Karl Barth and Covenant Theology

Karl Barth engaged heavily with his perception of the Post-Reformation orthodox/scholastic theologians of the 17th century, primarily (early on anyway) as mediated through Heppe. Rinse H Reeling Brouwer in his recently released book Karl Barth cropped-barthderspiegel.jpgand Post-Reformation Orthodoxy provides very good insight into how Barth engaged with this period of theological development, and how he (Barth) constructively appropriated the grammar of orthodoxy in his always reforming kind of way. As follows Reeling Brouwer gives us his insight on how Barth engaged with the Federal theologians and their concept of covenant (foedus), and in addition Brouwer highlights what he thinks served as central components for how Barth indeed received the concept of covenant. Here is Reeling Brouwer:

In his encounter with the writings of federal theologians, especially in his work for the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth felt that federal theology had exerted a regrettable influence on Reformed doIn gmatics by historicising revelation. At the same time he discovered the importance of the theological concept of the covenant itself and he apparently saw possibilities for this concept in his own dogmatic project. For him the main features of this concept are as follows:

  • The covenant is a one-sided initiative of God, a fully free arrangement on His part and purely an act of grace and mercy towards humanity; this becomes especially clear when, like Cocceius, one identifies the eternal decree of election with the pactum salutis as the presupposition of the covenant of grace in time;
  • The covenant is closely linked to revelation: the God who wants to be a God of this covenant speaks to His people, and man from his side can only be seen as a being addressed by his God;
  • The character of the covenant as a covenant of grace comes out most clearly when Christian preaching speaks of the divine grace for sinners. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of a modification of the one covenant, where man in the state of nature is seen as a being bound by his free choice for God from the beginning, nor does it exclude that the covenant has the character of a promise and an expectation, that it bears the eschatological mark of all Christian preaching;
  • The covenant is not only a promise, but also an obligation; it binds human beings not only as gospel, but also as law;
  • The concept of the covenant is corrupted when it is split into a duality of works and grace, justice and mercy; as such, it becomes dependent on influences that are alien to its properties.

In my view, Barth could profitably put the covenant concept to work in his own project, provided that it was defined in this way.

And now the thesis: Heinrich Heppe says: ‘from the beginning German- Reformed theology described the fundamental concept of revelation with the expression foedus Dei (also regnum Christi, koinonia cum Christo)’. Karl Barth indeed tried to use all these expressions as a ‘fundamental’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘integrating’ concept for his theological project. He began with the concept of the regnum (in Safenwil), he – possibly for methodological reasons – drafted a theology of revelation (that is, of the Word of God) in his years in Germany and from the 1940s onwards he placed the (more material than formal?) concept of the covenant at the centre of his endeavour. In what follows, we will turn to this last phase.[1]

What do you think?

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 116-17.

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