The Ordering of the Christian Mind

Karl Barth and Theological Rationality

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Martin Westerholm
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Before his recent and untimely passing, hardly any contemporary theologian had contributed as much to the discussion of the renewal of the theological mind as John Webster. One of Webster’s other decisive contributions, and one that is already having a determined impact on contemporary Anglophone theology, are the many now-published doctoral theses on Karl Barth written under his supervision, including Martin Westerholm’s The Ordering of the Christian Mind. In this book, Westerholm has made an excellent contribution to theological rationality in the vein of John Webster and also provided a weighty addition to contemporary Barth studies. The book is an antidote to the still all-too-prevalent criticism of Barth’s thought as being hostile to the human subject, as well as a catalyst to those who see in Barth’s theology a resource for the work of contemporary Christian theology.

Westerholm’s book is thoroughly positive and constructive in its engagement with contemporary Barth studies. While clearly exemplifying an independence of mind, in its engagement with the work of some of the great Barth scholars such as T. F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack the book demonstrates indebtedness in its critique, and critique in its indebtedness. Its primary task is to develop “a new account of Barth’s understanding of the proper movements of theological reason,” and with this, a defensive demonstration that Barth’s “understanding of Christian reasoning is both theologically weighty and spiritually bracing” (3). Despite the fact that rationality and the nature of Christian truth were primary themes in 20th century theology as a whole, this element—or rather nearly Leitthema—in Barth’s earlier theology has been inadequately acknowledged, and underdeveloped. The key move—and one that to me is wholly correct based on my own reading of Barth’s earlier work—is Westerholm’s basic claim that Barth’s treatment of the Christian mind is outlined and filled-in using fundamentally moral, not epistemological, terms. The issue for Barth is not one of neutral and disinterested reason pondering the possibility of revelation and divine things, but rather one of hearing and obedience. This means a shift from theology obsessed with posing the ordinary epistemological yes-or-no about divine existence or revelation, to one that asks a much more qualitative question about what it means for the creature to know the Creator in the first place.

This, of course, is precisely the point where some lose interest in Barth because they take this move to imply a degradation of human reason and an impossible transcendence of God. In contrast to any such debasement of the human subject, Westerholm’s reading of Barth shows instead that the moral reframing of the question presupposes, and can only be brought about by, the lifting up of the creature via the grace of justification and sanctification into “knowledge” of God. And what is meant by knowledge here is clearly much more robust than mere intellectual acquiescence to facts, but something more like the “noetic side” to an account of sanctification (206). Against this kind of highly “involved” knowledge of God in faith is actually disinterested and speculative knowledge of God that is demeaning to both creature and Creator in that this entails creaturely knowledge of God in abstraction from God’s lordship, and implies that God’s lordship is impotent and inconsequential in relation to creaturely knowledge. That knowledge of God must accordingly be reframed within the moral category of obedience does not, however, mean the abandonment of freedom in Barth’s thought, but rather the advancement of the kind of Christian freedom that acknowledges God is Lord.

Westerholm delivers this package by offering two running analyses of Barth’s earlier theology. First, he paints a clear and comprehensible picture of how Barth’s reading of Paul in his Romans period shapes his departure from liberalism and his constructive account of the ordering of the Christian mind. Westerholm then provides an analysis of Barth’s take on Anselm from the early 1930s, though with an important reading on one of Barth’s early skirmishes with Rudolf Bultmann. Despite having traditionally been understood to mark two contrasting periods in Barth’s development, the analysis shows profound continuity between Barth’s appropriation of Paul and Anselm. In both sections, Westerholm gives the appropriate amount of biographical and historical-theological background to guide the reader through Barth’s concerns.

All in all, there is little to object to in Westerholm’s presentation of Barth’s early account of theological rationality. A brief section on Barth’s passing appropriation of Franz Overbeck’s understanding of death would have rounded out the analysis a bit on how Barth’s theology of resurrection shapes his understanding of the eschatological human subject. Others might demand an even more pointed account of Barth’s development against the backdrop of 19th century intellectual history. To this I would respond first, that Westerholm already does this quite well, and second, as Westerholm demonstrates, it is Paul’s and Anselm’s presentations of the ordering of the theological mind as the noetic side of a doctrine of sanctification that is the primary mover in Barth’s thought on rationality—any other more specific philosophical implications will first have to reckon with this.

In conclusion, Westerholm’s reading of Barth unveils a theologian who has far more in common with the likes of Anselm (and even Thomas Aquinas), than has generally been acknowledged, and thus a theologian working in and from the tradition, rather than against it, as Barth has so often been characterized. In all this, Westerholm unquestionably accomplishes the task he sets out to achieve. It’s therefore safe to say that we have here a reliable guide to a theme of prominence and importance in Karl Barth’s earlier theology, and a valuable resource to Barth studies and contemporary systematic theology as a whole.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Andrew Gilland is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Westerholm is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Durham University.


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