October 12, 2009

Karl Barth Demonstrates the Insufficiency of Reformed Theological Prolegomena

In The Formation of Christian Doctrine, I discussed four major options for Christian foundations in theological method. These were the (1) Roman Catholic, (2) Liberal Evangelical, (3) Reformed Evangelical, and (4) Free Church models. At one point, I criticized Gerhard Ebeling for ignoring the Free Church model in his understanding of Christian history, wherein he offered only a threefold paradigm, subsuming the Free Church understanding under the "Enthusiastic" as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Reformed models. Here, I would like to extend the critique of insufficient paradigms toward that premier Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

In his Church Dogmatics, I/1, under his discussion of "The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics," Barth, similarly to Ebeling, presents only three possible models for Prolegomena: (1) Roman Catholicism, (2) Protestant Modernism, and (3) Protestant Evangelical. These three models correlate to the first three models that I set out in chapter 2 of my book. The fourth model, that of the Free Church, is, however, woefully underestimated by Barth.

Barth, incredibly, subsumes the Free Church understanding within Protestant Modernism. Indeed, without any historical justification for such a dependence, he states that the assumption of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that faith is prior to dogmatic formation, has its "origin in English congregationalism" (p. 38). He then cites articles 20, 23, and 24 of the Platform of the Savoy Declaration as proof, adding further, "They and they alone could authorise Schleiermacher to commence his basic work of introduction with statements borrowed from ethics. And of themselves they are sufficient to characterise these borrowed statements as dogmatics, i.e., dogmatically heretical statements" (ibid.)

So, there you have it, according to Barth, the Free Church theological method is really the basis for Evangelical Liberalism, and the result is "dogmatically heretical statements." Unfortunately, Barth does not justify these statements beyond his cryptic reference to the Savoy Declaration. Later, in the Church Dogmatics and in numerous other writings, Barth will pursue, repeatedly and without satisfactory finality, the problem of relating ethics with dogmatics, a subject treated exhaustively in many of the works of my old professor, John Webster, now at Aberdeen University. Barth never could make the transition from dogmatics to ethics, try as he might, because he was constantly worried that human agency just might impinge upon divine grace.

As I argued during a lecture delivered at Aberdeen a few years ago, Barth would have benefited by a close reading of the work of Pilgram Marpeck. Marpeck, in my opinion, was able to weave his way clearly through the problem of grace and discipleship by allowing the latter an integral function within his theological foundation. In doing so, Marpeck demonstrated a way past the knotty problem that has held Reformed dogmatics in an irresolvable philosophical grip, a grip demonstrated in Barth's own philosophical ruminations regarding the doctrine of election. (Yes, even Barth, in spite of his Christological reading of Romans 9, could not escape the Stoical bases of Reformed thought.)

What I find of especial interest in Barth's flippant dismissal of the Free Church tradition is that he utilized the Savoy Declaration, in its discussions of the Gospel and Grace (art. 20), Oaths and Vows (art. 23), and the Civil Magistrate (art. 24). The Congregationalists/Independents who adopted the Savoy Declaration were, in many ways, just as enamored as Barth with Reformed speculations regarding divine election. However, in article 20, an article that they added to the Westminster Confession, they did leave some room for human response and personal transformation: "for the producing in them a new spiritual life."

And in articles 23 and 24, this opening is explored again. In discussing the taking of an oath, the human person is protected from external coercion with this statement: "neither may any man bind himself by oath to any thing, but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform." Again, though in an apparently post-conversion context, the idea of a fully involved personal response by a human being is advocated.

Barth's reference to Article 24, on the Civil Magistrate, is highly disturbing, for in the Westminster Confession, the government is called upon in no uncertain terms to enforce the godly faith. The Savoy Declaration, however, respectful of human responsibility, qualifies the role of the government, bringing the liberty of individual consciences into direct conversation with government authority, protecting the former, in a limited sense, from impingement by the latter.

Let me wrap up this little exercise by noting the problems here with Reformed theological methodology, as exemplified in Karl Barth. By divorcing discipleship from doctrine, Reformed theology has created an irresolvable dilemma that prefers speculation about election to dependence upon scriptural affirmations. By citing his difficulty with the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is uncomfortable with personal responsibility and personal transformation, which are integral to any biblical doctrine of faith. Finally, again, by citing the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is, in its genesis, grossly dependent upon the coercion of consciences through, though here he is later equivocal, infant baptism.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Very helpful. Many thanks. I have just finished KB's 'Epistle to the Romans', and I am now starting his 'Church Dogmatics'.


Edifying comments always appreciated!