Why Sittler and Barth?

The last post drew comment from my predecessor, who is himself planning an intellectual biography of Joseph Sittler. So I respect him when he says this:
I suspect (although this is just a hunch) that, even though Sittler spoke more or less admirably of Barth when he mentioned him (which was infrequently), the well was poisoned by the mid-century Chicago school environs in which Sittler's theology was incubated. Tillich, Niebuhr, Pauck, Adams, etc. were Sittler's compatriots, and many from that school defined themselves in opposition to Barthian currents. While there are aspects of Sittler that transcend the Chicago-Yale (Barth) divide of the late 20th century, on the whole he would find himself pretty clearly on the Chicago side. This would apply particularly to Sittler's use of historical criticism of biblical texts. I know that Barth's position on HC were complex, but on the whole the late 20th century regarded Barthianism as antagonistic towards the emerging trends in biblical studies.

It's an interesting line of inquiry to push forward the query, as you are doing, as to whether Sittler's own work would cohere with concrete themes from Barth himself (as opposed to "Barthianism"). But my hunch again would be that, for the reasons I've mentioned, Sittler did not immerse himself too deeply in the study of Barth beyond what would have been necessary for him to teach the requisite sections on Barth in his lectures (which are there in the archives). Barth certainly is a non-presence in the bibliographies of Sittler's major works...

But at the same time, I think that misses the point of why I feel compelled by the resonances I find, and the bits and pieces of Barth scattered hither and yon in Sittler. It is kind of my hunch against his at this point, absent a lot of written background sources that we don't have in our collections. I have no intention of declaring Sittler to be a Barthian, exclusive of the various things he obviously is otherwise. But the deeper I get into Barth, below the surface-level "Barthianism" he points out, the more I think declaring Sittler to be a Barthian would miss the point, as so many Barthians do. So what am I doing?

Honestly, some of it is work for my own sake. I saw in Barth, from practically the moment I picked him up, someone whose work could be a model for my own interests. Someone who does Bible for the sake of theology, and theology for the sake of church, and church for the sake of the genuine people involved in it, both pastors and laity. But who does all of those things as parts of a sensible whole, and whose thought was broad and deep and systematic enough to require the whole scope and make it work. I'm an odd duck in the discipline of academic theology, because I spend half of my time in Bible. I'm an odd duck in Bible because I spend all of my time using the critical tools to say theological things. My incoming program advisor said they couldn't make heads or tails of me, because I'm something very old - a Reformation theologian. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do have a hankering for the days when, to be called a theologian, you had to be a Bible scholar. My dream job is Systematic Theology and New Testament, with an option on teaching Greek. But it has always been clear to me that I belong in Theology because I'd have to hack off my right arm to just do Bible scholarship the way it's done. Every textual point I make goes somewhere outside of the text. Barth gives that shape of my brain a solid grounding and direction.

Sittler gives me a way out of Barth, a way beyond him using the same tools. Two points make a line, yes, but given two examples you can begin to make usable abstractions. Most importantly, Sittler gives me a way to stay out of the trap of becoming a Barthian. A way to ask the method questions from enough distance to actually see them, rather than trying to figure out "theological exegesis" by examining Barth's exegetical work, for one example. A place to stand that isn't Barth's, and isn't Sittler's, but is actually mine to do exegesis, theology and ministry from. I doubt that someday someone will have to ask whether I was dependent upon Karl Barth - I can't imagine the evidence will be equivocal. But I pray that nobody will confuse my worldview and his. I, in my Stand, am called and equipped to see and say things neither Barth nor Sittler could have said, because this place and time and circumstance is different from theirs. And Sittler especially, as his own particular brand of constructive theologian, equips me to ask the questions about the world theology addresses here, now, today.


Popular Posts