Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

Barth on Protestant Scholasticism Today

barthBy many modern accounts, the value of Protestant scholasticism, which reached its zenith in the seventeenth century, is dubious. But as Willem van Asselt observes in his introduction to the new translation of Franciscus Junius’ A Treatise on True Theology, no less a modern theologian than Karl Barth observed that the methodological merits of the Protestant scholastics was underappreciated.

Junius was the fountainhead of a basic distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology (theologia archetypa and theologia ektypa), a distinction that became formative not only for Reformed but also for Lutheran dogmatics (such as Gerhard) more generally. Van Asselt helpfully surveys the broad and long-term influence this kind of distinction enjoyed.

On distinctions like this Barth opined:

Things would have gone differently and more favorably for the history of modern theology if the foregoing distinctions, which are only apparently abstruse, had not become, at the ominous turn of the seventeenth century, a part of ‘dogmatic antiquity’ (according to Karl von Hase). Of course, one may complain about the limited viewpoint displayed in them or look with longing and hope beyond them toward the perfected theology. But the theologian must still carefully avoid trying to produce from his own resources that perfection. Instead, he must simply recognize that what is apparently abnormal is really the normal for this day and age.

–Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 [1963]), p. 114.

Now there’s a lot going on in this quote and in the surrounding text, but we might at least note that Barth was definitively against attempts to immanentize the eschaton, at least in terms of the perfection available to the ectypal theology of the wayfarers (theologia viatorum).

By Jordan Ballor

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.

One reply on “Barth on Protestant Scholasticism Today”

I appreciate this. Many more examples could be multiplied throughout Barth’s corpus. I have sometimes described Barth as a “scholastic,” and CD II.1 is proof enough. In that part-volume, he is carrying on a running dialogue with Polanus and Quenstedt — sometimes critical, often appreciative. This is in striking contrast to Barth’s fellow “dialectical” friends (or former friends, as was often the case), who had little or no interest in the scholastics. Among modern heirs of Barth’s theology, John Webster stands virtually alone in appreciating this scholastic side of Barth and following his example.

Comments are closed.