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Related to Dialectical Theology: neo-orthodox
(theology of crisis), a leading trend in European Protestant theology during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was influenced by early German existentialism, which it resembled in its origin as well as basic positions, for example, in the attempt to find support in the writings of S. Kierkegaard.
The profound crisis in European civilization brought about by World War I and its consequences gave impetus to the rise of dialectical theology. The principles of this movement were formulated in 1921–22 in the works of a number of German theologians, including K. Barth, E. Brunner, R. Bultmann, and F. Gogarten. The journal Zwischen den Zeiten, advocating the views of the movement, was established in 1923. The manifesto of dialectical theology was Barth’s book Der Romerbrief (2nd ed., 1922). The founders of dialectical theology established as their basic principle the “dialectical path” to affirmation by means of negation and contradiction. The point of departure of dialectical theology is the futility of all attempts to achieve faith through intellectual speculation or formal worship, that is, through “religion,” which dialectical theology sharply contrasts with “faith.” Religion is the aggregate of hitherto established ways of relating to god, whereas faith is the unforseen meeting with god in history.
Regarding religion as an illusion through which man projects his own image in the guise of god’s image, dialectical theology is prepared to ally itself with the atheistic anthropological views of L. Feuerbach on this point. While it opposes religion as the sum of objectified ideas and actions, dialectical theology affirms belief in a god who is absolutely incommensurable with all that is human. Before such a god, man with all his perfections is compelled to stand with empty hands. God, according to the dialectical theologians, is the “critical negation” of everything, the “utterly unobjectifiable source of the crisis of all objectivity, the judge, and the nonbeing of the world” (K. Barth, Der Romerbrief, Munich, 1922, p. 57). With such premises the position of theology becomes extremely dramatic: it perceives that it is standing between rejected objects and an object-free void and attempts to find a way out of this situation by turning to frankly paradoxical formulations. The position of dialectical theology is close to the philosophical method of M. Heidegger and K. Jaspers.
In historical perspective the doctrine of dialectical theology represents a return to the basic ideas of the initiators of the Reformation—Luther and Calvin. The rejection of religion is the logical culmination of Luther’s rejection of “justification by works.” Dialectical theology thus came out in opposition to 19th-century liberal Protestantism, which was dissolving faith in psychology and religion in the elemental forces of a nonreligious civilization.
The school of dialectical theology declined, above all, because of the political events of the 1930’s; Barth and P. Tillich became prophets of Christian resistance to Hitlerism, but Gogarten joined the pro-Nazi trend of the so-called German Christians. Second, the unstable equilibrium of contradictory tendencies, inherent in dialectical theology, was destroyed: Bultmann proclaimed the “demythologizing” of Christian doctrine; Brunner, in attempting to overcome the nihilistic object-free void of dialectical theology, constructed a new “natural theology” which evoked a sharp response from Barth. An epilogue to the history of dialectical theology was the activity in the USA of R. Niebuhr, who borrowed from his German predecessors their criticism of theological liberalism and social optimism.
S. S. AVERINTSEV