Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Step Backwards to Get Further Forwards

“Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”

—Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 8 June 1922; in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 101.

Karl Barth's historic commentary on the book of Romans won him a spot teaching Reformed theology to seminary students in a Lutheran school.  This teaching spot is what gave us his Gottingen Dogmatics, of which I am a fan.  As I said in the last post, Gottingen is an incomplete precursor to Barth's famous Church Dogmatics.  Having been assigned the task of lecturing on Reformed dogmatics, Barth ventured into the writings of the orthodox scholastics and of the eminent reformer John Calvin.  Gottingen, and later Church Dogmatics, became the product.  The above quote reflects Barth's reaction to Calvin.  Having been schooled in theological liberalism, Barth clearly didn't know entirely what to do with Calvin, but he was intrigued with him. 

Arguably, Barth's own theology could be viewed as an attempt to do for 20th century theology what Calvin did for theology in his own day.  Barth did not agree with Calvin on every point of his theology.  He famously reworked Calvin's doctrine of predestination/election, for example.  But Barth's theology was an effort to recapture what he believed was the message of the Protestant Reformation.  Barth was less concerned with or impressed by Reformed Orthodoxy as it developed in subsequent generations, and at times in CD lamented Orthodoxy's loss of the original vision and theology of the Reformers.  Barth's rejection of the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of scripture, for example, was as much the product of his reading of the first generation of the Reformers as it was his choice to retain some of the presuppositions of biblical criticism.  The Reformers tended to emphasize the gospel which was found "in" the Bible or "through" the Bible.  Luther called the Bible a cradle in which Christ lay.  This laid the groundwork for Barth's doctrine of the Bible as a "witness" to divine revelation.  Whether he read the first generation of Reformers correctly or not I have yet to discern.

As I journey into this blog, I have decided I need to take a detour that I never really planned on.  The promptings of the Spirit and of conscience tell me I need to go back a stage in my theological explorations of Barth.  My love for Barth is not an uncritical love, just as Barth's love for Calvin was not without its rather vocal disagreements.  And since my goal is to dialog with Barth and to contextualize what is helpful of his theology into my own context as a Pentecostal pastor (and a rather "orthodox" one at that), I have decided I need to step back and take up John Calvin's master work The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Most of my exposure to Calvin is through his commentaries and his followers.  I would even call myself a "Calvinist," though it's not a popular term.  My own "Calvinism," however, comes from Bible reading and not from reading the great reformer's own magnum opus.  So I have, out of respect for Barth and my own theological shortcomings, decided to expand my mission.  I need to broaden the theological focus of this blog before a clearer picture of "Pentecostal Barthianism" can come into view for me.

For the next few weeks or more I will be powering through Calvin's Institutes and commenting on my impressions, parallels with what I know thus far of Barth, and how Calvin's theology can function as a dialog partner with Pentecostal spirituality and practice.  I will also occasionally bring in Pentecostal theology and scholarship and set the three into conversation.  I know this will be an interesting journey for me - with God's help eventually producing a book.  I hope you can be patient and follow me on this journey.  It should prove to be fruitful, and I will try and keep it interesting.


  1. I found the following volume helpful for discerning Barth's appreciation of Calvin: http://www.amazon.com/Theology-John-Calvin-Karl-Barth/dp/0802806961

    I look forward to your reflections on Calvin's work. I have found his work refreshing and having little to do with what many have claimed as "Calvinism".

    1. Thanks, Rick. Yes, I am looking forward to more directly engaging with a man who so influenced those who have influenced me.

  2. I look forward to your track (I would not call it sidetrack) to John Calvin. One cannot discuss Karl Barth without involving John Calvin.