Sven Ensminger on N.T. Wright, Karl Barth, and the Aufhebung of Religion

In my review of German-language-sphere scholars’ essays in God and the Faithfulness of Paul, I regrettably overlooked Sven Ensminger’s essay “Barth, Wright, and Theology,” having wrongly inferred from his international education and English publications that he was not a German-language-sphere scholar. While a bit embarrassing for me, this error has the upside that he is now receiving a post of his own!

In terms of content, Ensminger’s chapter provides a concise sketch of Barth’s treatment of revelation, religion, and Christology with some points of comparison with N.T. Wright. It seeks to contribute to the question of the relationship between biblical studies and theology (658), and gives particular attention to the following question: “to what extent can God be bracketed out of theological reflection about a key figure of the Christian church such as Paul in order to consider him as a historical figure with his socio-political background?” (p.656). At certain points Ensminger suggests that Wright has not understood Barth correctly, and, more importantly, he thinks that Barth offers insights that need to be taken into account if one wants to build a theological argument. With respect to his treatment of Barth and Wright on religion, the following quotation struck me as especially central to Ensminger’s line argument: “The problem for Wright therefore seems to be one that reduces religion to its historical and social dimension. Barth’s point, however, is that religion has to be understood within the framework of theology.”

There are two aspects of Ensminger’s essay that I regard as particularly noteworthy from the perspective of a translator. The first is his discussion of the translation of the German term Aufhebung.  Whereas the first edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics had given 1/2 § 17 the title “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion”, Garrett Green regards this as “an egregious error” and “the most important reason” (GFP 653 n. 27) for undertaking his new translation of this key section entitled The Revelation of God and the Sublimation of Religion. Ensminger heartily agrees with Garrett’s criticism of the translation “abolition.” Interestingly, however, Ensminger chooses to leave Aufhebung untranslated in his chapter (unless I missed a case in which he translated it), while rendering aufheben and aufhob with “displace” and “displaced” (p. 654).

As a scholar and translator, this discussion is important to me for two reasons. First, as someone who has profited from reading Karl Barth and those who have been influenced by him (especially Wilfried Joest, Eberhard Jüngel, and Colin Gunton), I am interested in the specific question of how this term should be translated in the work of Karl Barth. Secondly, as a translator of German New Testament scholarship, I am even more interested in how this term should be translated in the authors I translate. This, however, is not straightforward, for even if Ensminger is right about Barth’s usage, I cannot necessarily assume that my authors are using it in the same way Barth (or Hegel etc). For example, how should I translate it when Michael Wolter entitles his heading for Luke 6.27-38: The Aufhebung of the Principle of Ethical Reciprocity? Should I translate it with “Sublimation”? Perhaps. Or should I use “Displacement”? Perhaps. Or would “annulment” or “sublation” be better? Perhaps. For better or for worse, I used “nullification,” and for better or worse it is too late to change this! Still, as a way of shedding further light on my own experience of translation and its challenges, let me conclude this post by briefly shedding some light on my thought process in reaching this decision. In my translation of Aufhebung in Wolter, I knew a) that “abolition” was potentially a problematic translation and b) that various authors used this term in specific and loaded ways, but c) I was somewhat uncertain about how exactly Wolter was using the term, and d) I did not feel like I had a complete overview of what the best options might be to choose from. It is true that I considered “sublation”, but I found this term to be a bit too opaque (which often evokes the displeasure of readers), and I was also worried that it might convey a more technical meaning and more loaded associations than Wolter intended and that the associations with Hegel might be undesired. Still, perhaps these considerations should have been outweighed by others? Or perhaps this should have been one of the issues that I discussed at greater length with Michael Wolter (I cannot remember whether or not this was one of the specific issues that I asked Wolter about, but if it was, it did not lead to a change to my translation). I do remember that my co-translator Christoph Heilig alerted me to important dimensions of the term’s meaning, but even in light of his clarifying comments, I retained “Nullification”, regarding it as a term that conveyed that something continued to exist but no longer had the same status or power as it previously held.

I will have to give further thought about whether to translate this term with “sublimation,” “sublation,” “annulment,” “nullification,” or “displacement” in future translations, and I am certainly open to suggestions on how best to proceed! 

For a helpful discussion of Hegel’s usage, which is relevant for thinking about the issues raised in this post, see here.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne

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