Conference Report: “Karl Barth, The Jews, and Judaism”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 3 (September 2014)

Conference Report: “Karl Barth, The Jews, and Judaism,” 2014 Annual Karl Barth Conference, Princeton Theological Seminary, June 15-18, 2014.

Victoria J. Barnett, General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English Edition

The connections and tensions between Karl Barth’s theological approach to Judaism, his stands on the Aryan paragraph in the early period of the German Kirchenkampf, and their greater implication for the entire period of Nazism and the Holocaust have been explored by theologians and historians alike. Barth is often compared unfavorably with Bonhoeffer on this point, primarily because of the different position he took in September 1933 as to whether the time had come to break with the German Evangelical Church, which at the its General Synod had just passed an Aryan paragraph that would apply to clergy. In a letter to Barth, Bonhoeffer urged such a break; Barth’s reply of September 11, 1933, urged caution at that particular moment, arguing that the best tactic was to fight from within (“we must be among the last actually to leave the sinking ship”). That position has been strongly criticized, particularly in Wolfgang Gerlach’s work on the Confessing Church, and has led to a general assumption that Bonhoeffer was clearer than Barth on this issue not only in the Kirchenkampf  but in his general political critique of Nazism. At the same time, the theological centrality of Israel in Barth’s thought made it foundational in his opposition to the German Christians and Nazism. Eberhard Busch, the dean of Barth scholars, as well as theologians like Mark Lindsay have long argued that Barth’s theological approach to Israel needs to be taken into account in any analysis and conclusions about his role between 1933-1945.

This issue was the theme for this year’s annual Barth conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. While the focus of many of the plenary and session papers was on Barth’s theology, there were several historical papers, including my own plenary remarks. Other plenary presentations included remarks by leading Barthians Eberhard Busch, Mark Lindsay, and George Hunsinger, and papers by Ellen Charry (Professor of Theology at Princeton), who has done much work in this area, as well as two leading Jewish scholars, David Novak (Chair of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Toronto) and Peter Ochs (Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at The University of Virginia).

The result was a far-reaching discussion that covered a great deal of theological and historical territory. In my own paper I focused on Barth’s significance for the early postwar interfaith circles. Barth’s theology of Israel influenced several of the early interfaith pioneers of Jewish-Christian relations. People like Karl Thieme and John Oesterreicher began to incorporate this theology into their thought during the 1930s, and Barth was invited to attend the 1947 Seelisberg meeting of the International Conference of Christians and Jews (Barth was unable to attend). Barth’s student Friedrich Wilhelm Marquardt brought Barthian theology to bear on postwar Jewish-Christian dialogues in Germany. In addition, Barth’s outspoken support for the war against Nazi Germany and his connections to Swiss refugee and German resistance groups (not only his Bonhoeffer connection, but his active support for the activities of Gertrud Staewen and the Kaufmann resistance circle, and the cover letter he signed with Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, Emil Brunner, and Paul Vogt for the Auschwitz Protocol, a 1944 document with details about the death camps that was sent to international leaders) led to postwar invitations to dialogue with Jewish groups.

Eberhard Busch traced Barth’s development both historically and theologically, noting that Barth was incorporating the theology of scholars like Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber during the 1920s; in turn German Jewish thinkers like Emil Bernhard Cohn and Leo Baeck read and engaged Barth in conversation. Even before 1933 Barth was critical of the strong anti-Judaism in German Protestant theology. His attack on völkisch theology was based on three points that were central in his own theology: the notion that Christianity constituted a completely new religion, the rejection of Judaism as a result, and the “orders of creation” theological understanding of God’s law. Busch argued that this led to a theological clarity about Judaism that went beyond that of Bonhoeffer.

David Novak offered an overview of some of the key elements of Barth’s theology that have opened the door to Jewish-Christian conversation, notably his understanding of the law and his emphasis on Christianity’s continuities with Israel. Novak observed that Barth demands that Jews address Christians precisely as Jews, which changes the conversation and makes it possible for Jewish thinkers to engage with Barth’s work in a deeper way. Peter Ochs explored Barth’s interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures and Judaism, noting both the ways in which a Christian (particularly a Christocentric) interpretation of these texts is necessarily supersessionist and yet because Barth affirms the Tanakh there are ways to engage. Nonetheless, the interpretation of these texts from within Judaism itself will always differ from the Christian approach, which references and interprets them retrospectively from the theological standpoint of the Christian gospels.

Ellen Charry offered a much more critical analysis of Barth’s understanding of Christianity, both in light of his Christology and particularly his interpretation of Romans. In viewing the Jews as a people essentially “elected for rejection,” she noted, Barth’s support for modern Judaism was grounded in the supersessionist notion that their existence served the church and the Christian understanding of salvation. Mark Lindsay, author of the recent Reading Auschwitz with Barth: The Holocaust as Problem and Promise for Barthian Theology, acknowledged some of these elements in Barth’s thought, yet argued that because of the continuities he draws from Judaism to Christianity, there are opportunities for post-Holocaust theologians to engage with Barth.

There were several other conference papers of particular interest to historians, including a presentation on the Baptists responses to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, particular the statements that emerged from the 1934 International Baptist Congress held in Berlin by Lee B. Spitzer (an American Baptist scholar in New Jersey); a study of Confessing Church pastor and postwar theologian Helmut Gollwitzer’s understanding of Judaism by W. Travis McMaken (who teaches religion at Lindenwood University); a paper on Hans-Joachim Schoeps by David Dessin (University of Antwerp); and an overview of Barth’s encounters with Judaism in America (Jessica DeCou, University of Basel). In the concluding conference remarks, George Hunsinger (Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton and director of the Barth Center there) stated that the influence of Barth’s theology has shaped Christian understandings of Judaism in a way that does not undo the damage of Christian antisemitism but opens the way for other conversations. The publication of the conference presentations is being planned.