138 - The Barth-Bultmann Correspondence

The Barth-Bultmann Correspondence
By H. Gerhard Grau

The newly-published letters between Barth and Bultmann "give us new information about the intensity of their relationship. Of course, in this correspondence one does not find a brand-new theology. What is so fascinating about them is that theology is done here in a personal context. One observes how these two theologians as persons wrestle with the frontiers of faith and knowledge in the personal medium of letters."

THE first volume of the total Barth has recently been published. 1 All the letters and postcards which Barth and Bultmann wrote to each other over a period of five decades are printed in volume one. This consists of 30 letters and 33 postcards from Bultmann, interwoven in chronological order with 25 letters and 10 postcards from Barth. In addition to these significant letters one finds 40 documents of a theological and personal nature. They are directly related in one way or another to the issues raised in the correspondence. The editor has provided a comprehensive index and added extensive footnotes, explaining obscurities, citing journals in which articles are found under discussion, identifying persons mentioned, and placing important issues in proper historical perspective.

The book is the first volume in series V (letters) of the planned Karl Barth complete edition. It is proposed that the total edition will contain some 70 (1) volumes in seven divisions.2 It has often been said that Barth's Church Dogmatics of 13 volumes, totaling some 8000 pages, can only be compared with the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. But measured by the sheer weight of the proposed 70 volumes of Barth, Thomas has to move back. This may well be one of the greatest publishing enterprises in theological


H. Gerhard Grau, a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary, was born in Germany, received his A.B. degree from Baldwin-Wallace College and his B.D. degree from Princeton and is currently working on a dissertation dealing with Schleiermacher.
1 Karl-Barth-Rudolf Bultnwnn Briefwechsel 1922-1966, ed. by Bernd Jaspert, Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971.
2 The divisions are: Dogmatica, Exegetica, Homiletica, Ecclesiastica/Politica/Oecumenica, Epistolae, Historica, Varia.


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history. Even such giants as the Reformers must beware. With 70 volumes Barth will clearly bypass Calvin, the founder of his reformed tradition with almost 60 volumes in the Corpus Reformatorum. Luther, in his fortress of the Weimar edition with some 90 volumes, is put on warning! One can only imagine what it takes to consolidate 70 volumes of primary material into a one-volume biography of Barth. There is certainly enough material to whet the appetite and sharpen the skills of some young bright historians.

I

To start this library of Barth with promise and success, the editors made a good move to publish first the letters between these two great theologians of the twentieth century. Friends and foes, and both have many of them, would agree that Barth and Bultmann are the theologian's theologians of this century. Those who cared to chisel out their own theological convictions had to orient themselves to these two men. Barth and Bultmann stand at opposite ends on the map of recent theological history, for doing theology in Basel differed dramatically from doing theology in Marburg. It is also known that in the early battles of the "crisis theology" both men fought the same enemy. What was not known is that there was such an intense relationship between the two.

From Church Dogmatics and Barths essay, "Rudolph Bultmann: An Attempt to Understand Him," as well as from some occasional remarks by Bultmann, one could gather that there was more than a superficial relationship between the two. But these new letters give us new information about the intensity of their relationship. Of course, in this correspondence one does not find a brand-new theology. What is so fascinating about them is that theology is done here in a personal context. One observes how these two theologians as persons wrestle with the frontiers of faith and knowledge in the personal medium of letters. To be sure, it was never a close friendship between the two, for they never used the familiar Du over against the more formal Sie. However, Barth and Gogarten did use the familiar form (p. 234).

Barth as well as Bultmann emerge in these letters as persons, with strengths and weaknesses. It is fascinating to read about visits to their homes and families. Both try to maintain a common front in the early stages of their theological development. Bultmann repeatedly emphasizes what they have in common. They exchange sermons and articles before sending them to the printer. Bultmann, for example, before he published his review of Barth's Letter to the Romans, sent it to Barth for his assessment. Barth returned it with the request for some changes. Bultmann yielded to some of them.


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But this correspondence shows also that there were differences right from the start. Barth offered tactical strategies so that their differences did not become public. In the late forties Barth wrote to Bishop Wurm that the difference between him and Bultmann in the early twenties was only a "difference of nuance" (p. 287). And indeed, these letters show that the difference existed more in style than in substance.

The relationship became more chilled as Heidegger appeared on the scene. Barth was as cold to Heidegger as Bultmann was excited about him, and Bultmann tried repeatedly to get Barth and Heidegger together. Barths negative attitude towards Heidegger was not directed at him as a person, or against his particular philosophy, for be freely admitted that he did not know his works. Rather, Barth's negative assessment of Heidegger was motivated by his well-known general conviction that theology has to be free from philosophy. Bultmann never made this break so completely. As early as 1922 he could not understand why Barth was so devastatingly critical of Schleiermacher. In one of his letters, he cited some pages of Schleiermacher's Speeches, which indicate that the beginning of our faith rests in a historical miracle. Barth quickly responded in a letter, "The devil shall get him!" He just could not stand Schleiermacher. For Barth theology had bowed down long enough to philosophy, and it was time that it stood again on its own feet.

II

This famous theme of Barth's is disclosed particularly in the rather extensive correspondence which developed around his Christliche Dogmatik of 1927. Bultmann sent Barth a long list of critical remarks, emphasizing that these were written as an appreciation a--"critical thank you" (p. 80). One of his major critiques-which he had voiced consistently since the Römerbrief- was that Barth's concepts were not clear and clean enough. He also argued that Barth's repeated refusal to use modern philosophy results in the acceptance of an outdated patristic and scholastic ontology. Bultmann agreed with Barth that it was correct that a dogmatic theology, to the degree that it is a systematic one, should have nothing to do with philosophy. But Bultmann asserted that it was equally correct for theology to learn from a critical (ontological) philosophy. Only then could systematic theology remain free and use philosophy as the ancilla theologiae. "But the ignoring on your part, Bultmann wrote, "is only an apparent one" (p. 81).

To read Barth's reply is a moving experience. It was, be said, a "festive moment" to read Bultmanns critical letter. For the first time he has read something against his dogmatics which he should


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earnestly consider. He speaks of his own limitations and tells Bultmann that he may be asking for something which he may not be able to deliver. On the other hand, Barth asserts that the use of modern philosophical concepts would have hindered his major objective, namely to let the Bible and the church speak. To this end Barth admitted that he used Aristotle for a while.

Barth subsequently shifted from the Christliche Dogmatik to Church Dogmatics. Was Bultmann's "critical appreciation" a major reason for the shift? It may well be. But if Bultmann contributed to the change, Barth certainly did not march in the direction that Bultmann would have liked to see him move.

While the two theologians critically discussed the relationship between philosophy and theology, another difference emerged. Bultmann repeatedly invited and encouraged Barth to come to Marburg for discussions, but history shows that Swiss theologians have a rather hard time in Marburg. One has only to think of the heated controversy which took place in Marburg between Luther and Zwingli. This historical parallel does not of course suggest criticism but to the way it was carried on in Marburg. He disliked the "cross-examination" or "trial-like form" of discussion. The correspondence shows that these "police like" methods of discussion at Marburg, at least as Barth conceived them, clearly strained the relationship between the two.

The personal contact intensified again as the Nazis rose to power in Germany. Barth was totally surprised to see Bultmarm joining the Confessional Church rather than the German Christians. Bultmann was both shocked by Bart's surprise as well as relieved, since it showed that Barth had misunderstood him. Barth clearly acknowledged that he had misjudged him and that his fundamental assessment of him had gone wrong somewhere.

Bart's general observation was that all theologians who had in one way or another a positive relationship to natural theology "could become German Christians and mostly became so temporarily or definitely" (p. 153). As for Bultmann's decision not to become a German Christian, Barth asked him for forgiveness. However, since Heidegger as well as Gogarten became German Christians, he pleaded with Bultmann to explain to him why he could not become one.

Although both theologians joined the Confessional Church, their conception of the confessing stand as well as the struggle against the Nazis was different. Their relationship again became strained as Barth refused to take the German oath. Here Barth was too


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fundamental and radical for Bultmann. To ask the state to make a change in the oath was too much for Bultmann's Lutheran stomach.

III

Yet, in the midst of Germany's darkest history, Barth's humor illuminates the pages. Bultmann had to cross the channel in order to receive a honorary degree from St. Andrews, and since Barth had received the same honor from Glasgow some years before, he asked him for some practical advice, e.g., if he had to give a speech, if he had to buy a gown or hood, etc.

Barth promptly replied to Bultmann's request. "No, you don't need to give a speech there. . . . But when the president speaks during dinner, be sure you are very alert, so that you can smile charmingly at the moment he mentions your name. . . . I bought the colorful hood, although it cost me four pounds. Here in Bonn I am running around with it so that the professors of medicine think I am the legate of the Pope. The honorable act itself is quite festive. I bad to kneel down like at confirmation and someone murmured incomprehensible Latin over my head, while the students were allowed to make their customary noise. . . . All in all you will have fun which one indeed needs today" (pp. 160-161).

Normally one hears such stories only from Barth's former students, but Barth's humor shines throughout his letters. A sentence here, a paragraph there, sometimes a whole letter shows this side of him. Throughout these letters one gets to know these men as persons and how they professed and practiced their theology in their concern for each other.

The edge of wit in these letters does not hide the underlying seriousness. In 1927 Barth published in his journal, Zwischen den Zeiten, a Christmas sermon from Bultmann right next to one of Calvin. Barths surprising assessment was: "these two voices will sound very well next to each other" (p. 75). In 1935 the situation was quite different.

Barth was in his native Switzerland, and Bultmann sent him two sermons with the request to publish them in Theologische Existenz Heute. As Barth was in another country, Bultmann added, he was unable to send stamps along in case Barth would reject his sermons. He had good reasons to expect that Barth might return them, for in the same letter he delivered a frontal attack on Barth. After expressing his appreciation of some of Barths recent essays, he picks apart his sermons and Bible lectures. The biblical text, Bultmann charged, is interpreted through a dogmatic formula and does not speak with its own voice. After one has read only a few sentences, Bultmann said, one already knows everything Barth will say. Only occasionally the reader asks himself how Barth will be


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able to draw something out of the text. BuItmann argued that the element of Kierkegaard which was once such a powerful mark in Barth as well as in Thurneysen has now disappeared. "Kierkegaard knew how to do exegesis!-And You? Yes, you preach much clearer and stronger in your systematic essays than in your sermons; and there I hear also through your word the word of Scripture" (p. 163).

This is indeed aggressive, biting, critical language. While it certainly was bad public relations strategy for Bultmann to ask for publication of his work and at the same time be so critical of the editor, they were theologians, not politicians. It is precisely the honesty and straight-forwardness of both men which is so intriguing about this correspondence. "It would be a test of our togetherness," Bultmann writes, "if you would take these sermons into the Theologische Existenz" (p. 162). But he would not mislead Barth and, therefore, be bad to express his negative assessment.

After Barth enlisted Thurneysen's assessment, he indeed sent the sermons back to Bultmann, even though return postage was not supplied. Both Barth and Thurneysen agreed that Bultmann's critique cannot be dismissed, and does not rest on an error. Instead, they found Bultmann's sermons bad and boring. Christ was not proclaimed but the believing man was explicated (note, that was in 1935!). In spite of biting criticism and honest evaluation Barth expressed the hope to see him again soon. Both sent greetings and wished each other a Merry Christmas.

IV

The correspondence was picked up again after World War II. Many events had taken place in the meantime, including Hitler's destruction of the very fiber of Germany's social structure while theologians discussed the value and significance of myths!

In 1950 Bultmann wrote a letter of 23 pages to Barth in answer to his publication Rudolf Bultmann: An Attempt to Understand Him. With page references to Barth's essay, he tried to clarify and defend his position, The content of that debate is history. What is so fascinating about this letter is not the debate about specific theological issues but Bultmann's personal assessment of himself. For here is not a theologian who has subtle and settled answers, but one who searches. Barth had charged Bultmann with being bard to understand. Bultmann answers by raising the question, "Do I understand myself? As I stepped on the road of demythologization I aid not know yet where the road would lead me, although I believed I was sure of its direction" (p. 169). He closes the extensive letter with a touching quote from Mozart's "Figaro,"

"How could I be angry?
My heart speaks for you!"


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It is a moving experience to read these post-World War II letters. Both men send each other some of their publications and wrestle honestly with the decisive differences which kept other theologians busy around the world. Although they disagreed sharply and vehemently, there was always respect for each other.

This aspect of decisive theological difference but respect for Bultmarm as a person comes especially to the fore in a letter which Barth wrote to Bishop Wurm. It is not only a long but also a great letter. Everyone who has to deal with heretical charges or movements should read it, for it shows us Barth not only as a historical dogmatician and critical theologian, but as a true pastor.

Wurm had been asked that the church should take some action to protect students from what some conceived as Bultmann's heretical Christological interpretation. He turned to Barth for advice. While Barth described the theological development of Bultmann, his achievements, and worldwide reputation, be defined and clarified theological concepts and interpretations as he understood them. But the major point of the letter is that Barth did not see how one could make the church immune to the false negation of Bultmann as long as it was not clear if this church stood on that place where she should stand according to its confession to her resurrected Lord. Barth suggested that Bultmann might be willing to give up gladly his "heathen ontology" (p. 294) if he was surrounded by a church which put into practice and exercised her faith in her proclamation and orders, in her polity, and in her relationship to state and society at large. What was needed, Barth said, were not heretical charges but pastors in Marburg able to embrace Bultmann and his students with not only a faithful congregation but a lively and vigorous one. Barth, by the way, sent a copy of this letter to Bultmann.

V

The letters between Barth and Bultmann pose a question which they neither addressed nor answered in their general scope. Arising out of the just-cited pastoral letter of Barth, the question is the relationship between proclamation and praxis, preaching the Word and living in the world. We have heard for years now that to preach the gospel means not to settle man but unsettle him. Here we are at the very heart of the situation in which the church in America finds itself today. Many congregations live under the dichotomy that they value comfort more than community activities. Ministers ask their churches "to pick up their beds and walk," but congregations are reluctant to engage in social witness and ask instead for more "spiritual food." Is there a way out of this dilemma?

Barth spent a considerable part of his practical life addressing himself to this problem. He did not preach regularly in the prestigious cathedral in Basel but proclaimed the gospel faithfully in


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the city's prison. As Barth returned to Europe from his historic visit to the United States, he said in a TV interview that he was astounded by the disastrous prison conditions in the States. He was even more disappointed that the church did not do much about it. This was in 1962 before it was fashionable to talk about prison reform.

A former student of Barth's has commented that his teacher was at his best in areas in which he did not publish. That may be an overstatement. But for many readers, Barth's letters and other more informal writings, which are now coming to the fore, have a more compelling and arresting ring from a theological perspective. The letters certainly arouse an eagerness to see how Barth translates in a specific situation the theology of the Word into a theology for the world. Some have argued in recent years that the "word" has grown old. That assessment is questionable. One has only to think of his bold interpretation of the imago Dei. Created in the image of God means that the inner trinitarian life of God is reflected in the relationship between man and woman. His interpretation of the Humanity of God is a profound one. What will be interesting to observe is what the Humanity of God looks like in a concrete case. Some of Barth's actions give us a hint.

During the 1960's a movement called "No Other Gospel" developed in Germany. Its purpose to a large extent was to protest the theological interpretation of Bultmann and his school. The followers gathered for a big rally and wrote a confessional statement. Since Barth had stood once in Barmen, and since he had fought off Bultmann for the last several decades they had good reasons, so it seemed, to ask him for his assessment. They expected he would be sensitive to their cause. But Barth did not wrestle with the dogmatic issues of the confession; instead he turned the question around and directed himself to the same issue as he did in his letter to Wurm in 1947. He asked if they were also willing to get a similar movement or crusade rolling against the rearmament of the German army with atomic weapons, against the war in Vietnam, and for a peace treaty with the East European states with acceptance of the 1945 borders. "If your 'correct confession," Barth wrote, "to Jesus Christ who according to the witness of the Bible was crucified and resurrected for us, encompasses and expresses this, then it is a 'correct,' valuable, and fruitful confession. If that is not encompassed and expressed by it, then it is in its entire direction 'not correct'; rather it is a dead, cheap way of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel, and therefore a pharisaic confession."

VI

This certainly is a different Barth than the "scholastic" one found in much secondary literature, and also a different one than many


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saw and interpreted from the Church Dogmatics. At the present time the trend in Barthian interpretation seems to argue that social witness is the spin-off from the Word. That is the aggressive thesis of Wilhelm Marquardt's interpretation of Barth. His book created a controversy in Germany even before it was publisbed. 3 In addition, Helmut Gollwitzer, one of the leading interpreters of Barth, has blown wind into the same sails. 4 He asserts that in Barth the unity of theology and politics is indeed carried out and that the Church Dogmatics can be read as an instruction book for the praxis of the gospel. Gollwitzer argues that Barth was much more politically active than has been recognized heretofore. To this end the publishing of Barth's sermons, for instance from his time at Safenwil, may well shed some light on the problem.

In the complete Karl Barth edition an entire volume is planned on "socialistic lectures," as well as one on Schleiermacher. Barth's personal concern for bringing the message of the Bible to bear on social issues was so large that he wrote in one of his letters to Bultmann that he would rather "go to hell" with the socialists than accept a theology poisoned with philosophy. One is almost eager to see how his volumes on ethics will shape up. And what about Barth's position on the Christian life? Church Dogmatics IV/4 deals only with baptism from the point of view of reconciliation and is, therefore, fragmentary.

Almost a decade has past since some theologians celebrated the "death of God." That meant for many also the death of Barth. Many students of theology regarded his Church Dogmatics as scholastic, too dry, too ivory-towerish, in short too much removed from the newspaper (although in a positive sense the phrase was coined by Barth himself). In the time that followed, theologians rode the waves of all kinds of pop theology.

The situation has changed somewhat. More and more students of theology discover that it does not help to stand with almost empty theological concepts in front of the fullness of life. Some are restless, searching, and longing for a viable theology which drives theological power into the stagnant wheels of social concerns. In a time when society cracks and crumbles from internal strain as well as external pressure, the church has a mission. In order to fulfill its mission, it has to have a message with muscle.

VII

Those who find Barth's Church Dogmatics too ponderous, his detours into the byways of history too boring, his longwinded ex-


3 Wilhelm Marquardt, Theologie und Sozialismus. Das Beispiel Karl Barths, München/Mainz, 1972.
4 Helmut Gollwitzer, Reich Gottes und Sozialismus bei Karl Barth, 1972.


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positions too wooden may be eager to read Barth when he addresses himself to a concrete case. To watch Barth in a specific situation is a fascinating experience. Here he is not dry but exciting, not predictable but controversial, and always theologically motivated. Not much of this side of Barth was known in the past. But the situation changes with the proposed plan to publish a wealth of material in which Barth addresses himself to a broad scope of issues.