The Affirmations of Reason

On Karl Barth's Speculative Theology

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Sigurd Baark
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , January
     291 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is a Christian theology that takes seriously contemporary philosophy andthe central claims of traditional Christianity possible? Does one necessarilyacquiesce to the other, such that theology becomes anti-philosophical (or generally anti-intellectual)? Or is it rather that theology merely mimics philosophy, becoming anti-(traditional) theology? Sigurd Baark’s The Affirmations of Reason: On Karl Barth’s Speculative Theology builds upon the acclaimed work of Bruce McCormack to clarify how Barth’s theology thoroughly engages with German idealism, and thereby evades the anti-philosophical “neo-orthodox” label so often ascribed to Barth. One of Baark’s central claims is that “one can be committed both to Barth’s theological insights and praxis and to the basic framework of Hegelian speculative philosophy without contradiction” (281). Baark’s argument regarding speculative theology, and in particular the way that it critically departs from McCormack’s work, positions The Affirmations of Reason to be a helpful, if provocative, foundation for future scholarship to build upon.

Baark broaches the topic of Barth’s engagement with German idealism through a rather excellent introduction to Kant’s critical philosophy, detailing how Fichte, and then Hegel, developed Kant’s insights. While Kant effectively reorients philosophical conversation around human subjectivity and self-consciousness, his distinction between phenomena (sensuous appearances) and noumena (things-in-themselves) “ultimately never moves beyond the horizon of a subjective idealism that remains open to the charge of skepticism” (65). If there always exists something beyond the human knower that could possibly contradict knowledge, then there will always persist the possibility of denying knowledge and the reliability of the knowing apparatus. Fichte’s denial of the noumenal and his emphasis on creative imagination serve as a stepping point between Kant and Hegel who, from Baark’s perspective, solve Kant’s dilemma through their speculative idealism and articulation of “absolute knowing” (83).

Baark distinguishes Hegel’s absolute knowing from “the grand metaphysical construct that many readers of Hegel have often assumed,” arguing that “it is more fruitful to see it as a form of intellectual engagement with the world (including self-consciousness)” (83). Hegel redefines the relationship between the human knower and the object, such that “the distinction between the for-us (sensuous appearance) and the in-itself (the noumenal, what is beyond the human knowing apparatus) is our distinction, a mark of our being as sapient creatures” (88). Therefore, “we find that when our knowledge of an object changes, the object changes as well”  and it “functions precisely as an immanent measure of the correctness of our reflections” (88). Knowledge is thus a process that involves the constant comparison of rational concepts with objects, both of which reciprocally affect one another. “Absolute knowing" describes the form that this process takes, rather than the content since the content undergoes constant change. 

Following this introduction to German idealism, Baark demonstrates how Barth responds to the German idealists, who present “a challenge to theology” in “the normative power of the autonomous, self-conscious subject,” which appears to leave “no room … for a genuine theological concept of God” (109). Barth works out a response to this challenge with his Romans commentary, arguing that Barth’s intention is to “grasp the actual argument that Paul’s text is making,” namely, “a particular conceptual problem concerning the practical acknowledgment of an unsublatable negation, which is expressed in the name, Jesus Christ” (23). This “unsublatable negation” is the response to the “autonomous, self-conscious subject” proffered by German idealists. In Baark’s estimation of Barth’s argument, theology “can become the discipline that guards this limit and thus seeks to negate all ecstatic temptations to posit some positive knowledge of the beyond” (141). Barth’s theological “praxis” consists of struggling to understand the arguments of scripture, which ultimately point to God as the absolute limit to the human subject. This is not a pure negativity, however, as “the negation of extra-scriptural claims to think or speak sensibly about the divine follows from our knowledge and affirmation of the biblical God. Affirmation precedes negation” (223). Barth’s theology becomes “speculative,” in the Hegelian sense, with this affirmation of the form (but not the content) which serves as the functional equivalent to “absolute knowledge.”

With his conclusion that Barth’s theology is speculative, Baark critically departs from Bruce McCormack’s argument regarding Barth’s theological development. In particular, Baark breaks from McCormack by turning to Barth’s relation to Hegel instead of Kant. As Baark argues, “McCormack’s Barth ... accepts the entire framework of Kant’s theoretical philosophy and views its account of the structure of human knowledge as given” (16). Baark seems to argue that the same problems present in Kant’s philosophy reappear in McCormack’s Kantian-inflected view of Barth. This point deserves much further study and debate, and Baark’s work has certainly set the stage for that debate to flourish. 

Baark concludes with a brief list of implications and further topics of inquiry that he forecasts from his work. In that vein, I want to draw attention to some implications of Baark’s argument that warrant further consideration. There are two under-emphasized points Baark articulates that show the non-totalizing quality of Barth’s theology. First, in the treatment of Anselm’s “proof,” Baark clarifies that “the positive formulation, that God exists both in the mind and in reality, we know from revelation and it is not, as such, part of the proof itself” (216). Second, Baark offers a brief argument connecting Kant’s aesthetic philosophy and Barth’s references to the beauty of God: “God’s form generates a discourse that is best described as a discourse on beauty as outlined by Kant: a pleasing and persuasive form of discourse that cannot be systematized” (269). There is a fascinating interplay of certainty and indubitability of God’s existence and character that is also radically non-totalizing. This certainly deserves further consideration, alongside the primary arguments Baark offers about Barth’s speculative theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Laminack is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sigurd Baark is Assistant Pastor at the German Reformed Church of Copenhagen, as well as an associate research fellow at the Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.


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