Book Review: ‘Calvin, Barth and Reformed Theology’, eds. Neil B. MacDonald, Carl Trueman

Calvin, Barth and Reformed Theology‘, eds. Neil B. MacDonald, Carl Trueman, Paternoster, 196 pp. $26.00

This collection of seven essays – six of which directly compare the theology of John Calvin and Karl Barth, with one focusing just on Calvin – might be some of the best engagement with Barth’s theology from a Reformed perspective I’ve read. As a word of warning, these essays for the most part clearly favour Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy over Barth, which should only upset Barthians (generally a good sign). Being such a slim volume is a strength here, as the authors of the various essayshave plenty of room to breathe and develop their themes. Since there are only seven essays, I’ll offer a brief reflection on each.

The opening essay, by Carl Trueman, gives a brief sketch of Reformed orthodoxy from the confessional period – covering the debates between the Reformed and Lutherans, the development and normative status of the confessions and the early modern period – to Barth and situates Barth within the context of Reformed theology as a whole. Trueman is measured and generally on target here as far as a diagnosis of Barth from the perspective of Reformed orthodoxy goes, and his appraisal of Barth’s relationship with Reformed orthodoxy is astute though clearly biased against Barth. One also wonders to what extent Trueman has engaged Barth scholarship on some issues, such as the extra calvinisticum which Trueman says Barth rejected. The truth of the matter is much more nuanced than a simple rejection (as most Barth scholars – Paul Chung being one who wrote a book Trueman could have referenced when the essay was written – acknowledge). There are some incisive critiques, however, such as Barth’s rejection of classical Reformed language as ‘rationalist’ when in fact it operated with an archetypal/ectypal distinction that seemed to escape Barth. Trueman’s own verdict as to whether or not Barth falls within the bounds of Reformed Orthodox is, unsurprisingly, negative. The first two essays after Truemans focus on the sacraments, and it’s here that the sharpesr differences between Barth and Reformed orthodoxy appear (or, at least, where the differences are most sharply manifested).

The next essay by Trevor Hart is a comparison of Calvin and Barth on the last supper, and since his position here is more or less well-known I’ll focus instead on Hart’s exposition of Barth’s view, which is to my mind a more stimulating (though less correct) view. What makes Barth interesting here, as Hart charts, is his departure from his earlier, more classically sacramental position (where the sacraments are signs and the presence of Christ is real) to a decidedly non-sacramental viewpoint where supper is a human response to God.

The third essay, by Anthony Cross, compares and contrasts Calvin and Barth on baptism, and it’s here that, in my opinion, some of the sharpest differences between Barth and Reformed theology (and Christian theology more generally). Calvin’s position on baptism, like that of the Supper, is fairly well-known so I won’t elaborate on that except to say that this essay serves as a fabulous introduction and overview to Calvin’s viewpoint here. Barth’s thinking is drawn out charitably but starkly, and it is Barth’s denial of baptism as a sacrament that places him, in this respect, at odds with traditional theology. While I am a sympathizer with Barth in many areas, this is one where I am not, and if I may be blunt for a moment, his arguments against the sacramental nature of baptism are quite poor, and in my opinion need only to be expounded in order to be rejected.

The fourth essay by Neil B. MacDonald deals with Barth and his doctrine of the atonement, specifically it’s narrative structure. MacDonald spends a good deal of time on the actual literary placement of the atonement within the literature of the synoptic Gospels, but for my money the highlight of the essay is when he draws out brilliantly how Barth’s theme of the judge judged in our place takes place in the historical judgement of Jesus by Pilate. This is a wealth of theological and biblical reflection that makes it clear how tied to Scripture Barth was in developing his theology.

The fifth essay by Myron B. Penner puts Barth and Calvin in conversation on the topic of the extent of the atonement. This is, to my mind, a crucial essay, because Penner traces out in some detail just how Christocentric Calvin was in his doctrine of the atonement (for Calvin, as Penner argues, the atonement is absolutely centered on the person and work of Christ. Penner also fleshes out the extent to which the three offices of Christ informs Calvin’s thinking here. Penner interestingly locates the largest difference between Barth and Calvin here not in their Christocentrism (both are christocentric here) that informs their doctrines of election but rather in their doctrine of reprobation, which Barth has, contra Calvin, taking place in Christ. Another key difference would be in methodology. Penner argues that Barth sees Calvin as making a mistake when he funds his doctrine of election with a two-natures Christology (which Barth sees Calvin as arriving at abstractly, as if Christ were only a doctrine), a mistake he avoids by way of his actualism, which allows Barth to fashion a two-natures christology based on the event of the Incarnation in history.

The sixth and seventh essays by Stephen R. Holmes and Craig G. Bartholomew, respectively, are the shortest. Holmes focuses only on Calvin’s understanding of Scripture, which Holmes shows was couched firmly in accom. Perhaps the most interesting claim here is that when confronted with the idea of factual errors in the words of Scripture, Holmes sees Calvin as simply not concerned with whether or not there are any. For Calvin, Scripture was simply trustworthy – which is interesting given what Holmes sees as a fairly strict ‘theory’ of inspiration. Also interesting is Calvin’s insistence on the unity of Scripture being grounded in the person and work of Christ which is what all the Scriptures are truly about. The final is a comparison of Calvin and Barth on Scriptural interpretation, and the chief value here is the extent to which Bartholomew sees Calvin and Barth as sharing a good deal of common ground on the issue of theological interpretation of Scripture. Also significant is Bartholomew’s insistence that Barth cannot be counted among postmodern textual critics.

While a small volume, each of these essays is a valuable contribution to the conversation between Reformed theology and Karl Barth. Perhaps what makes it most valuable, however, is that it is from an ‘outside’ perspective, and so can throw light on and render clearly aspects of Barth’s theology that aren’t as sharp when engaged from a sympathetic position. Both Calvin and Barth are shown to be thinkers who are quite relevant to the current theological scene, and those of a more conservative Reformed bent will find Barth a worthy conversation partner, while Barthians will hopefully see that the Reformed tradition has both more common ground with Barth as well as a good deal to offer those engaged in Barthian or post-Barthian theology. This volume will not, however, appeal to hardline Barthians (and perhaps this alone is a sign that it’s a worthy volume), but for those interested in serious engagement with Calvin, Reformed theology and  Barth’s thinking, this is a must-read.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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