Twentiethcentury Criticism Of The Enlightenment Karl Barth

The effect of these changes has been seen as disastrous. A modern German historian, Gerhard Benecke, wrote that 'the Aufklärung was the most serious political mistake any generation of German politicians and intellectuals could possibly have made' (Benecke 1979:79): between 1770 and 1800 they destroyed the stability, partly religious in origin, of an older federal German Reich. 'They provided as an alternative the secular practice of citizens' rights and eventually nation-state pretensions that soon fragmented into a new kind of bourgeois nationalist individualism copied from a more economically and politically advanced western Europe' (ibid.: 82). This was a more secular form of the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth's influential attack on 'enlightened' theology in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (originally written in 1932/3). Earth believed that from the eighteenth to the twentieth century the essential theological choice in Protestantism lay between a saving, scriptural Reformation orthodoxy (as he understood it) and a humanizing rationalistic theology which had developed steadily after 1700, reducing Christianity to the equivalent of a natural religion, whose tenents were belief in God, human freedom, morality and immortality. He even doubted the Enlightenment theology's claim to rational foundations, quoting Karl Aner's assertion that one could not understand the German Enlightenment 'if one characterises it in a purely intellectualistic way; its criticism of dogma is not born of reason, but of ethical and personal needs' (Earth 1972:164). As late as 1960, in The Humanity of God, Earth argued that nineteenth-century theologians, still governed by the principles of the Aufklärung, assumed that they must come to terms with the world-views of their contemporaries, so that theologians became philosophers of religion and thought of Christianity as one religion among others.

Theology was still being penalised for accepting the Renaissance discovery that man was the measure of all things, including Christian things. On this ground the testimony of the Christian faith, however honest, and however richly endowed with Biblical and Reformation recollections, could only exist like a fish out of water.

(Earth 1961:25)

Convinced of the unique truth of the Christian religion as the Gospel of Jesus Christ as heard in Holy Scripture, Earth could not attach a positive theological value to the history of human ideas about religion, still less accept that the orthodox Christian idea of revelation was a product of it. Yet eighteenth-century Christian theologians and their intellectual opponents both shared an intellectual life which did not totally depend on politics or on the bourgeois discovery of the self which foreshadowed Romanticism, or on the state of the economic base of Western culture, or, in more Barthian terms, on the pride of the human will. By the late eighteenth century it was no longer possible to restrict all theologians, let alone all intellectuals, to an unquestioning acceptance of orthodox dogma as laid down by Church authority on the basis of a verbally inspired and therefore flawless Scripture, all parts of which spoke equally of Christ. As a Protestant theologian, Semler, for example, abandoned the idea of the apostolic purity of the primitive Church: he reasserted the divinity of Jesus but argued that his teaching needed to be freed from the Jewish thought-forms to which he had accommodated it.

God's revelation is now seen as expansive, as a function of human development, embodied, in a sense, in history itself and marked out by certain definite periods in which man's moral awareness broke the bounds of the temporal forms of historical religion.

(P.H.Reill 1975:169)

The problem of primitive Christian history, a problem which in its eighteenth-century form the Deists had formulated, changed. It was no longer a question of the relationship between the contingent and the eternal in the origins of the Christian Church, expressed as a conflict around the orthodox emphasis on the apodictic value of miracles. Once the expansion of the early Church was no longer thought of as an end in itself, as miraculous evidence of the truth of revelation, Church history could be reinterpreted in idealistic terms as part of a general process.

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