Home » Critiquing Classic Calvinism » A Riposte to Scott Swain: “Get Over Karl Barth.”

A Riposte to Scott Swain: “Get Over Karl Barth.”

Scott Swain, professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida recently wrote the following on Twitter in regard to Karl Barth:

scottswainbarth

For the life of me I have no idea why there is so much spite towards, Barth; particularly among the class of people that Swain is in. When I say ‘class’ I mean young up and coming Protestant Reformed evangelical theologians who have ardently decided that the periods of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the development of Post Reformation Reformed theology therein, represents the absolute high-water mark of all ‘orthodox’ evangelical theology. Ecclesiologically, relative to a theory of authority, it is very hard to see how this approach is disparate from Roman allegiance to the Pontificate and magisterium in Vatican City. In other words, it is hard to see—aside from the assertion from certain types of Reformed thinkers that the distinction is that they are a ‘Word’ (Bible) based approach versus a ‘Ecclesio’ centered approach as we have in Rome—how the ‘tradition’ itself has not so co-opted Bible interpretation that it isn’t just like having a Roman orthodoxy telling everyone else what the Bible must mean within certain confessional confines.

This, I contend, is exactly what is happening. It is because Karl Barth has reformulated, from the ground up, many of the doctrines that the Post Reformed orthodox have claimed are indeed the orthodox teaching of the Bible. But this is an artificial standard. These classically Reformed always make the claim that the confessions and all theology is subordinate to Scripture, but de facto this claim simply does not hold water. Swain’s gripe against Barth illustrates this; because we would have to suppose that Swain is telling people they ought to reject or get over Barth based upon a certain canon, or orthodoxy. Swain is measuring Barth by a Procrustean bed, or asserted ‘orthodoxy’ that Swain believes “just is” as it providentially developed, in a linear fashion, within the tradition making of the Post Reformed orthodox theologians and churches in the 16th and 17th centuries. But I fail to see how this logic, about the development of “orthodox” doctrine, within the confines of an ad hoc expression of the church of Jesus Christ, is any different than arguing that the same happened in either Rome or Constantinople in the Western and Eastern expressions of the church. Swain’s exhortation about Barth isn’t really based upon the Bible, it is based upon an expression and tradition and development in the Protestant church, in a certain period, that Swain, among others has absolutized as solely representative of Protestant orthodoxy. But this is ad hoc, and it is a slippery slope, along the lines I just mentioned.

If Protestant Christians are really ‘Word-based’ Christians, if the Bible is really our authority, then the Protestant Reformed principle of semper reformanda ‘always reforming’ ought to be adhered to for real. But as my friend, Jason Goroncy notes, even at a very early stage this type of absolutizing of the ‘tradition’ or confessions in the Reformed churches began to take over, and the Bible as the determinative authority was left behind; so was semper reformanda. Goroncy writes of an aspect of this early Reformed history:

The spirit of the semper in the reformanda aphorisms was not always met with welcome, however, even among the Reformed. For instance, the Synod of Privas (1612)—called amid bitter political struggles, division among nobles and among churches, and the rise to power within the church of bureaucratic hardliners such as Daniel Chamier—witnessed the practical end to a commitment to confessional development on the basis that such would in fact promote further destabilization and challenge to those who found themselves empowered on the winning side of debates. Unlike, for example, the Scots Confession (1560) which made plain that any church confession was strictly subordinate to Holy Scripture—that “interpretation or opinion of any theologian, BCirk, or council” which is found to be “contrary to the plain Word of God” is to be corrected by such and that such was expected to be a continual process undertaken by a listening church whose fidelity was never to be directed to the Confession itself—the Confession which was the fruit of the Synod of Privas, and which all pastors—Huguenot and other—were required to sign, “effectively closed off the possibility of any further substantial change to the confession; hence, for all intents and purposes, it brought to an end the previous commitment to the concept of semper reformanda….”[1]

This, I contend, is exactly what Swain and so many others have done; they have “effectively closed off the possibility of any further substantial change to the confession; hence, for all intents and purposes, it brought to an end the previous commitment to the concept of semper reformanda.”

This explains why Swain says what he does; Barth if anyone, while working within and from the Reformed tradition himself, reformulates many of the sacrosanct developments of doctrine codified in the Reformed confessions (especially Westminster) and catechisms that it appears Swain et al. is lock-step committed to. Even if Swain wants to constructively work within his tradition, he will always have to measure what he says by the confessional norms of what he considers Protestant orthodoxy. But let’s be clear, at precisely that point, Swain et al. is not being driven by the authority of the Bible, per se, but instead by what the Reformed confessions, read in a certain and absolute way, say Scripture is saying. It is upon this basis that Swain et al. say to ‘get over’ Barth; not on the basis of the Bible and its capacity to inculcate semper reformanda as we grow as the church catholic in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, but instead upon the basis of a tradition in a development in the Protestant church that Swain et al. believes is the only ‘orthodox’ way for theologically understanding and interpreting Scripture.

So, as a Protestant, I am not sure why I should get over Barth, or any other thinkers (like Thomas Torrance et al) who work within the mode of semper reformanda and the Reformed faith. This admonition, from Swain, is not based upon the Bible, but upon an ad hoc assertion that Protestant orthodoxy can only be read from one direction and from one or two periods of theological development in Western Europe.

 

 

[1] Semper Reformanda as a Confession of Crisis’, Pages 43–73 in Always Being Reformed: Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Reformed Theology. Edited by David H. Jensen. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016.

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15 thoughts on “A Riposte to Scott Swain: “Get Over Karl Barth.”

  1. Pingback: A Riposte to Scott Swain: “Get Over Karl Barth.” — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. A quick thought, here, Bobby. Perhaps, just perhaps, you’re not being as charitable as you might be in understanding Swain’s very quick tweet.

    One thought that might be on Swain’s mind is the way that some tend to approach Barth and then get lost in his particular problems that exercise him. The theological problems that are tackled, the agenda that is set, is then decided by Barth, Barth Studies, and so forth instead of (as you would prefer) the problems of Scripture or the contemporary church.

    Or, perhaps he thinks that the problem you want to spot in him with respect to his relationship to Post-Reformation Orthodoxy is exactly the same problem that occurs among so many Barthians.

    Mind you, I’m not accusing you of such things, but I do think it’s not unreasonable to think such concerns may be on his mind.

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  3. Derek,

    Whether or not someone gets lost in Barth is beside the point; what Swain meant was very clear, his last clause is very clear (or his stage 2 as you call it). As far as credibility for commenting or saying things about being charitable, please don’t; you already noted what you think of Barth in your own tweet (your chummy response to Swain’s Tweet). Please don’t act like you’re a voice of reason here. Swain’s comment was total snark, and you high fived him.

    Yeah, that is a problem among “some” Barthians, but not all. Some of us are willing to learn from all periods of theological development; I don’t agree with everything in Barth, not by along shot.

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  4. Bobby,
    I honestly don’t think you’re giving Swain a fair read, nor myself given my chumminess (as you call it). If I thought Barth was a waste of time, I wouldn’t have voluntarily signed up for an independent study on him this year. I also don’t think you’re giving weight to what he says about “stage 1.” Protestant theologians really ought to take the time to understand him and not simply write him off summarily. That is my honest judgment of the situation and Swain’s very brief (140 character!) tweet comment from which you’ve managed to extrapolate a host of ills.

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  5. Derek, please. You said you already got over Barth, were you being disingenuous? No you’re just going back to stage 1 to make sure you can say you’ve done your due diligence for your stage 2 position in general.

    Then Swain’s tweet was irresponsible! What else is someone supposed to think when he tells Protestant theologians to get over Barth. You told him you have and so apparently you understand what he meant; indeed we all understand what he meant. Words and context provide meaning, his meaning is very clear: i.e. Protestant theologian make sure you’ve spent the time to really understand Barth and then once you do get over him. Why would he say that? Quit trying to act like the voice of reason Derek and be real here please. The tweet is irresponsible quit trying to make it seem as if I’ve drawn unwarranted conclusions, as if Swain has some other meaning from what he said; what he said is very clear, and I have zero respect for it.

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  6. Alright, Bobby. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I am taking him in a much milder way than you are and I’m also giving space or the playfulness with which most people approach Twitter proclamations. Maybe because Scott is a friend. In any case, this conversation isn’t going anywhere so I am sorry to have provoked you further.

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  7. Derek, anyone who is looking at this from the outside or if honest from the inside knows exactly what Swain meant. Everything is not always light, no matter the genre of media used to communicate. Swain seems like a serious sober guy, and I really doubt, to be honest, that he would agree with the way you are attempting to turn this. When he said “get over Karl Barth” and you said you already have, what did he mean (if what he said isn’t actually what he meant), and what did you mean by saying you already have? The context, of a dean of academics at Reformed theological seminary provided all type of necessary context to arrive where I have in re to Swain’s tweet about getting over Barth. And really you didn’t engage with my most genuine question of all; the one I asked Scott on Twitter: why? Why should the Protestant theologian get over Barth? What is it that Barth has communicated that would cause a professor of systematic theology and dean of academics at Reformed Theological Seminary to exhort people to get over Barth? You’re acting like what he said is cryptic, or doesn’t mean what it clearly said; but that’s just not being honest, Derek. I don’t think Swain is playing, despite it being communicated on Twitter; lots of serious things are communicated on Twitter, outside of theology even.

    Yeah I agree this isn’t going anywhere because what Swain wrote is as clear as he meant it to be. You understood him on Twitter by saying you’ve already gotten over Barth. And actually to be honest it’s fine if someone does not agree with Barth, but when Barth is marginalized based upon some sense of “orthodoxy” that in itself is ad hoc, I have zero respect for that. If you are claiming that Swain isn’t using the theology of post reformation as the standard to judge Barth’s theology by, then I really think you aren’t being honest here Derek. Is it Barth’s doctrine of election, scripture, etc that we should get over? If so, why? On what basis? Because it rejects a lot of the metaphysic used to develop what Swain considers Protestant orthodoxy? Okay, but that’s not appealing to the Bible at that point, it is trading on extra biblical issues that impinge on the bible. But to not admit that and then use that as the standard to tell people to get over Barth is disingenuous and actually has real life consequences for Protestant theologians who are still evangelical and are in evangelical churches; I have personally felt the impact of that in evangelical churches. Swain’s comment helps to reinforce this attitude towards Barth, at the very least a marginalizing attitude, at the worst an ostracizing one.

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  8. Alright, Bobby, last one.

    1. Swain can be serious, but he’s also a very funny dude. We joke all the time trading gifs, theology jabs, memes, etc. That’s part of why I can playfully and chummily talk about moving from stage 2 to 1 in reverse order with him, which actually doesn’t make that much sense if taken seriously.

    2. Swain has as much as confirmed something like my initial guess about what he was getting at in these follow-up tweets:

    Now, you can take those at face value or not, but this is what he says he meant.

    Again, didn’t mean to provoke or pile on. So that will be all for now.

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  9. Derek,

    I read those, they didn’t really do much by way of qualifying what in Barth we should get over (and that’s the problem, it is a universal statement “just get over Barth”). The tone remains marginalizing. Now, would I expect anything less? No.

    But, of course, when Scott makes the type of global statement he made (he didn’t even say Protestant Reformed theologians) then of course what he said was provocative; I’m not sure how he or you or anyone would read his terse statement any other way.

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  10. Pingback: Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers | The Evangelical Calvinist

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