What’s the Difference Between Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism?: A Response After Barth

I often get asked what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism; I think that one of the more instructive ways to illustrate this is to compare John Calvin with Karl Barth. It is the disparity between their respective hermeneutic that makes clear where the point of departure is at between EC and CC. For EC, following Barth at this juncture, the distinction is that we see barthstampthings from a personalist rather than impersonalist perspective; in other words when we think about salvation we start immediately with Jesus Christ. Contrariwise CC’s, when they think about salvation start with decrees, and work mediately from there to Christ. This distinction is rife in the theologies of Calvin and Barth; as David Gibson notes, “…Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree….”[1] Evangelical Calvinists think after Barth here, and depart from Calvin at this point. Gibson writes further as he comments on Calvin and Barth:

First, the patient work of a thick description will reveal why both of their respective doctrines of election may be described as christocentric. This establishes a similarity between both theologians. But secondly, precisely in this description of their christocentric doctrines of election, we will see a conceptual distinction emerging. Calvin’s doctrine of election is best described as christocentric in the soteriological sense: although in his theology election is connected to Christology in the realm of the inscrutable divine decree, the weight of his treatment falls on the nexus of ideas associated with the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit’s call and the response of faith in the Mediator. By having more to say about election’s connection to Christ in this temporal realm of faith and obedience, Calvin’s doctrine of election is an example of his soteriological christocentrism. By contrast, we will see that the opposite is true of Barth. The connection of election to Christology is not primarily to be found in something that God does (issue a decree) but rather, in the person of Jesus Christ, election describes who God is (turned toward us in his self determination). Barth’s understanding of Christology and election locates his christocentrism principially: it is the ‘ground and content’ of the doctrine of election, with this particular understanding itself having a determining influence on the divine being and intra-trinitarian life. Here Christology operates as a methodological rule which is more pervasive and radical than in the thinking of Calvin. Thirdly, the contrasts which emerge between a soteriological–principial christocentrism help to show that the difference between Calvin and Barth in the area of Christology and election is fundamentally explained by their contrasting understandings of how election is related to the doctrine of the Trinity.[2]

calvinpostageBarth, and evangelical Calvinists after him, cannot conceive of God’s election but personally and ontically in Christ; thus the focus is personal, grounded in the personal and loving life of God as Triune. Calvin thinks from a voluntarist position where God’s will is given expression in an abstract decree. In other words, the decree is not something necessarily related to who God is; instead it arises from an abyss in God where there is no access (Deus absconditus)—God in this scheme arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others, and this based upon a remote and absolute decree. This is why Barth and Torrance charged this Calvinian and classically Reformed view with the idea that ‘there is a God behind the back of Jesus’. The God behind the back of Jesus is the abyss (inner-life of God) from whence the decrees are generated. But the God revealed (Deus revelatus) in Christ, for the evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, is the same God who antecedently co-exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. the ontological is the immanent Trinity). There is no distinct decree from Christ for the evangelical Calvinist; Christ is the ‘decree’ (to stick with that language).

The difference is personal rather than impersonal between the evangelical Calvinist and classical Calvinist.

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30-1.

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7 comments

  1. Nathanael Johnston · ·

    So, I understand at this point what separates Evangelical Calvinism from Classical Calvinism. Do you think you could write at some point on the distinction between Evangelical Calvinism and Barthianism? From what I’ve read you don’t want to identify Evangelical Calvinism with Barthianism but I’m not clear on the distinction.

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  3. I don’t want to not identify my version of EC with Barth–if I did I’m doing a terrible job. 🙂 When Derek on FB recently said the difference is Barth versus Calvin, my response was that that’s not the case; we have just as much constructive appropriation of Calvin as does the post reformed orthodox. And this does lead me to a blog post I’ve been wanting to write: on the reality that all of us Reformed have a certain theological mode through which we read Calvin. I obviously don’t buy the idea that the post reformed orthodox simply are “purely” Calvinian in their formation of their theology, anymore than are we EC. But I will write a post on this maybe today.

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  4. Nathanael Johnston · ·

    Certainly the Reformed orthodox are not purely Calvinian, nor did they intend to be. Like them I much prefer the label “Reformed” or “Reformed Catholic” to “Calvinist” (I won’t kick up a fuss if other people call me a Calvinist but it’s not something I call myself). The Reformed tradition neither started with Calvin nor ends with him, although he is obviously very important for it. I think it’s a dangerous thing to identify too closely with one theologian, however good, which is one thing I like about the Reformed tradition (at least, historically; I am certainly aware that there are plenty of folks who identify being Reformed with following Calvin).

    Anyway, when I asked the question about Barthianism I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Evangelical Calvinism is identical with what Barth taught. I meant “Barthian” in much the same way as “Calvinist” or “Thomist” generally means; a theology that constructively builds off of the thinker after who it is named. So, when you avoid calling yourself a Barthian is it because of some key theological differences with Barth and/or his major contemporary followers or is it more of a rhetorical move to avoid confusion, similar to my avoidance of the term “Calvinist” as a self-description?

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  5. I don’t mind being called a Barthian; much of my key theology is shaped by his reformulations. But yes, the connotations of Barthian are what I would like to avoid, much as Calvinist is misunderstood by so many.

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  6. Unfortunately, as I even recently experienced personally, the label ‘Barthian’ (or, as the case may be, ‘Barth-bot’ :)), is either simply too scary for some people, or it simply allows those who don’t want to engage with you the easy out of categorizing and dismissing anything you have to say. It’s unfortunate, but such is the case.

    I think that Gibson’s (building on Muller’s) distinction between a soteriological and a principial christocentricism is helpful, but I find it a bit reductive at least in terms of describing Barth. At least in the context of Gibson’s argument, I don’t think his reading is able to fully account for the complexities of Barth’s exegetical approach. Part of it may stem from the fact that he only deals in-depth with Barth’s exegesis of Romans 9-11. I say this because I read Gibson’s book this past spring and then shortly after went back and reread portions of CD II/2. What struck me, especially regarding Barth’s exegesis of OT passages, was that he simply did not approach them in an overtly principial-christocentric way. I wouldn’t disagree that at the end of the day this was what was ultimately motivating his reading of the OT texts. Yet just following his train of thought, he seems to approach the passages with high regard for the original context, meaning, purpose, etc. within their original canonical setting in the OT. It is only after finding tensions and ambiguities that those passages in their original context are unable to fully resolve (inasmuch as they were waiting fulfillment in Christ) that Barth moved to a christological resolution. Again, I don’t fundamentally dispute Gibson’s point, but after revisiting Barth, his thesis seems a touch simplistic and reductive. While I don’t always agree with all of Barth’s exegetical moves, his interpretive approach was far to nuanced to be neatly boxed within the strictures of ‘principial christocentricism’, at least in the way that Gibson/Muller intend.

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  7. Yeah, I think that’s right Jonathan. It’s interesting when folks like Muller and Gibson would reject centraldogma theses when it comes to reading say, Calvin, they end up engaging in a centraldogma approach themselves when reading Barth and after Barth theologians. But I do think this binary, while helpful in some ways, also sets up an unnecessary or false dilemma. Barth’s approach is just as soteriological as is Calvin’s just in a different way. Gibson through Muller, ironically, over-metaphysicalizes Barth while over-covenantalizing Calvin. But I think that both of these thinkers in their ways are somewhere in between those types of poles. If anything Barth was more covenantal in focus that even Calvin insofar as covenant plays a type of regulative role in Calvin’s christology and hermeneutic; even so far as implicating his doctrine of God vis-a-vis election.

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