Karl Barth’s Developing Theo-Anthropology in Discussion with Amandus Polanus and John Calvin

For Karl Barth it is a frivolous pursuit to attempt to psychologize a theological anthropology, and yet in the Tradition (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) this is exactly what has obtained. For the Western tradition the appeal, particularly for Post-Reformation scholastic theologians was to appeal to an Aristotelian understanding of what it means to be human; an appeal to what has been called a faculty psychology (i.e. affections, intellect, and will)–we see this approach in Augustine, Medieval theology in general, Thomas Aquinas, et al. As Barth engaged with various post-Reformed theologians, like Amandus Polanus he was pushed up against this reality; and he rejected it (and I would add: rightly so). Here is Reeling Brouwer describing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s theological-anthropology (and as you read this you will see that Brouwer quotes Barth directly as well – this quote from Brouwer comes from the context of him discussing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s doctrine of creation):

For the second issue, namely man, Polanus does not divide the material into a dichotomy. Instead he works – as he does more frequently – with the Aristotelian division into definitio (hominis) [V. 27], causa efficiens [V. 28], materia [V. 29 – 31], forma [V. 32], and finis [V. 33]. Here the body is, of course, the matter, and the soul the form of human being. Barth addresses Polanus’s definition of man in the paragraph entitled ‘Phenomena of the Human’. This is already an indication of his objections to this definition. Although Polanus qualifies it (after the analysis of the nomen) as the beginning of a contemplatio theologica hominis, Barth cannot see the real theological point in this definition and considers it to be a description of the mere phenomenon of a human which nevertheless does not point to the real man. He writes:

Polanus opens with the [in Barth’s eyes] clear-cut Aristotelian definition: homo est animal ratione praeditum. He explains it as follows: [definitio haec duabus partibus constat: genere & differentia specifica:] ‘man belongs to the genus animal, that is he is a substanti corpore organico et anima vegetante atque sententie & loco movente constans’ [Polanus refers here to Gen 2,7 and 1 Cor 15,46 – 47]. The differentia specifica from other animals is that he is gifted with reason. By this we are to understand the vis intellectus, qua is logizetai, ratiocinatur et [ut Scholastici loquuntur] discurrit, hoc est ex uno aliud [deducit] vel aliud post aliud ordinat. Hence the opus seu officium of reason consists in discursus, i. e. in the swiftness [celeritas] with which his mind moves from one thing to another, from causes to effects, from effects to causes, and therefore to the knowledge of all things. This vis intellectus is not given to any other animal….

It is indisputable, Barth comments, that one here sees a phenomenon of the human. But the definition is already doubtful from a philosophical point of view and still more so with regard to its theological quality. What is the relationship between this result of (classical Greek-dualistic) human self understanding, namely an understanding of man’s own vis intellectus, and the knowledge of God as a knowledge of the covenant (in the sense of the opening Chapter of Calvin’s Institutes)?…[1]

What we see in this development of Brouwer, and in Barth’s critique of Polanus, reflects a very typical Western analytical development of what constitutes what it means to be a human being (i.e. anthropology). We also see Barth’s critique of the received Aristotelian intellectualist anthropology that sees the defining component for what makes a human, human over-against the other ‘animals’, is that humans have intellect and the ability to self-reflect, not only upon themselves, but upon God. Barth sees this as a very speculative way to conceive of humanity, as a philosophical convention that has nothing to do with theological development; and almost nothing to do with what he thinks philosophy (in the analytic tradition) has real access to. As we close the quote from Brouwer, he makes clear that Barth thought that a genuine theological anthropology could only delimit itself to the covenant; of God become man, and in Christ man exalted to participate in the ‘divine nature.’ But what does this mean for Barth?

Karl Barth in his little book The Humanity of God answers for us how humanity ought to be conceived of from within covenantal terms, from within a Calvinian[2] focus wherein knowledge of God provides for a genuine knowledge of what it means to be human; and of course for Barth this is grounded in the nexus of the only place that that reality has happened, in Christ (Logos ensarkos):

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly the one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude. Thus He establishes in His Person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus He is in His Person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom He is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ.[3]

Barth still has a focus on ‘knowledge’ as the ground from which man can come to know what it means to be human, but unlike the scholastics (Polanus, et al.) Barth’s approach was not to interiorize this by focusing on various components of what might make man, man; instead Barth takes an exteriorizing approach that simply attempts to think from within the covenant that God established between Himself and creation, in general, and humans in particular, with His life in the Son (the One who elected our humanity for Himself) as the inner ground of the external reality we see and experience in the created order.

What we see in Barth, then, when it comes to developing a theological-anthropology is a principial Christocentric concentration wherein philosophical and psychological speculation is thrown out the window, and concrete theological theoanthropology is conceived of by inhabiting the reality of Bethlehem.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 64-5.

[2] See John Calvin, Institutes 1.I: ‘Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God … Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God….’ (p. 35-6, McNeill).

[3] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 46-7.


Karl Barth and Covenant Theology

Karl Barth engaged heavily with his perception of the Post-Reformation orthodox/scholastic theologians of the 17th century, primarily (early on anyway) as mediated through Heppe. Rinse H Reeling Brouwer in his recently released book Karl Barth cropped-barthderspiegel.jpgand Post-Reformation Orthodoxy provides very good insight into how Barth engaged with this period of theological development, and how he (Barth) constructively appropriated the grammar of orthodoxy in his always reforming kind of way. As follows Reeling Brouwer gives us his insight on how Barth engaged with the Federal theologians and their concept of covenant (foedus), and in addition Brouwer highlights what he thinks served as central components for how Barth indeed received the concept of covenant. Here is Reeling Brouwer:

In his encounter with the writings of federal theologians, especially in his work for the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth felt that federal theology had exerted a regrettable influence on Reformed doIn gmatics by historicising revelation. At the same time he discovered the importance of the theological concept of the covenant itself and he apparently saw possibilities for this concept in his own dogmatic project. For him the main features of this concept are as follows:

  • The covenant is a one-sided initiative of God, a fully free arrangement on His part and purely an act of grace and mercy towards humanity; this becomes especially clear when, like Cocceius, one identifies the eternal decree of election with the pactum salutis as the presupposition of the covenant of grace in time;
  • The covenant is closely linked to revelation: the God who wants to be a God of this covenant speaks to His people, and man from his side can only be seen as a being addressed by his God;
  • The character of the covenant as a covenant of grace comes out most clearly when Christian preaching speaks of the divine grace for sinners. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of a modification of the one covenant, where man in the state of nature is seen as a being bound by his free choice for God from the beginning, nor does it exclude that the covenant has the character of a promise and an expectation, that it bears the eschatological mark of all Christian preaching;
  • The covenant is not only a promise, but also an obligation; it binds human beings not only as gospel, but also as law;
  • The concept of the covenant is corrupted when it is split into a duality of works and grace, justice and mercy; as such, it becomes dependent on influences that are alien to its properties.

In my view, Barth could profitably put the covenant concept to work in his own project, provided that it was defined in this way.

And now the thesis: Heinrich Heppe says: ‘from the beginning German- Reformed theology described the fundamental concept of revelation with the expression foedus Dei (also regnum Christi, koinonia cum Christo)’. Karl Barth indeed tried to use all these expressions as a ‘fundamental’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘integrating’ concept for his theological project. He began with the concept of the regnum (in Safenwil), he – possibly for methodological reasons – drafted a theology of revelation (that is, of the Word of God) in his years in Germany and from the 1940s onwards he placed the (more material than formal?) concept of the covenant at the centre of his endeavour. In what follows, we will turn to this last phase.[1]

What do you think?

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 116-17.

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, Against Federal Theology Side by Side

Both Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance (Barth’s best English speaking student) were against Federal or classical Covenant theology, even though both of them took the concept of foedus or covenant and reified or recasted it in such a way that Christ truly became the center on both God’s side and man’s side (and they did other stuff with covenant too, like in Barth’s innovative way he barthglassesinverted the classical Federal order of things from 1) creation, 2) covenant to 1) covenant (as regulative in regard to God’s relation to creation), 2) creation.

In the following I am going to share on Barth from Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, and on Torrance from Paul Molnar; both detailing why Barth and Torrance had serious problems with classical Federal or Reformed theology (as it came to us in a Westminster shape). First we will hear from Reeling Brouwer on Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[1]

And Paul Molnar on T.F. Torrance (I have shared this before):

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian torranceyoungdualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

For those of you who are interested in this kind of stuff hopefully you find this helpful to have these insights together in one post.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.