Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bruce McCormack on Why Barth is Orthodox and Modern: 2 Parts

As I begin work on my Comprehensive Exams, one of the main figures under review is the work of Princeton's Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack.  His work has been crucial in my own understanding of Barth's theology.  One of the main things I am studying is the historiography of Barth's interpreters.

One term McCormack challenges about Barth's interpretation is the label "neo-orthodox".  This term seems to be the one given to Barth and other diverse thinkers like Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer by North American readers trying to place these figures somewhere between conservative (or orthodox) and liberal (or modern) theology.  What this term does not take into account is that Barth's theology is "working under the conditions of modernity" or that his is a "variant" within the framework of modernity.  For example, McCormack makes the point that many take it for granted that Barth works with a Kantian epistemology and a Hegelian ontology (while adding his own theological spin).

Modernity, for McCormack, is the time period in Western society when a "historical consciousness" was on the rise.  This went along with Kant's critique of pure reason and its limits and the eventual rise of the romantic movement.  What this means is that the turn to history and the social-cultural setting as context meant the rejection or at least the suspicion of classical metaphysics (including Christian ones).  This is meant to include the reasons for natural theology.

From as early as Barth's Romans, Barth's actualistic understanding of revelation (dialectic of unveiling/veiling) and then ontology followed a Kantian framework (based, for example, on the neo-Kantianism of the early 20th century from thinkers like Hermann Cohen).  Barth's actualism moved him to historicize the being-act of God in his doctrine of election.  McCormack writes that "God's eternal election of himself to be God 'for us' in Jesus Christ is an act in which God constitutes his being as a being for historical existence."  Here Barth is close to Hegel except that "this act of Self-determination was a free act on the part of God, not a necessary one."

What McCormack illustrates is that Barth worked under a modern framework with his basis in history, ontology and rejection of classical metaphysics.  Even when he wrote against Schleiermacher, Kant and Hegel it was on the level of modern concepts and not a total postmodern rejection.  I am finding that the more I understand the 19th century thinkers the more I understand Barth.  As Barth warned in his later thought, even though he once said No to the19th century, one needs to understand what went awry and not be totally dismissive as seen in some conservative or postmodern readings.  I think one of the real weaknesses of American theology is the utter lack of comprehension of modern thought especially in Kant, Hegel, and Schelling (which is why Zizek is important in his rehabilitation of them).  Some attempt to make the jump to the postmodern not knowing what the postmodern thinkers are even contending against. 

One of my goals in life is to write a historiography book based on this reading of Barth which includes a substantial input from the German idealists, some German-Jewish thinkers of the late 19th century and Zizek.

In the next part I will deal with McCormack's definition of the "Orthodox".


  1. I've heard it said that Barth rejected the term neo-orthodox, and thought of himself as a good Lutheran.

    If that's true, then maybe he should be seen as a Lutheran who did Lutheranism in the modern world.

    This would make him somewhat similar to the conservative Christians in the USA who, in this same period, tried to respond to Schleiermacher, etc.while conceding the ground of enlightenment thinking. They tried to respond to Schleiermacher's enlightenment-based ideas with different enlightenment-based ideas. In so doing, they conceded half of the argument. Yet today their descendants see themselves as standing in the tradition of historical orthodoxy.

    Would a similar scenario be true of Barth, as well? He's just a historically orthodox Lutheran who had to answer questions post-Hegel/Kant/Cohen.

    It also reminds me of a similar situation in Judaism. I might be messing the details of this up, but it has been pointed out to me (I think I know in what book too...I got it from J Rood) that modern Orthodox Judaism and Chasidic Judaism are NOT direct descendants of the Judaism of the Middle Ages. They experienced similar questions during the Enlightenment, and, in essence, the old way died and people went one of a few ways. The cloest to traditional was Orthodox (or maybe Chasidic) Judaism, but they are absolutely not the same....

  2. Yes, he did reject the neo-orthodox term. I would consider him in the line of the Reformation but not just particularly Lutheran. However, for a good study on Lutheran themes in Barth see the chapter comparing Barth and Luther in George Hunsinger's book Disruptive Grace and a chapter in Paul Chung's Karl Barth.

    I am beginning to take my reading of Barth from the left-Hegelian position of modernity (which is the prevailing German reading) because of its social-political concentration.

    On the issue of modernity and orthodoxy, I look very skeptically at those that scream they "have" the true orthodox position that came from the origins of the tradition; this is to rule out how things change per each social-historical context (which is an idea birthed in modernity).