Book Review: ‘Protestant Metaphysics after Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger’, by Timothy Stanley

Protestant Metaphysics after Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger‘, by Timothy Stanley, Cascade Books, $35.00 296 pp.

I must confess that of all possible reactions that seemed likely for me to have towards this book, being very impressed with it was not one I anticipated. After reading it and spending some time reflecting on it, however, I think it’s safe to say that this is a very important work. There is a lot of ground covered in these pages, at times in a fairly dense manner, but it is worth working through in a slow and steady manner. Interestingly enough, this book may be more of an exercise in Luther interpretation than of Heidegger-ian/Barth-ian metaphysics: the trajectory of both Heidegger and Barth is shown to turn on their respective interpretations of the German Reformer. This, to me anyway, shows that the interpretation of Luther is of primary importance for the question of Protestant metaphysics. Put differently, the question of Protestant metaphysics appears to be a question of Luther interpretation.

The introduction does a good bit of historical stage-setting, tracing the idea of Protestant metaphysics from Luther and Biel through Harnack, Ritschl and Troletsch, paying attention to the various threads of nominalism, the via moderna and Luther’s own theology of the cross. Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is a central theme here, and the key point is that Protestantism is an inherently critical tradition – skepticism is the order of the day as far as theology goes here. Following this, the first chapter proper focuses on Heidegger and ‘onto-theology’, working from Heidegger’s declaration that, were he to write a theology, the word ‘being’ would not appear in it. Also focused on is Heideigger’s insistence that philosophy and theology are separate, autonomous sciences

The second chapter was perhaps the most enjoyable to me. Here Heidegger’s debt to Luther is sketched – while I was aware that Heidegger had read Luther, I was not aware that Heidegger was basically a Luther-scholar. A good deal of attention is paid to Heidegger’s reliance on Luther as an interpreter of Paul, as well as the influence of Heidegger on Protestant theologians such as Tillich and Bultmann. Stanley argues that Heidegger takes himself to be expanding on Luther’s nineteenth thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation, which is directed against those who think that the invisible things of God are clearly perceptible:

Christian theology would therefore be conceived by Heidegger in terms of a-metaphysical religious experience, and it is this direction which Heidegger wishes to take what he sees as Luther’s unfinished project. (p. 73)

The third chapter is an explication of Barth’s enigmatic phrase, ‘God is God’, paying close attention to Luther’s deus absconditus. Divine hiddenness is the key theme here and serves as an antidote to the more skeptical thinking of Hermann and Feurbach. ‘God is god’ is shown to be a statement that entranced Barth because of its stark Christological realism: Barth sees Luther as articulating that ‘God ‘is’ such that he is everywhere hidden and yet wholly revealed in the Word of Christ’ (p. 121). For Luther Christology just is ontology. ‘In other words, Christology is the proper means by which Luther works out the ontological implications of his theology’ (p. 124). This Christological realism implied in ‘God is god’ serves as a basis for asserting both that God is wholly other and that God alone is God. Chapter four is an exposition of Barth’s book on Anselm. Stanley here seeks to show how Barth’s ‘God is god’ is drawn out in nuanced terms than in Barth’s early, more Luther-dependent theology. Here Barth’s (supposed) turn to analogy is examined, as well as the dense and at times bewildering language games played by Barth in his explication of the notion of being contained in Anselm.

Chapter five is the longest chapter of this study, and charts the development of Barth’s concept of being in the Chruch Dogmatics. Key themes here are the Word of God, the Revelation of God, and the Triune being of God. Being, as Stanley sees Barth articulating it, can’t be separated from God’s works. It is because of this that Stanley notes that Barth is able to hold together theology and ontolgoy, which Heidegger separated:

Ontological difference is now understood in terms of a modality in the divine being, and it is precisely as the Word confronts the confused inadequacy of ontic human being that true divine being comes into proper focus. Barth does not establish dialectic between divine and human being as a dialectic between our fallen ontic state and the ontological being of God, but rather, divine being in its one-sidedness determines human being. This is not to say that Barth’s theology is anti-metaphysical any more than it is post-ontological. Rather Barth’s negative metaphysical statements all contradict any attempt to divorce theology from ontology. (p. 212)

The sixth and final chapter focuses on the humanity of God in the Incarnation. The short version of this chapter might look something like this: as above, human being is determined by divine being, and apart from a free act of God in the world, ‘no account of divine ontology can claim truth status’ (p.246). The conclusion offers some reflections on where Protestant metaphysics might go after Barth. Stanley argues that because of Barth’s use of Luther’s deus absconditus, he is able to off an alternative to Heidegger’s critique of  onto-theology. Put differently, Barth is able to articulate, against Heidegger (who argued that ‘being’ had no place in theology) a coherent theological ontology. As I said above, a good deal of this study appears to turn on Luther, and how best to interpret some of the various theses in his Heidelberg Disputation: while Heidegger paid special attention to the ‘anti-metaphysical’ theses, Barth took a more nuanced and perhaps a more wholistic reading, and as a result was able to hold together theology and ontology. Perhaps this is more revealing of Protestant theology and metaphysics than either Heidegger or Barth’s respective interpretations.


As I noted above, this is a worthwhile albeit dense work. There is a good deal of quoted primary source material, and quite often the original language is represented in parentheses – some quoted sections have many, many such parentheses and this can slow down the reader at times. I can’t say I’d recommend it to folks who aren’t already well-versed in theological metaphysics (especially of the postmodern bent – if the phrase ‘ontological difference’ isn’t part of your everyday vocabulary, there may be some rough going for you), but to those looking to trace a path from Heidegger through Barth to a viable and distinctly Protestant metaphysics against postmodernity, this is surely essential reading.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review


2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Protestant Metaphysics after Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger’, by Timothy Stanley

  1. jamesbradfordpate January 16, 2017 / 3:55 am

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.


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