The Men, The Method: Barth, Calvin

I thought it might be instructive to post some on the differences that inhere between Calvin’s approach to Biblical interpretation, and Barth’s. David Gibson in his book Reading The Decree: Exegesis, Election, and Christology in Calvin and Barth provides a helpful grid for trying to compare and contrast these two virtuosos. He actually borrows, from both Richard Muller and Bruce McCormack, a lense that helps to sharpen our vision for why Calvin’s approach varies from Barth’s, relative to their disparate understandings of election and Christology (and how this then impinges upon their methodological approaches to doing exegesis and theology). In this vein, I thought I would quote a distinction that Muller makes between Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches (as cited by Gibson), and then I thought I would quote a bit of McCormack (as cited by Gibson) to further highlight how Gibson seeks to develop the divergence in approach that inheres between our two famed theologians. Here is Gibson quoting Muller:

In examining the historical differences between [the models for theological systems that we see in Schleiermacher, Schweizer, Thomasius, Ritschl and Barth] and the theological models of past eras, it is necessary, therefore, to distinguish between the soteriological christocentrism of traditional Christian theology, and what can be called the ‘principial’ christocentrism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The former christocentrism consistently places Christ at the historical and at the soteriological center of the work of redemption. In the theology of Calvin and of the Reformed orthodox, such soteriological christocentrism opposes all synergistic and, therefore, anthropocentric approaches to salvation. The latter, a principial christocentrism, may include the monergistic view of salvation, but it will also assume that Christ is the principium cognoscendi theologiae or, in Kickel’s phrase the Erkenntnissgrund of theology. [R. A Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, cited by David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 6]

And then Bruce McCormack on what Muller just described as a ‘principial’ christocentrism (in contrast to Calvin’s soteriological christocentrism):

‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ . . . ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule — not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ — in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understanding of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. [Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, cited by David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 9]

Here we have a central distinction made by both Muller and McCormack in regards to Calvin’s and Barth’s disparate approaches to exegesis and theological reflection. These are significant methodological departures, one from the other, that as a microcosim serve to illustrate two very different traditions that are at play in biblical exegesis and theology today. David Gibson goes on to constructively appropriate what he here quotes from Muller and McCormack, and labels Calvin’s approach as “soteriological-extensive,” and Barth’s approach as “principial-intensive;” meaning that Calvin’s ‘Christocentrism’ and approach was very much so grounded in salvation history and the landscape provided by the text of Scripture itself. While Barth’s approach, on the other hand, was committed to penetrating deeply into the theo-logical assumptions (or inner-logic) that God’s life in Christ implies about God’s person in eternity which has then been given visibility in the incarnation and salvation history.

So it should become a little clearer what distinguishes the two. Calvin’s questions, in regards to election, Christology, etc. are driven by soteriological questions; “on the ground,” as it were. While Barth’s questions by looking at the incarnation in Christ, making theological inferences about God’s life and election from there; and then working back into the text of Scripture and salvation history with these ‘inner-logical’ theo-logical assumptions as the guiding principles through which Barth then endeavors to interpret the text of Scripture — as if Scripture could get nowhere without this ‘Christocentric’ mode in place (as construed by his dogmatic theological assumptions). So Calvin isn’t necessarily looking for Jesus in every nook and cranny of Scripture, at least not in the principled way that Barth is.

I’m afraid that this is where I am going to have to leave this one. Hopefully this has helped to provide a little more insight into the differences between Calvin and Barth, and furthermore; hopefully this helps illustrate how more traditional exegesis differs from a more modern exegesis that we find in Barth & co.

16 thoughts on “The Men, The Method: Barth, Calvin

  1. Thanks for this, Bobby. I’ll have to take issue with the distinction as it’s been pressed here, though, at least with respect to Barth’s christocentrism as “principial.” Let’s not overlook this important part of McCormack’s statement: “Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule — not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ.”

    What you subsequently describe sounds an awful lot like an a priori principle, to me. Barth did not begin with the incarnation (taken from where? apart from Scripture?) and then make “theological inferences about God’s life and election from there … working back into the text of Scripture and salvation history with these ‘inner-logical’ theo-logical assumptions.” The very point McCormack is making is that Barth does not identify something outside of revelation (Christ attested in Scripture) and then take that with him, as a principle, to Scripture. Like Calvin, he operated just the opposite way: from Scripture, to doctrine.

    Here, in Scripture, Barth locates the primacy of God’s Self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, and so believes that he is justified in a christocentric methodology — not so much controlling his reading of Scripture (isegetically) but controlling his approach to other doctrines, as they are given content and form by Holy Scripture.

    If this is what we mean by “principial” then I just don’t think it’s a term that applies to Barth’s methodology. He is far closer to Calvin in how he reads Scripture. If there is a difference between the two at this point, I would think that it Barth’s greater intentionality about the systematic nature of doctrine. So he does have things like the incarnation in mind when he’s reading Scripture, and he’s giving articulation to doctrines viz. that theological priority. This has the benefit of giving his dogmatics more consistency overall, in my opinion — which, pace David Gibson, is evident in Barth’s critique of Calvin on election and supralapsarianism.


  2. Hey Darren,

    Btw, I mean to get back to that last email you sent me (which was very insightful).

    On this, I think your clarification said what I wanted to say much better; so thanks. Have you read Gibson’s book? You know him, don’t you? My impression, with Gibson, was that he was drawing a much harder distinction between Calvin and Barth throughout his book. And that this distinction of principial-intensive vs. soteriological-extensive was doing the heavy work for him in this regard. So Calvin’s approach being more centrifugal (in re. to his “Christocentrism”), and Barth’s more centripetal on a continuum. Is that how you understand the material differences between Calvin and Barth pace Gibson’s accounting?

    When you say, Darren “… not so much controlling his reading of Scripture (isegetically) but controlling his approach to other doctrines, as they are given content and form by Holy Scripture.” How would you parse this out? I think what I was trying to say with my “inference from the incarnation” comment was that Barth sees Christ as the reality of which all of Scripture is intended to signify. Would that be more acceptable to what you’re thinking? I can see how what I said was sloppy though.


  3. And I should add, in re to my last paragraph, I think Calvin wants to see Christ as the reality of all of scripture too. Maybe the difference is the differences that inhere, in general, between Calvin the Augustinian (in ethos), and Barth the Athanasian; would that be a fair characterization do you think, Darren?


  4. I’ve met Dave but I haven’t read his book yet, no. So obviously I can only criticize the “principial” reading of Barth so far. Generally, however (and not in response to Dave), it seems that this sort of mishandling of the basics of how Barth does theology is typical of conservative American Evangelical misreadings.

    I’m not really sure what to make of the illustrations of “centripetal” and “centrifugal” approaches to hermeneutics and the construction of doctrine. I also wouldn’t know what to say to the Augustinian and Athanasian comparisons, unless you want to go through the effort of working those out in detail.

    “How would you parse this out?” Perhaps the most obvious Barth’s doctrine of election — and I know that I really ought to read Dave’s book here, since his entire thesis is to challenge Barth’s reading of Calvin on this doctrine. But in terms of methodology, the point would still stand: Barth derives the primacy of Jesus Christ from his exegesis of passages like Eph. 1 and the prologue to John’s gospel. Jesus is the object of election (we were chosen “in him,” which Barth takes to indicate that our election is derivative and not primary), and Jesus is the subject of election (he was with God in the beginning, and was God — the Logos is a placeholder for Jesus in his full historicality). Other passages on election, such as Romans 8-9, then get read in this light. Thus we get Barth’s famous, christocentric reworking of the doctrine of election. If it is controlled by a “principle” of christocentrism, that is because this principle is derived from Scripture.

    According to Barth’s critique, as you’ll know from reading CD II/2, Calvin simply put the same texts together in a different way. But because he didn’t start with Jesus Christ as the subject and the object of election, Calvin’s doctrine ends up unable to account for Christ very well. Methodologically speaking both are biblically grounded, but (ahem) Barth’s theological exegesis is simply better.


  5. Darren,

    My point on centripetal/centrifugal and Augustinian/Athanasian are ones, at least the latter distinction, that I heard made my George Hunsinger in an interview he once did with GCI. His point, as I recall, was that the Augustinian mode tended more toward starting, methodologically, with soteriological questions; while the Athanasian tended toward starting with Doctrine of God questions. This shift in emphasis would seem to have an important impact, at a prolegomena level, upon how said theologian engaged their theologizing. So it seems to me that this distinction could be, somewhat, applied to Calvin (Auggie) and Barth (Athy), respectively. And so the intensity of christological emphasis, in their respective theological exegesis, would tend, then to be either more centrifugal and/or centripetal. Which is corollary with what you say here: “But because he didn’t start with Jesus Christ as the subject and the object of election, Calvin’s doctrine ends up unable to account for Christ very well. Methodologically speaking both are biblically grounded, but (ahem) Barth’s theological exegesis is simply better.” That’s really what I was getting at in a somewhat cryptic way. In the end I agree with your assessment of Barth’s success juxtaposed with Calvin’s “un-success” in their respective theological exegetical endeavor. Barth’s reification of election etc. fits well with what I have always (nascent) believed by simply reading passages like Eph. 1, Jn 1, etc.; of course w/o the proper theological grammar and nuance (thank you Barth!).

    I think, David does a good job of comparing and contrasting the exegesis between Barth and Calvin on the Romans passage you bring up. And again, I am much happier to go with Barth here. It would surprise, Calvinists (at a popular level), methinks, if they would come to realize how much theological exegesis actually goes into their reading of the text of Scripture. Calvin provides a good illustration of that. My point is, is folks were to be honest about this; Barth then, would not get demonized the way he does in his own theological exegesis! Okay, I’m preaching to the choir now, I’ll stop 😉 .

    Thanks, Darren.

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  6. As I read Gibson’s work here – and I haven’t finished it yet so I don’t know exactly how it works out – he is using ‘principial’ in McCormack’s sense of a methodological rule and not in the sense of an a priori principle. In so doing he actually distances himself from Muller’s own understanding of the phrase – see p. 7 n.23 where he criticises Muller for rescuing the Reformed orthodox from a ‘central dogma’ thesis but in turn, in effect, then imputing this to Barth. ‘Principial’ doesn’t seem to have the flavor of a first principle from which theology or a system can be deduced. Christocentrically principial seems to mean simply ‘intentionally Christocentric’ or something like giving Christology the center so that certain texts are read in light of it – that’s what I take Gibson to be taking Barth to mean.

    Is the book’s entire thesis to challenge Barth’s reading of Calvin? It doesn’t seem to be. I should be able to comment more soon!


  7. in fact there it is on page nine:

    ” This explanation of McCormack’s may be aligned with Muller’s term
    ‘principial christocentrism’, so long as ‘principial’ is understood in methodological terms and not as a referece to an abstract ‘principle’ “


  8. Stephen,

    I think you’re right, that Gibson is ultimately making a distinction between Muller and McCormack, but it is interesting to see how these two are nuanced relative to the different emphases of Barth’s interpreters like Muller and McCormack represent.

    It seems to me that Gibson’s thesis is simply to draw a comparison and contrast between Calvin and Barth (not all that constructive, really … although informative). I think when folks say that about Gibson’s thesis, they are doing so based upon personal insight into Gibson’s own theological predisposition; i.e. that he favors Calvin’s approach vs. Barth’s, methodologically.


  9. I’ve now read all of this book … I think it’s a good piece of historical theology as far as the soteriological-principal disction goes and, as per my comments above, I think Darren should read it as his concerns about the use of ‘principial’ are actually shared by Gibson: he means it in a methodological not a priori sense. He use McCormack to qualify Muller and then develops his own further distinction based on both their approaches. At the same time I found the whole of Gibson’s endeavours pretty disappointing in basically assuming (without any argument) that Barth is a Reformed theologian as much as Calvin. That may be true in a neo-orthodox worldview but hardly so on the terms of classic Reformed orthodoxy. This colors the overall framework of Gibson’s whole thesis and left me pretty disatisfied. I apologize if this is not a sentiment shared here but that’s my view.




  10. Stephen,

    Your evaluation is ironic, since, as I’ve heard through the grape-vine, that Gibson is much more “classic Reformed” himself (and that he favors Calvin’s approach over and against Barth’s). Your view is fine 😉 , but of course on the other hand I would hold that Barth holds to the best part of the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed tradition semper reformanda! 🙂 Have you ever read Barth’s The Theology of the Reformed Confessions — this helped me, at least, appreciate how self-consciously Barth saw himself within the “Reformed” tradition. At the end of the day, of course, it will come down to how we choose to define Reformed; it will be this definition that informs our interpretive decision here.


  11. Thanks for the post-read evaluation of Gibson, Stephen. Bobby, I think you make a good point, and it’s something to which I’m growing increasingly sensitive. What are the core principles of Reformed orthodoxy? Are these primarily doctrines (e.g. election and divine sovereignty construed in a particular way), or are they primarily ethics of the way in which theology is to be carried out (e.g. semper reformanda)?

    While we may want to specify a handful of doctrines, my sense of the tradition and its founding is that the latter ethics are decisive. That’s why there is no single confessional statement of Reformed orthodoxy (as with the Lutheran Formula of Concord), but rather a broad tradition of regional confessions that share a great deal of doctrinal similitude. Even where we would specify some doctrines as necessary to what it means to be in the Reformed tradition — such as election and the sovereignty of God — the ethic requires that these allow for a range of interpretive positions and not a fixed doctrinal expression. This gives Reformed thinkers the freedom to continually re-examine and re-express the truths that are encountered in Scripture.

    Not everyone will draw these boundaries quite the same, but the point is that Reformed thought allows for a range of options — similar to how George Hunsinger describes the Council of Chalcedon as permitting a range of orthodox talk about the Incarnation and not fixing a single expression. On these grounds, one must certainly judge Karl Barth as squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, even if his theology is not ultimately judged as part of “classic Reformed orthodoxy.” The greatest value of classic Reformed orthodoxy, in my view, is that classic Reformed orthodoxy does not have the last word.

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