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Saving Protestantism from Itself?

"Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth" by Bruce L. McCormack

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Bruce McCormack is the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. In recent years, he has contributed to the world of evangelical scholarship and is a familiar name and much sought-after speaker on the Christian college and seminary conference circuit. This new collection of essays, most of which were previously published as journal articles, comes as the promised companion volume to his only other major book, the ground-breaking (and very dense) Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936 (Oxford University Press, 1995). As the titles indicate, these books are not for the faint of heart, although the essay nature of this new collection--and the fact that McCormack is engaged in conversation with evangelical theology--suggests that a fairly wide readership will take interest.

The most accessible chapter by far for those uninitiated in Barth's theology is chapter eleven, entitled "The Barth Renaissance in America: An Opinion." There, McCormack outlines a number of features of Barth's theology that "excite the most interest" and helps to explain the longevity of the Swiss theologian's appeal, beginning with the notion that Barth strove to be "comprehensive" in his "engagement with the Bible and the history of Christian theology." This helps to explain the evangelical fascination with Barth as well. Put simply, many evangelicals turn to Barth because of the dearth of systematic theology in their own circles. Because Barth's theology is a relatively more conservative option in the broader world of religious studies--given his engagement with Scripture and with the Reformed tradition--he continues to garner a great deal of interest.

Chapters seven, eight, and ten will easily be the most controversial, for these are in fact tense days in Barth scholarship and in evangelical assessments of Barth's (and McCormack's) theological program. Each of these chapters explores a different aspect of perhaps the hottest topic in systematic theology today, namely, how Barth understood God's nature or "being," and then how he understood the relationship of God's nature to the doctrines of the Trinity, predestination, and Christ's person and work. Here, McCormack's interpretation of Barth seeks to stand on the master's shoulders, so to speak, in a bold attempt to save Protestantism from itself by thoroughly revising our understanding of these doctrines from beginning to end. While it would be difficult to engage McCormack's proposal in these few paragraphs, it should be noted that much of the discussion borrows from older historical and theological themes found in nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, and in fact it is part of McCormack's stated intention to close the distance between Barth and the father of theological modernism, Friedrich Schleiermacher. In particular, McCormack shares with the nineteenth century (and with Open Theists today) a number of misconceptions about God's impassibility, mistranslating the Latin to mean that God has no passions or emotions rather than, correctly, that God cannot be thought to suffer harm.

The content that will likely be of the most interest for novice theologians, however, is McCormack's introduction, specifically the way he frames these studies. The title of the book is translated into this provocative thesis: "'Modern...and yet orthodox': for many, such a description will seem to be a contradiction in terms. An explanation why this is not so will require close attention to each term." With the first term, "modern," McCormack acknowledges that Barth's theology was heavily indebted to the basic assumptions of Immanuel Kant's theory of knowledge, and also to a version of the Hegelian effort to historicize all of theology and philosophy. As such, McCormack allows that Barth's dogmatics "constituted a variant within modern theology" rather than a rejection of Protestant liberalism. Readers familiar with Cornelius van Til will find it interesting that McCormack and other scholars, as a matter of coincidence, accept the substance of the Dutch apologist's interpretation that Barth was and remained a critical (i.e., Kantian) and dialectical (i.e., Hegelian) theologian from his early to later years. Scholars differ, of course, on how to evaluate the merits of these philosophical presuppositions, or whether they are "philosophical" assumptions at all. For example, McCormack and others such as T. F. Torrance tend to argue (with great exaggeration) that Barth's mature, critically realistic dialectical and actualistic theology was free of philosophical commitments, having been purified by "biblical" and "Christ-centered" reflection; in their view, his was the first truly "anti-metaphysical" theology to appear in Christian history. The notion that Barth's theology is so pure, and the obvious appeal of these latter buzzwords, helps to explain once again some of the evangelical interest in Barth. Even so, discerning readers are right to wonder whether Barth's theology is in actual fact the result of some new mixture of Enlightenment and Pietism, Kant and Hegel, and whether it truly represents the way forward for Protestant theology today, especially given the caricatures of classical Protestantism (as too indebted to "Greek" philosophy) on which it rests.

With the second term, "orthodox," McCormack brings something even more controversial into view. Whereas Modern Reformation readers will want to define "orthodoxy" in creedal and confessional terms, McCormack argues that "orthodoxy" belongs to an "unfolding and evolving history" that is "constantly in need of reevaluation." In fact, McCormack goes so far to say that Barth was "orthodox" in the following way: by being completely free and unconstrained by the creeds and confessions of the church, even those of his own Reformed church. Barth took them seriously, McCormack insists, but "he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism," McCormack writes, that was "of the spirit and never of the letter" (17). This understanding of "orthodoxy," then, floats free from any past understanding of theology and is unhinged from creeds, confessions, or any written document. This allowed Barth, in the end, to reconstruct "the whole of 'orthodox' teaching from the ground up" and yet remain orthodox. In words that van Til could have used, McCormack acknowledges that "it is not the case that [Barth] simply tinkered with the machinery"; in fact, no doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation church was taken over "unchanged" (16).

Here we might draw a connection to our earlier concern regarding McCormack's revision of the doctrines of God's being, predestination, and the person and work of Christ. Throughout the essays in this collection, McCormack's rhetoric trades on a false dichotomy between "dynamic" (which is his preference) and "static" (which allegedly describes classical Protestant theology). In other words, both in his treatment of various doctrines and in his definition of the term "orthodox," McCormack skewers any understanding of theology that isn't open to wholesale revision and complete reconstruction--on the basis of Karl Barth's theological ontology--as a theology or orthodoxy that is dead, fixed, slavish, narrow, philosophical, and "of the letter." Meanwhile, his own approach that borrows from Barth claims to be alive, dynamic, free, ecumenical, biblical, and "of the spirit."

There are many good reasons to doubt this caricature that attempts to correlate classical Protestant understandings of orthodoxy, creedalism, and confessionalism to a dead letter, as well as to doubt the helpfulness of McCormack's theological dynamism. Ultimately, confessional Christians will want to acknowledge that we are open to the development, not of doctrine itself, but of our understanding of doctrine as it is informed and reformed by God's Word. But that task must be the slow and patient work of the church, specifically of church councils and committees, and not of one man's say-so--not even brilliant thinkers such as John Calvin or Karl Barth. Our theology cannot arrive at "perfection" in this present evil age, but that doesn't mean our corporate confession of the faith once for all handed down to the saints is a form of rigid dogmatism. In McCormack's presentation, then, savvy Modern Reformation readers will be right to detect a certain kind of Anabaptist impulse, namely a desire that the spirit should in effect trump the letter, as Calvin feared was the case in radical Protestantism. In the final analysis, one can only think of McCormack's enthusiastic view of God, revelation, and orthodoxy as very peculiar and idiosyncratic when it is described as "orthodox" and "Reformed."

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Ryan Glomsrud (D.Phil., University of Oxford) is Executive Editor for Modern Reformation and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Harvard University. He earned his M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California and B.A. from Wheaton College, Illinois.

Issue: "Recovering Scripture" Jan./Feb. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 1 Page number(s): 37-38

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