Saturday, May 16, 2009

Barth and Calvin: do they make theologians like them any more?


In Auckland Airport today I met two friends who were returning home from a conference on the theology of Karl Barth (tragically I was unable to go). One of them recounted a story of Karl Barth which is most apt as I prepare to join with a host of Anglicans from our Dioceses and hui amorangi at the Hermeneutical Hui next week. I have tracked the story down to here. It is told by Robert C. Johnson and goes like this:*

In one of Barth's seminars in the late 1950s a white hot, long argument erupts among the students over Barth's method. Barth puffs his pipe, sips his wine, and says nothing. Just as the second hour of the argument is about to begin it occurs to one of the students

'that there was a potential consultant present, a resource person who might conceivably be able to shed some light on the problem or adjudicate the dispute. This student turned and ricocheted the original question that had begun the debate to Barth. Not to be dramatic, but simply to report: there literally was a full minute of heavy silence, in which everyone simply stared at the table. And then Barth said, looking across the morass of complex issues that had been spread on the table (and to all appearances he was entirely serious),

"If I understand what I am trying to do in the Church Dogmatics, it is to listen to what Scripture is saying and tell you what I hear".'

A lovely story, and just what I am going to attempt to do at the Hui!


Also this week I have been engaged in a strenuous debate, on a blog thread with some Australians, over the subject of 'eternal subordination'. I have pulled out on the grounds that to convey my position satisfactorily I would have provide a full treatise on the Trinity. But as I made my withdrawal I was prompted to look again at some material in Calvin's Institutes. In 1.13.24 Calvin makes a point about his opponents:

"If they grant that the Son is God, but only in subordination to the Father, the essence which in the Father is unformed and unbegotten will in him be formed and begotten."

A little further on Calvin clarifies the difference between 'essence' and 'person' in this regard (1.13.25):

"The Scriptures teach that there is essentially but one God, and therefore that the essence both of the Spirit and the Son is unbegotten." By contrast "the Father in respect of his person is unbegotten" whereas of the Son he says, "his person has its beginning in God" (i.e. the Son in his person is, as John says, 'begotten').

There are places where Calvin speaks of 'order' between the persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and this is underpinned by the distinction between the Father being 'unbegotten' (as a Person) and the Son being 'begotten' (as a Person), but Calvin's insight into the glory of Christ as God includes this intriguing description (2.14.3),

"But when, as partakers of the heavenly glory, we shall see God as he is, then Christ, having accomplished the office of Mediator, shall cease to be the vice-regent of the Father, and will be content with the glory which he possessed before the world was. ... God will then cease to be the head of Christ, and Christ's own Godhead will then shine forth of itself, whereas it is now in a manner veiled."

Putting all this together means that Calvin is no supporter of 'eternal subordination'. In this case order in the internal relations among the Persons of the Godhead does not imply eternal subordination; at best it implies temporal subordination.

I intend to post again on this subject, and in particular on the dangers eternal subordination is posing for conservative Christianity.

*Citation above re Barth: from Johnson's article "The Legacy of Karl Barth" in Karl Barth and the Future of Theology, edited by David L. Dickerman (New Haven: Yale, 1969), pp. 3-4, but I am citing from an important new book on Barth, Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Theological Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 10 n27.


Anonymous said...

Would you be as enthusiastic about Barth and his writings if his unconventional romantic and personal life was that of a homosexual rather than a heterosexual? Would you be as enthusiastic about the same teachings and writings had they been produced, for example, by Gene Robinson?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
That is an interesting question. It might make a difference, it might not - it is after all a hypothetical question because, for instance, Gene Robinson betrays absolutely no sign of being in any class of theologian within a coo-ee of Barth.
But let me observe this about real situations: I like Luther (but am embarrassed by what he said about Jews); I like a lot of Calvin (but am cautious about his severity, wondering just why he made such an example of Servetus); I have never thought much of Tillich (and think even less of him because he was an awful womaniser); I suppose somewhere among all the great A's of theology (Athanasius to Aquinas and beyond) there is a likelihood that one of them was homosexual, but do not see that would change my enthusiasm and lack of enthusiasm for various bits of their theology.

But if (a) I am enthusiastic about Barth's theology, and (b) it is proven that he led an 'unconventional romantic and personal life' (it may be proven, but my state of knowledge is that it is not proven), it does not follow from (a) that I think (b) deserves praise.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I have only dipped into Calvin's Institutes, but it seems to me that Calvin's words are directed at anti-Trinitarians on the 16th century (esp. in Poland, of all places, a hotbed of Socinianism, that incidentally also rationalistically attacked penal substitutionary atonement ...), and say nothing to our contemporary debates about women's ordination. Calvin certainly does not deny that the Father is the fons divinitatis; but he is at pains to deny a species of neo-Arianism (such as Servetus espoused).
In that one day the Kingdom will be consummated, Christ will cease to be 'vice-regent' and 'God will be all in all' - yet this same verse (1 Cor 15.28) says 'the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection to him'! Hmm, that sounds like eternal subjection to me....
Anyway, we need to beware of claiming an overly realized eschatology. Christ has won the victory, but people still fall sick and die. And he is still the vice-regent of his Father.

As for Karl Barth: no question that he treated his wife badly. Was his 'romantic and personal life' 'unconventional'? Pretty commonplace in the 20th century, I'd have thought.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Thanks re Barth. Perhaps when he and Tillich are placed on the scales of God's justice both are found wanting, but Tillich more so? [ :) ].

We would each have to tease more of Calvin out re 'eternal subordination' to come to a definitive conclusion. I would imagine though that he was too much on the side of Athanasius to give even a sniff of being Arian, in any age and in any context of conflict! On the matter of Trinity-and-manhood/womanhood perhaps he should be regarded as a Swiss neutral in the debate. But if that is so then the modern argument being advanced is weakened a little for not being able to claim that it is both an ancient and a continuing understanding of theologians.

Anonymous said...

"But if that is so then the modern argument being advanced is weakened a little for not being able to claim that it is both an ancient and a continuing understanding of theologians."

Actually, it was an Orthodox friend who drew this idea to my attention, drawing on the Orthodox insistence that the Father is the unique source of both the Son and the Spirit (and thus rejecting the filioque). I'm not sure how strongly I believe in the filioque (though I have followed Anglican Professor Gerald Bray here). I don't know if any Church Fathers made much of this idea, although it is worth noting that Bray holds (in 'The Doctrine of God') that in certain issues (e.g. the essential unknowability of God) Calvin was more indebted to the Greek Fathers than to the West. Both Calvin and the Greek Fathers would have agreed that Christ's functional subordination to the Father in no way implied essential inferiority - because while we speak paradoxically of the 'eternally begotten Son' ('begotten of the Father before all worlds'), we mean that there never was a time when the Son did not exist (contra Arium et Servetum). The Son is presently subordinate to the Father - yet equal to the Father in essence. I don't suppose there will be subordination in the consummated kingdom (but maybe I'm wrong - rulers of ten cities and all that ...) - but we're not there yet. That's what I meant by over-realized eschatology.

Peter Carrell said...

Fair points, Anonymous. I guess (if I am understanding the Complementarian interest in 'eternal subordination' correctly) they are promoting a subtle but significant shift from 'functional subordination' (which both orthodox and Orthodox theologians would scarcely deny) to 'eternal subordination' over which there is (properly) debate because it is not immediately clear that it is taught either in Scripture or in the writings of the ancient, medieval, Reformation or modern Fathers.