It has always struck me as curious that Karl Barth is often identified, both popularly and in academic circles, as a Reformed theologian. The curiosity lies not in Barth’s close work on the theology of the Reformation era. Rather, it has to do with the broader question of what it means to be Reformed.
One significant, and perhaps even primary, way of understanding the term must be in relation to Reformed confessional symbols. It is in this sense that Barth’s theological project must be understood as outside the Reformed tradition. I say this not as a kind of derogatory judgment or as a way of passing sentence. It’s a matter, rather, of Barth’s self-understanding as it can be contrasted with the mis-characterization of his place in theological history.
To wit, the basic point in the following from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts has not received sufficient attention. Barth is reflecting on the genesis of his Church Dogmatics and particularly what distinguishes it from the fragmentary Göttingen Dogmatics. One way of understanding the shift is as representing a more complete and conscious christocentric turn, away from philosophy and metaphysics, which is in fact a break, not only with the Reformed orthodox tradition but with the earlier Barth:
Concentrating on the point had its consequences. ‘I cannot conceal the fact that in working at this task – I should like to describe it as a christological concentration – I have been led to a critical (in an exalted sense of the word) discussion of church tradition, the Reformers, and especially Calvin.’ Having in the 1920s swung clearly behind the ‘Reformation line’, ‘I soon saw it was also necessary to continue it, to arrange the relationship between law and gospel, nature and grace, election and christology and even between philosophy and theology more exactly and thus differently from the patters which I found in the sixteenth century. Since I could not became an orthodox “Calvinist”, I had even less desire to support Lutheran confessionalism.’
Thus Barth did not want to write dogmatics in the tradition of any confession. (210-11)
Busch’s concluding point cannot be overstated: “Barth did not want to write dogmatics in the tradition of any confession.”
This means that it is at least questionable to identify Barth as Reformed in any straightforward sense. Neo-Reformed or Neo-Orthodox, perhaps. But not Reformed.
Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Christian’s Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.
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