Karl Barth and the Study of the Religious Enlightenment

Encountering the Task of History

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Michael Jimenez
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , March
     222 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Karl Barth and the Study of the Religious Enlightenment, Michael Jimenez argues that Barth, the great theologian, also belongs among Weimar Germany’s great historical interpreters of the Enlightenment. Jimenez follows thinkers such as Rudy Koshar, John Webster, Ian Boyd, Ryan Glomsrud, and Garrett Green, who suggest that Barth’s Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (1946) has not been properly examined by the English-speaking scholarly world. As only a few of the lectures were published in English—under the title From Ritschl to Rousseau in 1959—English readers of Barth have not recognized the insights within the work as a whole.

Jimenez shows that, as the grip of unitary models of the Enlightenment have loosened in recent decades, the field of history has begun to recognize its historical complexities. This makes it a good time to revisit Barth’s work on this historical period. Protestant Theology began as a series of lectures Barth gave to his students in Münster in the 1920s, with the shape of the book gaining its coherency from the final round of lectures on the topic which Barth gave in Bonn in 1932-33. Barth treats such figures as Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher, giving his own genealogy of the period. Jimenez depicts it as a time when thinkers once again took up Renaissance humanism, with its Stoic and Epicurean roots, after being interrupted by the Reformation. 

Jimenez characterizes Barth’s method of reading history as “dialectical.” This label has the advantage of moving scholarship beyond the current polarized takes of being “for” or “against” the Enlightenment. Although historians have discounted Barth due to his status a theologian, Jimenez argues that Barth’s theological background served him well, as he was familiar with the religious terms and concepts that undergirded many Enlightenment thinkers’ ideas. As such, Barth was able to bring a more holistic reading of Enlightenment dynamics than were other historians, who were focused on its secularizing tendencies. Jimenez also argues that Barth’s own readers have done him a disservice by not recognizing how his vast knowledge of history helped shape his own theological program—in particular, his ideas on election, Trinity, and Christology. 

Barth himself also obscures the brilliance of his historical spadework with his language of “absolutism” to refer to the period, even though he was not the only one to employ this term. As a theologian, Barth focused less on the political developments of the period and more on its social-cultural context, such as art, science, and architecture. He connected the term “absolutism” to the way that a new consciousness about the human individual was emerging in the 18th century, and how such a turn to the human shaped theology. He sought to show that this time period cannot be boiled down to a pitting of Christianity against Rationalism. Yet as Jimenez points out, Barth does occasionally seem to accuse Enlightenment thinkers of placing rationality above revelation, even while he investigates how they balanced the two. 

Jimenez demonstrates that, as Barth was steeped in the Basel tradition of Johann Overbeck, Jacob Burckhardt, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and their critical read of the 18th century, Barth was able to see sides of the period that other historians ignored. He used the term “absolutism” to call into question the general historical consensus that the 18th century was truly all about an enlightened optimism: Barth wanted to lift up the disquieting and skeptical aspects of the time as well. Barth’s light hold of the period, as truly “enlightening” or thoroughly optimistic, allowed him to pay attention to the harmful sides of Enlightenment thought such as its colonizing, exploitative, and racializing tendencies, which many Enlightenment interpreters have failed to investigate. 

Yet Barth’s eschatological and existential perspective led him to approach leading historical figures with empathy for them as persons. Figures such as Rousseau, Gotthold Lessing, Spinoza, and Herder were men in history just like the rest of us. They were also, however, different than and “other” to modern people in ways that evoke an empathetic curiosity about them as individuals. Jimenez points out that Barth’s empathic investigation of Rousseau even left a deep impression on modern historians like Jaroslav Pelikan. However, Jimenez could have offered a bit more insight into the way different thinkers may have impacted Barth, or the way he approached different figures as individuals.

By labeling Barth’s approach to history as “dialectical,” Jimenez shows how Barth should not be labeled an “Antihistoriker” as he has been by thinkers such as Wolfhart Pannenberg or William Marquadt. Nor should Barth’s interpretation of the Enlightenment be seen as a deconstructive or postmodern take. Rather, given his critical eye from the Basel tradition, and his deep empathy for historical thinkers as people, Barth’s read of the 18th century can contribute to honest and constructive understandings of the Enlightenment today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Marga is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Jimenez holds a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of Remembering Lived Lives.


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