The ‘letter’ of the catholic tradition of the church versus the ‘spirit’. Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance

I find it more than troubling when folks simply write Karl Barth off as ‘fringe’ relative to the historic orthodox Christian faith. And yet this is what someone like Fr. Alvin Kimel believes we should do. He wrote on a recent Facebook exchange (with me):

I know I am pushing this side of Torrance hard here, perhaps too hard; but IMHO he was catholic in a way that Barth never can be. Barth is this great evangelical mountain. One might try to climb it. One might even spend the entirety of one’s life climbing it and living upon it. But it will always remain on the fringe of the catholic tradition. Barth is just Barth, which is why, I suppose, that Barthians seem to spend so much time talking to each other about Barth. But Torrance’s works begs to be brought into ecumenical conversation with non-Barthians and non-Protestants.

barthglassesAs you can probably tell the discussion has to do with Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth; the question under consideration was who has more capacity to be brought into discussion with the catholic faith of the historic orthodoxed Christian church, and who is just a ‘fringe evangelical?’ Obviously Kimel believes Barth is just this kind of idiosyncratic evangelical who is ‘cute’ and everything over in his little “Reformed” evangelical corner, but that’s about it.

I find this troubling because for one thing I think Barth is very much so apart of the orthodox Christian discussion (and not neo-orthodox!). Barth clearly works everything over, but he does so within the confines and parameters presented to us by the ecumenical councils of the historic Christian church; he offers a constructive, but retrieving styled theological trajectory that fits well within the boundaries of the historic faith. Kimel avers, and believes out of the two, only TF Torrance is really ecumenical enough to be considered a doctor of the church; because of Torrance’s engagement with the Eastern Orthodox church in an attempt to bring some rapprochement between the Reformed churches of Scotland (which he represented), and the Orthodox faith.

But this honestly is a type of question begging and special pleading on Kimel’s part. Not in regard to the work that TFT did with the Orthodox church, but by presupposing upon a certain understanding of what can count as the catholic tradition. It appears that Kimel believes the catholic tradition is rather static and affixed to a certain conception of the church; with its apostolic succession and hierarchy in tow. It appears to me that for Kimel orthodoxy can only be attained if certain philosophical apparatus for considering and developing a doctrine of God are affirmed; i.e. a certain [substance] metaphysics. But why is this the only thing that can count as catholic tradition? Is Kimel’s view driven more by being ecclesiocentric in focus, or christocentric/logocentric? For Kimel’s account of the catholic tradition to be absolute he simply must say: “it just is!”

I find this troubling, because if we can so readily relegate someone like Barth, who works directly from the catholic tradition of the church (even if he opts for another metaphysic from the typical standards of the so called catholic tradition), it seems that we can only affirm theologians (doctors of the church) who fall in line lock-step with Kimel’s understanding of the catholic tradition.

Even so, the deeper question is: what is the ultimate standard for determining whether someone is ‘orthodox’ or not? Is it being able to fit into a static-like conception the catholic tradition of the church, or is it rather, being able to fit into the dynamic-living reality of the dictates of Holy Scripture and the reality it attests to, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ? This is where the divide occurs between what I think, and what Fr. Kimel thinks (Kimel was once an Anglican Fr., now he is an Eastern Orthodox Fr.). What side would Torrance fall on ultimately? One that is ecclesiocentric or Wordcentric? Was Torrance Reformed or Orthodox? I think answering that question would help us know what side Torrance would fall on. Interestingly though, while the Reformed faith is ostensibly a theology-of-the-Word tradition, it often still falls prey to the static-like conception of things and thus gives more credence to its particular Confessions and Creeds as binding realities more so than its ability to be ‘always reforming’ and pliable under the authority of the Word of God. So what side does Torrance fall on? Is he more ecclesiocentric in focus, even as a Reformed theologian, or is he more Logocentric?

Karl Barth is radically Logocentric, which I would argue, at a constructive theological level is much more catholic and in tune with the ‘spirit’ of the catholic tradition than is the supposed approach that claims to be representative of the catholic tradition (what Fr. Kimel seems to be claiming). Barth (and I would argue, Torrance to an extent) follows the terrain of Holy Scripture as his authoritative guide (thus the narrative theology that erupted in his wake) rather than slavish commitment to the ‘letter’ of a static-like catholic tradition.

Bruce McCormack, Barth scholar par excellence, writes (as he is discussing the ecumenical creeds) this about Barth’s relationship to orthodoxy (at length):

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested by Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e. the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the race of it, it would seem to be very hard to deny to anyone who affirms, as Barth does, the doctrine of the Trinity, a two-natures Christology, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the visible return of Christ, the immutability of God, and so on, the honorific of “orthodox.” And yet the issue is not quite so simple. The truth is that Barth has not simply taken over unchanged any doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation churches. He has reconstructed the whole of “orthodox” teaching from the ground up. It is not the case that he simply tinkered with the machinery. What he did was to ask, in the case of each piece of authoritative teaching, exactly what Calvin would have him ask: What was at issue? What was the intention? How was it formulated? Did the formulation do justice to the theological subject matter to with it sought to bear witness? And most importantly, perhaps, is it necessary to affirm the philosophical commitments which aided the ancients and the Reformers in their efforts to articulate the theological subject matters under consideration? Or may one draw upon more modern philosophies in one’s efforts to explain the creeds and confessions today?[1]

And here McCormack gives us his own view of what Barth was on about, and whether or not we should consider Barth’s endeavors as fitting within or without the orthodox faith:

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and the confessions seriously—how could he not, believing in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter. This is why he was willing for long stretches with the help of Kant’s epistemology and (later) Hegelian ontology. This is why he was willing to set forth an actualistic understanding of divine and human being. Still, I would argue, his reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy succeeded in upholding all of the theological values that were in play in its originating formulations. For this reason, Barth was both modern and orthodox.[2]

As McCormack contends, and I think he is right, Barth is orthodox in the ‘spirit’ rather than the ‘letter’ of the catholic tradition and orthodox faith. Barth makes this same distinction himself in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions as he distinguishes what he is doing from the classically conceived Reformed faith. It is a matter of ‘always reforming’ rather than ‘always repristinating’, and I would contend that what allows someone like Fr. Kimel to relegate Barth to the fringes of the catholic tradition as this ‘great evangelical mountain’ is that Fr. Kimel follows the ‘letter’ of what it means to be in step with the ‘orthodox’ faith; meaning that he is believes a certain metaphysic is always already attendant with what it means to think theologically from and within the catholic tradition.

It is this latter point that gets stickier when we come to T.F. Torrance. Torrance might be some sort of via media between the radical ecclesiocentric approach versus the radical christological approach of Karl Barth. But this is exactly why I don’t agree with what Fr. Kimel had to say about Torrance’s ostensible Barthianism vis-à-vis the catholic tradition; Kimel wrote (in that same thread),

Yes, of course TFT remained Reformed and Barthian. He has been accused of reading Athanasius through a Barthian lens, e.g. That’s probably true, but in my judgment irrelevant. What’s important is his deep and constructive engagement with the fourth and fifth century Eastern fathers. They had a more than historical authority for him. I have read (though I cannot now remember where) that TFT claimed Athanasius as the most important influence on his theological reflection. That needs to be taken seriously if we are to grasp the kind of theology he thought he was doing.

Why is that irrelevant to this discussion (of whether Torrance was more amenable to the orthodox tradition versus Barth)? I can see why that would be irrelevant if you simply wanted to move on and make your point, but in fact it is just this that is relevant! If someone wants to relegate Barth to the fringe, then why not T.F. Torrance? If this was simply a matter of identifying a personal ethos that would be one thing, but it isn’t. What is of relevance is a matter of both formal and material theological consideration. If TFT was “Barthian” and “Reformed” this is highly relevant to our discussion! If TFT read Athanasius and the rest of the patristic past through a Barthian lens (which Fr. Kimel concedes), then how is that not relevant?

As I read Kimel his point seems to be a matter of personal interest in the ethos of TF Torrance’s theological proclivities in regard to Torrance’s work with the Orthodox etc. I think it makes more sense to see Torrance working form the ‘spirit’ of the catholic tradition alongside Barth rather than from the ‘letter.’ If so, it makes sense to not relegate Barth to the fringes of some sort of idiosyncratic faith, and instead include him and his thinking within the orthodox catholic tradition; not from the letter, but in the spirit.



[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16-7.

[2] Ibid., 17.


9 thoughts on “The ‘letter’ of the catholic tradition of the church versus the ‘spirit’. Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance

  1. I don’t think Fr. Kimmel was saying it was irrelevant that Torrance read Athanasius through Barthian lenses, full-stop, rather it’s irrelevant as if his “Barthian” approach poisoned him and made him unable to appropriate Athanasius (i.e. we all have lenses). But that’s my intuition.

    Anyway, a serious problem is pitting ecclesiocentric and logocentric as at odds. Perhaps our definitions are off and we are wrong, but I understand why Barth seems only to be approached by academics and scholars, but not in the context of an ecclesial life. I know it’s not true in total (a friend of mine preached a sermon using Barth’s “judged Judge” to conceptualize the gospel), but to people like Fr. Kimmel, the fact that Barth is the haunt of seminary students and liberal semi-Christians (by stereotype and possibly by majority) bodes ill.

    Then of course, he might point to Barth’s lack of reaching out. Torrance reached out to the East, who did Barth touch? Of course, here we should raise the fact that Barth had a long friendship with von Balthasar and was immensely interested in the happenings of Vatican II. Strangely, Barth would say that if he had been born Roman, he would stay as such, but also that Rome was the haunt of the Anti-Christ in the ‘analogia entis’.

    So to say Barth is not ecumenical and worthless is kind of silly. Barth ought to loom large over the future of Vatican II Roman Catholic theology (influencing everyone who is influenced by von Balthasar, which includes JP II and BXVI) and the future of Protestantism.

    Barth was not a fringe lunatic, he wrote much on the Reformed confessions and interacted deeply in the history of the Church. One doesn’t have to like Barth’s solutions to appreciate how he is trying to reframe discussions. It’s for a reason that Reformed theology is mistakenly called Calvinism. Calvin is not Reformed theology, but the man is a titan in reformulating debates and trying to cut through the issues of his day. Calvin was unlike some of his fellow Reformation companions, who were more disaffected Augustinians, but alike those who had heard the Humanist call ‘ad fontes’.

    In some ways Barth studies that are looking for an authentic Barth will be never-ending and many times fruitless wastes of time. I think Barth had many strings, ones that could lead to McCormack, von Balthasar (which includes Hunsinger), or even Moltmann. And it’s from this we proceed. Calvin could produce hyper-Calvinists or Amyraldians, Cyril of Alexandria could produce monothelites and diothelites, Aquinas could produce the manualists and the resourcement crowd. So Barth, as a mountain, could lead down the slopes towards orthodoxy or towards heresies. But to say he’s an irrelevant mount is premature.

    Ecclesially, I see Barth’s future end up among Baptists, ironically enough.

    2 cents,


  2. Cal,

    No I don’t agree with your reading into what Fr Kimel wrote. Like I said, I took this from an exchange on FB; there’s more context there. I didn’t misrepresent him, I shared what he wrote, and it is just as it sounds; I guess you can try and soften it. But why?

    I also think to frame things ecclesiocentrically versus logocentrically in this context is spot on! Barth theology of the Word, his actualism his theory of revelation as event etc. his stance against natural theology etc are all components that set his radical logocentrism apart from an ecclesiocentrism that elevates catholic tradition to a level that is authoritative. You don’t think Fr Kimel as an Eastern Orthodox sees the church as authoritative? You don’t see, de facto, many Reformed traditions similarly elevate the church through its elevation of confessions to an authoritative level? Sure they all do! I’m not trying to do constructive theology in this post, I’m drawing bright lines between two disparate approaches in re to a theory of authority/revelation that sets Barth’s approach over against the so called catholic tradition of the church approach. I’m identifying how I think Fr Kimel absolutizes a substance metaphysic over against an actualist “metaphysic” in Barthian form. I challenging the idea that orthodoxy can be delimited by one metaphysic over another; I don’t think it can. And this is why the distinction between spirit and letter is so significant.

    I think you are somewhat framing things differently than I have in this post, Cal.

    I don’t agree with you about Barth studies either; there is fruit available in all of its trajectories. The two main camps i.e. Hunsinger versus McCormack actually in my view are doing different things. Once people recognize that they can appreciate insights from this both. etc.


  3. I was basing my reading of Fr. Kimmel’s comment on a very similar comment he left elsewhere (even using the mountain analogy). He put a twist on it that sounded more how I understood it.

    Of course you think so! Otherwise you wouldn’t have written it 🙂 Yes, I know Fr. Kimmel comes to argue authoritatively for the Church catholic, as do other Reformed bodies. But I guess I don’t see/understand why logocentrism and ecclesiocentrism are distinctions instead of oppositions.

    I may be reframing things, so forgive me if it’s getting off track from the discussion you’d like to have. Rather, I don’t think you need oppose logocentrism to ecclesiocentrism and yet also be able to consider modern conceptual tools to restate ancient truths. The East has sons of the Church who have been doing this, so I don’t see why Barth can’t be launched into the conversation.

    And as for the last point, we’re missing each other. Both men are doing constructive theology out of their camps on Barth mountain, which is fruitful.


  4. Cal, the point is is that I’m highlighting a difference, I’m not necessarily trying to read them together in this post; i.e. ecclesiocentric/logocentric. I’m not commenting on whether there is some constructive way between them. But I am saying that for Barth one takes priority over the other and from the other side vice versa; that seems pretty clear.


  5. Hi Bobby,
    I just stumbled across this post of yours (I like it, just as I like your Sonderegger-posts). Now, I’m not very well-versed in Barth, but to my mind with all congeniality between Barth and Torrance there is an important difference between them in their appreciation of the sacraments. Precisely that could explain the difference in judgment from a Catholic or Orthodox perspective. From such a perspective this difference is far more important than from a protestant perspective. It would explain the mountain analogy, I think.
    To be sure, I didn’t read the contribution of Fr.Kimel, but it occurs to me that would give a natural explanation of his words. It’s another thing to argue – as you rightly do – that Barth is orthodox in spirit (though not in letter) as it comes to theology.
    Anyway, thanks for your fine post(s).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Arjen,

    Thanks, great to hear from you!

    Yeah, sacramentology is a big difference, but in the context of the discussion with Fr Kimel he was referencing the ecumenical work that TFT has done with the Orthodox. I actually think the distinction between the two is that TFT is more ecclesiocentric (as I noted) in his theologizing (i.e. showing more deference to the ecumenical creeds etc than does Barth, even though of course Barth does too, but in a more constructive and even dare I say “modern” way).

    Are you a *Doctor* yet? 🙂


  7. Hi Bobby,
    No, a Ph.D. trajectory is a long way to go… And, to be honest, I lost quite some time in figuring out what I really wanted with Calvin. But I’m on my way now, slowly but steadily progressing.
    I think you are right in pointing out the difference between TFT and Barth. It might explain why I myself feel more attracted to TFT than to Barth. They were certainly congenial, but – to my mind – quite different as well in their theologies.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.