"Barth in Germany (1921-1935): Emergence, Clarification, Resistance"


An international symposium on Karl Barth was held in Emden, Germany from the 1st to the 4th of May, 2003. The symposium, titled "Barth in Germany (1921-1935): Emergence, Clarification, Resistance," was centered around the decade and a half that Karl Barth spent in Germany between the World Wars. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Seminar for Reformed Theology at the University of Münster, the Academic Advisory Council of the Karl Barth Gesellschaft, and the Johannes a Lasco Library in Emden.

The Johannes a Lasco library provided a wonderful backdrop to the conference. The libraryKarl Barth dates from 1559 and counts among the oldest Reformed libraries in Europe. The physical structure housing the library was once the Große Kirche of Emden, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in the Second World War. The modern library rose from the ruins of the destroyed church, creating a uniquely atmospheric combination of gothic brick columns and modern steel book stacks.

Approximately 160 scholars attended the symposium. The majority were from Germany. Many of the most well-known German scholars were there—Eberhard Busch, Hans-Anton Drewes, Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Fangmeier, Wolf Krötke and Christian Link among them. A sizable minority of the scholars hailed from the Netherlands. (Emden is well-known to the Dutch Reformed. The Synod of Emden in 1571 set the constitutional framework for what later became the Dutch Reformed Church.) Senior Dutch scholars like Hendrik Adriaanse and Arie Spijkerboer were present as were many younger scholars–including Arie Molendijk of the University of Groningen, the author of an imposing study of Barth's philosophical sparring partner, Heinrich Scholz. There were, of course, scholars from other European countries as well, including Denmark, Hungary, Sweden and Switzerland. Scholars from Japan and Korea also attended. Strangely, only a single scholar from Great Britain made the trip over the Channel. And the several representatives from Princeton Theological Seminary were the only North American theologians in attendance.

Walter Schulz, the director of the Johannes a Lasco library, welcomed the attendees, reminding them that Karl Barth had visited Emden himself on several occasions. (Barth delivered "Das Problem der Ethik in der Gegenwart" in Emden in 1922 and "Reformierte Lehre, Ihr Wesen und Ihre Aufgabe" in 1923. Barth was even called in 1935 to be the pastor at Emden but declined because he wanted to continue writing and lecturing on the Church Dogmatics [cf. Barth-Thurneysen, Band III, page 804, note 28]). Schulz recalled Barth's comments about the stiff formalities of the old-fashioned Reformed "Coetus" that he met with in Emden: Barth wrote his friend Eduard Thurneysen about the "darkly paneled consistory room" with the "the severe faces of the entire 16th and 17th century on the walls" (cf. Barth-Thurneysen, Band II, page 111). Schulz pointed out to the audience's amusement that those grim portraits were still looming over them. Alluding to the often polemically charged atmosphere of Barth studies in the past, Schulz called on the gathered scholars not only to discuss the place of Karl Barth in theological history, but also to sharpen the contemporary debates about the interpretation of Barth's theology. "Streiten Sie gut!" he admonished the participants.

Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary opened the symposium with a lecture on Karl Barth's place in theological history. McCormack noted that Barth's period in Germany fell in between the 2nd edition of the Römerbrief and his exposition of the doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2, two of his crowning theological achievements. He sought to shed light on these achievements by focusing on the "truly 'new' element" that emerged in Barth's theology during his German period: his critical realism. McCormack claimed that Barth's struggle during the 1920s to do justice to the reality of God ultimately led him to transcend the familiar categories of Kant's critical philosophy and to adopt a critically-realistic standpoint in his theological epistemology. McCormack noted that several philosophers of science have subsequently taken an analogous turn away from both critical idealism and naive realism toward critical realism in the theory of knowledge, making it possible to speak about 'parabolic' resonances between Karl Barth's critically-realistic theological epistemology and critical realism in the sciences. The lecture provoked much discussion, particularly concerning McCormack's conception of the analogy between critical realism in theology and critical realism in philosophy and the sciences.

Eberhard Jüngel gave a public lecture later the same evening titled "Provocative Theology: On the Theological Existence of Karl Barth." Jüngel reminded his audience that Karl Barth was not always the celebrated and beloved Reformed theologian he is remembered as being today, but that his "theological existence" frequently brought him into open conflict with authorities in the church, the academy, and the state. Jüngel sketched the sequence of events that brought Barth from his pastorate in Safenwil to professorships in Göttingen, Münster and Bonn, and finally to expulsion from Germany. The large audience of scholars and non-scholars enjoyed this perspicuous introduction to the primary events and themes that characterized Barth's German period.

The schedule of the symposium during the next few days was divided between plenary and break-out group lectures. Approximately twenty lecturers addressed aspects of Barth's life and thought, ranging from his Auseinandersetzung with Adolf von Harnack to his perspective on the Jungreformatorische movement. A couple of moments merit particular notice. When Hinrich Stoevesandt, speaking on Karl Barth's lectures on dogmatics in Göttingen and Münster, announced the long-awaited publication of the third volume (in German) of those lectures, the audience broke into spontaneous applause. In a densely argued lecture, Eilert Herms put forward the provocative thesis that the Church Dogmatics essentially represents an execution in contemporary idiom of the theological program that Friedrich Schleiermacher published more than a century previously in his Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study.

All the lecturers faced the interesting problem of defining and maintaining an appropriate balance between the historical analysis and the theological interpretation of Karl Barth. In one of the panel discussions, a scholar provocatively asked whether Barth should be consigned to the domain of the theological historians. While most participants strongly disagreed with that proposal, there was widespread consensus that interpretation of Barth's theology should take historical context into account. The German scholars in particular expressed great interest in probing the relationship of Barth to Neuzeit or "modernity." (Barth's relationship to postmodernity, by contrast, received less attention, perhaps because the Germans scholars placed such emphasis on reading Karl Barth in his historical context.) But does this concern for historical context not raise the specter of the historicism Barth sought to exorcize from theology? Some European scholars expressed interest in the tendency among North America scholars to "use" Barth's theology without paying much heed to historical context. Bruce McCormack cautioned, however, that scholars in North America all too often develop a distorted picture of the overall shape of Barth's theology because they lack a firm grasp of his historical situation and cannot read his untranslated, more contextually-oriented publications. In a concluding panel discussion, Cornelius van der Kooi emphasized the centrality of scriptural exegesis to Karl Barth's theology. He exhorted contemporary scholars to give as much intellectual scrutiny to Barth's exegetical writings as they give to his theological authorship.

Michael Beintker closed the symposium on Sunday afternoon. He expressed the hope that another international symposium would take place, maybe in five years time, perhaps in the Netherlands or Switzerland. He also announced that a selection of the papers will be published by the Theologischer Verlag Zürich next year. Although subsequent "international symposiums" should consider holding break-out sessions in English and French as well as in German and encourage greater participation by British and North American scholars, the symposium in Emden constituted a highwater point in international scholarship about Karl Barth. The impassioned interest in the theology of Karl Barth shown by scholars at the symposium made clear that Barth's theology was not only transformative for the church in the 20th century, but also contains great promise for the church in the 21st century.