Being more Faithful to the Gospel rather than to the Tradition or Period: Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth, Two Stand-outs

The ultimate goal for the Christian theologian is not to be faithful to the categories and trajectories available to them in the period that they inhabit (i.e. pre-critical, critical/modern, post-modern, etc.), but instead to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as He, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of the will of the Father, spans all epochs of time and eternity. Often times I get the barthyoungsense that budding scholars, and riper Christian scholars/theologians, being self-aware of the period they are in as they are, are more concerned with getting the categories and ideologies of the day right, and less concerned with getting the reality of the Gospel right; I only say this because this seems to get cashed out in so much of what goes on in theological and biblical studies writing today.

John Webster addresses this issue as he is discussing the doctrine of God’s providence in a chapter he contributed for the volume Mapping Modern Theology. In this essay he points out that some theologians have indeed been more concerned with getting their own self-identity correct within their confessional tradition, rather than being slavishly determined to write and communicate what they do by the dictates of the Gospel itself. He picks out two theologians who bucked this temptation and instead allowed their theologizing to be dictated by the concerns of the Gospel: Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth:

Others have sought to go further, retrieving, rethinking, and rearticulating the tradition rather than simply repeating it. Herman Bavinck, a great Dutch dogmatician at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gave a remarkably sophisticated and penetrating account of the inner structure of biblical and classical Christian teaching about providence in his Reformed Dogmatics. His account is fully alert to the modern situation, devoting a good deal of space to detailed interaction with philosophical and scientific trends from the early modern period on, and yet retaining a sense that the church’s teaching can outthink its opponents. In the next generation of Reformed thinkers, Karl Barth possessed a similar sense of the inner coherence and depth of scriptural and traditional teaching about providence, and presented it with rare descriptive cogency. In Barth’s case, this went along with a conviction that theology is responsible to revise tradition, not in order to bring it into alignment with modern norms, but in order to attempt greater fidelity to the content of the gospel in its biblical attestation.[1]

I think “Barth’s case” is the best way forward, and is why I have been so attracted to him and his best English speaking student Thomas Torrance. Here at the evangelical Calvinist I seek to emulate this; being aware and grateful for the tradition, but also seeking to think and re-think within the tradition how we can even be more faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both speech and act. Driven not by the time-period we inhabit in the church in the 21st century, but by the transcendent apocalyptic reality of the in-breaking Gospel; which indeed, meets us in the 21st century, but as always revises and suffuses this century as all others with creation’s ultimate reality, King Jesus.

[1] John Webster, Providence, in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, April 2012), 317 Scribd.

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4 comments

  1. Yes and amen. I only wish some of the followers of Karl Barth (and Thomas Aquinas) would follow his example and do exegesis of scripture instead of just doing exegesis of Barth. Quiet often when I read systematic theology books by Barthians or Thomists I get pages and pages of exposition of whether or not Barth or Thomas held some position and although I’m all for historical theology at the end of the day the question that really matters in dogmatics is, Is it true? Is it in keeping with scripture? not, Did my theologian of choice hold this or that view? For all my disagreements with Barth his ability to keep the important question at the forefront is something I greatly admire about him.

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  2. I should also add that I think that Evangelical Calvinism, at least from what I’ve read, does a good job of avoiding the errors you outlined.

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  3. Nathanael,

    It is a pressing question; i.e. “is it true?” I think the answer to that question, of course, is: “is it centered from an in Jesus?” This is why I like Barth and Torrance, because they don’t emphasize a particular philosophy, they repudiate natural theology, and they methodologically see Jesus as the personal reality by the analogy of faith from whom “truth” can be known or not. It is Barth’s intensive principial christocentric approach that I think presents the best way forward for doing what you think should be done; i.e. hearing from God in Christ and allowing who He has revealed Himself to be to be determinative of what “truth” is. So for me the reason Barth is my theologian of choice is because he offers a formal and material way forward wherein the idiosyncracies of God’s life in Christ are allowed to determine reality rather than the idiosyncracies of my theologian of choice.

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