On being a contemporary of Christ, or, why dialectical theology matters
“If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief
“How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief
“Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before me but the enigma of the matter; till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I have almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my name and am even able to speak in his name myself.”
—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief
A friend and colleague whom I respect has made a public break with apocalyptic theology, for reasons that are apparently based on his own personal experience. I appreciate these posts not because I agree with them—they articulate a position that I find deeply flawed, though I will not go into all the reasons here—but because they make explicit a matter that cuts to the heart of Christian identity and theology. They force the reader to make a decision, and in that sense they contribute to the clarification and understanding of the Christian faith.
While it is highly dubious whether what is under consideration is justifiably called “apocalyptic theology”—there is little clarity about what is actually being rejected, since it is variously identified as apocalyptic theology, critical theory, and Marxism, but ostensibly it is some kind of theology that sees itself in alliance with the revolutionary views of Jacob Taubes and Slavoj Žižek, among others—the position being rejected is fairly clear: it is a theological position that interprets the Christian kerygma in light of the prophetic-apocalyptic context of Second Temple Judaism and seeks to make this eschatological kerygma the norm for an emancipatory mode of faithful Christian existence today. In short, it is a position that bases contemporary theopolitics on the eschatological message of the early Christian community. The rejection of this position comes to expression most forcefully in the following line: “I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.” The quotes above already indicate that I place myself in sharp opposition to this view, but I want to explain how and why I arrive at that position.
Theological history is often cyclical. Positions once thought dead often return in new forms, sometimes with new virulence. One of the major pendulum-swinging issues throughout the history of theology is the question of the relative nearness or distance between Jesus and the present-day community of faith. The primitive Christian community was an apocalyptic community defined by the expectation of the imminent advent of the glorified Christ. They were conscious of the eschatological nearness of Christ, and thus of themselves as the eschatological community. When this advent did not occur as expected, the exigencies of the apocalypse gave way to the needs of being an established part of the world. We see the seeds of this transition already in Ephesians and Colossians, and it becomes further entrenched by the time we reach 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and the Johannine epistles. Christianity left apocalyptic behind and became the (small-c) catholic church. From this point on, we see an ongoing dialectic between nearness and distance—a distance demanded by the delay of the parousia and a nearness demanded by the experience of Easter faith.
Throughout the ancient and medieval church (i.e., early and late catholicism), there was distance in that they no longer shared the eschatological consciousness of the early community. The “apostolic” period of the church was left behind, with all its apocalyptic-pentecostal trappings. The Christian community was no longer defined by an imminent expectation that relativized their worldly existence. They were instead defined by doctrinal and liturgical boundaries—by ways of thinking and doing that they zealously guarded—which differentiated their community from other communities in the world, with which they now had to compete. At the same time the nearness of the catholic community with Jesus now consisted in a set of orthodox beliefs and orthoprax actions (doctrines and practices) that were supposed to guarantee the continuity between Jesus and the present-day church. The central belief was thus the apostolic succession of ecclesial authority, and the central practice was the mystical-sacramental communion with Christ in the eucharist.
Having stayed more or less the same for centuries, things began to change dramatically with the Reformation. While the reformers did not abandon the doctrinal mode of nearness, they did abandon the liturgical mode, replacing sacramental mediation with personal faith. The doctrinal nearness came under scrutiny in the Enlightenment. Modernity saw the rise of historical consciousness, that is, the awareness that everything is situated within a historical context, shaped by causal forces that we both influence and are influenced by. The result of this consciousness was the awareness of the massive cultural-historical distance between ourselves and the first century, a distance that no amount of doctrinal control could overcome. The so-called liberal theology of the nineteenth century—the kind descended especially from Schleiermacher and Hegel—abandoned the attempt to bridge this gap through the repristination of traditional doctrine and instead embraced their historical situation as the unavoidable context for theological thinking.
But of course these theologians could not abandon all continuity/nearness between Jesus and their own time; they simply relocated it. They primarily did so via sociological and psychological means. Schleiermacher did so through his concept of Gefühl, a “feeling of absolute dependence” prior to both knowing and doing. Albrecht Ritschl did so through his more social conception of the kingdom as a spiritual family joined through kinship bonds with Jesus and each other. Wilhelm Herrmann appealed to faith’s communion with the inner life of Jesus. These forms of nearness allowed them to maintain continuity in the midst of what was otherwise a vast chasm between the original community and themselves. The chasm became especially pronounced with the (re)discovery of apocalyptic in the work of Johannes Weiss, which nullified Ritschl’s attempt at finding nearness to Jesus via his sociohistorical conception of the kingdom. If it hadn’t already, liberal theologians eventually made peace with the fact that whatever nearness they could muster with the original apostolic community, it was a highly attenuated nearness nested within an unbridgeable gap that fundamentally divided the modern church from the original eschatological community. The dialectic of nearness and distance became weighted severely on the side of distance.
But coming to peace with this divide meant simultaneously coming to peace with the world—coming to peace with the given cultural and political context as the presupposition for being a Christian in contemporary society. The extreme distance from the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus coincided with an extreme nearness to the kingdoms proclaimed in the present. In the 1870s, this meant that German church leaders were writing tracts calling for Germany to catch up with the rest of Europe in the colonization of Africa and Asia. In 1914, this meant that German theologians and missiologists signed manifestos in support of Germany’s position in the Great War as the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In 1933, this meant that the German Christian Faith Movement arose to give religious support to the Nazi movement, and that German theologians at Erlangen wrote articles in support of the Aryan Paragraph. I will come back to this, but we have to understand this large political context when we look at the rise of apocalyptic theology.
The work of Weiss and Albert Schweitzer rediscovered apocalyptic in a strictly historical sense. Their work, as brilliant as it was, associated the concept of apocalyptic with belief in the imminent parousia, and since this expectation was shattered by the progress of history, it was assumed that apocalyptic, along with NT eschatology in general, was defunct. The concepts of eschatology and apocalyptic were used synonymously by Weiss. It was the genius of Karl Barth to differentiate between these two notions. In the second edition of Der Römerbrief, he declared: “Christianity that is not completely and utterly eschatology has completely and utterly nothing to do with Christ.” This axiom announced the start of a new theological paradigm, a new understanding of the nearness-distance dialectic. On the one hand, Barth rejected the mythical apocalyptic thought analyzed by Weiss and Schweitzer. In a 1916 sermon he denies that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom has anything to do with “a pallid apocalyptic miracle-message,” and in the Römerbrief he dismisses what he calls “enthusiastic-apocalyptic illusions.” In this sense he (and Bultmann, more famously later) affirmed the historical distance between the mythical world-picture of the early church and the world-picture of the contemporary Christian. On the other hand, Barth recovered a genuine nearness to Jesus and the apostles through a creative recovery and reconstruction of NT eschatology, understood now by means of a time-eternity dialectic whereby the eschaton lies on a vertical, rather than horizontal, axis. The eschaton does not lie ahead in the chronological future but rather comes to us from above in the theological future, which is always inbreaking into the present moment. Barth would abandon this paradigm for one that accomplished the same ends by different (i.e., protological) means, while Bultmann remained faithful to it, in his own unique way, until the end. (I do not have space here to defend the thesis that this eschatological theology is a true form of apocalyptic theology, but I have done so elsewhere already and will do so again.)
At the heart of dialectical theology is therefore a deep existential sense of the immediate presence of Christ, of the contemporaneity of the present moment with Christ himself. As the opening epigraphs document, this allowed Barth to make some astounding claims. He could go so far as to say that “a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.” Past and present fuse into a single horizon in the moment of faith—that is, in the moment where the eschatological reality of Christ confronts and disrupts the individual. It would be, however, the height of ignorance and misunderstanding to assume that claims such as these evince a gnostic disregard for history or a tragic failure of responsibility. On the contrary, they display a genuinely courageous responsibility for history that was all too rare at the time.
I would like to illustrate the nature of this responsibility by recounting the story of Bultmann’s stand against the Erlangen school over the Aryan Paragraph. (I discuss this episode in my recent article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation, “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann,” as well as in my forthcoming monograph with Fortress, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology.) I tell this particular story because it is remarkably relevant to the present situation. The Erlangen school, led by Werner Elert and Paul Althaus, defended the Aryan Paragraph on the grounds that the NT rejection of distinctions within the church based on race only applied in the context of a missionary church, a community shaped by the eschatological demand to proclaim the gospel before the advent of Christ. But times are very different today, they argued, and instead of a missionary church we live in the context of a national church (Volkskirche). Our responsibility to this historical situation means that the question of race is back on the table. In other words, Elert and Althaus are saying: We are not the apostles and Germany is not the Roman Empire. They certainly don’t say, “much as we might all wish otherwise”—which is the key, morally significant difference between the two situations—but the similarity between them is undeniable and telling.
Bultmann’s response to this argument is worth quoting in full and demands careful attention:
The fact is that the New Testament knows not a single word requiring the binding of the ecclesiastical office to a certain ethnicity. The Erlangen report says, however, that the New Testament only draws this conclusion for a missionary church. Where a missionary church has become a national church, there the issue of ethnicity must be required for the ecclesiastical office. If this thesis is meant to be taken as a basic principle, then it is to be absolutely rejected. When compared to the nation [Volk] as a worldly-historical entity whose dimensions are constituted by biological factors, the church is always a missionary church. It never becomes a piece of the world, but rather always maintains its transcendent, eschatological dimension. The preaching of the gospel always rings out to the nation, never from the nation.
Notice that Bultmann appeals to the eschatological nature of the church—to the eschatological contemporaneity of the Christian with Christ—as the basis for his opposition to the Erlangen school. The nearness to early Christian apocalyptic is the basis for a critical distance from present sociopolitical institutions and structures. The contemporaneity with Christ prevents one from becoming overly comfortable with the world.
By dismissing this contemporaneity, and by making the progress of world history the normative starting-point for thinking about Christian responsibility today, the position articulated in the posts mentioned at the start of this piece end up repristinating the logic of liberal theology, all claims about a transcendent order of justice notwithstanding. Indeed, despite the talk in the most recent post about the “perfect eschatological society,” there is a conspicuous absence of any language about new creation. The “eschatological society” is merely the infinite perfection (via eminentiae) of the old creation. We have here the political version of natural theology as the projection of the ideal human person upon the being of God. It is clear that when we read about an “eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature,” we are dealing with an eschatology that has nothing to do with the New Testament and, as Bultmann would say, “is to be absolutely rejected.”
Over against this position, dialectical theology—which for me just is apocalyptic theology—recovers the apocalyptic-eschatological consciousness of the apostles within the conditions and context of modernity. To be a contemporary of Christ, for Barth and Bultmann, means relating to the world dialectically: while I exist within a specific historical situation, I am simultaneously “deworldlized” (Bultmann), so that I see the world eschatologically. I come to see our problems as the problems of Paul and Jesus, so that their answers become my own. Australia (or the United States or Germany) is indeed the Roman Empire, and I, in the moment of faith, stand with Paul, with Christ himself, in the expectation of God’s imminent inbreaking—if no longer in the course of world history, at least now in the course of my existence.
Insofar as my sociopolitical action corresponds to and follows from this expectation, it is genuinely Christian action, which fulfills its responsibility to history precisely by seeing this history in an entirely new way. For the one who exists eschatologically, history is not primarily the linear progression of world events but rather the sphere in which Christ exercises his reign through the word of the gospel. Fidelity to Christ does not, therefore, entail fidelity to the social institutions derived from or related to what Christians have done throughout history; it can only entail fidelity to the gospel that, as Bultmann would say, always rings out to these institutions, never from these institutions.