Second in a Series

Among the many issues raised by contemporary theology, one question is persistent:

Why was the theology of Karl Barth unable to stem the tide of Rudolf Bultmann’s theories?

No Continental theologian is disposed to conduct a post-mortem examination of Barth’s theology; to do so would be to suggest that its influence were something wholly past. But this is not the case. Emil Brunner regards Barth as Bultmann’s greatest present contender, and many others concur that both the Basel theologian and his theology are still “very much alive.” In French-speaking Switzerland Barthian theology has always held greater sway than Bultmannian theories. And on the German scene, Heidelberg theologian Edmund Schlink thinks Barth’s influence is not only far from spent but actually expanding in some quarters.

Nor are European theologians ready to minimize the differences between Barth and Bultmann, differences which have increased markedly with the years. Often, in fact, the divergences are even exaggerated—for example, by assigning more weight than Barth allows to the “objectifying” elements in his theology, or by imputing to Bultmann a denial of the reality of God in view of his stress on subjectivity. Such distortions aside, the contrariety of their positions cannot be denied. “A wide gulf,” says Erlangen theologian Wilfried D. Joest, “separates the emphasis that God has no objective reality at all, but exists only for me, from the emphasis that concedes that there is no objective revelation, yet asserts an objective reality that cannot be objectified by methods of reason and must be won by faith.”

Barth And Bultmann

As the Bultmann school reiterated its belief in the reality of God, however, and stressed the necessity of a consistently dialectical theology against Barth’s exposition, this “wide gulf” seemed to disappear. Even the “Mainz radicals” speak of Barth and Bultmann as representing complementary rather than opposing viewpoints. “It is not a matter of either/or between Barth and Bultmann,” says Manfred Mezger, “for each theology needs the other as a corrective.” Why so? we might ask. “So Barth does not forget the anthropological relevance of theology,” continues Mezger, “and so Bultmann does not forget the genuine root (revelation) of theology. Barth’s basic principle (the absoluteness or divinity of God) has as its logical consequence that no advance reservations are possible for revelation.” Once this is said, the Mainz school is poised to feed the lamb to the lion in the interest of a Bultmannized Barth: “We emphasize that man does not need to recognize God first and then recognize reality, but the recognition of reality is coincidental with the recognition of the reality of God. Barth says, ‘first the dicta about God, and then the statements about man’; Bultmann says, ‘every dictum about God has to be said simultaneously about man.’ Barth’s principal thesis ‘God is God’ is useless nonsense. God is not absolute in the metaphysical sense but is absolute only in the ‘geschichtliche’ sense of always occurring. We have not seen God and know absolutely nothing about God except what He is saying. All dicta of theological origin must and can only be verified anthropologically.”

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However much Barth may deplore existentialism, however much he may reinforce the “objectifying” factors in his theology and appeal to wider and fuller aspects of the biblical witness, his position has remained vulnerable to Bultmannian counterattack. Bultmann was one of the earliest sympathizers with the Barthian revolt against objective historical method, a revolt that Bultmann then carried to a non-Barthian climax by imparting an existential turn to the distinction between the historisch as mere objective past occurrence and the geschichtlich as revelatory present encounter. In the revision of his Church Dogmatics, Barth had sought to divorce dialectical from existential theology; this effort Bultmann fought vigorously. On the premise that Barth expounds the dialectical view uncertainly whereas Bultmann does so comprehensively, the Bultmannian scholars turned the main tide of student conviction away from Barth and toward Bultmann.

“The great effect of Barth’s theology,” remarks Bultmann, “was that it destroyed subjectivism. Barth said God is not a symbol of my own religiosity, but He confronts me. In this we agree. And we agree also in the dialectical method insofar as Barth says theological propositions are genuine only if they are not universal truths. But Barth applies the dialectical method inconsistently: many of his propositions are ‘objectivizing’ propositions—and this I have sought to eliminate in my own theology.”

Walter Kreck, Reformed theologian at Bonn, and one of Barth’s former students who still regards himself as broadly a Barth disciple, concedes that the differences between Barth and Bultmann have receded further into the background. “Both Barth and Bultmann reject objective revelation. Barth and Bultmann have dialectical theology in common, and their main difference lies in Barth’s methodological rejection of existential interpretation. Bultmann fears that Barth’s method leads to a false objectivity, and insists that his existential exegesis alone prevents this. Barth fears Bultmann’s method leads to a false subjectivity, and insists that his emphasis alone preserves the reality of revelation.” “Yet, for all their differences,” Kreck concludes, “to many scholars the two positions no longer look as far apart as they once did.”

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An Inner Connection?

Is there an inherent relationship, a principial continuity, between Barth’s theology and Bultmann’s? Or is there rather a vacuum in Barth’s thought that made his dogmatics vulnerable to Bultmannian counterattack? Why did Barthian theology, which held sway in Germany for half a generation, lose its hold in the face of Bultmannian existentialism? These questions press for an answer. Aside from circumstantial factors—for example, Schlink’s indication of political considerations (Barth’s influence in Germany was retarded by his failure to oppose Communism as strenuously as he did National Socialism)—what accounts theologically for the fact that Barthianism, which had routed post-Hegelian rationalistic modernism, could not stem the surge toward Bultmann’s revival of the old modernism in connection with existenz?

Heidelberg theologians suggest two critical areas of weakness. Schlink, for instance, doubts that an inherent principial connection exists between Barth’s and Bultmann’s formulations. Barth, says Schlink, was “more systematic than historical, and he did not deal adequately with the historical aspects of Christian faith. After the Second World War, many problems were again raised at this level, and it was apparent that Barth’s exposition had not really met them.” Schlink’s associate, Peter Brunner, singles out “the historical facet” also as one of the weaknesses in Barth’s theology which Bultmannians were able to exploit. As Brunner sees it, Barth treated too naïvely the question of what historical reasoning can tell us about the facts in which God has revealed himself; indeed, Barth totally suppressed these facts from a purely historical view. Bultmann, on the other hand, took his negative approach seriously, and sought to destroy every effort to find revelation by historical investigation.

Besides Barth’s indifference to the historical, exploited by Bultmann, Brunner adduces “the decision facet” as a second major Barthian weakness. For Barth there is no saving moment in time (the saving moment is an eternal moment). But, observes Peter Brunner, theology must not overlook the importance of this time-event in which man here-and-now encounters the Word of the Cross. Contrary to Barth, Bultmann stresses the event of encounter with the Word here-and-now. For Barth, the salvation of every man is settled in the eternal election of the man Jesus, and the means of grace are significant only for the cognition of salvation, not for the transmission of salvation. Barth and Bultmann agree this far: that without the Living Word of God here-and-now, which is the Word of God for me, one cannot experience the reality of revelation. But when Barth detached the transmission of salvation from the means of grace he opened the door, as Peter Brunner sees it, for Bultmann’s wholly existential setting.

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Does this mean that the history of twentieth-century theology will reduce Barth and Bultmann to one theological line? The Heidelberg theologians think not.

Some theologians are less reluctant than the Heidelberg theologians to identify an inner principial connection in the Barth-Bultmann formulations. They insist rather that the transition of influence from Barth to Bultmann was inevitable because of presuppositions common to both systems, presuppositions to which Bultmann allowed greater impact than did Barth. “Theologians of a later century,” says Erlangen theologian Wilfried D. Joest, “will look back and see one line from Barth to Bultmann, and in this movement they will recognize the same type of theology, despite deep-rooted differences.”

Actually, such assessments are not only a future expectation. Theologians both to Barth’s right and to his left are already insisting that certain a prioris common to Barth and Bultmann explain the sudden fall of Barth’s theological leadership, and, in fact, the present predicament of Continental theology. Graduate students in European seminaries increasingly view Bultmann’s position as “an automatic development from Barth’s”; and in the few remaining Bultmann centers they picture the dialectical Barth rather than the demythologizing Bultmann as the “fairy tale dogmatician.”

The essential connection between the two theologians is the basic emphasis that God meets us personally in the Word and makes this Word his own. With this relationship in view, Otto Michel, the New Testament scholar at Tübingen, asserts that “Barth and Bultmann are two parts of one and the same movement of dialectical theology. Barth begins with the Word of God and defines this in relation to human existenz. Bultmann inverts this; he begins with man’s existenz and relates this to kerygma.” “Neither Barth nor Brunner,” says Michel, “gave earnest weight to historical questions—the origin of certain of the biblical elements and theological content, and their relevance for dogmatic questions. The objectivity in Barth’s theology is not an object of historical research. Only by way of philosophical construction does Barth avoid subjectivizing revelation.”

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Adolf Köberle, the Tübingen theologian, singles out the Barthian discontinuity between revelation and history as a decisive central point of contact with Bultmann’s delineation. Barth’s “prophetic” role, says Köberle, involved him in a broad and bold criticism of modernism in which he too hurriedly brushed aside some of the fundamental and crucial problems of contemporary theology. Regarding this broad prophetic proclamation, Köberle thinks it not impossible that Barth may exercise in dogmatics somewhat the same influence as Billy Graham in evangelism. Barth “failed fully to engage the historical background of the New Testament, and this failure gave competing scholars an opportunity to correlate the data with contrary conclusions.” Köberle points to Barth’s neglect of such questions as the relationship of Christianity and science and of revelation and history, and his indifference to the problem of supposed Hellenistic or late Jewish apocalyptic influence in the New Testament.

Wolfgang Trillhaas, teacher of systematic theology at Göttingen, and former student there of Barth, has broken with his mentor’s dogmatics, because “Barth so oriented his theology to critical questions and to critical reason that Bultmann could snatch away the initiative.”

Trillhaas recognizes the differing intentions of the two theologians, and is aware of Barth’s efforts to guard his systematics against subjectivizing miscarriages of it. Says Trillhaas, “Both Barth and Bultmann had an interest in the speciality of Christian revelation. But through philosophical speculation Bultmann gave this interest a radically destructive interpretation, whereas Barth has sought increasingly to purge himself from the earlier philosophical influences.” Trillhaas considers Barth’s scheme still vulnerable, however, particularly in its severance of revelation from reason.

Barth And Brunner

Among the theologians at Erlangen and Hamburg, Emil Brunner’s influence is greater than Barth’s. Nonetheless it is Barth more than Brunner who penetrates the mainstream of dialectical controversy. Brunner’s illness has hampered his creative and productive effort and removed him from theological engagement; in the aftermath of his stroke he spends much time indoors. Brunner has become more mellow over his differences with Barth, and with a twinkle he comments to visiting students: “I’m a Barthian. I always have been.” But he nonetheless considers certain facets of Barth’s system unnecessarily weak. Among his favorite anecdotes is that of the lady theologian who embraced him warmly and said: “Barth saved me from liberalism, and you saved me from Barth.”

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The strength of Brunner’s theology has always rested in its recognition of general revelation. Its weakness, along with Barth’s, centers in the dialectical presuppositions that relate revelation only tenuously with history and reason. In his revision of Truth as Encounter, which now appears under the title Theology BeyondBarth and Bultmann (Westminster Press, 1964), Brunner stresses that Christianity must be more than merely negative toward philosophy. While he calls for a Christian philosophy, he does not modify his dialectical approach to revelation and reason. His philosophical treatment of the idea of truth as encounter still excludes revealed propositions and a revealed world-life view.

Brunner’s theology also lost ground as he strengthened its basic personalistic philosophy. This reinforcement gave his thought an individualistic touch that—so Wenzel Lohff of Hamburg thinks—prevented Brunner “from fully appropriating the dimensions of the newer Christological and ecclesiological thought.” Yet because of its clarity, Brunner’s work remains useful among lay theologians. Theologian Anders Nygren of Lund notes that Brunner indeed freed the Christian doctrine of God of Platonic and neo-Platonic speculation. In doing so, however, he attached it instead, says Nygren, to “an I-thou philosophy and a kind of philosophical actualism” which represents still another compromise “between a philosophical thinking and the revelation” (in The Theology of Emil Brunner, Charles W. Kegley, ed., New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962, p. 183). In any event, Bultmannian theologians exploited Brunner’s emphasis on the divine-human encounter for their own contrary objectives, and Brunner’s affliction left him a less formidable foe than Barth.

In Europe’s present theological turmoil, Brunner anticipates “a little return” to his own theology which “held the line between Barth and Bultmann” for a time. “The best option is my own,” he insists. But Brunner seems to underestimate the difficulty of regaining a strategic position on the fast-changing frontier of European thought, particularly when a theology that has served for a season and has lost its hold no longer commands the center of debate.

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Pro-Barthian theologians are sobered by the fact that the already bypassed options will hardly enjoy more than a limited revival. Neither Barth nor Bultmann is likely to dominate the European theological situation again. Some scholars are now asking if the deterioration of Barthian defenses under Bultmannian assault, and the subsequent collapse of Bultmannian positions, perhaps portends a radical reconstruction of Continental theology.

Barth registered his most comprehensive Christological emphasis immediately after World War II. But in deducing theological positions from Christological analogies, he tended to overlook empirical reality. This weakness also characterized his approach to ethical problems and to critical historical investigation. While many scholars felt it necessary, therefore, to go beyond Barth’s compromised historical interest, they were forced nevertheless to keep in touch with Barth because of his active participation in the theological controversy. At the age of 78, however, the ailments of declining years turn Barth’s thoughts more often to “the tent that is beginning to be dissolved,” as he puts it. While he continues his monthly student colloquiums in the upstairs room of Restaurant Bruderholz near his home, Barth’s creative work has begun to lag, and he feels unsure about completing his Church Dogmatics.

Busily but cautiously Barth has been modifying his theology in the direction of objectivity in order to escape Bultmannian expropriation. “Barth has become almost a Protestant scholastic again,” chuckles Gerhard Friedrich, the Erlangen New Testament scholar; “more and more he leans on the historical rather than the existential.” But the feeling is widespread that the revisions in Barth’s theology are “too little and too late.” The moving frontier of theological debate is shifting beyond the Barth-Bultmann discussion in a manner that brings some of their common a prioris under fire. This means that the revisions in Barth’s theology have lagged too long to have any direct impact upon mainline Continental theology.

The New Frontiers

The formative theology of the foreseeable future is not likely to be Barth’s, Brunner’s, or Bultmann’s, but rather an alternative to all three.

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The Heilsgeschichte school is calling for a fuller correlation of revelation and history. The traditional conservative scholars have long attacked dialectical theology in even wider dimensions. And a revolt against dialectical theology has been under way among several followers of Wolfhardt Pannenberg of Mainz, a former student of Barth. In his bold insistence on objective historical revelation, Pannenberg represents the farthest contemporary break from Barth and Bultmann and the dialectical theology.

Says Pannenberg: “Barth and Bultmann both insist on the kerygmatical character of the Christian faith and tradition, and both assign the Christian faith (kerygma) independence over against the truth of science and philosophy. Both Barth and Bultmann refuse to bring Christian tradition in relation to the realm of objective knowledge.” In spite of his “apparent objectivism,” protests Pannenberg, “the later Barth remains a disciple of Herrmann, as is Bultmann.” And, he adds, “Bultmann is the most faithful exponent of the dialectical theology—more so than Barth.”

As Pannenberg sees it, the dialectical theology undermines both historical revelation and the universal validity of Christian truth. He insists that “if one really takes history in earnest, he will find that God has revealed himself in history.” He maintains the necessity of knowing something about the historical facts on which Christian faith depends. Moreover, he strikes at the dialectical theology’s disjunction of revelation and reason, and at its consequent refusal to relate Christianity to the realm of objective knowledge.

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