Nicolai Berdiaev

The Crisis of Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy

A Discussion about Dialectic Theology


Barthianism or the so called dialectic theology is the most important and serious phenomenon in Protestantism, reflecting its inner shock and crisis. The important books by Emil Brunner, The Mediator (1), and the Dogmatic by Karl Barth (2) are the reason to speak about this movement from a Russian Orthodox point of view.

Barth and Brunner have religious temperament and are against the Protestantism of the 19 Century which changed Christianism into a religion of professors. Their direction is a protest not yet against Catholicism but against liberal Protestantism, against religious softening of the bones which began with Enlightment and went further in German idealism and in German Romanticism, but in a new form. This is a cry, a pathetic reaction against German idealism and German Romanticism, against Schleiermacher and Ritschl, against humanism, against the cult of the genius, against the opinion, religion would be a phenomenon of culture. At the same time it is a reaction against optimistic thinking of Man and of history which we find with romantics and idealists of the 19 Century as with rationalistic enlighters of the 18 Century. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Gogarten (3) and Thurneysen (4) want to break the human walls to come to the sources of revelation, to God. But the negation of holy Tradition hinders such a return to the sources of the past. In this movement someone feels a tiredness of human creativeness and human making culture which in Western Europe has darkened God and divine revelation. The protest of Luther and Calvin was also against humanism in Catholicism, against human creativeness in it, against antique art and philosophy.

Kirkegaard played the role of a religious revivalist in the new Protestant movement. He had a very prophetic nature. Kierkegaard considered the transcendental dread as basis of Christendom and was against every kind of immanentism. The dialectic theology of Karl Barth and his followers got from Kierkegaard a tendency to maximalism, to absolutism, to paradoxy. Our Dostoievskii gave a certain inspiration, and he had an influence, but he had a totally another spirit. In his work is Man in the center, and he defends first of all Man, while the new Protestant theology is degrading him. Dialectic theology is a theology of crisis, of a critic turn. It is motivated and inspired more by a negative protest than by positive elements. It is a cry de profundis, but it doesn't show any exit, any positive way. It doesn't teach how to come to spiritual life, to spiritual ascent. For this consciousness isn't possible a human movement to God but only the movement of God to Man. Barthianism confronts sharply a religion of crisis of culture to a opinion of religion as phenomenon of culture. Here it touches the Russian religious thought which has always sharply formulated the opinion of religion as crisis of culture and detected culture as lie, as apparent life which is darkening the truth of God. K.Barth says that in Christ there is a universal crisis of worldliness. Gogarten says, the thought of God is a crisis of all human and therefore also of human religion. This whole movement wants to return from subjectivism of religion to objectivism of the Bible, of Revelation. Individualism is for them modernism. Original Protestantism is neither subjectivism nor individualism. This is characteristic for this current inside of Protestantism which went always on the way of subjectivism and individualism.

K.Barth and his followers have a living feeling of general sinfullness which was lost almost totally in the 19 Century. And sin is considered first of all as damage of divine Law. Faith negates reason, it is a dementia, a paradox. Here is to be seen the influence of Kierkegaard. You can believe only in God. So here is a devaluation of culture, history, social life, which was in the center of the consciousness of European Man. Gogarten says even that religion is not relative, is no relation. Only God remains, Man however and human behaviour must disappear. Tiredness of Man is a fundamental element of this whole current. But at the same time you have a feeling that there is people of a new formation who knows the doubt. They are gone through the critical philosophy of Kant which strong influence you can feel everywhere, through criticism of the bible, through differenciations of the cultural thought. They don't yet have the old naive orthodox faithfulness. The orthodox Calvinists, if there are yet some, don't recognize them as theirs. That is characteristic for every crisis which is always tragic. Men of a crisis never are people of a direct orthodox faithfullness. K.Barth himself, the author and founder of this direction, is weekening the paradoxal character of his thought in his Dogmatic, which was so sharply in his "The Epistle to the Romans" (5). He wants already to build a system, he becomes a scholastic. His Dogmatic is interested first of all in a for a Protestant maximal acknowledgement of the ecclasiastic dogmata through coming near to Orthodoxy and Catholicism. But the eschatologism of the Barthian idea of Christendom is here already week, it is more calm, the crisis is evidently overcome. The book of Brunner "The Mediator" is more in the crisis. And I shall consider more his book than that of Barth.

The whole current doesn't like mysticism, especially Brunner. He thinks, mysticism drowns and swallows the one Christian revelation by a general revelation. For Brunner is fundamental the confrontation of the unique, special, individual Christian revelation and the general revelation of the philosophic idealism, of romanticism and of mysticism. But he sees only Schleiermacher as thinker of a wrong universality and with the contemporaries R.Otto (6). I understand very well the revolt against the Schleiermachian and Hegelian opinion, because it has little in common with the Christian Faith. But Brunner has some misunderstandings. There is a general revelation, but of course not in the meaning that the Christian revelation would be a part of this general revelation. The unique revelation itself is general universal revelation, and therefore all other revelations are subordinate parts of the one Christian revelation. The pagan world was not without every light. Divinity has himself revelated to it, but this was only a shadow of the one and unique revelation, and it was a human-natural way to it. Many teachers of the Church thought in this way. But Brunner has the biggest misunderstanding considering mysticism. Schleiermacher was least of all a mystic. Romanticism and mysticism are different, you have to divide them very sharply. Philosophical idealism isn't mysticism, too. You must go to the classical sources of Christian mysticism. St Macarius of Egypt, St Maximus Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian, St John of the Cross, St Teresa, St Francis of Sales, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso are covered in the work of Brunner by new romantics and idealists. He doesn't understand the essence of Christian mysticism and confuses the special immanentism of mysticism with immanentism and pantheism of the philosophical idealism and of the Romanticism. The meaning of Christian mysticism is the divinisation (theosis) of the creature while seeing the Divine Light. The mediation on the field of revelation isn't the last word of the Christian revelation. Christianity saw at every time the possibility of an immediate revelation. Christianity has always an exoteric and an esoteric aspect. There is wrong and genuine mysticism. Wrong mysticism negates the human personality, human freedom, negates Love as mystic ascent, it becomes monistic and pantheistic. Pantheism isn't genuine mysticism, for it a theosis isn't possible, because all is a priori divine, it doesn't know a pneumatic way. Genuine Christian mysticism doesn't touch personality. In it there is unification of Man with God without mixing up the natures, without disappearing of Man. Only on this condition love is possible. Essential to love is the existence of two persons. There is no love with one person, with full identity. Love is not possible for the Indian monistic consciousness. You have the feeling that Brunner, Barth and Gogarten think that there is no genuine Christian mysticism and true Christian sanctity, that they are discussing delusive romanticism and idealism. But mysticism is genuine realism, distinction and vision of the reality, and therefore highest sobriety. Mysticism is the climax of Christian life. It is Old Testament, prechristian transcendentism which makes Brunner and the Barthians enemies of mysticism. They are to much negatively protesting. Therefore they reject mysticism, popular religion with its mythology and the sacramental-liturgical aspect of Christianity, gnosis and the meaning of the historical concrete. A terrible impoverishment of the Christian Faith is the consequence. Brunner is right when he says that in Christianity all is personal, all is considering personality. Therefore a dialectic theology is possible, a dialogue between God and Man, speaking of God and hearing of Man. In the center is with Brunner and the whole current the choice, the decision. They are always personal. This is always connected with the historic unique. The problem of the history is the problem of the personality. The Indian consciousness doesn't know history and doesn't like to know it, because it doesn't know personality. But in this very point Barthianism is evidently contradictory. Brunner and the other theologians don't think that the historic Jesus is important. Therefore they deprive history of its religious meaning. Historic facts aren't important for them. The life of Jesus was historic and human. That's the difference of Barthianism and old orthodox Protestantism. It is evident that this people knows criticism of the Bible, and that their integrity of the Faith is hurted. Orthodox Protestantism replaced revelation by the Bible. K.Barth wants to return to the pure sources of the revelation. For him and his followers is here a great difficulty. The Word of God which has as Word of revelation objective authority must be defended against scientific, historic criticism which desolated the Bible. For Protestantism is this difficulty greater than for Orthodoxy and Catholicism, because for them is "bibliocraty" not characteristic. K.Barth recognizes the existence of metahistory, and he is right. The concept of metahistory which is inaccessible for historical research is the only answer to criticism of the Bible which may be given out of the depth of the Christian Faith. Metahistory is of course not the same like naive biblicism. There are two methods to understand the Bible, historical-critically, but this method will not come to the last phenomena, will not grasp revelation, the last mystery of Christendom, – and the method of going into the breath of the Holy Spirit in the Bible, the method of an inner entering in the revelation. The first method works with history, the other with metahistory. But K.Barth and his current divide history and metahistory, therefore they build here a dualism, and there is an abyss without any bridge. Metahistory doesn't enter in history, eternity doesn't enter in time. Jesus as the Christ is the end of the time, a paradox, parahistory. That ist right and at the same time not right. A genuine paradox consists in its entering in metahistory and in its influence on history, that eternity enters in time und changes it. The full division between metahistory and history isn't a paradox but rationalism, and such a division is very understandable for a rational consciousness, for the reason. Reason recognizes monism and dualism, but it doesn't want a third which differs from monism and dualism, the Christian revelation. Dividing metahistory and history, Christ of the revelation and Jesus of the history, is finally negation of the Incarnation. That means, Christ hasn't entered history, but was out of it and over it. In this point history remains neutrally, is subdued to secularization and to the forces of historical criticism. It sounds strange, but this point of view is very similar to the mythological theory of the birth of Christendom. Barthianism is a result of a long process of thinking world and Man without God. It is a protest against the results of this process, but belongs itself to it. There is no way to God for Man, world and history, because man, world and history are without God (as result of the secularization). There is only a way from God to Man. But this way from God to Man, the way of the revelation isn't incarnation and becoming Man of God as objective cosmical process, as physical or metaphysical process, but it is only the Word of God, the speaking of God to Man. That is not the ecclesiastical meaning of the christological dogma, the mystery of the Godmanhood of Christ. Christ is mediator, through Him speaks God, in Him is most perfectly revealed the Word of God, the speaking of God to Man. But we don't believe that Christ is the mediator, through whom God speaks His word, but the Godman, the second Hypostasis of the most Saint Trinity. The coming of Crist has an objective cosmical character, and with it is connected a change in the world and in manhood, which overcomes the transcendant abyss between Creator and creature. A creaturely world without God, its being outside of God contradicts the idea of the incarnation of God, the substance of the Christian revelation. This deprivation of God on which insists Barthianism with its extreme anticosmism is the result of a secularization of the European consciousness, that means the weakening of Christianity in this consciousness. Eastern Christianity and specially Russian remained more cosmically and therefore more faithful to the ecclesiastical idea of the incarnation of God.