amongst them “nature and grace,” “Word and words,” or “theology and philosophy,” etc. But aren’t these to a large extent other ways of articulating, just like our fellow symposium member Robert Jenson does in organizing his 2-part systematic theology, “first God, then his creations”?8 I am not so convinced that the schematism of “theology and X” is very helpful here, as it is not the theologian’s first task, as Oakes’ rightly points out. Our nature as creatures implies that we are not the Creator (“we are not God”) but depend upon the Creator for our very existence; in this way we are naturally ecstatic beings for whom knowledge is at best secondary, for “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him” (1 Cor 8:2-3). 9

      In conclusion (for now), knowledge of something, which includes the various schemata of “theology and X,” is not what the theologian’s task is first and foremost. The theologian’s task, in expounding upon Scripture and the tradition of the Church, is therefore one of service to the truth, that is, testimony (to testify: μαρτυροῦσαι; cf. John 5:39). Hence, I believe that our relation to truth is always one of going beyond ourselves (ecstatically) in this service—something Przywara and especially Hans Urs von Balthasar have spoken about. For example, in speaking about the “martyrial existence” of St. Paul, Balthasar states, “Paul is a witness, a martys, because the death and resurrection of Jesus give form to his entire life.”10 Paul refuses, therefore, to reduce his mission to that of mere words, but proclaims Christ crucified in his own deeds as well. It is in Revelation 1:5 where martys becomes a “blood witness,” however, which then remains the dominant (but no less true) connotation of ‘martyr.’ “Throughout the history of the Church,” says Balthasar, “the concept of the ‘martyr’ will remain associated with this life-concluding testimony, even though Pauline theology, which understands the life of the witness as molded by the dying and rising of Jesus, contains a more comprehensive concept of martyrdom.”11

      I see this as the more primary task for the theologian, and when I engage in some sort of endeavor that involves dialogue with another discipline, hopefully I will admit to my own incompetence for the sake of the body of Christ as a whole.

      1. I am in no way suggesting that “the Barthian” does not also do this very thing. The illustration came to me from Dr. Oliver outside of and before the current symposium.

      2. Kenneth Oakes, “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth: Humanity as Creature and as Covenant-Partner,” Modern Theology 23, no. 4 (October 2007): 595-616.

      3. Beginning, e.g., from his account of ‘Gestalt’ in Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Dramatic Structure of Truth: A Philosophical Investigation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004) to his understanding of the Good in Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason: On Goodness and Truth in the Republic (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008).

      4. D. C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 3-32.

      5. Schindler, Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason, 324-25.

      6. On this see Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book Co., 1947), 72 and 101-2. Accessed online:

      7. D. C. Schindler, “Towards a Non-Possessive Concept of Knowledge: On the Relation between Reason and Love in Aquinas and Balthasar,” Modern Theology 22, no. 4 (October 2006): 577-607; reprinted as “Does Love Trump Reason? Toward a Nonpossessive Concept of Knowledge,” in The Catholicity of Reason, 85-115.

      8. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1. The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), x. Jenson cites Thomas Aquinas in this regard.

      9. In a different context and conversation, this verse was also important to J. G. Hamann with regard to a Socratic scolding of Enlightenment hubris. See James C. O’Flaherty (ed.), Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), 169.

      10. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Vol. II. Theological Logical Theory: Truth of God, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004), 19.

      11. Ibid., emphasis in original.

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Eric Lee

      Hello Eric,

      Many, many thanks for your generous and beautifully crafted thoughts (and also for the lovely anecdote from the lovely Simon Oliver!). I realize how much time and energy goes into these posts so thank you.

      I find much to agree with in your remarks above. While the Barthian in me would worry about any potential identification between the glow of a smile and the disclosure that God in Christ is pro nobis and pro me, my Luther/Hamann sympathies (for whom trees, fields, and sunsets are so many instances of the Word of God being spoken to me) would feel right at home. (And even here we can press Barth towards such a position, as you helpfully point out.) I must admit that I don’t see much of the early Milbank in the above reflections (and it is this Milbank I had in mind when writing the Conclusion), but this hardly seems to matter in light of your own rather enchanting reflections.

      As for the issue of ‘theology and X,’ I think your allusions to Hegel and Thomas Aquinas are apropos. Just as we can read Hegel as a thinker of pure openness or as a thinker of pure totality, just as we can read Thomas’s Summa as either a completed system or as a patience working through of God and all things under God by way of ever inclusive dialectical argument, then perhaps there is a way of narrating Milbank’s proposal of ‘theology and X’ in such a way that theology is indeed forced to ‘read everything’ while remaining able to be fiercely theological. I try to retain this ‘theological’ character by reference to Scripture (showing my Protestantism here) and to the interests and concerns of Scripture. My own Doktorvater would occasionally remind his students of the sin and temptation of curiositas in theological work, and so now I’ve also been burdened with worrying about curiositas in theological work. Pointing to Scripture and to the concerns of Scripture was my way of trying to avoid this temptation while still ‘reading everything’. It is interesting, then, to hear a similar argument for retaining the theological in theology while ‘reading everything’ from the vantage point of ecclesiology, and in particular what it means that we as the body of Christ always stand in need of others. (It also reminds me that surely one of the greatest miracles and charismas of Catholicism has been its ability to house Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Jesuits, and Benedictines under one roof.) I think this idea has enough potential to continuing thinking through.

      Barth has his limitations and his faults and his warts, to say the very least, and it’s not my intention to push Barth on anyone even if I think there is much to be learned from him. But one of my goals in researching Barth has been to try to capture the whole of Barth, and especially the strange and un-Barthian things which Barth himself said. Given the oddity of this task, I greatly appreciate your past and present willingness to listen and take seriously all those things which Barth said and which sound so un-Barthian but which for that very reason make him so much more interesting, as when Barth says the world is but a parable of God or that our creaturely intellects and wills exist for the sake of contemplating and loving God and all things in God.

Robert Jenson


On “The Philosophy that Attends to Scripture”

KENNETH OAKES PRESENTS EXEGESES, in chronological order, of every available scrap of Barth’s writings that in any way bear on Barth’s view of the relation between theology and philosophy—from talks prepared for his confirmands in Geneva, where he was a pastor in training, to his death. Oakes traces the developments, changes, and connections between pieces long, short, and fragmentary, even tracking the appearance and disappearance of figures of speech. He describes the political and personal contexts of the successive groups of lectures, letters, and articles. I am taken aback by the size of the task he set himself. And he has done a responsible and—so far as I can judge—acutely insightful job of it.

A reviewer is, however, bound to ask: for who is Oakes writing? Who needs to know all this? The list of the truly needy cannot be very long. There will be a few whose scholarly occasions indeed require them to learn all or much of this history from scratch. There will be those who are already at home in the history but need to reckon with Oakes’ take on it—for he does have one; no history teller is entirely neutral about his matter and we will come back to that. And there will be those who do not need to know most of this, but may find the book a convenient work of reference for particular, otherwise obscure matters: who, for example, needs for some project to know how theologian Barth reacted to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s inaugural lecture as a university rector? The book’s organization makes it easy to guess where such nuggets may be found. But still . . .

There is, to be sure, another possible readership: those who do not need to read such a work but may simply enjoy doing it. I didn’t know that another philosopher, Benedetto Croce, had commented on the exchange just referred to, and had no immediate scholarly need to know it; I simply enjoyed reading this interesting bit. Oakes’ book is also good for such dipping into. Some may even read the whole work for pleasure—though that will take some sturdy Sitzfleisch.

So—good luck with sales. And that wish is not backhanded.

Oakes concludes with a section on what “the Barthian” should take away from his narrative. Again a reviewer must ask about audience, since it is not entirely clear—at least to me—who it is. Is it Oakes himself and any who follow his lead? Those who want to be true disciples of the master? All who read Barth with profit? Anyone who has written about Barth? The possibilities are many.

Finally, on this general line, it is perhaps to be noted that in contrast to Oakes’ diligence with Barth’s own writings his references to other commentators are rather haphazard—John Milbank on Barth?—and mostly unhelpful. The book could have been shortened to good effect by refraining altogether from such references.

We turn to Oakes’ take on the history he tells. He sums it up for us in rather breezy fashion: Barth is “a recovering Herrmannian.” That would be Wilhelm Herrmann, a self-described “modern”—that is, liberal—theologian who was Barth’s great study in his student years.

According to Oakes, two features of Herrmann’s thought were to be the perduring context of Barth’s thinking. One was insistence on the absolute independence of faith and its theology. God works faith in the inwardness of the person by confronting him with the person of Christ; such faith is a certainty having and needing no presupposition or proof other than itself. The other is the posit of a correlated and converging set of “critical” disciplines, headed by critical philosophy ala Kant, with which theology may have a beneficial exchange or even meld. Oakes tells Barth’s theological-philosophical history as the story of his fidelity to the assertion of faith’s and theology’s independence, and of his twisting and turning as he sometimes rejects and sometimes reshapes the correlation and convergence theses. The latter struggle took some turns that will surprise many who think they know what Barth thought about philosophy, and, as Oakes explains, it never came to a stable resolution.

So what should we think about Oakes’ way of plotting the story? His narrative carries a strong case for its own plausibility. It is illuminating, coherent, and does not repress any facts I know of. But there are other contexts within which one might construe Barth’s history with theology/philosophy.

Let me suggest one (thereby I, of course, risk falling into a frequent vice of reviewers: discoursing about the book the reviewer would have written if only he/she had gotten around to it). There is a surely noteworthy sequence of events almost entirely ignored by Oakes: Barth’s periodic strictly dogmatic initiatives.

One such event: in volume II/1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth teaches a drastically innovative doctrine of election that is often regarded—also by me—as the pivot of his mature theology. Crudely stated: the event of election is God’s decision to be God-for-us as the man Jesus. Since with God his choice of himself cannot be separate from his eternal being as that self, this entails that the God-man Jesus Christ is somehow actual in the beginning of all reality. I will not here further develop this truly radical claim.

Whatever else may be said about Barth’s doctrine of election, if it is true then the relation of eternity to time is very different than we have thought in any tradition. And that must surely impact the relation of philosophy to theology. And there you have one chapter of a book simply other than the one Oakes has chosen to write.

And then. At the end of his advice to the Barthian, which is also the end of the book, Oakes says we should as Barthians come to regard theology as “the philosophy that attends to Scripture.” Along the way he has cited remarks by Barth that gesture toward such an identification. I have seen that in Barth, but more from the other side: what we usually call “philosophy” is theology suffering under the handicap of getting along without Scripture. That surely is why Barth, to the very last, refused to defer to “the philosophers”; he saw them doing the same thing he did, only wrongly. And perhaps Barth latterly became evasive when questioned about philosophy because he had in practice left that problem behind him. For the Church Dogmatics can be read as a massive construction of a christological ontology.

But now see what follows, also according to Oakes in those last pages: philosophy and theology cannot at all be treated as distinct disciplines, separately identifiable. Since, from the title of Oakes’ book to just before the end, he seems to be doing exactly that, is most of the book one of those ladders to be climbed and then kicked away? If it isn’t, the “and” in the title and following chapters must be a mere adaptation to convention. If it is, did this happen by set purpose, or did it just come out that way as Oakes wrote his way along? I attach no opprobrium to any of these possibilities.

An arduous, in the end maybe a bit puzzling, and rewarding work. I recommend it.

  • Kenneth Oakes

    Kenneth Oakes


    A Response to Robert W. Jenson

    Robert W. Jenson is one of the most perceptive and creative commentators on Karl Barth’s theology in any language, and this is no less true of his published thoughts on Barth on theology and philosophy (few as they may be). There is, for instance, his fascinating 1972 interaction on just this issue with John E. Smith, Clark Professor of Philosophy Emeritus of Yale. This interaction allows us to observe one of Paul Tillich’s best students debating one of Karl Barth’s on the relationship between theology and philosophy.1 Jenson’s perceptive insights reappeared in nearly identical form some twenty-five years later in the first volume of his Systematic Theology,2 suggesting that his thoughts on the matter had remained largely consistent. I am humbled, then, by the attention Jenson has given to my book and grateful for the brief update on his own thoughts which his review provides.3

    As for the intended audience of this book, the short answer would be future writers of philosophy of religion textbooks. There is a live tradition among casual commentators which asserts that Barth was “anti-philosophy,” ignored philosophy at his own conceptual peril, and represented a resurgence of estimable yet finally “irrational” religious passion. This common view is counter-balanced by another stream of interpretation which alleges that Barth adopted too many assumptions of modern epistemology, metaphysics, and historical criticism and in doing so capitulated to an alien and unchristian philosophy. These readings are more repeated than demonstrated and tend to illuminate more the commentator rather than the commented upon. It seemed, then, that overcoming the sheer inertia and familiarity of these two contrasting views would demand a great deal of close textual study over the whole course of Barth’s career. And in attempting to corral all of Barth’s disparate remarks on theology and philosophy the objective was not so much to offer an apology for Barth than to create a space for his own voice to be sounded and acknowledged.

    Given the level of historical texture and detail throughout most of the book, it felt fitting to close the work on a more suggestive and forgetive note. One section of the Conclusion is thus devoted to the practice of “paraphrase,” the venture of a creative re-presentation which both amplifies and stabilizes certain trajectories of Barth’s thoughts for further analysis. While I hesitate to name examples and so risk the appearance of offering a comparison, past instances of such a procedure have included Eberhard Jüngel’s God’s Being is in Becoming, Wolf Krötke’s Barth’s Doctrine of Nothingness, and Jenson’s own Alpha and Omega (which raises the question as to why Barth scholars, myself included, might be prone to such a thing). Its purpose of thinking with and beyond Barth on theology and philosophy is not to separate the true believer from the bemused onlooker, but to provide a manageable condensation of Barth’s reflections such that critical engagement is possible. In particular, the paraphrase within the Conclusion aims at providing not only a rationale for theologians, especially “Barthian” ones, to take seriously the claims and concerns of other disciplines (a rather banal request), but an argument for the necessity of doing so from within theology’s own self-understanding of its sources, tasks, and cares.

    One of Jenson’s most prescient insights into Barth on theology and philosophy in his sense that Barth’s nonchalance towards professional philosophers and philosophies stemmed from his desire to do his own epistemological and metaphysical work. This nonchalance was not the result of cleanly demarcating the boundaries of theology and philosophy and then placidly inhabiting one own’s conceptual territory. Instead it came from Barth’s sense that philosophy and theology occupy a shared historical stream of intellectual and spiritual endeavor such that Augustine, Luther, and Barth were engaged in the same exercise as Plato, Spinoza, and Heidegger. Such a claim no doubt seems counterintuitive in the face of Barth’s penchant for labeling certain pursuits or material claims either “philosophical” or “theological,” with the former being suspect and the latter laudatory. Yet these labels actually serve as shorthand evaluations of diverse ways of approaching and handling what are shared matters of concern: God, human being, time, personal agency and identity, and the good, the true, and the beautiful.

    In the midst of Barth’s tendency to align, if not identify theology and philosophy, Jenson is right to ask what work the labels of “theology” and “philosophy,” and their supposed distinction, perform throughout the book, especially as they are seemingly jettisoned near the end. As much rests upon these initial definitions, I tried to take these labels as lightly as possible and allow Barth to define them for us. Barth characterized these pursuits in different ways in different pieces, and so I attempted to track and register these semantic shifts. What this tracking allows us to see is that Barth himself inherited a rather strict distinction between theology and philosophy and felt free to ignore or tinker with it.

    I think Jenson was and still is right to see Barth as “the last full-blooded representative of just that Augustinian strain in theology . . . and the most ruthless opponent of compartmentalizing philosophy and theology, or anything else, in the history of theology.”4 But I think we should follow Jenson’s apt advice in this same essay and allow Barth’s dialectical gears to keep turning. For as the gears continue to spin we are denied an identification between theology and philosophy in which philosophy could only be a wayward theology that needs to return home, and are instead given a relationship between theologians and philosophers in which each brings strange gifts and blessings to the other.5

    1. See John E. Smith, “The Significance of Karl Barth’s Thought for the Relation between Philosophy and Theology,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 28 (1972) 15–30; and Robert W. Jenson, “Response,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 28:1 (Fall 1972) 311–4.

    2. Cf., for instance, Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21.

    3. For my own reading of Jenson’s take on Barth and theology and philosophy, see Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy, 233–235.

    4. Jenson, “Response,” 31.

    5. Cf., for example, Barth’s comparison between theology and philosophy in terms of the story of Abraham and Melchizedek in his “Philosophy and Theology” essay in H.-M. Rumscheidt (ed.), The Way of Theology in Karl Barth: Essays and Comments (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1986), 79–95.



Karl Barth and the Legacy of Wilhelm Herrmann

Treasures of Egypt

FOLLOWING THE CHURCH FATHERS, Karl Barth spoke of the theologian’s relationship with philosophy using two contrasting metaphors taken from the history of Israel. Positively, Barth endorsed the notion of “plundering the Egyptians” (cf. Exod. 12:35–36)—taking the wealth of the pagans and putting it to good use for the God-given task of theological reflection.  Negatively, however, Barth also chided his allies for what he regarded as a return to the “fleshpots of Egypt” (cf. Exod. 16:3)—making humanistic or anthropologically derived appeals in ways that he believed undermined their shared critique of the liberal, Neo-Protestant theology of previous generations.

The disparity of these metaphors illustrates that Barth’s views on the topic of philosophy were complex and never given all at once—a fact that has contributed to some confusion among Barth scholars. Did he self-consciously embark upon a program to strip out insalubrious elements of Platonism, Aristotelianism, et al. from Christian theology?  Did he embrace philosophy as a benign companion, a worldview that merely provides theology with tools of discourse? How one seeks to resolve the tension of the relationship between philosophy and theology will surely have far-reaching implications for interpreting Karl Barth’s thought and its significance.

Kenneth Oakes’ research therefore comes at a much-needed time. He does yeoman’s service in mining Barth’s corpus for those places where Barth addresses the nature of philosophy and its relationship to theology—from his earliest essays and sermons through his teaching career, the Church Dogmatics, and even his post-retirement interviews and Q&A sessions—interpreting each in its context. Through this broad approach we come to see that Barth’s views on philosophy are highly occasional, and conditioned by the concrete needs of the servant of God as she goes about her work of interpreting Scripture and proclaiming the Word of God.

The central figure standing in the background throughout this treatment is not that of Plato, or Immanuel Kant, or even Friedrich Schleiermacher, but Wilhelm Herrmann. Barth’s teacher in Marburg towers above all others with respect to the shaping of his theological mind. Barth acknowledged as much in a 1925 lecture on Herrmann’s theology1—though he also came to regard that body of work with not an insignificant measure of criticism. As Oakes narrates it, the story of Barth’s views on philosophy and theology is indeed “the story of a recovering Herrmannian” (245). To understand Barth on the question of philosophy and theology, then, I would like to spend a bit of time exploring the shape of Barth’s own, critical Herrmannianism.

Herrmann’s Theology Among the Dialectical Theologians

The break-up of the dialectical theologians after 1930, and Barth’s continuing disagreements with Rudolf Bultmann in particular, seem to show a growing discord in how to apply Herrmannian principles to the task of Christian theology. Karl Barth famously spoke of a whale and an elephant meeting one another at the seashore: both are God’s creatures, but how can there be a real possibility of their understanding one another? At different times he used this image to describe the state of his relationships with both Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann—with whom he had been closely allied in the 1920s, along with Friedrich Gogarten and Eduard Thurneysen, as contributing editors of Zwischen den Zeiten and the public faces of the movement of “dialectical theology.” But by 1933 Barth had bid farewell to the publication and made it clear, both in public essays and private correspondence, just why his former colleagues (Thurneysen excepted) could no longer count on him as an ally.

Each of these men—giants of twentieth-century theology in their own right—held in high regard the theology of Wilhelm Herrmann (1846–1922). A Lutheran theologian with affinities for the work of Albrecht Ritschl, Herrmann taught at the University of Marburg, where late in his career the young Barth and Bultmann came to study. Here they imbibed a set of basic commitments regarding the task (Aufgabe) of theology, including: 1) theology’s independence as a discipline, complete with its own source and methods suitable to its object; 2) a christological concentration, that is, the belief that knowledge of God comes through Jesus Christ; 3) the rejection of natural theology, along with the scientific study of religion; and finally 4) an opposition to apologetics as a category mistake, one that seeks a rational and historical explanation for that which is supramundane and suprahistorical (the revelation of God). The approval of tension and paradox in theology—Law and Gospel, God’s hiddenness and revealedness, transcendence and immanence—has further prompted Christoph Chalamet to identify Herrmann himself as an early dialectical theologian.2

Barth called Herrmann “the theological teacher of my student years,” the one responsible for igniting his deep interest in theological pursuits.3 And it is clear that throughout his career Barth maintained many of the values instilled by his teacher—values that today are commonly associated with “Barthianism.” But Barth also turned a critical eye toward his teacher, using Herrmann’s own basic principles to register a series of objections. With the high place given to human religious experience, Herrmann too was implicated in Barth’s break with liberal Neo-Protestantism. (Herrmann was, after all, one of the signatories Barth found on the endorsement of the Kaiser’s war policy issued by German intellectuals in 1914.) When Barth turned (repeatedly throughout his career) to consider the relationship between philosophy and theology, what he found in Herrmann is a lack of consistency: the rejection of natural theology is undermined by even more basic concessions to philosophy, and thus simply to a different sort of human reason. It was this failure that Barth believed he identified in the work of Bultmann, Brunner, and Gogarten—a “return to the fleshpots of Egypt,”4 mouthing a conviction that theology must be based on the Word of God alone while at the same time striving after knowledge of God that, finally, is discoverable through creaturely capacity. It is revelation itself, revelation in its objectivity, and not the subjective “experience of” or “encounter with” revelation that must be the basis of theology.

Oakes is right to establish this as the context of Barth’s attitudes toward philosophy and the role it may play in the spheres of Christian theology, ethics, and biblical interpretation. But the question of Barth’s final disposition remains difficult to penetrate. What, after all, is meant by “philosophy”? Does it bear its own subtle content, or methods that ineluctably influence the theologian’s judgments? Or is philosophy more benign? Understanding Barth’s criticisms requires us first to understand just what it is that Barth has in mind when he enters into this topic.

Philosophy as Human Knowing

If theology operates in the vertical dimension as reflection upon God’s speech to humankind from above, philosophy for Barth is the horizontal movement of humanity’s own thoughts and experience. Thus “while theology responds to God as wholly other, philosophy responds to the neighbour as wholly other” (132). These two dimensions do meet, of course—but for Barth that encounter must come under very specific conditions. And while it is not quite right to say that, for Barth, philosophy itself is “metaphysics,” or “natural theology,” or “apologetics,” it is certainly the case that he closely associated these as human efforts. As instances or species of the philosophical task, each one pursues knowledge from below—from the starting point of the human knower, proceeding to its goal by means of speculative reason or religious intuition. Thus each posed its own sort of threat to Christian theology as Barth understood it.

Under the tutelage of Herrmann, Barth was from the beginning suspicious of metaphysics and its impact upon Christian doctrine. Herrmann’s anti-metaphysical program might be said to have been even more rigorous than Ritschl’s, who Herrmann believed never quite succeeded in eliminating the last vestiges of metaphysics from his theology (Herrmann’s essay “Die Metaphysik in der Theologie” preceded Ritschl’s “Theologie und Metaphysik” by five years). Whatever contribution metaphysics might have to make to theology, it would be thoroughly speculative in nature. Related to this Herrmann and Barth’s shared rejection of natural theology for “trafficking in illegitimate knowledge, neglecting the textured personality of the God of the gospel, and ignoring the exigencies and contours of religious experience” (246). Finally, Barth regarded apologetics to be “the attempt to establish and justify theological thinking in the context of philosophical, or more generally and precisely, nontheological thinking.”5 His discomfort here included an impatience with rational “proofs” for God’s existence. Whether the attempt is made by means of logic, or history, or psychology, or ethics, apologetics too is an attempt to arrive at real, theological knowledge from the human side.

Barth agreed with his teacher that revelation is not borne from history and therefore is not vulnerable to historical-critical examination. Unlike Herrmann, however, he believed that the theologian cannot ignore the fact that revelation occurs in history and therefore is a phenomenon to be encountered outside of the self—that is, outside of personal, religious affectivity (if still by means of faith in its object).6 In this respect Herrmann remained consistent with liberalism’s focus on religious subjectivity. While Barth therefore shares Herrmann’s discomfort with apologetics, for Barth this is not the result of an existential idealism (Christ encounters the believer inwardly by the experience of religion) but of a critical realism: the Christ event (and so even the encounter of faith) is grounded in history and encountered in the witness of the prophets and apostles, even if it cannot be treated as if it were a product of history.

Apologetics is therefore rejected, or at least marginalized, though for somewhat different reasons than it had been for Herrmann. Indeed, Barth came to believe that the great anti-apologist had himself an unstated, apologetic foundation to his theology. Herrmann had made what Oakes calls a “compromise” between post-Kantian philosophy and Neo-Protestant theology: the two disciplines exist on parallel tracks, moving in the same direction though working within their own particular spheres. This is because God, who is utterly transcendent, must not be mistaken as an object alongside other objects with which the sciences concern themselves. The exercise of theological intellect and virtue thus can find no basis in a philosophy of religion, but only in faith—or more precisely, in God’s own givenness that is faith’s object. The compromise is thus to commend both disciplines, each on its own terms, yet corresponding and mutually reinforcing one another (26). Barth concluded that, in order to establish this truce with Kant, Herrmann had to presuppose Kantian philosophy (113).

The difference between Barth and his teacher here is slight, but significant. Though he shared his teacher’s opposition to metaphysics, natural theology, and apologetics, he questioned whether the terms of Herrmann’s compromise sufficiently allow for the cultivation of theology on its own terms, without constantly trying “to adjust to the philosophy of its age, thereby neglecting its own theme” (123).7 In other words, Herrmann had subtly allowed Kant to dictate terms to theology. In opposition to this Barth would stress the independence (Selbständigkeit) of theology as a discipline—one that does not need, and is not permitted to appeal to, the prolegomenal convictions of philosophy, or history, or the natural sciences, or any other discipline in order to establish the possibility of its speech. Theology’s relation to philosophy can then become “positive and fruitful only after it resolutely refuses to be itself a philosophy and refuses to demonstrate and base its existence upon a principle with, or alongside of, philosophy.”8 Theology not only ought to have its own self-standing basis (which, for Barth, was the Word of God), but indeed it must have this lest it become some other thing.

Barth’s convictions regarding theology’s independence make at least two critical revisions to Herrmann’s compromise. First, theology and philosophy are not concerned with two different things but share the same subject matter (230). Each enjoys its own methods and terminologies, but they occupy one sphere. Second, in the correspondence of the two, the encounter of the vertical and the horizontal, theology enjoys primacy. Barth concluded early on that the proper mode of theology—one that maintains fidelity to its object and task—is not merely to exist alongside philosophy, occasionally interacting but avoiding eye contact, but rather to envelop philosophy within itself. The theologian cannot surrender her own task to the agenda of philosophy in order to engage it and to learn from it. Instead she must ask the questions of philosophy from the standpoint of theology— presupposing divine revelation, opening the door to philosophy only after it has done its own work (102). Where it does not do so (and here Barth often has Bultmann in mind), where it succumbs to the horizontal dimension in toto, theology cannot but drift from its moorings in Holy Scripture and cease to be theology. Positively, however, a theology that reckons with philosophy on theology’s own terms is commendable, for it expands upon the church’s ability to speak in human contexts and to human listeners.

Thus it is the case that, for Barth, “all philosophies are equally relativized before revelation” (107). While theology ought to be Christocentric, philosophy is unavoidably a work of anthropology. (There may be a philosophical ethics that is authentically Christian, but this possibility depends upon its acceptance of revelation—the divine initiation of human knowledge—as an “unexpressed presupposition,” [130].) In drawing such a conclusion Barth is by no means being critical of philosophy as a discipline, or of its value to the theological enterprise (which itself stands relativized before the Word of God). The work of the philosopher is properly contained within the theological task, as this includes not only the divine movement from above to below but also the human movement from below to above (227). This latter and corresponding movement I take to be the creaturely response of thanksgiving to God, summed up in Luke 10:27—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Such is the context in which philosophy may operate for the Christian theologian.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most immediate reward of Oakes’ work for Barth studies is in the clarity with which he explicates just how philosophy ought to be defined in the context of Barth’s thought. What is clear in the final evaluation is that no single, stable definition will ever suffice: Barth’s views are sufficiently eclectic as to resist all such attempts at summary (e.g., “Barth means metaphysics, a la Ritschl,” or “Barth means language, a la Wittgenstein”). Attempts to move too quickly through Barth’s views on philosophy—whether by those arguing for him or against him—tend only to betray our own agendas.

Although Wilhelm Herrmann had embodied liberal theology “in the best way,”9 Karl Barth believed that his teacher had failed to escape the gravity of anthropocentrism and the liberalist apology for evil in 1914. To speak of God from the basis of historical objectivity on the one hand, or religious subjectivity on the other, was to fail to speak of the reality of the God that both of these presuppose (or ought to presuppose)—the self-positing God, the Triune God of Christian confession. A theology framed by the terms of Kantianism (or any other philosophy) has not managed entirely to evade apologetics. From the perspective of theology the treasures of philosophy have the potential to be both jewels and fleshpots—both that which is worth plundering and that which tempts God’s people away from God’s self-disclosed reality. Plundering the Egyptians is all well and good “as long as we don’t make a golden calf in the desert from this gold and silver.”10 The difference is where the theologian begins and ends, and whether non-theological disciplines are permitted to have the decisive word—or whether, by virtue of its own source and norm, theology will be recognized as genuinely self-authenticating.

  1. Karl Barth, “The Principles of Dogmatics according to Wilhelm Herrmann,” in Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920–1928, translated by Louise Pettibone Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 238–71.

  2. Christoph Chalamet, Dialectical Theologians: Wilhelm Herrmann, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 2005). Merely to portray Herrmann as a nineteenth-century “liberal” theologian, Chalamet rightly states, does not do him justice.

  3. Karl Barth, “Principles of Dogmatics,” 238. It is worth noting that Barth made the same statement with regard to Immanuel Kant (quoted in Oakes, 241).

  4. Karl Barth, Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann—Letters, 1922–1966, ed. Bernd Jaspert and Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 49.  Here Barth speaks explicitly of “surrendering theology to philosophy.”

  5. Karl Barth, Ethics, translated vy Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 21 (cited in Oakes, 127).

  6. See Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 64–66. McCormack concludes that it was Herrmann’s idealism that would be the focal point of Barth’s break with the theology of his teacher.

  7. Karl Barth, Letter 48 to Bultmann, 12 June 1928.

  8. Barth, “Theology,” in God in Action, translated by E. G. Homrighausen and Karl J. Ernst (New York: Round Table, 1963), 42.

  9. See the quotation in Chalamet, Dialectical Theologians, 171.

  10. Quoted in Oakes, 240.

  • Kenneth Oakes

    Kenneth Oakes


    A Response to Darren Sumner


    Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy is a revised version of a dissertation by a similar name. In preparing it for publication I attempted to remove the wearisome and tedious elements of a dissertation while retaining the salutary scholarly practices of one. Readers will have to be the judge of my success on either front. In its original and published forms it remains deeply indebted to my PhD advisor, John Webster, to other readers such as Philip Ziegler, Fergus Kerr, Paul Dafydd Jones, David Clough, and Stanley Hauerwas, and to the irreplaceable personal support of Melanie Oakes and Irene García Losquiño.

    The theme of the work is Barth’s explicit thematizations of the relationship between theology and philosophy. This limited focus means that consideration of Barth’s philosophical influences is largely left aside even if some space is given to Barth’s reception by philosophers. Its argument is threefold: Barth’s account of theology and philosophy is deeply imprinted by “liberal” or “modern” Protestant theology; Barth never settles upon one stable understanding of this topic even while he constantly emphasizes theology’s “independence”; and Barth’s divergent considerations of theology and philosophy rarely form an independent theme but are often enfolded within the elaboration of some specific Christian doctrine, such as revelation, a theological anthropology or ethics, or a doctrine of creation. The chronological range of the work runs from Barth’s earliest writings to interviews given near the end of his life. The result, I hope, is a Barth who is recognizable, rendered strange and new, and who is inconsistent even within a general consistency.

    *  *  *

    I admire Darren both personally and intellectually, and his summary of and elaboration upon the book’s arguments are insightful and clear. Any author would be relieved to know that the themes and arguments of their work can be received and understood so well (although I suspect in Darren’s case this is most likely primary due to his being so conversant in Barth and Barth studies than anything else).

    The story of Barth on theology and philosophy related in the book does not begin with Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, or Schleiermacher, but with Wilhelm Herrmann. Certainly these figures are indirectly present inasmuch as Herrmann’s work already represents a creative condensation of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Luther. Even as a student Barth had read and was impacted by Schleiermacher’s Reden and Kant’s Critique of Practical Religion, but his own self-understanding during his earliest years was that he was disciple of Herrmann rather than Ernst Troeltsch (who represented the other live option of broadly Ritschlian theology before the Great War). As I made my way through Barth’s corpus, especially through his earliest works (from 1909–1915), Barth’s indebtedness to Herrmann and other members of the “modern theology” became clearer and clearer, especially as regards themes related to theology and philosophy. Sumner has highlighted well particular aspects of this indebtedness and so it should be readily apparent that many commitments and prejudices of the modern theology remained with Barth throughout his career and are now taken as being characteristically “Barthian.” In this way we are left with the options of seeing the modern theology as somewhat “Barthian,” or of seeing Barth as a member of the “modern theology.” Put in another way, one could see Herrmann as an honorary member of the “dialectical theology” movement, or one could see dialectical theology as integrally related to the modern theology.1 While I am open to both ways of characterizing this historical and material interrelationship, one is less anachronistic than the other.

    Barth could not have been Barth without this inheritance from Herrmann and the modern theology. Inheritances both determine and free, both provide orientation and the means for creating one’s own trajectories. In the book I spend some amount of time detailing Barth’s “earliest thought” (from 1909–1915) and attempting to describe this inheritance and locate its bequeathers. Herrmann’s understanding of theology, and by implication of theology and philosophy, and his twin desires that theology be both “independent” of other discourses and decidedly modern proved to be essential for understanding Barth, both early and late, on theology and philosophy.

    None of this is very new or original, and the story of Barth’s profound and continual indebtedness to his teachers should be familiar both to scholars of Barth and to scholars of modern theology. But I do think that the slow but steady research into just this area raises anew the questions of Barth’s break with “liberal” or “modern” theology and his relationship to nineteenth-century theology more generally. While these are complex matters of historical research and evaluation, the relationship between theology and philosophy did provide, somewhat fortuitously, a way into these matters.

    Barth’s break with “liberal” or “modern” theology has often been more assumed than demonstrated. Two of the best accounts attempting to detail the precise nature and timing of this break come from Ingrid Spieckermann and Bruce McCormack.2 Both of their accounts focus on differences between Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Herrmann, and Barth regarding the “objectivity” of revelation, and whether and to what extent knowledge of God is genuine knowledge, meaning cognitive rather than affective (and although illuminating in its own way, this way of phrasing the matter has its own problems). It was Spieckermann who convincingly posed Barth’s break with liberal theology in this way and it was McCormack who ably furthered Spieckermann’s thesis. Within the book I offer my own reservations about their characterizations of the “objectivity” of revelation in Herrmann and its cognitive status in Ritschl;3 their emphasis upon epistemology in their accounts of Barth’s break; and the overall helpfulness of calling Barth’s move away some elements of the modern theology a “break.” As regards the issue of theology and philosophy in particular, what seems to be happening within Barth’s thought is a radicalization of certain themes within the modern theology which contributes to Barth abandoning other themes. I am, then, still undecided as to whether Barth broke with “liberal” or “modern” theology, or whether he represents one possible permutation and development of it.

    Barth’s inheritance also includes other such decidedly nineteenth-century figures as Beck, Ragaz, Kutter, the Blumhardts, and even Barth’s own father. And while these figures have less of an impact upon Barth’s understanding of theology and philosophy, their work also left indelible imprints upon Barth. These imprints will need to be registered when attempting to detail what it is that prepared and allowed Barth to take his own creative leaps beyond them. What we are left with, then, is a Barth who is irreducibly a nineteenth-century figure even if he forged a path beyond it. No less is also true of Barth’s understanding of theology and philosophy.

    The continual appearance of volumes in the Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe allows those currently working on Barth the opportunity of having readily available (or even available at all) more essays, sermons, and addresses than were at hand for even the most masterful of Barth interpreters. While we have seen substantial forays into Barth’s earliest thought and its relationship to his nineteenth-century forbears, we still await a measured and definitive account. One of my hopes for this book would be that it can contribute to a history still waiting to be written.

    1. This point has been made in different ways by both Christoph Schwöbel, “Einleitung,” in idem (ed.), Karl Barth–Martin Rade: Ein Briefwechsel (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 1981), 9–56; and by Christoph Chalament, Dialectical Theologians: Wilhelm Herrmann, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2005).

    2. Ingrid Spieckermann, Gotteserkenntnis: Ein Beitrag zur Grundfrage der neuen Theologie Karl Barths (München: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1985) and Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995).

    3. I think, for instance, that just as newer readings of Schleiermacher have complicated past accounts of his understanding of feeling, cognition, and the articulation of Christian doctrine with increased attention to the church’s and the individual’s social and linguistic matrix, so too could one undertake similar exercises with elements of Ritschl’s and Herrmann’s theologies.

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Darren Sumner

      Hello Darren.

      I’m curious about something. I think that both of us view and interpret Barth as a ‘modern’ figure, both in terms of his own self-consciousness and the imprint his historical time and location left upon his theology. I wonder, then, what you see the relationship between Barth and ‘the modern theology’ or ‘liberal theology’ to be and how you think one can narrate both the differences and the overlaps in a historically adequate way? It seems to me that once we start labeling Barth ‘modern,’ and once we begin to see the ‘modern theology’ in a new light (as in the newer readings of Schleiermacher), then the question of Barth’s break with liberal is raised anew.

      I suspect that working in an area which is primarily (but exclusively) one of fundamental theology leads me to find the idea of a clean break with ‘the modern theology’ fairly deceptive. Perhaps approaching Barth as you do with questions of Christology leads to a different overall picture.

    • Avatar

      Darren Sumner


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      Ken, thank you both for your work and your interaction here.

      The question of Barth’s location in modernism is certainly still an active one, and I think you are right to suggest that this ought to include rethinking the nature of Barth’s “break” with liberalism. To begin, at the very least, Barth scholars should establish in clear terms what is meant by “modern theology,” “liberal theology,” and the relation between the two. That’s certainly a relation that includes, as you say, both differences and overlaps. For my part, I think that Barth understood himself to be rejecting anthropocentrism in its various forms. That is Neo-Protestant liberalism as Barth understood it, and it may also be at the heart of modern theology — though I don’t think it is the entirety of modern theology.

      As you say in the book, there were many things in Barth’s life and his thinking that were preparing the ground prior to October 1914. And so rethinking the break as it is traditionally narrated may require digging past Barth’s own autobiographical reflections on the period from 1909 to 1915.

      Whatever this “break” is, it is certainly not clean in the sense that Barth left behind either the convictions or the methodologies of Schleiermacher or Herrmann in toto. That would have been necessary only if Barth found nothing of the gospel in them, which was certainly not the case. And it would have been necessary had Barth concluded that the ancients, the medievals, or the Reformers represented a sort of pinnacle of Christian reflection that liberalism had lost. A break of that sort could only result in attempts at retrieval and repristination, neither of which were Barth’s goal. Rather than either of these, Barth sought (self-consciously or not) to break with his teachers in such a way that he remained a theologian of modernity — yet one who had relocated himself to that “strange, new world in the Bible.”

      I have spent most of my time looking at this relationship through the lens of classical doctrines, especially Christology, where it is exceptionally clear that Bruce McCormack’s thesis — that Barth is both “orthodox” and “modern” — must be correct. With respect to the theology of the ancient, medieval, and Reformation churches Barth is seeking to listen in a faithful way; but he does not feel that being bound to the Word of God means being bound to older theological expressions. We must really hear them, Barth says, and honor them according to the Fifth Commandment. And so part of his “break” with liberalism is to critique the moderns for being overly dismissive of the tradition, while also retaining his own critical posture. It seems to me that there is something quite “modern” in his critique of liberal theology.


      Now, I’d like to ask you a question regarding the concluding pages of the book, which I ended up not having space to interact with in the essay. Throughout the book it is clear that, when Barth addresses philosophy and its relationship with theology, his definition is fluid and contextual. On the whole there is a cumulative sense that as a theologian Barth regards philosophy with a great deal of … shall we say “concern?” I wouldn’t say that his tone is predominantly negative; he certainly believes that philosophy has a place, yet it is continually threatening to break free and run roughshod over theology.

      I wonder if you think that Barth is being overly negative or critical of the enterprise of philosophy. It struck me in the final chapter that you may have a rather more positive view of philosophy and its usefulness for theology, such as when you say that “theology, for the Barthian, names the assemblage of philosophies that is attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive” (256). “Philosophies” here, I presume, would be defined in more benign terms simply as forms of human thinking, and you seem to conclude that the Barthian is not in search of a theology that is free from such philosophies but of a theology that is correlated to Scripture. Do you think, then, that in his critical stance Barth has gone too far in isolating theology from a larger world of human thought?

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to Darren Sumner

      Many thanks for the comment and for your thoughts.

      In the book I tended to use ‘the modern theology’ and ‘liberal theology’ fairly synonymously, as ‘the modern theologians’, who thought themselves to be beyond both liberal theology and conservative theology, became the ‘liberal theologians’ in the wake of publications by Bultmann and Barth in the 1920s. Such is historically the case. Conceptually, however, ‘being modern’ and ‘being liberal’ would perfectly coincide in the minds of some (and in this case calling Barth a ‘liberal’ becomes a kind of pleasurable negative agreement), but Barth is perhaps the most notable persona to demonstrate that there might be and is a difference here. I think, however, that once we have this conceptual difference in hand then we can also see how the overlap isn’t perfect even for the ‘liberal’ theologians. Here is where the theological historiography of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries becomes interesting, especially when the common charge of ‘anthropocentrism’ can be demonstrated not to stick all that easily even to the likes of Schleiermacher and Herrmann. And while we have seen ‘theocentric’ and ‘christocentric’ rather than ‘anthropocentric’ readings of Schleiermacher (although these labels are so clumsy), I think the same could be done for Herrmann, particularly in light of his battle against mysticism and his emphasis upon the irreducibility of the ‘geschichtliche Tatsache’ of the inner life of Christ to the believer’s self-consciousness.

      When writing the Conclusion I wanted to see to where Barth’s thought could potentially lead on the topic of theology and philosophy. Inasmuch as there is a great deal of variability within a rather general commitment to theology’s Selbständigkeit in Barth’s thought on theology and philosophy, there were a couple of different trajectories that could be developed. Part of this variability, and part of the ‘concern’ about philosophy that you rightly note Barth often exhibited, were due to circumstances and worries regarding what his colleagues were up to. It is this concern which has perhaps become the position of Barth felt by many to be the case, and part of the book’s argument is that there were other times when Barth could be more nonchalant or guardedly positive about philosophy. As for why focus on one trajectory and not another, my desire to emphasize these more relaxed and affirming moments was due not only to the fact that construction tends to be more interesting than reaction, but also because ‘the larger world of human thought’ is precisely there in Barth, even when he’s attempting not to let it determine what theology should be and do. So the natural sciences, higher criticism of Scripture, modern philosophy and historiography, all make their presence felt in Barth’s thought even when they are not named as such and even when Barth is blithely saying things which these discourses would be profoundly unhappy with him saying. So ‘the larger world of human thought’ is always there in Barth, but as creatively appropriated and happily circumvented when necessary for the sake of the Gospel. My guess, then, would be that the decision to highlight the positive aspects in Barth came from the worry (perhaps imagined) that some use Barth to ignore this world when it was precisely such a world that made him an interesting theologian, even if by doing so by negation.

    • Avatar

      Darren Sumner


      A Reply to Kenneth Oakes

      There are (at least) a couple of strands running here: one is Barth’s own understanding of his predecessors and his relationship with them, and the other is the degree to which individual thinkers such as Herrmann and Schleiermacher actually fit the bill. In the former case, Barth clearly regarded himself as “modern” but not “liberal” (in the sense that this latter term came to serve as a diagnosis for that which he was opposing). In the latter case, I think you’re right to suggest that a case can be made to defend certain nineteenth-century theologians from Barth’s charges (and some very fine work to that end has been done recently on Schleiermacher) — at least in certain respects. Should those cases stand up, it seems to me that it would weaken the usefulness of “liberal theology” as a distinct label and prompt us Barth scholars to re-evaluate the breadth of “modern theology” and Barth’s place within it.

      Nevertheless: within the confines of Barth’s self-understanding, the terms are quite distinct (if overlapping). And as a dogmatician, I think Barth was right to call out anthropocentrism in its various forms as failing to meet theology’s proper task.

      How well such totalizing charges stick to Schleiermacher, or Herrmann, or Brunner is something of another matter. That’s an interesting question, because Barth has clearly put his finger on an issue (or cluster of issues) that is dogmatically significant. But the dichotomy — the Word of God vs. the word of man, divine knowledge vs. human pretense at knowledge, etc. — is quite stark. It may be that Barth’s own historiographical reading is too binary, too all-or-nothing, because it is driven by this stark, doctrinal conviction regarding creaturely knowledge.

      This would suggest that the term “liberal theology” may be useful yet, though it would need to be understood as a sliding scale. Brunner, for example, is not Schleiermacher. (Schleiermacher may not even be Schleiermacher!)

      (I would love to hear what any of the other symposium contributors think about all this as well, if they are lurking.)

    • Kenneth Oakes

      Kenneth Oakes


      A Reply to David Congdon

      Hello David,

      Many thanks for the comment!

      In terms of some general background, the first chapter of the book sets out Barth’s understanding of theology and philosophy (from 1909–1915 ) within two contexts: 1) the thought of Wilhelm Herrmann on theology and philosophy; and (2) Barth’s earliest thought in general. As (2) will not be familiar to most, even to Barth scholars, I spend a decent amount of time working through Barth’s earliest texts in order to get at his understanding of theology, revelation and experience, natural theology and metaphysics, Christology and so on. What is provided, then, is a historical and material background which helps to make sense of Barth’s earliest accounts of theology and philosophy. One of this chapter’s sections is entitled ‘Theology in the Time of the Great War’ (pp. 21–59) and it focuses on Barth’s reactions to the outbreak of the Great War and gives particular attention to Barth’s letters with Rade. A further subsection called ‘Barth’s Uncanny Break with Liberalism’ (pp. 51–58) analyzes Spieckermann’s and McCormack’s accounts of Barth’s break with liberalism and raises some questions about them (some of this will also be discussed in my response to Jonathan Lett). Within my narration of his break with his teachers attention is due to a variety of issues, including Barth being Swiss, Reformed, a radical religious socialist, younger than his teachers, slightly cosmopolitan in outlook, and so on. Attention to given to these more concrete and mundane matters inasmuch as I think that too much emphasis has been laid upon epistemology when discussing this break (again my response to Lett will talk some about this). Further reservations and questions about describing this as a break are dealt with in the Conclusion (pp. 250–254).

      It was far from my intent, then, to limit the analysis of Barth’s break with liberalism to the issue of theology and philosophy. In fact, I tried to include basic aspects of Barth’s biography which I found illuminating as regards this story while also challenging the story as often told.

      Having tried to broadened and contextualize the story, my approach was still undertaken primarily through fundamental theology. And while Christology was dealt with to some extent, I wanted to know whether the conflicted tale of Barth’s relationship to the modern theology or nineteenth-century theology in general looked very different from the perspective of Christology (Darren’s own interest). Your comments regarding eschatology rightly raise yet another lens through which to address the issue and I am thankful for that.

      As for your suggestion regarding the decisive factor being the relationship between revelation and culture, what is so fascinating about the Rade-Barth exchange is that there are a variety of topics and differences being discussed between the former mentor and former student (these are discussed on pp. 46–49). I would want to be careful about elevating one difference over the others, but certainly Rade’s positions regarding revelation, providence, and the category of religious experience have an influence upon the revelation-culture relationship. Finally, Jochen Fähler’s important book on the Barth’s sermons during the outbreak of the Great War also show how early on Barth himself took the war to be an ‘sign’ of God’s judgment against Europe (and good religious socialist that he was, Barth thought that this judgment was directed against economic exploitation). In this way his thought during the first months of the war was a kind of mirror image of Rade’s regarding revelation and culture.

      While I’ll let Darren respond for himself, much of the book is dedicated to showing that Barth did not have one stable view of theology and philosophy but was committed to an account of theology’s ‘independence’ from philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, history, and psychology from his ‘liberal’ period to his last years. Within this overall consistency, Barth put forth a variety of different experiments regarding the relationship between theology and philosophy.

    • Avatar

      Darren Sumner


      A Reply to David Congdon

      David, thank you very much for contributing to this conversation. You are exactly right to point out that a three-dimensional portrait of Barth’s response to liberal Neo-Protestantism will include not only doctrinal matters (primarily, theological epistemology) but how these are embedded in culture — specifically, in this case, viz. idolatry and Kulturprotestantismus.

      I think that the response that Barth does give to Herrmann’s theology (especially in the 1925 lecture) is “coherent” at least in the sense that it is directed and consistent — but perhaps not in the sense that it is complete or in any way mature (i.e., fully thought-out).

      The bit from the essay that you quote is an attempt to summarize Ken’s presentation (a fact not entirely clear). So insofar as I’ve gotten it right I will leave it to him to respond on the content of those claims regarding the relationship of philosophy and theology and Barth’s modification of Herrmann’s compromise. I would just say that, if Ken is right, I’m not certain that Barth’s position here should be reduced to a philosophia theologiae ancilla. The point, as I read it, is not that philosophy is subordinated to theology (though that much is true) but to say that philosophy can only be of service to theology if it presupposes revelation. (This comes from Ethik [see Oakes, p. 130], though I may be extending the principle beyond Barth’s immediate concerns in the passage Ken cites.) Where this is not the case (and Barth probably thinks that is most places where philosophy works) philosophy is improperly normed, and would threaten to mislead the theologian as much as it helps her.