Digging up Footnotes

Once upon a time, some weeks ago, I said something to the effect that the mistakes brilliant theologians make are easier to handle because they get so much else right. For the record, I was mistaken. There is nothing simple about any of this. Errors in stupid people and brilliant people alike involve ripping out sections of supporting problems in order to correct. However, sometimes brilliant people weave their mistakes far more tightly together into everything else. It lowers the fault-tolerance of the system, because the fix is no longer a simple modular swap. Sometimes, the only leverage to be gained is to move the earth on which it stands.

Tracking Jenson's sources in "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went" tempted me to discard this 1993 article as not worth the trouble. Surely he's changed his opinion at least somewhat since! Surely I can deal more pleasantly with other pieces, right? But in spite of the hooks back into The Unbaptized God and forward into Jenson's own mature doctrine of God, this piece ultimately isn't about Jenson. It's not what he does. It's a sideline of a sort. But it's still a serious challenge. One must understand the flaws to build something better to replace it. (As an analysis of Barth.)

So, for my own sake in arguing with it as a young Barth scholar, I did up a "study edition" of the original article, in which I took Jenson's source citations from the KD in the footnotes, tracked them down from the German edition into the English, and added proper CD pagination along with expanded textual context, in dual languages where necessary. (For the record, I own no rights to any of these materials; I just did the editorial schlepping necessary to combine them in what I hope is a more useful fashion for discussion of the merits of the article. If someone wants it down, I'll make it disappear.)

Why? Because what else do you do when you're reading a paper, and the author seems to have read a different work than you have under the same name? (Even when you assume, as in this case, that he's read it better than you have…) You dig up the footnotes and check how good they are!

This won't be the first time someone has knocked Jenson for not referring to readily-available English versions of things in his citations. All of his references in the article are to the Kirkliche Dogmatik—he never even says "Church Dogmatics" in the text—but none of them are noted one way or another. Not very friendly, hence the rework linked above. Still, not a problem, because the citations in the notes are correct, and one can find them in the referenced work. That leaves the question as to whether the understanding demonstrated compares favorably.

Now, I was already cranky because there was no bottom to the rabbit-hole in sight while I was trying to sort Jenson's ecumenical ecclesiology issues out from among actual bits of Barth. I've spent years on Barth, and I haven't spent years on Jenson, but one could easily do so, and there are a number of people who have—not counting the wealth of people who count themselves his students. And on my first touch of the ball, I had already pointed to Jenson as not being the most sympathetic of readers to what Barth was doing. I didn't like that. I'd rather be wrong. I don't want to be the guy that tilts at senior scholars to score points. I'm interested in the ideas. But the ideas didn't match up. And I'm not sure the citations do, either, besides noting the absence of large chunks of Barth's schematic. Jenson is aimed squarely at the end of I.1 and at IV.3, bracketing the entire enterprise without really touching much in the middle. And that's still where I see the major flaw. But I find myself having to argue with his use of even the pieces he does touch.

Some people have an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. I don't believe in an ontology of evil, but I do have Dick Feynman on the other shoulder. And when Dick Feynman sees a bad idea, he says so, and proceeds to take it apart to get at why it doesn't work, and what would work instead. Only afterwards does he realize there was a person there. So usually I try to keep Dick occupied doing something useful in the back room, because he's useless at PR. (On the other hand, I couldn't possibly write a dissertation without him.)

Anyways, Dick had already been piqued by the comparison between what he understood and what Jenson seems to have, and started pacing and thinking and scribbling notes as usual. So he looks at the footnoted passages in comparison with Jenson's use of them, grumbles, and goes back to work. I won't impose him on you yet; you can judge for yourself. I've tried to keep from editorializing in the "study edition." There are a couple of footnotes where I've done my best to pick the text charitably where I couldn't tell exactly what Jenson was referencing. But there are definitely a couple where I am certain, and I really wonder at the difference.

I'm not going to do more than this in the current post, except to say that I do owe Jenson much for the opportunity to do this kind of deep digging in CD IV.3. And for posing such a non-trivial problem in his arguments, too! I have my own worries about the integration of pneumatology and Christology in Barth now, and they complicate the hell out of what Jenson wants as a good Trinitarian—but in very different ways. Anyways, check it out. These are some interesting pieces of Barth to argue over in the footnotes!


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