Barth on the Canons of Dort

I recently finished reading Barth’s lectures on the Reformed confessions, delivered at Göttingen in the summer of 1923. The previous summer he had given his lectures on Calvin, followed that winter by his lectures on Zwingli. All of which, of course, is immediately following his revised edition of Der Römerbrief in 1922. These lectures on Reformed confessional theology have been immensely helpful for my own interpretation of Barth during this early period. Of particular interest to me was his persistent discontent at any trace of “psychologism” within the development of Reformed thinking after Calvin. Barth is especially not happy with the Westminster divines, whom he characterizes as obsessed with the doctrine of assurance, as this makes the religious subject the object of attention. I think Barth is exaggerating this concern with assurance given by the Westminster Assembly, but I’m nonetheless challenged by his contention that this involves a turn toward the psychological state of the subject, which then involves a short step toward Schleiermacher and Feuerbach.

Interestingly, Barth is not particularly concerned with predestination. He passingly notes some areas of mild discontent, some tweaks to be made, and points the reader to his treatment of the topic in Der Römerbrief. But, really, he’s not too upset by the doctrine of election as it is confessed by the Reformed. After all, it’s a properly theological topic, given a properly theological treatment, which makes Barth happy. As he sees it, they’re wrong (partly), but at least they’re being theologians, not humanists. Once again, pietism is the real culprit for Barth. So, the reader should not be surprised by his mostly positive interpretation of the Canons of Dort, the last lecture in the book. He locates Dort within the crisis of the Reformation against the backdrop of medieval syncretism (Semi-Pelagianism) and the emerging modern theology in the foreground (pietism, liberalism). Here is a snippet from the lecture, where Barth contrasts the Remonstrants (Arminians) with the fathers at Dort:

I need not say much by way of explanation of the differences on this point. There are two different worlds that collide with each other here…on the one hand, the human person is the measure of all things, and on the other, God is. On the one hand, faith as a human act is in the center, and on the other, the divine ‘good pleasure’ [beneplacitum] out of which come faith and all other good things. On the one hand, a humanly righteous and rational relationship with God, and on the other, God to whom alone all righteousness and reason are ascribed. On the one hand, the human standing in a mild equality with God; on the other, God’s mercy as the only thing with which the human stands or falls. Whether one calls what emerges here medieval Semi-Pelagianism or a modern Christianity of feeling and reason, it ends up as the same thing, and it stands in decisive contrast with the Reformation itself. There is no way to deny that what is expressed in the Canons of Dort is the authentic concern of the Reformation. Their case against the Remonstrants is entirely justified and consistent from the perspective of Luther and Calvin. The consequences from the opposed doctrine drawn in the ‘rejection of errors’ [Rejectio errorum] are also correct. Dort’s own doctrine is, as a whole, nothing other than the comprehensive, level-headed, judicious, thorough expression of what had to be said about the majesty of God, if one were not willing to haggle. With this dogma the Reformed church had raised the banner against the old church some eight or nine decades earlier. With the same dogma it was now setting out the boundaries over against the emerging new church. It is difficult to see what right one might have to call oneself Reformed today if one is not able to engage in the essentials of this thinking. [pp.214-215]

To be Reformed is to “engage in the essentials of this thinking.” Very true, and not something that a lot of people would expect to hear from Barth — those who still think of Barth as anti-scholastic, modernist, et cetera.


  1. Kevin: I have this also, I enjoyed the chapter: The Battle against Modern Christianity. Barth is not a liberal really (though he is certainly a Heglian somewhat), he sees the trinitarian concept and idea of God as subject, rather than substance. But indeed the best of the Reformed is always “thinking” biblically & theologically. And here is Barth certainly.

  2. The subject-over-substance preference in philosophical categories is about the only thing that makes Barth a Hegelian. Otherwise, he is profoundly anti-Hegelian with his rejection of an analogy of being and his general orientation toward the extrinsic and eschatological.

    • We could debate that? But, we could get lost in the CD also! I like Barth certainly, he is like a modern Church Father, but he is still a dialectical theologian. We simply must note his working relationships with Gogarten, Bunner and Bultmann. Certainly Barth’s study of Anselm helped him move away from philosophical and anthropological ideas of doctrine foremost, but not so the dialectic.

      Btw, let us note that Barth said: “If I were not Swiss, I would like best to be British” (Busch, Karl Barth, page 287! 😉

  3. Kevin: For me anyway, like both Luther and Calvin (I feel), Judeo-Christian theology is Recognising the Supreme Authority of Jesus Christ! And it only here that we back track or see into the Trinitarian life of God, i.e. “Christ Jesus”! 🙂 (Eph.2:18 / Col. 1:15-16, etc.)

  4. In regard to his use of German Idealism, I think we (i.e., readers of Barth) should carefully read his discussion of this topic in CD I.1. For Barth, the theologian is free to use (borrow) any given philosophical semantic field. In fact, this is unavoidable, so the theologian better recognize that fact than pretend otherwise and unwittingly let the philosophy be ultimate. For Barth, the categories of German Idealism were readily available and accessible to his context (as a 20th century European theologian), but that doesn’t make him a Hegelian or a Kantian in the content of his thinking. This distinction was lost on a lot of American interpreters of Barth (esp. conservative Reformed), so they read him as just another modernist theologian. Someone like Bultmann or Tillich, however, is clearly using a particular philosophy (existentialism with some logical positivism) as determinative for what is allowed in theology, so that Scripture comes under the judgment of philosophy.

    I do agree with you that Barth is a church father!

    • Kevin,

      Yeah we would disagree here, though Barth is not a “modernist”, he certainly lived thru the heat of that time, and again sees God more as a subject, rather than in His substance. The latter of course is more classic “Catholic”. The weakness of Barth is always his lack of the Eastern Church Fathers. And it is here his Trinitarian views suffer some. But we would agree that Barth does not fully imbibe Hegal. Not like so many theologians (European) after him, and today.. Protestants, Pannenberg, Jungel, and Catholics Walter Kasper and Kung. And too the so-called Reformed Moltmann.

      Note, I am not an American Reformed, but an Anglo-Irish Brit, and something of an Anglican Reformed. Though I have been close at times with the EO, and too the Anglican High Church, though the latter has degenerated badly today.

      Yes, reading Barth is always a challenge, but worth it, if you have the time.

      • And too the so-called Reformed Moltmann

        🙂 Ha ha.

        I can’t say I care much about Barth’s lack of EO influence. I tend to be a bit of a Western snob (theologically-speaking), which I’m sure is some weakness on my part. I’m working on it.

  5. I have to agree with that key: “It is difficult to see what right one might have to call oneself Reformed today if one is not able to engage in the essentials of this thinking.” Which is as much as to say that it is difficult to see what right one would have to call oneself orthodox today without being able to engage in the essentials of the thought of the Ecumenical Councils. Agree or disagree with the results in today’s terms — but understand why the confessions are what they had to be given the situations.

    Even as a Lutheran, and disagreeing at a basic level with the entire argument, I find Dort far easier to accept than Westminster on the same points. The canons of Dort provided the grounds for following this argument on these terms in these situations. Enough logic that you can see how to get to the propositions — and why they are what they are.

    Barth’s approval here is a great example of teaching against the standard of confessional subscription because — rather than in so far as — the confession is correct. The key is to teach students that the title to the name (whether Reformed or Lutheran or any other) lies in the ability to have the arguments, not in simply having the documents.

    • The key is to teach students that the title to the name (whether Reformed or Lutheran or any other) lies in the ability to have the arguments, not in simply having the documents.

      Very well said, Matthew.

  6. 1) Also surprised to not hear more disagreement over the Westminster take on predestination, but, then, it is softer than many modern Westminsterians would admit. Not surprised to find him gushing over Dort; it’s far more Calvinian than Westminster. And Lutherans could almost confess it.

    2) Re: assurance. So, then, Barth would side with Calvin in the old assurance debates? That assurance is of the essence of faith (no real separation of the two, like the puritans were wont to do)? Do the sacraments figure into Barth’s treatment of assurance?

    3) Barth’s take on Dort apparently precludes Bangs’ et al., desire to include Arminian thinkers under the rubric “Reformed.”

    • I think you’re right on all three points. On the third point, I would also point people to Barth’s extensive treatment of Molinism and defense (against Molinism) of God’s omnicausality. If I remember correctly, it’s in CD II.1.

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