Bouillard - Karl Barth

“In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda.”

— Karl Barth


Henri Bouillard (1908-1981) was a French Catholic theologian and professor of theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. Alongside his fellow Jesuits, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and his colleague in Paris, Louis Bouyer, Henri Bouillard was a leading figure within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement. During the early years of suspicion surrounding this movement, Bouillard was dismissed from la Faculté de Théologie de Lyon – Fourvière in 1950. The fruit of his first doctoral dissertation, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas D’Aquin, was published in 1944 and roused controversy from the then dominant neoscholastic theologians and influential prelates.

Bouillard, Henri, SJ


He moved to Paris, where he began work on a second doctorate, awarded by the Sorbonne. The result was the three volume Karl Barth, published in 1957 by Éditions Aubier-Montaigne in Paris. According to Grover Foley, this dissertation was “the first at the Sorbonne ever allowed to be written about a living author.” The oral defense was “the cultural and religious event of the year” according to the theology journal, Bijdragen, in a 1958 issue (see Foley, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth,” SJT, June 1961, 145).

Karl Barth was in attendance, having traveled with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr from Basel. Eberhard Busch recounts the event in his biography of Barth. The endnotes are in brackets:

In the middle of June 1956 Barth went with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frau Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr to Paris. There they were to take part in ‘the doctoral examination of a Jesuit’, Père Henri Bouillard, ‘who had written 1200 pages about me. He was cross-examined about me for five hours (at the Sorbonne), and then we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant’ [letter to Heinrich Vogel, 5 September 1956]. This viva-voce examination ‘was an extraordinary event, in that the “subject” of such a thesis should not really be still alive. That I was in fact very much alive and even there in person made the whole proceedings very tense, but also added a great deal of merriment’ [Charlotte von Kirschbaum to Karl Gerhard Steck, 5 July 1956]. Bouillard was another of those Catholics in whom Barth discovered a surprising affinity to his own thought…’In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda. Unlike Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, in this case it is not some holy little Thérèse or Elizabeth, but a transcendental ontologie de la foi, agreed criteria of a Kantian character. Still…there is much to suggest that I have another chance of becoming a kind of Catholic church father in partibus infidelium‘ [letter to his sons, 14 September 1953].

(Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 421)

I cannot imagine having Barth sitting in the audience while defending your thesis on Barth! Oscar Cullmann was one of the examiners.

Bouillard’s three volumes were never translated into English. However, you can find some translations of important sections. Parts from volume two and volume three were translated and published as an article for the spring issue of Cross Currents in 1968. The title of the article is “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology” by Henri Bouillard. This article combines the introduction for volume two and “Le problème de la théologie naturelle,” a section in chapter two of the third volume. Also, in 1967 Bouillard published portions of his Karl Barth in a single volume of less than 200 pages, Connaissance de Dieu, which was translated the following year and with the same title, The Knowledge of God. So, these are the two places where you can find some of Bouillard’s work on Barth in English.

Bouillard’s Critique of Barth

Barth refers to Bouillard’s transcendental “ontology of faith” and its “Kantian character.” Bouillard believes that the possibility of natural theology is necessary. As a possibility, this refers not to actual knowledge but, rather, to the “transcendental condition” necessary for any knowledge of God to happen at all. Without this transcendental condition, which corresponds to our being made in the image of God, our faith in God would be arbitrary. “It is not enough to appeal to a miracle of revelation or grace, which takes hold of our intellect and subdues it. Immediately the question rebounds: how can we know that our faith is the result of a miracle, that is to say of God’s action, and that it is not simply an arbitrary human act?” (“A Dialogue with Barth,” 218). Here is the final paragraph in the article:

As we have seen, if Vatican I judges it necessary to define the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, it is because this possibility constitutes the foundation of Christian faith. To be sure, the objective basis for the possibility of faith resides in divine revelation. But the subjective basis of this possibility resides necessarily in us; otherwise it would not be our certitude. The possibility of natural knowledge of God is the transcendental condition for the knowledge of faith. But, in strict terms, to identify a transcendental state is not to practice abstraction; rather it is to make a reflection. When Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of a natural knowledge of God as the beginning and end of all things, it does not really make an abstraction of God’s action, at the expense of His being in general and in abstracto. It separates, by an act of reflection, the radical condition that certain knowledge of this God is possible to us. It does not claim, as Barth seems to believe, that natural knowledge must necessarily temporally precede knowledge of faith; rather it maintains that natural knowledge of God is necessarily implied by virtue of man’s status as a rational being. By identifying this state and drawing our attention to it, Catholic doctrine is not creating an idol which it then identifies with the God of the Church; on the contrary, it makes explicit the internal condition by means of which one can find this “God” of the idols and acknowledge Him without lowering Him to the level of an idol.

(Henri Bouillard, “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology,” trans. Gerard Farley, Cross Currents, Spring 1968, 226)

That is where the article ends, unfortunately, just when you are excited to read more! If you look at volume three, from which this excerpt is taken, Bouillard continues for several more pages.

Based on these translated portions alone, it is not clear exactly what Bouillard considers to be, as he writes earlier in the article, “the judicatory principle which would permit us to establish in truth the recognition of divine revelation in history” (218). Grover Foley likens it to Bultmann and Schleiermacher (Foley, ibid., 146-147). Bouillard is striving to articulate the way in which we know it is indeed God who we know in faith. This means that there must be some correspondence between God and ourselves, in our capacity to know that this is God who is being known. Any precondition of this sort is rejected by Barth.

That should spark your interest in Henri Bouillard.

Hans Küng in Paris

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Hans Küng was also in attendance at Bouillard’s defense. Küng recounts it in his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. Küng feels that he was slighted by Bouillard when they were both in Paris working on Barth’s theology and even claims that Bouillard was “jealous” of the younger student (p. 129). Henri de Lubac defended Bouillard against Küng’s criticisms (Dokumente 14 [1958], 448-454). Rudolf Voderholzer writes:

[Küng] had first accepted help from Bouillard while writing his 1957 doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but one year later he severely and a bit condescendingly criticized his mentor’s interpretation of Barth. In his study of Barth, which took a very favorable view of the Protestant theologian, Küng had tried to prove, from just a few passages, that Barth was advocating a position, in regard to the doctrine of justification, that is acceptable to Catholics. Bouillard’s perspective was more differentiated and skeptical, and of course Küng accused it of hampering the ecumenical movement.

(Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work, 81)

For what it’s worth, First Things had a scathing review of Küng’s memoirs: “At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening.” I have no idea if Küng’s grievances toward Bouillard are legitimate, but he is not successful at hiding his self-regard in recounting the events.


Here are a couple more images (click to enlarge):

Bouillard - Karl Barth, title page

Bouillard - Karl Barth, dedication

On the left is the nihil obstat and imprimatur. On the right is the dedication to Fr. Henri de Lubac “in gratitude and affection.”

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

I did this for 2013 and 2014. Here is 2015’s entry.

There is some quality below, in my most humble opinion. I am actually surprised myself. Thanks to outside circumstances, the blogging has been haphazard, which has the potential to yield some interesting results. Looking back, I am satisfied. We had some good discussions on Protestant ecclesiology, Roman Catholicism, various aspects of modern dogmatic theology, and I took a trip to France and Catalonia with my brother! The above picture of Sainte Chapelle is mine.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and emailing. I always enjoy it when a reader sends me an email. You can do so at

Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.


Karl Barth

Barth on Revelation and History

Niebuhr against Barth

Review: Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit

I’ll take a beer in Valhalla

Barth and Heaven

Not Karl Barth

Protestantism’s “mariological turn” in Schleiermacher

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 1

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 2

Richard Hanson’s criticisms of Honest to God

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 1

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 2

Laura Smit on Gendered God Language

A day in the life of a Union Seminary student in the early 1950’s

Dorner against Kenotic Christology, in a nutshell

Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)

Did Christ have a fallen human nature?

Gerhard von Rad

Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church

Systematic Theology Guides

A Guide to Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

A Guide to Non-Reformed Systematic Theology Texts


The Protestant desacralization of the West

The Unintended Reformation

What Baptists do right

In Praise of Evangelical Ecclesiology

The Future of the Church

The Evangelical Aesthetic

Roman Catholicism

Karl Rahner’s Marian “Minimalism”

The church of tomorrow

The Other Francis

A Guide to Catholic Religious Orders

Fr. Robert Barron on “The Mystical Union of Christ and the Church”

The Logic of Mariology

European Vacation

I’m off to Paris and Barcelona

Chartres Cathedral

Our Lady of Reims and Paris

La Sagrada Familia


The case for wine, not grape juice, in the Eucharist

Buechner and Hunsinger on Wine

Mini Review: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

A Guide to Study Bibles

Slavoj Zizek – Calvinism is Christianity at its Purest

The Revolution Devours All

Why everyone should study Simone Weil

The Empire of Desire

The 1974 Southern 500

New Studies in Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic)


The Latest in Alt-Country

Mo Pitney

Ashley Monroe and the Art of Country Vocals

Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me

Are You Washed in the Blood?

This is the best song of the 90’s, just so you know

Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival

Chivalry is Dead

Probably the Best Thing You’ll Ever Watch

I’m a Riser

Amarillo by Morning

Chris Stapleton’s CMA Sweep

Johnny Cash and the Gospel

The Best Music Videos of 2015

Barth and Heaven

November 24, 2015

Barth - CD III.3

Given the recent interest in matters pertaining to the afterlife and heaven, I decided to skim through Barth’s section on the kingdom of Heaven in Church Dogmatics III.3. To be clear, I was only able to skim, as I have other responsibilities at hand, so I am not able to give a distillation of the material.

In the process of skimming, I came across the following paragraph in an excursus, and I thought y’all would enjoy it. For Barth, heaven is “inaccessible” though “a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate.”


We have not so far considered all the biblical statements from which it emerges that the Old and New Testaments see heaven as a cosmic reality constituted and consolidated by the fact that, as there is an operation of God from heaven, so there is a being of God in heaven. …To the real whence of the divine activity there necessarily corresponds a real Where of its origin, a real place of God as its Subject and Author. This real place of God as the Lord acting in the world is heaven. Even heaven would not be a cosmic reality in the biblical sense if it were only the Whence of the divine activity and not as such also the Where, the place of its Subject and Author. The former itself would not be true without the latter. Heaven is a place: the place of God in view of which we have to say that God is not only transcendent in relation to the world but also immanent and present within it; the place of God from which His dealings with us, the history of the covenant, can take place in the most concrete sense, and His majesty, loftiness and remoteness can acquire the most concrete form, where otherwise they would simply be a product of human fantasy. As the place of God heaven is, of course, a place which is inconceivable to us. It cannot be compared with any other real or imaginary place. It is inaccessible. It cannot be explored or described or even indicated. All that can be affirmed concerning it is that it is a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate; and that it is the place of God. The final point is the decisive one. And for good reasons the Old and New Testaments do not hesitate to speak of the fact that God is in heaven and heaven is the place of God.

[Karl Barth, CD III.3, p. 437]

On a related topic, I once posted on Barth’s doctrine of angels: “To deny the angels is to deny God Himself.”


“I don’t want to go, unless heaven’s got a dirt road.”

— Kip Moore


For whatever reason, the topic of the afterlife has not been a common topic among students of Karl Barth.

After all, we have so many other matters which direct our attention, usually pertaining to trinitarian metaphysics, divine election, incarnation and atonement, incarnation and ecclesiology, and the perennial “knowledge of God” questions. And if you want to establish yourself in the Barthian guild, you better attend to these matters! But I am grateful that Wyatt Houtz has addressed the doctrine of the afterlife in Barth’s theology: “Karl Barth’s Argument Against Afterlife.”

I do not agree with Wyatt, and you can read my brief comments in the combox for further indications of why. I am not in the least convinced that Barth believes in such a depressing afterlife, where the temporal is absorbed and annihilated into the divine — where the individual consciousness is decisively negated. This is the very worst of Gnostic speculation, and it makes the eternal-finite dialectic the end-game of Barth’s dogmatics. If this is true, then Barth is a truly terrible theologian, scarcely worth our time and energy.

In contrast to one of Wyatt’s reflections, I am perfectly happy with a “pagan” image of heaven as a “Valhalla” where beer is on demand and abundant. At the very least, I hope that heaven is nothing less! By way of illustration, let me offer you the country-rock song, “Dirt Road,” by Kip Moore:

When a preacher talks of heaven, he paints it real nice / He says, you better get to livin’, better get to livin’ right / If you’re gonna get your mansion / he’s been saving for your soul / If you’re gonna do your dancing / on city streets of gold

But unless it’s got a dirt road / leading down to a fishing hole …

As is often the case, country music does theology better than students of theology. The existential heaven of a temporal “hope” is worthless [I sanitized my previous language!], and it is long overdue for us to call a spade a spade. Perhaps, dare I say, we should “absolutize” our temporal experience, as in the Rolling Stone interpretation of this song: “he didn’t want to enter the Pearly Gates if the afterlife wasn’t akin to his beloved South,” also in reference to Hank Williams Jr. Of course, we do not need to do this in an overly literal sense, though I am rather tempted to do so!

My point is simple, and it requires a “new creation” that is at least as good as the old creation. I am very doubtful that liberal Protestants are up to the challenge, as in Christopher Morse’s The Difference Heaven Makes, which does a fine enough job of making the Kingdom present and with moral imperatives. But it does little more.

The resurrection of the body — even a “spiritual body” — is surely good enough for a dirt road, fishing poles, and beers with a pretty girl.


Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and illustrated in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”


Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.

Niebuhr against Barth

August 3, 2015

Niebuhr, Reinhold - Essays in Applied Christianity

“If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr


I do not have an invested interest in situating Barth or Barthianism in regard to “political theology.” I am just offering this as an interesting bit of criticism from Reinhold Niebuhr in his volume, Essays in Applied Christianity:

The Barthians are very critical of present society but they are also very critical of every effort to improve society. They regard it as necessary but dangerous; dangerous because moral and social activity might tempt men to moral pride and conceit and thus rob them of salvation. If the Barthians are socialists, I think it is not unfair to them to say that they don’t work very hard at it.

It ought to be said that the moral sensitivity and the lack of social vigor in Barthian thought flow from the same source, and that source is religious perfectionism. God, the will of God, and the Kingdom of God are conceived in such transcendent terms that nothing in history can even approximate the divine; and the distinctions between good and evil on the historical level are in danger of being reduced to irrelevancies.

True religion does save man from moral conceit in the attainment of his relative goals. But if the sense of the absolute and transcendent becomes so complete an obsession as it is in Barthian theology all moral striving on the level of history is reduced to insignificance.

[Reinhold Niebuhr, “Barthianism and the Kingdom,” in Essays in Applied Christianity, New York: Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 148-149]

It is important to recognize that Niebuhr is writing in response to Barth’s early essays in the volume, The Word of God and the Word of Man, which was the first introduction to Barth for many English-speaking readers. It is from these essays that Niebuhr quotes Barth. He is not engaging with Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

I will allow others to decide whether that makes a difference — as it certainly does in other regards — or whether Niebuhr is even on target in regard to the early Barth or his disciples.

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Not impressed by liberal theology

Not impressed by liberal theology

Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Well, I’ve got the inspiration you need! A couple of fellow bloggers have posted several audio lectures by T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, delivered at Princeton Seminary and provided by Princeton for free:

Thomas F. Torrance Audio Lectures

Karl Barth 1962 Warfield Lectures

The Barth lectures are from his only visit to the states and are available in print: the much-beloved Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The audio for Barth’s American lectures are already available in a 1963 vinyl LP set, now published as a CD set by Wipf and Stock. A friend of mine gave me the audio files to this, so I have briefly compared the two sets of audio.

There are a few differences. The audio quality is a little clearer on the LP/CD set; the Princeton audio is a bit muffled but still clear enough. More importantly, the LP/CD set includes all five lectures published in Evangelical Theology (chapters 1-5), whereas the Princeton audio (above) has four lectures. It is missing “The Word” lecture, which is chapter 2 in the book. Otherwise, the content for the four appears to be identical, but the Q/A is different. Also, the Princeton set has the audio for “Karl Barth Meets the Students of Princeton Seminary.” So, my guess is that the LP/CD set is the audio from the University of Chicago, since Barth gave the same lectures at both places…and he also visited Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, but I don’t know if he gave the same lectures there (probably so). Anyway, I thought that some of y’all may be interested in knowing the differences between the two sets of audio. Feel free to offer any corrections in the comments.

Bonhoeffer painting

See part one. See the comments in part one for some good thoughts and questions from others.

This is the second and final installment of my exploration of Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity, found in his prison letters. I am more critical in this post — certainly, more questioning. Some of the footnote comments may be of interest, to alert those who ignore footnotes.


Bonhoeffer acknowledges that Barth was the first to recognize the mistake of “making a space” for religion in modern life, illustrated by the apologetic theologies discussed in the previous post. But, according to Bonhoeffer, Barth failed to guide us in the “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts,” which is necessary for a responsible theology today. Bonhoeffer bemoans Barth’s “positivism of revelation.”[1] What does this mean? As far as I can tell from Bonhoeffer’s brief comments, Barth failed to carry through his criticism of religion. He stopped at his criticism of these false apologetic strategies, but in their place he offered the received dogmatic material of the church’s faith. “Positivism” was sometimes used as a label for any conservative theology that subordinated itself to a given and stable authority, namely the Bible and derived confessional standards.[2] Thus, the theological task is the explication of this material, the enterprise known as dogmatics, often valuing precision of expression and analytical rigor. We do not know exactly what Bonhoeffer has in mind, but he is clearly not happy with this turn in Barth. And he uses Barth as an example of neglecting the task at hand. (We have to leave to the side whether this is fair to Barth.[3]) This task is to interpret Christian concepts into non-religious concepts, thereby rendering them more truly faithful to Christ. Why does Bonhoeffer see this as such a pressing matter? Because only in this way can modern man encounter God again, confronted with the demand of love in every situation. Thus, it is ultimately an ethical concern for Bonhoeffer, as we would expect from his previous writings. And as such, these prison letters on “religionless Christianity” can be seen as having strong continuity with his prior treatments of ethics as encounter and decision, not law and duty.

But, what are we to make of this “non-religious interpretation of theological concepts”? It is here that criticisms can emerge. In many (not all) of these statements, the “non-religious” appears to be a norm and authority for Bonhoeffer – a norm and authority derived from the world as such. So, as we see, Bonhoeffer has been discussing his impression of reading a book on physics, realizing that, as he later states, “Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’”[4] He will elsewhere describe this as “the world come of age.”[5] That is true, of course, insofar as it goes — for a large segment of European society, and we would not want to recover the various defensive theologies that have attempted to deal with this.

But why does Bonhoeffer then suppose that the (post)metaphysical assumptions of this “non-religious man” are determinative for the church’s proclamation? Is this not just another apologetic theology? This is the curious thing about Bonhoeffer’s account of how the church must now relate to secular man. It is remarkably uncritical about this non-religious man, to whom the church must address its liberative Word. A good illustration is when Bonhoeffer recognizes that the concern for “personal salvation” is a question that has “left us.”[6] And, thus, the church should leave it as well. I am wary of how Bonhoeffer handles this. We do not have to endorse everything that may be associated with “personal salvation,” but Bonhoeffer fails to question whether this leaving behind of concern for matters of personal salvation may be an indictment of modern man, an illustration of his rebellion. More to the point, here is another instance where Bonhoeffer simply presents, without question or criticism, that “people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more,” as he stated earlier.[7]

Bonhoeffer appears to be endorsing, without sufficient criticism, the maturation of Western philosophical and social development. Indeed, Bethge notes that in June of 1944, “coming of age” appears in his letters for the first time, a term which he held “with noticeable joy” and which, according to Bethge, “he had learned from Kant.”[8] As such, Bonhoeffer is taking modern philosophical anthropology and using it as a norm for the theological task of the church. That, at least, is my critical reading of these particular statements. But, what about his ethics and Christology?

Simultaneously, Bonhoeffer attempts to ground this concept of autonomy in his Christology, perhaps circumventing my above criticism. As Bethge notes, “The genesis is his Christology; the cross of Christ not only judges and delivers the world, but also give it freedom to be what it is in its own worldly structures.”[9] And this takes us back to his criticisms of existentialism and theologians like Bultmann and Tillich who failed to account for how “Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations,” not just man in crisis.[10] So, for Bonhoeffer, it is Christ who liberates us to live freely and joyfully in this world, and therefore this Western autonomy is properly Christian. But, we must ask, is it just a coincidence that modernity, in its own ever-progressing quest for man’s autonomy and success in doing so, is fulfilling this properly Christian anthropology? In other words, it seems that Bonhoeffer has two approaches, two starting points even, which have not been correlated or reconciled. The one originates from the phenomena of modern human life as such, and the other originates from the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer had more consistently located his “religionless” project in the latter, instead of appearing to give undue weight to the former, then perhaps he could avoid censure from those of us who are wary about his proposals in these letters.

Lastly, I must mention his interesting, albeit perplexing, comments on Bultmann’s demythology project. Bultmann has appeared elsewhere in the letters, but here is perhaps the clearest statement:

Bultmann seems to have somehow felt Barth’s limitations, but he misconstrues them in the sense of liberal theology, and so goes off into the typical liberal process of reduction – the ‘mythological elements of Christianity are dropped, and Christianity is reduced to its ‘essense’. My view is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must be kept – the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection etc.) is the thing itself – but the concepts must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a pre-condition of faith (cf. Paul and circumcision).[11]

I find this perplexing, because I really do not know what he means. He wants to retain (in some sense not defined) the miraculous and mythological but interpret them in a non-religious, non-metaphysical way, which is what I thought Bultmann was doing! And the concern about not making these metaphysical assumptions (a world where virgin births and bodily resurrections can happen) into “preconditions of faith” is at the heart of Bultmann’s project, as far as I understand it. So how exactly is Bonhoeffer retaining the mythological? Behind this question is the question of what Bonhoeffer means by “metaphysics” in his criticism of “religion.” I have noted the ethical concern, but there seems to be more. Bethge claims that, in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, “Metaphysics here means a conceptualization of the message within the philosophical framework of both the Greeks and the idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century.”[12] That’s pretty standard. If that is the case, then what precisely in this metaphysics must change in Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation into non-religious categories? That is the big, glaring question to which I do not see any satisfying answer, nor does Bonhoeffer even give an attempt to answer this question. I am no fan of Bultmann’s project, but is Bonhoeffer really all that far from him?

But, as I said at the beginning of the previous post, these are suggestive reflections in the form of letters, while being imprisoned by a genocidal regime! They are not theological treatises, as we are accustomed. As a result, we are left with a lot of questions.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 328.

[2] Not to be confused with “logical positivism,” a philosophical movement of secular post-metaphysical scientism. In theology, “positivism” can also indicate a theology that eschews natural reason, as in Paul Janz’s definition: “Positivism in theology is any position that seeks to uphold the integrity of transcendence (or revelation) by giving up the integrity of reason or of natural enquiry” (Janz, God, the Mind’s Desire [Cambridge University Press, 2004], p. 5; Qtd. in Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma [IVP Academic, 2014], p. 80).

[3] It seems especially odd to criticize Barth in this way, given Barth’s creative and ingenious reworking of the Christian tradition: to wit, his comprehensive rejection of natural theology and his reworking of the doctrine of election, to name two areas where his “novelty” is most criticized to this day. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Barth wrote that “positivism of revelation” is “a concept still incomprehensible and unintelligible to me.” See Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Fontana, 1971), 119-122.

[4] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 325. The book is The World-View of Physics by C F Von Weizsacker and referred to on p. 311, ibidem.

[5] Ibid., 329, 341, 361.

[6] Ibid., 286.

[7] Ibid., 279.

[8] Eberhard Bethge, “Bonhoeffer’s Christology and His ‘Religionless Christianity,’” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 23:1 (Fall, 1967), 68.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bonhoeffer, ibid., 342.

[11] Ibid., 329. In an earlier letter (p. 285), he criticizes Bultmann for “abridging the gospel” by separating God and miracle, both of which must be interpreted “in a ‘non-religious’ sense.”

[12] Bethge, ibid., 66. Bethge describes the ethical concern as “to relocate genuine transcendence in this world – in the person next to me” (ibid.).


Image: Painting of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (source)

Bonhoeffer in 1939

Bonhoeffer in 1939

I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.

Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.


In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….”[1] What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.

Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.”[2] But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society.[3] This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?”[4] Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong.[5] And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.

In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.[6]

The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close.[7] But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.

In this other type of apologetic theology, God is the explanation for our guilt or sense of alienation. And, thus, the popular existentialism of Bonhoeffer’s day appealed to the “ultimate questions” of death and guilt, to which only God can provide a satisfying answer.[8] For Bonhoeffer, the world is generally quite happy and content with itself, and so we have the amusing situation when an existentialist theologian like Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself.”[9] All of these strategies fail, according to Bonhoeffer, because they are all making God into the answer to our problems, whether intellectual or existential, instead of having God first and foremost as the “center of life” itself and in its entirety. This is the God of life and love, not just death and guilt.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition, SCM Press, 1971; Touchstone, 1997), 279.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 280.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 281.

[6] Ibid., 281-282.

[7] Ibid., 282.

[8] Ibid., 326.

[9] Ibid., 327. Bonhoeffer would later refer to this as “clerical tricks” (p. 346).


See part two.