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Book review: Beyond Immanence: The theological vision of Kierkegaard and Barth by Alan J. Torrance and Andrew B. Torrance

16 February 2024

John Saxbee considers a study of Kierkegaard and Barth as allies

TWO radically contrasting theologians from the 19th and 20th centuries who have become synonymous with Existentialism on the one hand, and Neo-Orthodoxy on the other, are not obviously well suited to a meeting of minds. But Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth speak out of their respective historical contexts into our contemporary socio-political and theological environments in ways that are both theologically compatible and mutually reinforcing. For all their stylistic, cultural, and personal distinctiveness, they pursue a vision that is significantly enriched by comparing and contrasting their respective authorships.

That vision is predicated on their opposition to those who focus on immanence at the expense of transcendence when it comes to making theological sense of why things are as they are, and how they might be transformed into how God would have them be.

Insistence on using “our immanent suppositions, agendas, and conceptualities as foundational — whether these are philosophical or religious . . . ethical or socio-political — simply demonstrates the folly and vanity of constructing Towers of Babel to help us reach God”. Such human-Godward methodologies “reflect de facto repudiation of God’s gracious movement towards us in Jesus Christ”.

This admirably clear and carefully constructed father-and-son collaboration tracks what they call a Kierkegaard-Barth Trajectory (KBT). This involves a shared diagnosis of ills requiring to be addressed; a shared commitment to a theological starting-point from which to redress errors so as to promote authentic Christian faith; and a common care for the social, ethical, and ecclesiological implications of Christianity rightly understood and activated.

Key to the KBT is the centrality of the incarnation and the full magnitude of its significance. There is a shared recognition that “the transcendent God, who is infinitely qualitatively different, has freely determined to address finite, alienated human creatures by establishing kinship with them in time”. At the heart of their Christology is the paradox of the God-man Jesus, who challenges us either to settle for futile, all-too-human strategies for our salvation, or to put our faith in God’s gracious disclosure revealed to us in scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That trajectory set by Kierkegaard was not slavishly followed by Barth. Although he hitched his wagon to his predecessor’s emphasis on God’s transcendence over immanent human categories of thought and experience, and on the mediatorial part played by Jesus as the one through whom God makes it possible for people to attain to a right relationship with God, Barth became suspicious of Kierkegaard’s apparent pietism and self-absorbed existentialism.

The Torrances demonstrate, however, how a combination of reliance on unreliable translations from Danish into German, together with some misunderstanding of Kierkegaard’s dialectical methodology, caused Barth to see Kierkegaard as less of an ally than they show him to be.

Key to the success of this book is its topicality. While Kierkegaard was intent on introducing Christianity into Christendom in 19th-century Denmark, and against the theological backdrop of all-pervasive Hegelian Idealism, Barth was focused on how natural theology, Romanticism, and National Socialism diluted the good news of God in Christ, so polluting both Church and nation. But they were united in affirming the sovereignty of God in the face of human hubris, and the grace of God in reaching out to humanity from a farther shore, which, by faith in Jesus’s transit from eternity into time, is reachable from here.

As we traverse from the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st, this important study reminds us that these voices challenging the myopia of immanence with the prospect of transcendence remain no less applicable to our plight now than they were then.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Beyond Immanence: The theological vision of Kierkegaard and Barth
Alan J. Torrance and Andrew B. Torrance
Eerdmans £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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