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:
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….”
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.
 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.