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Consideramus in speculo – fragments of a Hegelian mirror in dialectical theology

  • Sigurd Baark (a1)


The article re-examines Karl Barth's claim that his 1931 book on Anselm of Canterbury's proof of the existence of God from Proslogion 2–4, the Fides Quaerens Intellectum, provides a ‘vital key’ for understanding the rationality of his later theology. The article takes up the question of what ‘dialectics’ denotes in Barth's theology. Re-engaging the issue of dialectics in Karl Barth's theology, particularly in light of the developments of his thought, leads to a critical revision of Bruce McCormack's influential interpretation of Barth's dialectical theology.

Through a close reading of the section, ‘The manner of theology’, from the first of the two parts of Fides Quaerens Intellectum the article sheds light on how Barth envisions the construction of the theoretical concepts of theology in light of his concrete exegetical praxis. By focusing on the relationship between theory and praxis, an understanding of Barth's dialectical theology as a form of ‘speculative reading’ emerges. This notion of dialectics as developing in light of a practice of speculative reading allows us to compare certain aspects of concept-formation in the theology of Karl Barth and the dialectical philosophy of the German Idealist, G. W. F. Hegel. Drawing explicitly on Hegel's analysis of infinite judgement from the second volume of his 1812 Science of Logic, Barth's use of the tautology ‘God is God’ in his second commentary on Romans from 1922 is shown to provide important insight into the structure of Barth's dialectical thinking. This explicitly relates to the important issue of the relationship between faith and reason in Karl Barth's theology, which sheds a new light on how his understanding of the rational basis of the theory and praxis of theology developed from his second Romans commentary onwards.

Finally, Barth's use of dialectics and his account of the rationality of theology as a form of ‘speculative reading’ permits some final reflections on the significance of pneumatology for constructive theology by underscoring how Barth insists on the priority of praxis over theory. To understand Barth's theology and the way it changes over the years is to understand the rationality of its concrete praxis.



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1 McCormack, Bruce L., Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1995).

2 Barth, Karl, Fides Quaerens Intellectum (London: SCM Press, 1960), p. 11.

3 It falls outside the scope of this article to give a full survey of the current scholarship on Barth in relation to this particular issue, especially since the current doxa is to ignore Barth's own claims on the matter and thus the theology of the Fides Quaerens Intellectum itself. In effect, this means that there is next to no current scholarly work on the book – and this is precisely the problem. Nonetheless, we can point to a symptom which expresses the current paradigm perfectly: Johnson, Keith L.'s Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (London: T&T Clark, 2010). The work, which narrows in on the problem and discussion of onto-theology in Barth, at no point finds it necessary to include an analysis of Barth's reading of what has been known for centuries as the ‘ontological proof of the existence of God’, nor to investigate how it is possible that Barth can explicitly deny that the proof is ontological. The discussion is relegated to a footnote, where the entire issue is dismissed in two brief paragraphs with a reference to McCormack's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology.

4 McCormack, Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, p. 434.

5 P. F. Strawson provides some insightful comments on the various ‘platitudes’, as he calls them, of correspondence theorists and coherence theorists: ‘So we can see the Correspondence Theorist as insisting on a fundamental feature of any individual system or structures of belief: viz. that they are systems or structures of belief about a reality conceived as existing independently of those particular beliefs about it. And we can see the Coherence Theorist as insisting on the interdependence of the parts of the structure and on the point that you cannot correct one belief without forming another: insisting, in fact, that our structures of belief are structures of belief. There is virtue in both insistences. More power to them both!’ Analysis and Metaphysics (Oxford: OUP, 1992), p. 86. Our question in this article does not concern the (too?) obvious merits of these respective theories; our question is whether it is useful to read Barth's thought schematically along these binary lines at all.

6 According to McCormack, the correspondence theory of justification (Barth's ‘realistic actualism’) ‘stand[s] on the periphery of Barth's reflections in the Anselm book. At the center stands the highly positive theological task of asking after the meaning of the Credo which has been affirmed’. McCormack, Realistic Dialectical Theology, p. 433.

7 The unusual concept ‘Realdialektik’ (usually written with a ‘k’ and in italics), which is found next to nowhere in Barth's own writings, appears to be the operating term which serves to combine both McCormack's understanding of ‘dialectics’ and his notion of correspondence. Quoting McCormack: ‘Because God must “show” Himself to our thinking if it is really to be conformed to Him, our knowledge of God is dependent upon a dialectical movement on God's side (a Realdialektik). A thinking which depends in this way on a Realdialektik is itself a dialectically conditioned thinking.’ McCormack, Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, p. 433.

8 FQI, p. 55.

9 FQI, p. 40.

10 FQI, pp. 22–3.

11 FQI, p. 23.

12 Barth's own reflections on the triunity of God in CD I/1 is a case in point. As Barth writes at the end of the all-important section, The Root of the Doctrine of the Trinity: ‘The fact that it is Church exegesis, that the theses of the doctrine of the Trinity stand in relation to biblical revelation as directly as only an answer can stand in relation to a question, should be provisionally guaranteed by the proof which we have already offered’ (emphasis mine). See Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics I/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), p. 333.

13 FQI, p. 41.

14 Ibid.

15 This is the core of Barth's claim that Anselm is never carrying out apologetics. He is simply performing scriptural exegesis: ‘The opposition and derision of unbelievers and the uncertainty of even believing Christians, the questions of the wise and the foolish over the text of Scripture and Credo all show that humanly speaking the inner and the outer text of revelation are by no means a unity; that their meaning, basis and context, and with these their truth, are not such that we can simply read them off, but on the contrary for us they are wrapped in mystery and we can grasp them only by a special effort of understanding that goes beyond mere reading.’ Ibid., p. 42.

16 ‘It will therefore be able to claim only scientific certainty for its results and not the certainty of faith and it will therefore not deny the fundamental imperfection of these results.’ Ibid., p. 40.

17 We must not fail to mention that there are others who have drawn attention to precisely this ‘praxis’ aspect of Barth's theology. Bent Flemming Nielsen's article, ‘Theology as Liturgy?’, is a very clear and precise reading of the inescapable practical determination of Barth's thinking – also invoking the FQI: ‘Theology as Liturgy? The Practical Dimension of Karl Barth's Thinking’, in McCormack, Bruce L., Thomas, Günter and Brouwer, Rinse H. Reeling (eds), Karl Barth: Liturgy, Theology, Church History, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), pp. 6780.

18 Barth, Karl, Epistle to the Romans (London: OUP, 1968), p. 8.

19 The relevant passages are in FQI, pp. 49–52.

20 Ibid., p. 49.

21 Ibid., p. 50.

22 Ibid., p. 52.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., p. 55.

25 Ibid., p. 30.

26 Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 11. The German original is even more forceful, placing a dash before the tautology: ‘dass – Gott Gott ist.’

27 Hegel, G. W. F., The Science of Logic (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 642.

28 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 French edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 44.



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