“What is culture in itself except the attempt of man to be man and thus to hold the good gift of his humanity in honor and to put it to work?” —Karl Barth
In 1957, Karl Barth delivered his lecture Evangelical Theology of the 19th Century to a group of primarily liberal, post-war, German-speaking theologians. The scope of this lecture is truly impressive—a historical overview of the modern German Protestant theology, where it started, and how it came to be in complete agreement with the nationalistic ideology of Nazi Germany. But, if that alone would not suffice, he proposed a solution—a renewed vision to move the theology of his day forward. Few today would dare to give similar in scope an overview of the North American Protestant theology of the 20th century. Barth can be a helpful guide to those who may wish to take on such a challenge.
An Overview of the Century
He began his lecture with a bold announcement disguised as a banality of life—all things have their beginning and the end—so it was with the liberal Protestant theology, it reached its end. Barth spoke of the liberal theology, first proposed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, which had become normative across all European Protestant theology by the time Barth delivered his lecture. What brought this theology to such an untimely death? For Barth, liberal Protestant theology ended when the most illustrious theologians of the day signed an open letter supporting Germany’s bid for World War I. This event shattered Barth’s theological world. He knew that something was amiss if such brilliant theologians were utterly blind to their fall for the ideology of the German state.
Barth sets the historical scene, the Enlightenment era, to make sense of what is arguably more than just the natural life cycle of any theological era. Since the 18th century, Europe has experienced an incredible development in technology, history, art, and human sciences. The onslaught of secularism was unrelenting. What could theology offer as an alternative to such rapid developments in arts and sciences? Barth admits that 19th-century theology failed to provide anything that would rival the achievements of secularism. Yet, he gives credit to the Protestant theologians for at least daring to face the modern man—a seemingly all-powerful and self-sufficient human being.
Barth praises his theological predecessors for opening themselves and their work to be inspected by modernity, albeit with fear and anxiety. But was their anxiety about the modern man warranted? Barth gives his answer in the form of a critical remark—those who live in the post-war world don’t need to stress about the modern man anymore. Humanism, realism, and other isms proved to be incapable of preventing the evil that humans had unleashed on each other. The modern man is weak and poses no more threat to us, for we saw the true nature of man.
Having situated the Protestant theology of the 19th century within the whirlpool of the Enlightenment era, Barth attempts a surgical dissection, a grim post-mortem examination, to pinpoint where exactly theologians made the wrong turn. In his analysis, the biggest issue that caused irreversible damage to the Protestant theology of the 19th century can be summarized as follows: Protestant theologians, pressed by cultural shifts and developments on all sides, made confrontation with the contemporary age their primary mode of theologizing.
Barth concedes that Christian theology must engage with the secular world and its ideas. Theology cannot live in total isolation. However, the 19th-century theologians “overreached” when making confrontation with the world to be the primary concern of their theology. Theology, in other words, became reactionary. According to Barth, that led to two tragic outcomes: (1) With all its energies spent engaging the world, theology produced “surprisingly little in terms of new and positive understanding of Christian truth.” (2) Theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of contemporary age, that is, of the Enlightenment.
These outcomes did not serve the Church well. According to Barth, theology settled for unnecessary reductions and simplifications, leading to the “impoverishment and triviality” of the Christian faith and theology. Barth laments that things could have been different. Instead of obsessing about engaging the world, theologians should have obsessed with dogmatics and producing theology that would contribute to our understanding of God. Maybe then, theology could have appealed to the general public. Dogmatics could have been the best tool of apologetics!
Once again, with acute insight, Barth explains this obsession with the secular world to be the result of certain assertions left unquestioned, namely that the evangelistic outcomes of the Church would significantly improve if the broader culture universally accepted the tenets of Christian faith (hence the name evangelical in the title of his lecture). Nineteenth-century German theologians set out to make Christianity relevant to the modern but hostile culture of their day and, without even noticing, made the worldview of secular culture their own. As a result, they found themselves trapped within the secular worldview, assimilating theology into the dominant ideas of their contemporary age. Following in the steps of Schleiermacher, theologians found a decidedly humancentric meeting point between their theology and the secular world. They created a system of metaphysics and epistemology centered on the innate capacities of human person, placing it at the center of their theology.
Has this move paid off, asks Barth? He puts forward two sets of questions to help us get a clear and definitive answer. The first set can roughly be summarized as follows: Were theologians authoritative enough for the general public to accept their proposals? In other words, did people care what theologians had to say? In Barth’s opinion, the answer is clearly “no.” He believes that Schleiermacher’s theological project failed, never achieving acceptance of Christianity by the secular cultural elite of that time and leaving even less of a footprint in the broad masses of the working class.
In Barth’s opinion, the second set of questions is even more serious: Should Christians seek validation of the world—a wholehearted acceptance by the broader culture of the Christian faith? Will such acceptance lead to more conversions to Christianity? Nineteenth-century Protestant theologians thought that the broad acceptance of Christianity by secular culture would benefit the Church’s mission. Barth once again gives a negative answer to these assertions. As he could attest when he delivered the speech, this missionary strategy had failed miserably.
So, where did it lead Protestant theology? Barth defines the result as Christian anthropocentrism—a theology that is first and foremost preoccupied with the man. But, again, Barth concedes, this desire to find a proper place for man within dogmatic theology is not wholly unwarranted. After all, there is no revelation of God apart from man. The question then becomes: what is man’s proper place within the framework of theology?
Thus far, Barth traced the development of modern Protestant theology back to Schleiermacher, whose influence on Protestant theology proved to be long-lasting, making the human person the starting point and the center of his theological pursuits. Barth contends that Schleiermacher’s move was based solely on prepositions borrowed from the Enlightenment thinkers who viewed everything, including religious experience, as man’s quest for self-awareness. Barth argues that such spiritual life cannot be more than just the “commerce of a Christian with himself.” There is no place left for God. Indeed, in such a proposal, man cannot escape the boundaries of the human mind. And more importantly, such theology and construal of spiritual life had no way of responding to Feuerbach’s claim that religion is nothing more than the projections of human desires onto the infinite. Consequently, the theology of the 19th century could not offer a viable path forward. It was utterly spent.
Was it all worth it, asks Barth again? Did this theology, based on the idea of self-exploration of the human conscience, bear good fruits? What did we gain? Could theology generate any enthusiasm or validate its existence if it primarily serves as a vehicle of human self-exploration? What is worse, such theology could not provide a solid ground for human life, for man’s inner feelings alone are insufficient to ground human existence.
Barth’s final pronouncement in this historical analysis delivers its last blow: Liberal Protestant theology left Christians open to whims and fancies of various influences fighting for dominance in the cultural arena. In the end, theologians could not produce a serious response to the rise of the nationalist movement in Germany beyond naïve and clumsy attempts that were later abandoned altogether, first when they sided with political conservatism during WWI and then with the (opposite) social nationalism, and finally, militarism of Nazi Germany in WW2. For Barth, such a swing proves his point—theology was adrift in the cultural and political sea of modernity.
Barth’s alternative proposal
Barth’s proposal for an alternative theology is not as forthright and bold as his diagnosis and pronouncements of the apparent demise of liberal theology. In this lecture, Barth invites his fellow Protestant theologians to permit themselves to question the principles that guided theology inherited from their professors. He calls them to re-examine whether they and their predecessors were generous in reading the New Testament texts. Finally, he challenges them to re-evaluate Schleiermacher’s load-bearing principle that theology is best done objectively only from “the lofty place above Christianity.”
Instead, Barth proposes a return to the primary source of Christian faith, the text of the New Testament, and to re-learn how to read it on its own terms. He calls theologians in his audience to step down from their lofty place above Christianity and immerse themselves completely in the faith to “speak of Christianity from within.” Without disguising his intention any longer, Barth suggests a return to God’s revelation, the Scriptures, to start anew because theology reducing itself to historical-critical research cannot lead to the Christian truth of any significance to people’s lives or human history.
Applying Barth’s Proposal to the Contemporary Context
Barth’s analysis and sharp examination of what led to the German liberal Protestant theology succumbing to the nationalistic Nazi ideology are keen, insightful, and, one might argue, strangely familiar to our contemporary North American concerns. For example, today, some Christian thinkers are at a loss to explain the wide support for various flavors of nationalism among Christian intellectuals and churchgoers. Barth’s analysis of how German Protestant theology of the 19th century has succumbed to the ideology of the German state in the failed bid to win the culture is beneficial here, if not illuminating.
Is it possible that the same dynamic is at play in the North American context today? Do those, who fell under the spell of current culture wars, also believe that the universal acceptance of Christianity by the broader secular culture in the U.S. is necessary for Christianity to thrive? Are they hoping that influencing political power would somehow reverse historical trends and re-invigorate the cultural dominance of Christianity they deemed necessary?
Secondly, did Christians intellectuals of our day also forget the primary aim of the Church and Christian theology—God and his revelation, and replace it with the secondary one—engaging the secular world of ideas with the sole goal of winning others over? If the answer is affirmative, then Church and Christian theology today are in the same danger of overreaching and succumbing to secular culture. They are in the same danger of offering the world very little in the way of understanding the Christian faith and the God they worship.
Barth is correct in at least one aspect; we need a better theology. But did Barth’s proposed solution for this new theology stand the test of time? Despite the similarities mentioned above, there is one crucial difference between his historic context and ours. While Barth spoke of the liberal Protestant theology that abandoned the Scripture and much of the historical Christianity, our context is precisely the opposite. We see the same trends described by Barth among conservative and Bible-centric theologians, religious leaders, and church attendees across the denominational divide, in other words, all those who are speaking from inside of the Christian faith.
Many heeded his call at the time, yet reading the Scripture and immersing themselves in the Christian faith alone did not equip them to deal with the rapid growth and succession of challenges the 20th century posed to us. Barth’s postmodern theology, obviously more comprehensive than his proposal in this lecture, and postliberal theology, greatly influenced by Barth, both failed to offer a significant improvement over its liberal predecessor. Moreover, recent attempts by some conservative Evangelical theologians to retrieve Thomas Aquinas, if anything, show that North American Evangelicals feel the existential threat and the lack of conceptual tools to deal with the complexities of this world. Few, in other words, are looking to Barth’s theology for guidance. Stanley Hauerwas’s most recent book retrieving Barth’s political thought is a curious exception.
This brings me to my final point. Is it true that the modern man no longer poses any threat to contemporary theology or the Church at large, as Barth has suggested? The reaction of many Christians today, throwing themselves into the sea of culture wars with such vigor, indicates the opposite. Christians still feel threatened by the current iteration of the modern man—a self-defining and fluid human being. At the same time, a full embrace of this version of the modern man by the current liberal (and postliberal) side, proves once again that Christians of all stripes and colors are still reacting to the contemporary age, while offering no significant alternative to its dominant ideas or visions of the human life, saying even less about the God who revealed himself in the man Jesus Christ.