Thursday, January 03, 2008

German Theologians

I don't like admitting when I don't understand something. I'm fine with admitting that I'm not exactly the greatest person in the world at a lot of practical stuff, but if I don't understand something, I either blame it on poor explanation or on the concept itself not making sense. So with the plot of Transformers or the intellectual coherence of Marcus Borg's thoughts about Jesus or the assumptions underlying much of modern source criticism, I'm happy and reasonably confident saying that the emperor does indeed have no clothes. By contrast, with modern particle physics, I was convinced there was something I didn't get, and I went away and worked at it (even after messing up an exam) until I realised that I was assuming that quarks actually existed in a real sense and once I realised that they didn't exist in the same way I had thought they did, it all made sense.

On one hand, I don't want to throw away almost the whole of German-language theology since Kant in the late 1700s. (Added for clarification - up to the publication of Barth's Commentary on Romans in 1919, but still with a lot of rubbish since then.) It's got to mean something, and probably something useful I can learn from. But on the other hand, almost every time I read something theological which was originally written in German, my gut reaction is that it's meaningless overly verbose drivel resting on an absence of underlying logical thought processes.

I don't think it's the theological ideas per se. I can understand Hume and Dawkins and Sanders and Borg and Edwards and Pascal and Calvin and Luther and Wright and even Mowinckel. I don't agree with all of them, and some of them are hard work, but I can at least understand their ideas and see where they are coming from. But anything originally written in German from Kant onwards just seems to make virutally no sense. The same also applies to some English writers who have been heavily influenced by Germans - Torrance, for example.

And it's only with theology. I'm fine reading Thomas Mann (in translation). Just about the only exception is Bonhoeffer...

This leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I think I have the following options:

  • German as a language is fundamentally unsuited to theological thought (but this seems ludicrous - I'm fine reading Luther or Melanchthon, but maybe that's because they did lots of work in Latin). And I know other people who are generally sensible who seem fine reading German theology.
  • There's either some mental deficiency in me or some important underlying concept I haven't grasped or been taught from roughly the time of Kant or earlier.
  • German language theologians, or their translators, look down on Rowan Williams because they think he is too populist and clear. Obscurantism is seen as a virtue.
  • Kant, or someone, made some fundamental mistakes which dramatically undermine his intelligibility to someone who thinks fairly scientifically (which I do). These have been perpetuated since.
  • Monty Python were right

Here's an example of what I mean, from a book originally written in German which is meant to explain modern theology clearly to people who don't already know it.

But Kant immediately adds "we have here to deal with a natural and inevitable illusion," with a dialectic "inherent in and inseparable from human reason". Hence we are not dealing with illusion in the ordinary, purely subjective sense but with an epistemological and anthropological necessity; one might almost say with an existential element of existence. Pure reason simply cannot avoid producing transcendental ideas which have no starting point in observation. Indeed, it cannot but think of itself (as soul), of its object (as world) and of all objects of thought in general (as God). Of these pure "objects" of thought we have no knowledge, "but a problematic concept only." "The transcendental (subjective) reality, at least of pure concepts of reason, depends on our being led to such ideas by a necessary syllogism of reason". Kant struggles with the language in order to grasp these syllogisms, "rather to be called sophistical (vernunftelnde) than rational (vernunftschlusse)" in both their positive and negative implications.

H. Berkhof, Two Hundred Years of Theology, p2

I think I understand some of what it's saying, but it reads too much like the output of the postmodernism generator for me to be sure...


John said...

On reflection, I think it's heavy doses of obscurantism, mixed with the implicit assumption which seems to have been almost universally held by German theologians between Kant and Barth that God does not have an objective existence and does not reveal himself propositionally.

bcg said...

Given your post here,
may I make the following comments..?

'I'm fine with admitting that I'm not exactly the greatest person in the world at a lot of practical stuff, but if I don't understand something, I either blame it on poor explanation or on the concept itself not making sense.'

Or because some people might be cleverer than you..?

'almost every time I read something theological which was originally written in German, my gut reaction is that it's meaningless overly verbose drivel resting on an absence of underlying logical thought processes'

That's a very Custard way of sweeping away an awful lot of theology.. And actually extremely unfair (and not a little arrogant), if you are serious and not just saying it for effect.

'the implicit assumption which seems to have been almost universally held by German theologians between Kant and Barth that God does not have an objective existence and does not reveal himself propositionally'

Do you include Barth in that? If you do, you don't understand Barth and need to read some. Also, was Kant a theologian or a philosopher? I think you'll find he's closer to a philosopher than a theologian. And also that the whole point of Barth's Church Dogmatics is the move away from the subjective towards the objective foundation of theology on the concrete reality (subjective and objective) of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, especially in the life and death of Jesus.

You also highlight Bonhoeffer as an exception - in my opinion he is overrated by bone-numbingly stupid under-educated Anglo-Saxons who can't be bothered to read things with long sentences and difficult words. (See what I did there?!)

More seriously...

I wholeheartedly agree that theologians should make the effort to make their work understandable, if not by everyone (only a few people, like Tom Wright, have this skill), then at least by educated people. I detest the tendency in theology to make things deliberately obtuse (like the exponents of Radical Orthodoxy) for theological reasons: God is not only mysterious, he is also revealed.

However, if I read a textbook on particle physics, about which I know very little, I would understand very little of it. If I spent two or three years studying it, then I would understand it (I hope!). The same is true for systematic theology.

Some educated Christians think they are systematic theologians because they know the Bible really well. They then complain that they can't understand systematic theology. Perhaps they think that systematic theology is the Bible rearranged systematically.

However, this can only come from a deficient view of Scripture, and a lack of understanding of God. Scripture cannot be systematised, because it is not simply a load of pages with ink on. It is the primary way in which God reveals himself and speaks to his people, through the Holy Spirit.

Systematic theology is 'biblical' in a much more profound way than simple proof-texting. It is a systematic exposition of Christian faith, as far as possible in line with Scripture. However, because Scripture is what it is, no systematic theology is a comprehensive expouding of Scripture, and all systematic theology at some point fails to do Scripture justice, or goes beyond it.

That is the nature of all human talk about God, because we are fallen and sinful. The attempt must be made again and again, as an act of worship, and because each attempt is imperfect. That is no reason to dismiss it all - no commentary is perfect either.

I have now been studying theology for nearly five years at the two best universities in the country, and I have specialised in systematic theology. While I by no means agree with all of it, and recognise with Custard that there are some serious questions to be asked about the influence of the Enlightenment on theology, there are some absolute gems in German theology, not least Karl Barth.

John said...

Quick response - my post was partly written because I don't want to write off such a huge chunk of theology and was hoping for pointers.

Yes, I agree that Barth seems to be returning to an objective conception of God, which is why I made him one of the brackets. Maybe I should have been clear that my brackets included Kant (whom an awful lot of theologians seem to count as a theologian as much as a philosopher) but not Barth.

Bonhoeffer might well be overrated (it's amazing what being a modern martyr theologian can do for you), but at least he's comprehensible. I don't think he says much that's earth-shatteringly original or anything either, except for using the phrase "religionless Christianity" OWTTE quite a lot.

And yes, the some people being cleverer than me is a distinct possibility. I know what it feels like to come up against topics I can't understand in physics and maths. And I know what it feels like to come up against meaningless and badly argued rubbish from tools such as the postmodernism generator. The problem is that this often seems rather closer to the latter than the former. When I read bright people summarising what these German theologians have said, I can often see large holes in it, such as the presupposition that God does not have an objective existence.

When I was studying particle physics, I was heavily critical of obscurantists there as well. With a well written paper, you should at least be able to understand the abstract and conclusion, even if you couldn't follow all the mathematics. But I struggle to find a single such example originally written in German between (say) 1790 and 1930.

And, as demonstrated by the wonderful Towards a Transformative Heremeneutics of Quantum Gravity, there is but a very small leap from obscurantism to meaninglessness. Speaking of which, I might do a post on that...

John said...

bcg - I've heard good things about Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg and Bonhoeffer. Could you point me to any German language theologian between 1790 and 1930 who wrote anything that is a) comprehensible b) worth reading and c) not mainly consisting of arguments with holes so big I could drive a fleet of lorries through?

I know this is far more your topic than mine.

bcg said...

I just wrote a long comment and the wretched website had an error when I clicked publish.


bcg said...

Here we go - in brief this time!


To read positively (i.e., people you'll agree with) I would always read mid- to late-20th century theology, because (thanks to Barth) theology moved away from its liberal and philosophical concerns. That was true of most theology, not just German theology - it just so happens that most theologians appear to be German!


Reading negatively (i.e. something you disagree with, but shouldn't dismiss out of hand until you've actually wrestled with it) can also be edifying. So, Barth used to say that his students had to pass through the 'river of fire' (Feuerbach) before they could study theology. You have to understand his argument, which McGrath seems to think is correct, but (with Barth) I think is absurd.

Second, to understand Barth and the move back to orthodox theology, you have to understand Schleiermacher, who's as hard to read as anyone, but is difficult to argue with because of his position on epistemology. Actually, Barth is difficult to argue with as well; that is the point, they represent very different theological methods.

Perhaps those are the main reasons why a systematic theologian would read 18th and 19th century systematic theology - to understand 20th century theology, and to sort out their understanding of theological method.


You would be better to criticise obscure language full-stop, rather than singling out German theology, which I think is unfair. As I pointed out, some modern-day English theology is even worse (e.g. Radical Orthodoxy), and as demonstrated by Kotal, the use of difficult and obscure language is present not only in theology but in science and, I expect, in all academic disciplines, in all languages. People like to sound clever, and when you don't have a proper argument, making it sound clever (in an exam for example) often gets you respect/good marks.


I would agree wholeheartedly that if you are making an argument, you should present it as clearly as possible. If anything, it allows you to see if it's wrong, or has any gaping holes! It makes life so much more difficult when things are obscured by poncy language.

I think that's most of what I said. There was some more, but that's enough!

John said...

On 1 - I suspect that a big part of the reason that Barth is seen as so great is because he pointed out what (now, to me) seems mind-numbingly obvious about the flaws of German theology between 1791 and (having now checked the date of Barth's Romans Commentary) 1919.

On 2 and 3 - I'm fine reading these things in summaries by people who can write clearly. My post (and this is linked into 3) was due to exasperation at trying to understand the book I quoted from. I've now found better stuff (originally written in English). And if I get frustrated by poor use of language in other situations, I'll rant about it here. I think Torrance is guilty of it too often, and so is McGrath in his Scientific Theology (though usually he makes things simpler than possible).

On 4 - it's worth saying that I think good systematics (including, for example, your essay on baptism) makes me think things along the lines "good point", "that was put clearly", "ah yes - linking those things together makes sense and helps me see where people are coming from".

Rowan Williams gets slated a lot for his poor communication skills, but compared to some of these guys, he's crystal clear.

bcg said...

Thanks for the encouragement - just had the comments back from the examiner, apparently it's a 'lively polemic' with 'little evidence of much humility along the way!'...

One of Barth's truly great contributions to Christianity was an intellectual basis for orthodox evangelical faith - but he says some surprising things along the way that many evangelicals today wouldn't like.

I'd love more focus on systematic theology among evangelicals, it helps biblical exegesis, and in all kinds of other ways, not least the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity.

John said...

For which read "you care about what you say" and "you think you're right".

John said...

Worth adding - I mentioned this to a German Christian today, and she agreed...

Anonymous said...

Try Krummacher or Keil & Delitzsch.

Surely your quote from H Berkhof makes a slightly differenet point since Berkhof was Dutch.

In Christ,

John Foxe.

John said...

Though Berkhof intentionally wrote that book in German...