Being creedally orthodox is a badge of honor these days, and in days past, for what it means to be a sound Christian thinker and disciple of Jesus Christ. This becomes all that more acute when we start thinking about creedal orthodoxy within the confines of Protestantism; particularly in relation to Protestantism’s lack-luster exuberance for recognizing the role of tradition in the interpretive process of Holy Scripture. I just came across a quote cited by my friend Steven Nemes on another social media platform; a passage that helps illustrate what I am referring to:
The Reformers did not intend to sever themselves entirely from the Christian past. Calvin’s writings in particular contain numerous references to the church fathers, and he clearly attempts to align the program of the Reformation with Augustine. The significance of Calvin in this regard is noted by Jaroslav Pelikan, who states that the Geneva Reformer became the one figure who ‘more than any other, enabled the leaders of the Reformation to claim that they were not throwing over the Christian past after all.’ Yet in spite of attempts by some of the Reformers to maintain a place, albeit a limited one, for the tradition of the church, the trajectory of Protestantism coupled with its ongoing polemic against the Catholic Church inevitably served to diminish, if not eclipse, the significance of tradition for Protestant theology.
While in many sectors in the evangelical and, in particular, the Reformed churches there is a revival, particularly among her theologians, of theology of retrieval. As the early portion of the above passage notes, the intention of what became known as sola scriptura was not to elide reference to the catholic Christian faith of the ecumenical creeds and grammar; instead the move had more to do with undercutting the magisteria of the papacy of Rome, and in-placing that instead with the authority of Holy Scripture.
It is within this ‘Protestant’ spirit that someone like Karl Barth approached the orthodoxy presented in the conciliar faith of the ecumenical councils; really in the spirit of what we find in someone like John Calvin, as mentioned previously. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to read along with some of Darren Sumner’s treatment of Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity, and how he (Barth) understood the role of councils; particularly as that has to do, materially, with the grammar it has presented the churches with for the last many centuries. We pick up with Darren as he is discussing the various periodic circumstances and occasions that gave rise to the need for the so called ecumenical councils to convene in the first place. It is in this context that Sumner places Barth’s own sense of need to translate from that period to his, while (as the thesis goes) retaining not just the spirit, but often the very letter of the councils’ permutations as those, in particular, had to do with theology proper and Christology.
As a response to particular situations the creeds of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and others have a particular prehistory, and their promulgation is the form of the church’s decision regarding that which made the confession necessary (and not a free and unconditioned doctrinal reflection, a “truncated summa theologiae”).
That a confession retains these limits, of course, does not by any means suggest that its real truth, and its authority in the church, are marginal. Barth simply means to make clear just what sort of thing a confession is, so that we who owe so much to the Fathers do not mistake it as something else. In fact, it is upon its very limitation that the authority of the confession decisively rests: this admits it humanity, and therefore shifts the burden of truth and authority off of the human speech of the church and onto the Lord of the church who guides it. That a confession is conditioned by its immediate context only goes to show that the authority it continues to bear for Christian witness is an authority not its own.
The result of all this is Barth’s conviction that, in each new generation, the dogmas of the church not only can be subject to scrutiny and revision but must be so—because “in every century the Church has had to find out anew the meaning of Scripture.”
The task remains. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We have no pope in Protestantism, but we do have secondary criteria. Sound exegesis will be done within the communion of the saints. The Bible is given to the community of the Church. Tradition helps us toward sound exegesis, and tradition includes the whole history of the Church (including the nineteenth century!). Confessions also help, but none of these is an absolute criterion. In interpretation, tradition and Church Fathers and confessions are our “parents” whom we must respect and honour, but there are times when a breach must be made (Reformation!). [Karl Barth’s Table Talk, p. 97]
Confession and dogma rest upon Scripture and so continually point the church back to it. But “the confession cannot and will not deprive us of our own responsibility to Scripture”—to hearing, understanding, and applying it. And since theology is a human work, the confession of the church and of the theologian is a task left unfinished until its own eschatological consummation—which itself is, Barth says, not in the church’s dogma but its praise offered to God. The authority of the confession “is thus an eschatological concept, to which no present actualisation corresponds, to which every reality of Church confession, everything we now know as dogma old or new, can only approximate.
I have pressed this point before, about the eschatological character of the confessions, and thus their relative and organic force, but I thought Darren’s articulation was prescient and worthwhile for our consideration.
In the best of Protestantism, we read our Bible’s as Steven Holmes has said by, Listening to the Past. In this spirit Barth is just like so many other of the best thinkers that the Protestant church has to offer; if not, in my biased opinion, the best of the best. Hopefully though, while recognizing Barth’s commitment to indeed, ‘listen to the past,’ we can also see how not only to approach the tradition, but the way we should place the tradition; particularly as that is given catholic form in the conciliar Christianity of the paleo-past. Instead of imbuing the creeds with Divine sanction, like in a causal sense, Barth rightly sees them as the wrestlings of our brothers and sisters of the departed past; to boot, faced with a variety of unique circumstances, that to lesser or greater degrees have global ingredients that make them valuable for all times till Kingdom come. But it is precisely because of their human character that Barth, according to Sumner, rightly recognizes the lassitude conciliar Christianity presents itself to us with. In other words, because Christianity is a reality that gains reality from beyond itself in its eschatological ground in the Triune Life as revealed and given as gift in Christ, we are always in via. As such, there is lassitude within this via towards greater precision and erudition in regard to the burgeoning knowledge of God the church is growing into as she is being ostensibly transformed from glory to glory. This, I think, is what Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity entails.
What Barth offers Protestants, particularly those who are grateful for their conciliar trajectory, is a way to engage with the grammar of the councils while not also being slavishly determined by them when there might be a greater (not lesser) way to press out some of the inchoate ideas pregnant within the womb of the creeds. But it is in just this regard that I would suggest, that Barth offers a way towards being a Protestant, committed to sola scriptura that is also able to partake of the great tradition of the church. Of course it is Barth’s resistance to natural theology that won’t allow him to simply be chained to an ecclesiological discourse that seemingly just is of God’s direction. He would rather allow the Lord of the church to have room to still speak as Lord of the church; particularly as the church needs to be contravened by God’s voice rather than her own.
 Franke, Evangelicals & Scripture, 198 cited by Steven Nemes, accessed 01-19-2019, Facebook feed.
 Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 4115, 4123, 4131, 4140 Kindle edition.