Barth on the Canons of Dort
August 16, 2011
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.