Restless, Reformed, Revisionist? An Entree into Barth's Book on Calvin's Catechism

Within the sprawling smorgasbord that is Karl Barth's oeurve, lesser feasts abound. One such is his lectures, in the early 1940s, on the Apostle's Creed portion of Calvin's Geneva Catechism. (Here I cite the recent reprint, for your purchasing convenience, but my copy is the Meridian paperback edition from 1958).

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Several things about this fascinating little book stand out.
John Calvin, by Hans Holbein the Younger
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The lectures were addressed to pastors in the francophone region of Switzerland (canton Neuchâtel) and, consequently, were delivered in French. As Jean-Louis Leuba notes in his preface, the text was compiled, with Barth's approval, not from an original manuscript but from notes taken during the lectures, and this fact makes the text a bit quirky.

In his introduction, translator Gabriel Vahanian cites another French Barth text, an introduction to an anthology of Calvin's writings, wherein Barth writes:
Calvin est pour nous un maître dans l'art d'écouter.

(Calvin is, for us, a master in the art of listening.)
Vahanian glosses this: "Calvin teaches us how to listen to the Word of God proclaimed, not to himself, but in the church" (p. 9). By my lights (such as they are), Barth himself was a good listener when it comes to Calvin's work, perhaps a better listener than he often was in conversation with his own contemporaries. In a parallel vein, Vahanian accentuates the emphasis on listening to the Word within the Reformed theological heritage. Listening entails obedience, but it is not passive:

Barth's approach reveals to us that the purpose of Calvin's teaching is to let its eternal subject, i.e., the Word become flesh, confront the individual, and perchance the disciple, aver anew (p. 8)

The theological tradition, understood in a Reformed key, is a living conversation; thus, Barth is free to attend to Calvin and even submit to the great Reformer while also remaining utterly free to disagree and to reinterpret this heritage, as contemporary needs demand. Listening, in other words, is not repristinating. Vahanian continues:

What this means is that a reformed theologian never writes for posterity. He exhibits the living Word today. Only in this manner can what he has to say to his contemporaries have any relevance for their descendants. He is not a master or a doctor as are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Roman Catholic Church (p. 9).

Is that really a fair way of characterizing the reception of great theologians in the Roman church today? Perhaps not. At any rate, the basic point remains clear, and coheres nicely with the conception of symbolics and dogmatics one finds, say, in Barth's Göttingen lectures on the Reformed confessions or in volume 1 of The Church Dogmatics. It is a principle, some would say, Barth articulates clearly without always following it himself in his material expositions of classic Christian doctrines. Along those lines, I find the intertextual dimension of Barth's reading attractive: He ruminates on a the catechism, which itself offers an interpretation of the creed, which is grounded in scripture, which both points to and embodies God's revelation in Jesus Christ -- but in such a way that revelation can never be domesticated, never simply given, in the form of a static deposit. Nor are these readings concentric circles; the matter is more fluid than that, I would argue (I hope to provide some examples later).

Saint-Pierre cathedral, Geneva, Switzerland.By Yann (2009).
(via Wikimedia Commons.)
Incidentally, Vahanian himself had an interesting story and was an accomplished theologian in his own right. Born in Marseille in 1927, he would eventually graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary and teach at Syracuse University. Vahanian became known as a "death of God" theologian in the early 1960s, and was in conversation with that movement's more famous figures, Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton. He died in 2012, having finished his career at a distinguished appointment Strasbourg.

I'm not so much an expert in the death-of-God theology movement. My sense, though, is that Altizer's brilliant (and ongoing!) contributions to this trajectory lend special weight to it's roots in radical idealist and even esoteric literature -- especially in Hegel, Nietzsche and Blake. But this movement also had roots in more mainstream, yet revisionist Protestant theologies of the mid-20th century -- especially the work of Barth, Bonhoeffer and Tillich.

Vahanian, apparently, was somewhat grumpy about the Nietzschean turn in the movement. A relative described it this way in Vahanian's obituary, by Paul Vitello, in The New York Times (Sept. 8, 2012).

"He had a totally different theological sensibility from most of them [the death of God theologians],” said Jeffrey Robbins, Mr. Vahanian’s son-in-law, who is chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “He was an iconoclast, and a radical. But he described himself as a lifelong, practicing, disgruntled Protestant Christian.”

Iconoclast. Radical. Practicing. Disgruntled: Those are terms befitting a student of Karl Barth. And also a follower of Calvin.

Lest my comments mislead you, dear reader, Barth in these pages can also, at times, come across as a staunch conservative -- as, for example, when he chastises modernist historians for being obtuse in their critiques of the ancient Christological counsels. Be that as it may, this little Barth book has some gems well worth mining in future posts. Allons-y!



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