Reformulating the Reformed Faith after Karl Barth: An evangelical Calvinist Response

Bruce McCormack offers some very instructive words when it comes to defining Orthodoxy, and how that functions as a definer for Barth’s mode of theologizing as a Reformed Protestant Christian who inhabited the Modern period. In this post we will work through a section of McCormack’s book Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and conclude with an evangelical Calvinist response to what we have engaged with. Here is McCormack’s development of how he thinks Barth was an “orthodox” theologian:

orthodox-and-modernBut what of my other term—“orthodox”? In what sense do I mean to employ this term in relation to Barth’s theology? “Orthodoxy” means “right teaching” or “right doctrine.” But what and who determines what is “right teaching”? The what-question is more easily answered. For any Protestant theologian worth his or her salt, the material norm of what can and must be said within the bounds of Christian dogmatics can be only Holy Scripture. But Scripture must be interpreted—and it is at this point that the who-question becomes pressing. Protestantism in its originating form did not really differ from Catholicism in its insistence that the proper “subject” of theology is finally a church and individuals only as servants of the Word in and for a church—“doctors of the church,” in other words. It was for this reason that Calvin could insist that confessions of a church ought not to be written by an individual but by a company of learned pastors. In cases of doctrinal conflict, he wrote, “we indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.” But he could also say, “Whenever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination I have mentioned.” Both traditional Protestantism and traditional Catholicism held that a church must finally decide questions of controversy. For both, the ancient councils and their creeds and definitions have a high degree of authority as interpretations of Holy Scripture. But for the older Protestants, the ancient councils were not to be regarded as irreformable—and that marked a major difference from the Catholic view. Protestants also believed that the confessions of their own churches constituted a relatively binding, authoritative interpretation of and/ or addition to the ancient councils and, as a consequence, had to be taken with as much seriousness as the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils.[1]

Barth followed, just as all Reformed theologians did, and do, the idea that God and Scripture are the principia of the Reformed Christian faith. As such, his final canon for establishing ‘right teaching’ in a norming way was to test all things and hold fast to the regulative reality of what Scripture attests to, Jesus Christ. Following this principle, the Protestant principle of Scripture, as McCormack notes, Barth remained open to the possibility that even the ecumenical councils themselves could be ‘reformed’ (i.e. not done away with) as the church of Jesus Christ pressed deeper and deeper into the inner-reality of Scripture; in other words, because of the provisional nature of theological knowledge of God (dare I say ectypal knowledge), for Barth even the catholic teaching always has room for further precision and clarification as we as the church move closer to the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. McCormack expands further on how the provisional nature of church knowledge of God was just that, particularly because, as Barth maintained, since we are up against a perfect God, our theological pronouncements and Dogma are an eschatological concept. McCormack writes:

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 in 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.[2]

And so Barth has this openness in his theological mode, but an openness toward God in Christ; which means a constant sensitivity to what the teachers and doctors of the ecumenical church concluded as they too wrestled with and produced theological grammar that reposed upon the reality disclosed in Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. Barth held to the traditional teachings of the catholic church, but of course in light of what we have been developing (through McCormack), Barth reformulated all of these teachings in light of the type of Christ concentrated focus he had in his theological posture. McCormack writes further:

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the face 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 which it sought to bear witness? And most important, 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?[3]

Barth never lost the curiosity that John Webster maintained was and is a hallmark of a genuinely Christian imagination as it attempts to engage with God ever afresh and anew; even from within what George Hunsinger identifies as the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology.[4] Webster writes, “Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification.”[5] It is this lively curiosity that marked Barth’s theological engagement as his intellect and passions were ‘directed to the proper object of theology’ who is Jesus Christ. It was this preoccupation that drove Barth to re-work even the ecumenical pronouncements of the church ‘from the ground up’; Barth after-all was a Modern, who just also happened to be Orthodox in a very ‘curious’ way. McCormack offers his opinion on how these two realties melded together in Barth’s theology as both Orthodox&Modern:

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 as he did 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 to think 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.[6]

This kind of openness seems scary to some people, but it shouldn’t. If the reality that regulates this type of theological curiosity is Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ; if someone in this theological posture is committed to the spirit of the Protestant Reformed faith; then there is nothing to be fearful of except God in Jesus Christ—which is a healthy, purifying fear.

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

What we have been surveying in regard to Karl Barth’s posture and mode towards the orthodox Christian faith is one that I as an evangelical Calvinist adopt myself. There is some vulnerability here, but only a vulnerability to the reality of Jesus Christ imposing who He is upon me rather than me closing that down by restricting Him to language that only has the capacity to be provisional to begin with. There isn’t an abandonment of the sacred and catholic grammar of the church and the ecumenical councils, including the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, but there also isn’t a slavish bounded-ness to them in such a way that there is no room for reformulation as dictated by the reality and attestation of Holy Scripture. For an evangelical Calvinist, like myself, there remains room for reformulating things from the ground up, if need be, in light of God’s Self-interpreting Word, in Jesus Christ. While recognizing, along with Barth, the provisional nature of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions, it is important to me as an evangelical Calvinist, as it was for Barth as his own man, to not think in lesser terms than those provided for by the grammar of the tradition, but instead in greater terms as, again, we as the church of Jesus Christ move closer to the light of God’s life in Christ than when we first believed.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.

[5] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 200.

[6] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 17.

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