Review: The Early Karl Barth by Paul Silas Peterson

Book: The Early Karl Barth: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation, 1905-1935 by Paul Silas Peterson

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2018

Overview: Peterson’s book is noteworthy for its efforts to locate Karl Barth within a definite historical and political context, and it excels as a resource for surveying the wide variety of secondary literature and divergent readings of the early Barth. However, it suffers from major problems regarding how it analyzes that material. As such, the book posits several dubious and often baffling conclusions about Karl Barth’s early theology, even while it contributes some novel insights into the historical and political background in which his theology developed.

Let me begin by identifying the two positive aspects of this book. The first is Peterson’s efforts to approach Barth from a historical-critical perspective, locating his development within a wider cultural and political context. There is a tendency in English-speaking studies of Barth (a sin of which I, too, am guilty with my little book on Barth) to de-historicize Barth and lift his theology out of its political and social context. The challenge this book makes to pay closer attention to the historical context of Barth’s theology is an effort that is certainly needed. Peterson is also right to point out the danger of “heroizing” Barth and not to recognize Barth’s own regrets about his failures in the early years, such as his regrets about not doing enough for the Jewish people.

The second positive about this book is the tremendous efforts in research that Peterson undertook, which makes the book a helpful resource for surveying the secondary literature on Barth. Throughout the book, Peterson offers a literature review that would be helpful for any scholar interested in studying the variety of readings of Barth and the texts, both in English and German, that argue for each position.

But with that said, the book suffers from some serious issues. These mostly have to do with the way Peterson interprets the vast material he has compiled, which leads to a polemical and dubious interpretation of the early Barth as a conservative, racist, quietist theologian who contributed to the toxic forces that led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic and, accordingly, was complicit in the rise of National Socialism. Quite damning claims, indeed, but they are argued with a lack of methodological clarity, and thus, as other reviewers have pointed out (Hunsinger, for example), the book is biased and polemical. I was frequently shocked by Peterson’s claims, which seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

For a scholarly book, it is odd that there is no critical reflection on how Peterson analyzes his material. In other words, there is nothing here that articulates Peterson’s methodology, which is likely why he offers up such baffling claims at times. For example, Peterson interprets that the Barmen Declaration “effectively affirmed Hitler’s new political order as ordained by God” (p. 68). This point isn’t argued; Peterson merely states it as fact. And that is precisely the problem with his lack of methodological clarity. Throughout the book, this happens time and time again. On the one hand, Peterson excels at compiling various readings of a text, but, on the other hand, he will then state as fact a wild interpretation of the material, and because he has not outlined how he is analyzing the texts, these claims are baffling and lack any sort of argument behind them. They are merely stated.

Here are a few more examples of some of the most baffling and problematic claims of this book:

  1. Barth did not resist National Socialism (until far too late) but actually “wanted to unify the faith with fascist political ideology” (p. 1). Only later, in 1935, from the safety of Switzerland, did Barth publicly oppose National Socialism. Peterson selectively analyzes Barth’s Theological Existence To-Day! to claim that Barth became apolitical during Weimar and thus adopted a kind of theological quietism in the face of Hitler’s rise to power. But as Chalamet has pointed out, this reading is biased and one-sided, as Peterson largely just ignores the passages where Barth presents a clear critique of the National Socialist ideology. (See Chalamet’s excellent review.) The above claim about Barmen is also a one-sided statement that can only be made by ignoring so much about that document.
  2. Barth is frequently compared to American fundamentalists by Peterson (p. 2, 79, 410), and it is stated that he should be understood as a representative of the cultural “Conservative Revolution” of the time (p. 69, 409). It is also argued that Barth never embraced liberalism but remained a conservative theologian (because, apparently, the son of a conservative family cannot be truly liberal) even while studying with Herrmann (p. 139). Even if this is provable, it is poorly argued. An appeal to one’s family history is not an argument for one’s conservatism (I would be a conservative if that were the case!). Peterson also cites Barth’s teetotalism and his interest in pietism. But Schleiermacher was also interested in Pietism! And Lenin was a Teetotaler (at least in public)! These are hardly arguments for conservatism.
  3. Another fundamental claim made by Peterson throughout the book is that Barth’s anti-liberalism effectively contributed to the downfall of Weimar. Peterson seems to operate with the outdated and dubious “horseshoe” theory of political ideologies. Essentially, this is the claim that the far right and left are effectively identical. So when Barth criticizes liberalism (though Peterson does not do enough to clarify the distinction between theological and political liberalism), he interprets this as a sign of Barth’s conscious or unconscious support of National Socialism. He further confuses the issue by claiming that Barth “stood on the side of authoritarianism against liberalism” (p. 417). Domenico Losurdo has already shown that liberalism itself can be quite authoritarian (see Liberalism), so this claim is again merely stated without analyzing what Peterson means by liberalism and authoritarianism. To operate with such a faulty political analysis is a major flaw in the book. Peterson throws around terms like “totalitarian,” “conservative,” and “liberal” without clearly defining what these terms mean. He thus assumes a limited political spectrum, akin to the faulty political ideology “compass” approach, which betrays a lack of political competency. The “compass” and “horseshoe” approach is widely outdated. It leads to many of these fundamental issues, such as reading Barth’s anti-liberalism as a sign of his conscious or unconscious support of national socialism (p. 366). But if anti-liberalism = conservatism, then Mao Zedong, too, is a conservative! (See his 1937 text, “Combat Liberalism”.)
  4. Peterson also seems to link Barth’s theology with fascist ideology, particularly authoritarianism (p. 391f). This builds upon the dubious political claims about Barth’s anti-liberalism but targets more of Barth’s dogmatic claims, especially his doctrine of God. This reading links the theological belief in the wholly otherness of a free and sovereign God with fascist authoritarianism, or at least with the construction of a fascist ideology. But if that were true, then any theologian who claims God is sovereign, or calls into question the absolute autonomy of human beings, is also fascist (which would be most of the Western tradition).
  5. Peterson further links the development of dialectical theology with the development of National Socialism. He states the “simultaneity of both movements” and writes that “The National Socialists were not only a new kind of nationalism but also a new kind of socialism. The Dialectical Theologians were not only a young avant-garde movement but also a new kind of anti-liberal conservatism” (p. 365). As such, it is claimed that Barth “thought it was acceptable to be both a Christian and a National Socialist” (p. 7). Elsewhere, Peterson seems to link Barth’s doctrine of God with fascist ideology or at least endorses a reading by others that makes this connection (p. 394). These claims mistake form for content. Just because both movements were anti-liberal in form does not make their content the same. This point reflects the dubious “horseshoe” theory, which also confuses form with content by identifying socialism with fascism. That error persists throughout the book (e.g., p. 36, 61, 150, etc.). But, once again, being anti-liberal is not the same as being conservative or evidence of one’s support of National Socialism.

Many more claims could be examined, but this review is not a critique but merely a review. The four concluding sections in the final chapter suffice to show the central claims of the book. First, that Barth must be read historically (a point I agree with). Second, Barth was a theological representative of the Conservative Revolution. Third, Barth was apolitical during Weimar. Fourth, Barth contributed to the “toxic forces that led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic.”

Overall, the book is polemical, one-sided, poorly argued (or hardly argued at all), and often resigns to cheap slander against Barth, such as the repeated use of “Neo-Orthodoxy” (an outdated, polemical phrase) and the occasional reference to Barth’s relationship with Charlotte, which are used when Peterson wants to make an especially sharp critique, which almost felt more like an attempt at discrediting Barth than presenting a scholarly argument.

With all that said, there is some genuine benefit in the tremendous research Peterson put into this book. And for that, it is commendable. But the book suffers, most of all, from a lack of clarity about how Peterson analyzes his sources. It is odd to read a published Habilitation thesis that does not even mention its author’s methodology. The result is a baffling interpretation of well-compiled texts, but there is no argument or basis for the analysis presented, just polemics and dubious claims. While the book certainly points toward the need for historical-critical readings of Barth, it takes all the wrong turns in striving for that goal.

I want to thank Mohr Siebeck for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here. 

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