Karl Barth, More evangelical Than The evangelicals: Thinking About Institutionalized Protestantism versus Jesus

I want to think further about a line of thought that I’ve been reflecting on a bit today; i.e. the issue of institutionalized Protestant orthodoxy. For us Protestants, a branch of the Western church, we are quite Free in our association as Christians, and in the way we think about Christianity. We come from the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and so called Radical Reformation (e.g. pipebarthAnabaptist); within these trajectories the evangelical mood has arisen in various expressions and strands. Some of these strands are more self-consciously and intentionally connected to the reality
of their genesis in the Protestant Reformation, and Radical Reformation, but others are not; for most, I would venture to say, in North American and Western evangelicalism, we stand on a pretty loose and fast understanding of Christianity, one that orbits around me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible. Us evangelicals believe in a type of Biblicism that is solo Scriptura, but not sola Scriptura; meaning we like the way ‘scripture alone’ sounds, but we prefer to live even more privately than that with ‘scripture all by itself.’ Evangelicals, in the main, aren’t much into digging too deep into their heritage and history; they are satisfied with the belief that church history started the day they were “saved,” and maybe the day their local church or denomination started (as long as that doesn’t go back much further than a hundred years or so).

But things have been changing, and for many younger evangelicals (and older too) they want more depth; they want to know they are a part of something that has roots. What these types are finding is that there is this reality known as Post Reformation Orthodoxy. Post Reformation Orthodoxy is the theology that developed in the wake of the magisterial Protestant Reformation (you know, the one Martin Luther started), particularly in late 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. People like the idea of Protestantism having historical place; they like to think that it isn’t just the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have a body of churchly teaching and standards for “orthodox” doctrine. So once these types do some digging they find a whole bunch of Reformed confessions and catechisms that contain theological and doctrinal standards that give Protestant Christianity historical place and identity, and a body of doctrine that they believe becomes almost canonical for how a Protestant Christian ought to proceed. Richard Muller illustrates this as he is discussing the role of orthodoxy for these early Protestant forebears. He writes,

The problem of “orthodoxy” is slightly different: it is not a problem of definition. At some level, even its critics recognize that orthodoxy indicates “right teaching” or the desire for “right teaching.” The problem is not so much what the term is thought to mean as the attitude that has sometimes been found among the most zealous proponents of orthodoxy–and, in the case of “Protestant orthodoxy” the contrast created by a juxtaposition of stereotypes, a dynamic Reformation faith versus a rigidly defined and fundamentally inflexible system of dogmas. There is, certainly, a legitimate historical contrast that can be made between the teachings of the earliest Reformers in their struggle against the corruption and abuse of the late medieval or Renaissance church and the institutionalized forms of late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism working to maintain its confessionally codified teachings. But we must avoid the tendency to canonize the rebellion and demonize its result. The Reformers themselves were concerned with right teaching and it was they who produced the basic confessional documents of Protestantism. The institutionalized orthodoxy of the later generations labored to preserve the confessions of the Reformation as the foundational documents of the Protestant churches.[1]

So there we have it, let’s admit it: Us Protestants have a heritage; we have our own ‘orthodoxy.’ If this is the case, then it behooves us evangelicals, at least those so inclined, to press into our ‘orthodox faith,’ and start getting about the business of drinking deeply of the waters that this well has to offer. We better start making sure other evangelicals know that we have a heritage, and that it looks very much so like so called Protestant Post-Reformation Orthodoxy! We like to know that we have something institutional, and stable to hold onto at an ecclesial level; tradition gives us a sense of location and safety, a sense of control. So whatever this ‘orthodoxy’ turns out to be, if its “our orthodoxy,” we will nourish it, and cherish it, and make it home; we might even feel so comforted by it that we will get Master degrees and PhDs getting to know it for all its worth.

But really, isn’t the church more catholic than that? Isn’t the church more catholic than this tradition or that tradition? Isn’t the catholicity (i.e. ‘universality’) of the church not quite as stable as we would like, and characterized more by a vulnerability than any one theological identity or interpretive tradition can provide? Isn’t there really only one regula fidei or rule of faith for the church; one canonical high-water mark that is the ultimate theological identity-shaper? None of these questions are intended to suggest that Protestant Post Reformation Orthodoxy has no place (same goes for the other traditions in Christianity), but instead it is to highlight the fact that none of them are absolute! None of these traditions, inclusive of PPRO, are totalizing offerings of the Christian faith; they are simply representative of different ways at the Christian reality.

If this is the case, if traditions, even the Protestant one, are not totalizing shouldn’t this give us less gusto in our sense of ‘orthodoxy?’ Shouldn’t this cause us to look less to orthodoxy, and more to Jesus Christ as the real rule; the rule that transcends this tradition, or that tradition? Yes, even the grammar we use to speak of an ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus was given reality at the ecumenical church council of Chalcedon of 451a.d. But Jesus is not held down even by this tradition; He is Lord of the church, and even of its tradition (in all of its expressions).

This is one reason I’m such a fan of Barth. He understands that all interpretive traditions are relative to Christ; to God’s Self-revelation. Barth in my view fits well with the Free way of thinking about things; he fits well with the sentiment hoped for by the Biblicists and solo Scripturaists among us. But Barth even flips all of that on its head, by making the turn to the subject, the turn to the subject of God in Jesus Christ (he turns modernity on its head, and thus modern evangelicalism). So let me quote what I just quoted on Barth’s theology from Adam Neder in my last post as I close this post.

… while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[2]

Barth’s not much into the institutional Protestantism that Muller references. He is willing to cull from that period, and all periods, with the hope that Christ be magnified. But He sees Christ magnified most when our theology starts and ends with Christ alone (solus Christus), and not by repristinating this or that period of this or that ‘orthodox’ faith. Barth (and Torrance for that matter) is a committed “Reformed theologian,” but only insofar that the spirit of the Reformed faith is honored; the semper reformanda ‘always reforming’ spirit. Not in light of a repristinated and absolutized orthodoxy, but in light of Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord over His church, and its tradition[s].

So this is another reason why I think evangelicals would do well to follow Uncle Karl’s lead; he’s more evangelical than the evangelicals.

[1] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 33.

[2] Adam Neder, History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, in Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 150.