Dialectical Theology

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Coming as a reaction to Protestant liberalism, dialectical theology, sometimes called the theology of crisis, appeared as a movement among European Protestant theologians right after World War I. It is represented in the works of K. Barth, F. Gogarten, E. Thurneysen, E. Brunner, and R. Bultmann. Initially, all the members of the group employed the pages of the review Zwischen den Zeiten to echo the message Barth proclaimed in the second edition of his Römerbrief (1922): God's absolute transcendence, the sovereignty of His revelation in Jesus Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, and the emptiness of man, simul justus et peccator, before God.

Barth's starting point was God's "critical negation" (hence the movement's alternate designation) of all man's endeavors to be religious. God remains totally other even in His revelation, for His eternity and the temporality of human existence are altogether disparate. He does not enter into history in order to be captured by time. Rather, in salvation history the sovereign action of God touches man's world somewhat as a tangent brushes the circumference of a circle. The Word of God in Jesus Christ is, however, not merely a negation. In Him God also accepts man, so that Christ at one and the same time reveals God's wrath and His mercy.

About 1927 Barth appears to have modified his view of the dialectical situation of man. Especially in the Kirchliche Dogmatik (193267) he substitutes the positive notion of God's fidelity for the critical negation. Thus his theory merits the designation "dialectical" less than previously.

The other representatives named above supported Barth's affirmation that revelation and faith transcend all historical information and religious experience. Seeds of disagreement were present even initially, however, for Gogarten, Bultmann, and Brunner could not accept without reservation what Barth said of the radical opposition between time and eternity. From 1926 on it was evident that each of them had a peculiar and personal understanding of what dialectical theology is.

For Gogarten its basis is our recognition that we have no knowledge of God which is not, at the same time, knowledge of ourselves. Bultmann, in his own manner, thinks of the existential situation (historicity) of man and his speech concerning God (see existential theology). Brunner makes much of the "formal" opposition between man's being a sinner and, at the same time, made in the image of God.

These are obviously different approaches; but they have in common the consciousness of the necessity of a simultaneous "yes" and "no" concerning man before Godthe dialectics of human existence. Barth would seem to go a step further in saying that nothing at all can be known about this existence of man save in the Word of God.

These theologians did a great service to Protestant Christianity by calling attention to the errors of liberalism. They did not escape ambiguity, however, especially when they discussed created existence, temporality, and how these are affected by the gracious love of God.

Bibliography: h. bouillard, Karl Barth, 3 v. (Paris 1957),v. 1 Genèse et évolution de la théologie dialectique. h. u. von balthasar, Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie (Cologne 1962). j. fehr, Das Offenbarungs-Problem in der dialektischen und thomistischen Theologie (Freiburg 1939).

[m. b. schepers]