Karl Barth and the Strange New World Within the Bible: Barth, Wittgenstein and the Metadilemmas of the Enlightenment. By Neil B. MacDonald Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth's Ethical Vision. By Paul T. Nimmo
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 175–177, January 2009
How to Cite
Brazier, P. (2009), Karl Barth and the Strange New World Within the Bible: Barth, Wittgenstein and the Metadilemmas of the Enlightenment. By Neil B. MacDonald Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth's Ethical Vision. By Paul T. Nimmo. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 175–177. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_63.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. xxvi, 422 , Milton Keynes, UK; Waynesboro, GA : Paternoster Theological Monographs, Paternoster Press , 2005 , second edition , £19.99, $29.99, €39.28 .
Pp. x, 202 , London & New York , T&T Clark, Continuum Publishing Group , 2007 , £65, $130, €110.90 .
As time passes the greatness of Barth's theological enterprise, if we may call it that, increases. This is, after all, the man whom Pope Pius XII commented about in 1951, that he was the greatest theologian since Aquinas. No small compliment. With time the depth and profundity of Barth's magnus opus, The Church Dogmatics, continues to emerge, likewise the number of studies of Barth's theology never decreases; however, as studies and interpretation increase a salutary question should be asked, a warning raised: how far does comment and interpretation go before it begins to read into Barth's work the interests and theology, even prejudices, of the critic? The concern is very real. Therefore this raises a second question, how do we do historical and critically interpretive theology? Such theology should at best elucidate the work of the person studied and simultaneously explicate, illuminate and reveal, the meaning and wealth of the gospel. Both Neil B. MacDonald (Senior Lecturer, Roehampton University, London) and Paul T. Nimmo (affiliated lecturer and research assistant, University of Cambridge) have produced what can be described as sound, well-researched, academic studies of Barth which manage to steer on the safe side for most of the time of these concerns.
Originally published in 2000 and derived in part from his doctoral work, Neil B. MacDonald in Karl Barth and the Strange New World Within the Bible: Barth, Wittgenstein and the Metadilemmas of the Enlightenment (recently reissued, a second edition, over 400 pages in length) raises many questions, questions that have, one might say, bedeviled theology and philosophy and how the two relate for the more than three centuries – certainly since the time of Locke. This is a serious work, indeed a highly original work given its juxtaposition of Karl Barth and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The rationale or premise for MacDonald's book is straightforward: the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth argued and systematically showed that the Bible anticipated the self-same concerns that the enlightenment considered it was driven by, that is – to paraphrase MacDonald's words – an optimistic, positive, discriminating demeanour that Christianity was eschatological or it was nothing (clearly echoing Barth's appreciation of the German church historian Franz Overbeck); in this context MacDonald quotes Barth –‘A Christianity which is not utterly and absolutely eschatological has nothing to do with Christ' (Der Römerbrief, 1922, p. 314). Therefore MacDonald will claim that Barth understood the enlightenment better than it understood itself. For Barth, Sage, the unique truth-claim of the Bible means theology exists in itself and is rooted in historical truth-claims; MacDonald therefore can argue that despite his neo-Orthodoxy, Barth is to be seen as the theological counterpart of Wittgenstein. Underpinning this is Barth's criticism of religion – religion when it is human centred and self-serving. In effect, MacDonald takes Barth's discovery of the strange new world within the Bible (a phrase taken from Barth's ‘Die neue Welt in der Bibel’ an address presented in Leutwil Church on 6 February 1917) and examines it in the context of the philosophy of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and the eschatological atheism (!) of Franz Overbeck. MacDonald's work is about a fundamental question in philosophy and theology today: epistemology; pertinently, the final form to be taken for biblical truth-claims.
So what does MacDonald have to say? He notes how the work is based on Barth's ‘attempt to seize the horns of Franz Overbeck's metatheological dilemma: since modem theology was in fact a species of non- theology … the choice theologians faced was that of doing non-theology or nothing’; this is then illuminated in terms of Kant's relation to ‘Hume's metaphilosophical dilemma: since philosophy was reducible to non-philosophy (the empirical sciences), philosophers were faced with non-philosophy or nothing’ (pp. xxii–xxiii). In part I, ‘The Metadilemmas of the Enlightenment: Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Wittgenstein's Vienna’ (pp. 3–67) MacDonald considers, ‘Karl Barth and the Metatheological Dilemma’ (in particular Kant's response to Hume's metaphilosophical dilemma in comparison to Barth's response to Overbeck's metatheological dilemma), MacDonald cites a prologue to Barth and Wittgenstein, and considers ‘Wittgenstein's Vienna’ as he terms it (in particular the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and Barth as metatheological critic: as evidenced in Der Römerbrief (1922), the second edition of Barth's Commentary on Romans. Part II, ‘The Metatheological Dilemma and The Church Dogmatics, the Historical Truth-Claims of the Strange New World within the Bible’ (pp. 71–112), considers Overbeck's dilemma in relation to The Church Dogmatics, and thereby the historical truth-claims of the strange new world within the Bible (the relation between the Bible and historical reality, and Barth's use of Sage). In part III, ‘The Enlightenment's Final Epistemological Reckoning with the Bible: Kant's Measure of God versus Barth's Conception of the Reformers' Analogia Fidei’ (pp. 115–132), MacDonald measures biblical claims against Kant's ‘Measure of God’: that is, in the context of sui generis (literally, of its own kind) historicality and the Reformers' Conception of the analogia fidei. MacDonald is correct to stress the emphasis of ‘the analogia fidei conceived as a norm or measure of the faith”’ (p. 126). In many ways Part IV, ‘Barth Against the Enlightenment's Final Reckoning: The Creation History, the Resurrection-Appearances History, and the PreEaster Gospel Narrative’ (pp. 135–296) is the heart of MacDonald's thesis and book. Here he examines the sui generis historicality of the creation history: God reveals himself as creator; which leads into the sui generis historicality of the resurrection-appearances, and therefore the telos of the resurrection-appearances where God reveals himself as the crucified one. MacDonald can then consider Barth's non-Kantian transcendental argument and the strange new world within the bible, and therefore Barth on the historical truth-claims of the pre-Easter Gospel narrative: God as reconciler. It is within part IV that MacDonald has done the most reworking and expansion over the first edition: chapter 7 ‘The sui generis Historicality of Creation History: God Reveals Himself as Creator’ (pp. 135–192) – here we have now a systematic analysis of the innate kind of phenomenon that is the historicity of God's self-revelation, the logicality of the priestly creation, the determining of God as creator, this leads to a consideration of the personal relationship with the people of Israel, Yahweh-Elohim, the presence of God's judgement and Grace in the creaturely world. In this context MacDonald writes, ‘God determining himself as the creator of all things – in toto, [is] an event whose only means of measurement is itself’ (pp. 191f.). Part V, ‘Wittgenstein and Barth: From the Enlightenment to Hegel’ (pp. 299–373), examines the later Wittgenstein, in particular the transcendental argument and Wittgenstein's position on philosophical realism and Idealism/Solipsism (P1 § 402), MacDonald also examines Wittgenstein's position on epistemology (e.g. the posthumously published On Certainty) and therefore the concept of a private language (Wittgenstein and the Reformers' analogia fidei ?). MacDonald concludes with a postscript to the metadilemmas of the Enlightenment in considering Hegel. The Epilogue (pp. 375–377), new to the second edition, is an exemplary discussion of the significance of Grünewald's crucifixion from The Isenheim Altarpiece, as encapsulating, to a degree, Barth's agenda. MacDonald focuses on the figure of John the Baptist, quoting Barth's understanding of how John points away from himself and to the God revealed as the crucified one.
MacDonald certainly has a clear and skilful understanding of Barth's, some would say, complex theological agenda and how it developed, and how Barth was able to cut through all the cultural accretions which had turned both the Lutheran and the Reformed churches, to a degree, into cultural manifestations of a humanist zeitgeist (i.e. the heritage of nineteenth-century liberal neo-Protestantism) Perhaps if there are small criticisms it is in his inability to see that the giant monolith of millions of words in Barth's Church Dogmatics was in one way equally a grounding and flattening of the eschatological vibrancy of the gospel into human-religion (perhaps an ironic concern that even Barth could have perceived). The second small quibble is that this is a long, long book, perhaps what is said could have been said more succinctly? Particularly when there are occasions where a single footnote takes almost a whole page (should not such material be integrated into the text?). These concerns not withstanding, this is a masterful work, which should be read not only by theology students but certainly by those studying philosophy because of the way it shows how Barth's work is a more than adequate answer to the concerns of modern philosophy, and how an understanding of Barth can end the problems of modernity, or more pertinently, the eschatological revelation that Barth attested to, the all embracing light of the God of love that will dissolves modernity's illusions.
Paul T. Nimmo tackles the – to some scholars – thorny subject of Barth's ethics in, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth's Ethical Vision. More pertinently, his work investigates the way in which an actualistic ontology (Nimmo's phrase) underlies Barth's The Church Dogmatics, and how this affects the ethical agency Barth presented. Nimmo works from the premise that, for Barth, God and humanity are beings-in-act in a relationship that is bound by covenant. Nimmo opens with a central Barthian quote –‘It is not as if man first exists and then acts’(CD IV/1, p. 746), which raises a fundamental question, how do we know what to do and what does it mean when we do it? Nimmo's work is essentially a systematic engagement with Barth's ethical vision, in relation to an actualistic ontology which it may be argued underpins his theological ethics. Nimmo extrapolates how the structure and logic of Barth's concerns are closely controlled by this actualistic ontology in three spheres of ethics: noetic, ontic and telic. Barth's thinking developed and evolved as he wrote the multiple volumes of The Church Dogmatics, however Nimmo does assert (concurring with Barth) that there is a fundamental continuity to The Church Dogmatics from start to finish. Nimmo has not attempted to provide a genetic account of the changes in Barth's theology in general or his theological ethics in particular, such an historical analysis would have been useful. In the first section of the book –‘Part One Noetic Aspects of Being in Action’, (pp. 17–84) – Nimmo initially examines the noetic aspects of Barth's ethical vision in the context/light of the prevailing actualistic ontology. He then assesses the impact of actualism upon Barth's understanding of the command of God, giving due consideration to how Barth uses Scripture in ethical enquiry. Nimmo then shows how Barth's actualism delimits the discipline of theological ethics, an actualism that guards against accusations of casuistry; it is then necessary to outline how Barth saw the practice of theological ethics in relation to both Scripture and, pertinently, the Church, therefore he can assert that an actualistic ontology is at the origin or cause of understanding thereby opposing the view that Barth's ethics is too conceptual or, as is often the case, too remote from the realities of church life. Nimmo note at the end of part one that, ‘The practice of theological ethics advocated in the Church Dogmatics highlights above all the theological priority of the command of God and the need for the ethical agent and the Church to be correspondingly open to its claim’ (p. 84). In the second section –‘Part Two Ontic Aspects of Being in Action’, (pp. 87–168) – Nimmo examines the ontic elements of Barth's ethical vision. For example, his conception of the ethical agent as viewed in the context of this actualistic ontology. Nimmo then demonstrates how Barth sees the relationship between divine action and human action and how this effectively leaves open a definite space for genuine human freedom and meaningful ethical agency (the concursus dei). Nimmo then moves on to explain how human action conforms to divine action in faith, obedience, and prayer, therefore he can conclude at the end of part two how, ‘within this moral field, the action of the ethical agent is sanctified by God as it conforms to Jesus Christ in faith, obedience and prayer’ (p. 167). Finally in the third section – (‘Part Three Telic Aspects of Being in Action’, pp. 171–185) – Nimmo considers the telic aspects of Barth's ethical vision, that is in the context of what he has established, particularly in this framework of an actualistic ontology, thereby he shows how Barth's theological view of participation and witness is to be seen in ethical action. The conclusion examines some of the resulting issues and questions.
Nimmo's work is an astute exercise in systematic theology applied to Barth's ethical vision: God's self-determining ‘being in action’ is in relation to humanity, the human is then a self-determining being in action, and this thinking is fundamental to Barth's theological ethics. Nimmo notes how, ‘The first great strength which Barth's ‘actualistic ontology’ brings to contemporary moral theology in the Church is its awareness of the living God and God's relationship with the creatures of God’ (p. 187): Barth's ethical position is characterized by a seriousness with regard to God's personal relationship with humanity. Nimmo quite succinctly concludes how ‘throughout his theological ethics, Barth focuses on this living relationship with the ethical agent as a being in action, a relationship that is enabled by Jesus Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit’ (pp. 187f). Nimmo therefore successfully shows how Barth's theological ethics hold together in – to use Nimmo's phrase – actualistic ontology, thus we have the two key dimensions of ethical agency: the vertical dimension (the orientation of the ethical agent to God), and the horizontal dimension (the orientation to our neighbour in the world).
Being in Action is a cautious and densley researched work: the author knows Barth's work, however, like all Barthian studies one cannot help but wonder if some Barthian scholars believe they know Barth better than he did himself; though, of course, can it not be justifiably argued that a conductor may know a symphony better than the composer who wrote it? Nimmo cautions even in the introduction that Barth never used the term actualistic ontology, further that in no part of The Church Dogmatics, does Barth set out a theological ontology. Barth was always wary of any pan-universalistic ontology (or for that matter philosophical theories) which tied down God and humanity: one only has to consider his insistence of a refutation of the analogia entis, also was this still the shadow of his existential youth, his past?). Nimmo's work is an excellent, erudite and worthy study, and should be standard reading for undergraduates, and certainly for ethicists, but caution should be applied to reading too much into Barth's work, particularly when the great man himself specifically avoided certain areas of definition.