We must concern ourselves, in this and subsequent articles, with “contemporary theology.” The divisions within Protestantism since the 16th century make this subject not only vital and fascinating but also overwhelmingly extensive. At the outset, some limitation of the subject is in order, even though this limiting will be rather arbitrary. One ought not bite off more than he can chew.
Since we neither should nor can view, analyze, and criticize present-day theologies from some neutral, presuppositionless vantage point, above all theologies, but rather are wholeheartedly committed to the Reformed faith, particularly, to the Word of God revealed and confessed in the Protestant Reformed Churches, we intend to concentrate on those theological teachings which bear most directly upon our theological position.
Admittedly, along with the world, the theological world is shrinking so that it becomes impossible for us to develop the truth and carry on controversy, exclusively within the framework of the Reformed community. Once more, Rome herself abandons the relationship to Protestantism of implacable enmity (the relationship marked by the anathema sit, “let him be anathema,” of Trent) and challenges Protestantism either to state the fundamental principles that separate Protestantism from Rome or to manifest, in union with Rome, the oneness of the Church. When we note that the stated clerk of the Reformed Church in America (grandmother!), as a “participating observer” of a “formal ecumenical encounter” between United Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, prays the ominous prayer, “Deliver us from sectarianism” (cf.Christianity Today, Aug. 27, 1965) and when we read G.C. Berkouwer’s weak and unsatisfactory presentation of the issues that divide Rome and the genuine sons of the Reformation(Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism), it becomes apparent that we shall be forced to restate, once more with all practical urgency, the Reformation truths, over against Rome.
Still, mighty winds are now blowing throughout the camp of the Reformed Churches. Apart from the overtures of Rome and the resultant gymnastics of Protestants-eager-to-be-wooed, radical changes of the historic, Reformed faith, the faith expressed in the Reformed creeds, are being effected. No piecemeal revamping of this or that point of doctrine but a reworking of the entire structure of Reformed theology confronts us. No doctrine escapes this Ye-formation; scripture; creation, predestination, the atonement, all are recast. And the authors of the on-going changes herald these new developments as the- flowering of genuinely Reformed seeds. These men insist that they themselves are legitimate offspring of Luther and Calvin; they claim that their theology is, essentially, the fruition of the Reformation plant. These claims, at once emphatic and striking, are buttressed by heavy quotations of and constant appeal to the writings of the Reformers, especially, Luther and Calvin. One who takes his stance, therefore, in the line of the Reformation that runs through Calvin, must first scrutinize the theological development within the Reformed community, before he scans the state of affairs of contemporary theology among the Lutherans or Roman Catholics. And this is our intention.
We have no business, of course, to render an a prioriverdict of condemnation, merely because the “new Reformed theology” differs, perhaps, even drastically, from the old. No Reformed man denies that the Holy Spirit in the Church works the development of doctrine. And if, as its proponents maintain, this theology is true development, we must expect it to differ from the embryonic form of the truth, just as an oak differs from an acorn. Even though the theologians of the new order, from time to time, and at crucial moments, forthrightly dissent from Luther and Calvin, trim the Reformers’ doctrines, and attempt refutations of them, we may not allow ourselves to be prejudiced against the theologians or their work. We are not traditionalists, nor are we eager to expose ourselves to the charge.
We must, instead, plunge into the doctrines themselves in order to understand them as completely as possible. What do they assert? What do they deny? What are their implications? What presuppositions control them? What connection holds between this doctrine and that? The crucial test follows. The doctrines in question are compared with Scripture and, according to their conformity with Scripture or divergence from it, are either confirmed in their claim to be authentic, Reformed truth or are uncovered as spurious. Then, we may also proceed to measure them against the standard of the Reformed confessions and, finally, to weigh them in the balances of the writings of the Reformers in order to determine whether or not they are, as is said, in the “spirit,” if not the letter, of Luther and Calvin. Perhaps, at the end of the process, we will have the boldness to undertake the dangerous business of tracing the effects of these theological endeavors upon the life of concrete Churches.
We begin with Karl Barth. Karl Barth is a living, German theologian, now, in his eighties, in semi-retirement at Basel, Switzerland. The publication of hisCommentary on Romans, in 1919, catapulted him into a world-wide prominence which he has not been spared up to this day. A professor at the University of Bonn, Germany during the rise of Hitler to power, Barth, in distinction from many of his fellow pastors and professors, severely criticized the state’s domination of the church. When he refused to use the Nazi salute in his classes or to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler (1.), Barth was driven out of Germany to Switzerland, where he has remained ever since.
If Barth is not the most widely known and influential theologian in the world today, he comes very close. Certainly, he has pre-eminence among those theologians who claim, with more or less semblance of truth, to represent the “orthodoxy” of the Reformers. That which makes Barth of special interest to us is his position in the Reformed Church, a position he asserts, emphatically. At the same time, he insists that Reformed Churches and Reformed theologians must listen anew to John Calvin. He began to make this latter claim at a time when Calvin was held in general disrepute and was so successful that he has been credited with the rediscovery of Calvin. He states: “We cannot practice indifferently Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed dogmatics, but only Reformed dogmatics. For us, therefore, Church dogmatics is necessarily Reformed dogmatics. By this we mean the dogmatics of the particular Church which was purified and reconstituted by the work of Calvin and the confession which sealed his testimony. We mean the dogmatics of the Church which hears the Word of God in this determination imposed upon it and recognized and confessed by it to be the best.”(2.)
Concerning ourselves with Barth, however, will not be a provincial activity. The auditorium in which the lectern of Basel stands is the whole theological world. Rome, as well as Protestantism pays surprising attention to Karl Barth. Pope Pius XII described Barth as “the greatest theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas.” And Hans Kung, highly acclaimed Roman Catholic theologian, boasts of displaying on his desk theDogmatics of Barth rather than the Summa of Thomas.
Two things remain to be said, by way of introduction. We will not be committed to anything as auspicious as a thorough-going critique of the theology of Barth. The heading deliberately reads, “Significant Doctrines in the Theology of Karl Barth.” At least two such analyses are available to the English reader, C.Van Til’s The New Modernism (3.) and G.C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Secondly, our attitude towards doctrine and doctrines does and must root more deeply than in intellectual curiosity. Throughout this study we too shall be motivated by the conviction that “because . . . it is essential for the ministry of the Church that it concerns itself about the purity of its doctrine . . . therefore . . . the question of the Church’s ministry is decided in dogmatics. Bad dogmatics—bad theology—bad preaching. And, conversely: good dogmatics—good theology—good preaching” (CD, 1, 2, p. 767).
(1.) Barth’s characteristic staunchness, as he puts it, his “readiness to fight,” is evident in this refusal, especially, when one contrasts it with the statement, in 1934, of a sizeable group of respected, evangelical theologians in Germany: “We are full of thanks to God that He, as Lord of history, has given us Adolf Hitler, our leader and savior from our difficult lot. We acknowledge that we, with body and soul, are bound and dedicated to the German state and to its Fuhrer. This bondage and duty contains for us, as evangelical Christians, its deepest and most holy significance in its obedience to the command of God.” (quoted in Berkouwer’s The Providence of God, p.162)
(2.) K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, I, 2, p. 831. This is the authorized English translation, under the editorship of G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, of Barth’smagnus opus, the Kirchliche Dogmatik. The publisher is T.&T. Clark, Edinburgh. Hereafter, all references to Barth’s Dogmatics will be made to this authorized English translation, as CD.
(3.) Concerning this book, Barth has said that he cannot recognize himself in The New Modernism.