Dispatches from the Barth Wars

It’s quiet. Too quiet.’ – Peppy Hare


An uneasy silence broods over the battlefield at the moment. The artillery has quieted, the troops have hunkered down. Those just arriving to the conflict would do well to consult this intelligence before advancing any further. There’s a lull in the Barth Wars, and the best use of such lulls is to regroup and see just exactly where we are.

The most recent book-length salvos in response to the revisionists, Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit and George Hunsinger’s Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermenutical Proposal appear to me to have hit their targets right on. For Molnar, everything turns on the freedom of God, a subject which he has written on extensively before (a second edition is on the way). Molnar stakes everything on divine freedom, a freedom which he sees as being obliterated if the revisionists are correct. Molnar’s Barth is a Torrance-ian Barth and an ecumenical Barth right in line with traditional Christian theology.

Hunsinger’s own response takes a different tack, concentrating primarily on what he takes to be a proper reading of Barth. His attack is largely hermenutical (as you may have guessed) and focuses closely on various revisionist texts. Hunsinger’s is also an ecumenical Barth (Hunsinger himself is quite the ecumenicist) and a Barth in line with the Christian tradition. Hunsinger attacks the revisionists with laser-like precision on both a material and methodological level, and his assault leaves no major revisionist position untouched.

Revisionists. LOL.’ -Apocryphal Barth Quote

karl barth with rifle.jpg

Now, as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much return fire, at least, return fire that directly targets these two most recent works. I haven’t really seen any critical reviews, extensive blog posts or books (if there have been, please, link it in the comments and I’ll add it). The triumphalist in me thinks that the brooding silence over the field is because Molnar and Hunsinger have hit the revisionists right between the eyes (if you don’t know, I side 100% with the traditionalists).

From my perspective on the battle, Molnar and Hunsinger have presented a nearly irrefutable case. Their arguments work. The texts are on their side. I have no doubt that among the revisionists are theologians capable of answering them, but it will be hard going. Hunsinger and Molnar have paid close attention to the texts, a feat which, as Hunsinger notes, is not something which features prominently in the revisionists arsenal. Hunsinger’s own point that the choice usually presented by the revisionists – ‘substance metaphysics/ontology’ or ‘actualistic ontology’ – is a false choice is a point that needs to be pressed and developed further, in tandem with Molnar’s point that an ‘actualistic ontology’ is just another metaphysic (a further weak point that might be exploited is the idiosyncratic and sloppy way in which terms like ‘substance ontology’ are thrown around. Is it really correct to characterize all of theology by two terms, and tell us we have to reject one or the other?) . Both insist that ‘actualism’ as the revisionists take it would have been scorned by Barth (even under the guise of ‘postmetaphysical’) as a conceptual system that God is forced into. The issue of divine freedom, as hammered home by Molnar, may be the single largest challenge for the revisionists. Short of re-defining the terms of the debate, I really don’t see how the traditionalist perspective can be answered and overcome in a coherent way. Perhaps it can be – never say never! – but I do not see how it can be.

What, exactly, is at stake in this seemingly arcane, esoteric debate? I submit that what is at stake is the relevance of Barth for the church at large. The ‘older scholarship’ (Torrance, Balthasar, et al, carried on by Hunsinger and Molnar) were concerned to situate Barth firmly within ecumenicism. I can see nothing of ecumenical value in the revisionists that doesn’t first involve capitulating to their own brand of theology/actualism/etc. In my less charitable moments, I find myself coming to the conclusion that outside of the ‘older scholarship’, Barth is virtually irrelevant as far as ecumenicism goes. And perhaps there’s a meta-lesson about Barth in all of this debate. Perhaps Barth doesn’t belong to the church. For my money, the older scholarship is correct in their ecumenical readings of him – but I suspect there is a chance that something has been correctly identified in Barth by the revisionists. Phillip Cary notes as much:

What Barth cannot do is save Protestantism. He shouldn’t have to, of course, but one has the suspicion that some of the unedifying energy of the Barth wars stems from the hope that he could. Protestant theology is in a bad way nowadays, and it is tempting for those of us who love that part of the tradition to look for an intellectual hero to rescue it. When that happens, Barth becomes more than just one great theologian among the many given to us by the Holy Spirit in the great tradition. He becomes instead the great mind whose vision we have to understand in order to get things right. Sola scriptura, among other things, goes out the window.

Part of the problem has to do with Barth’s peculiar homelessness. He belonged to the Reformed Protestant tradition, but the Reformed churches never took him to their bosom as they did with Calvin in centuries past. He made a point of calling his theology a church dogmatics, but his institutional home was the university, and his influence has been that of an academic rather than a reformer or a teacher of the Church. So his work ends up coming to the Church from outside, like an intellectual super-hero who might be coming to the rescue, if only we understood what he has to teach us as he reconstructs Christian teaching from the ground up.

 This is a rather pessimistic line of thought, but, if the revisionists are correct, then I think it’s a completely correct diagnosis. However, as I said above: I firmly believe that the traditionalists are winning the battle and that their reading is correct. We will have to wait for the return fire, of course, but for now, the brooding quiet over the battlefield seems to indicate something of a victory (even if there is a pessimistic note in the midst of it) for the traditionalists in the Barth Wars.

4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Barth Wars

  1. Darren Sumner April 8, 2016 / 7:59 pm

    Matthias Gockel has a new essay just out in Modern Theology critically engaging Prof. Hunsinger’s new book. Beyond that, I think the long-lead of the publishing cycle just means that it’s too soon to have much in the way of reply from the other side.

    (I’ll also have a chapter on the topic in a forthcoming book, which is likely 18-24 months away yet.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua April 8, 2016 / 8:04 pm

      I figured the long-lead publishing cycle would have something to do with it, as far as journals and books go. Although it’s been a decent amount of time since Paul Molnar’s came out, but I’m pretty ignorant on how publishing works. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Gockel’s response, and eagerly await yours !


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