Christ, Conscience, and Revolution: Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

Barth's political theology is impossible to pigeonhole.
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps this stems from his disgust with ideological straightjackets -- just a whiff of anarchism blowing through his writings, which such interpreters as George Hunsinger and Timothy Gorringe have noted.

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

Barth's political iconoclasm seeps through his gloss on Questions 37 and 42, which deal with the traditional rubric of Christ's kingship. On the face of it, Calvin's wording might seem relatively innocuous, with an emphasis on the kingship of Jesus as spiritual, leaving more than a little ambuity about what that might mean in terms of how Christians relate to the temporal political realm:

Calvin writes:

But what kind of kingdom is it that you mention? -- A spiritual kingdom, contained in the Word and Spirit of God, which carry with them righteousness and life.

What does this Kingdom confer upon us? -- Just this, that by its benefit we are accorded freedom of conscience for pious and holy living, are provided with his spiritual riches, and also armed with strenght sufficient to overcome the personal enemies of our souls, sin, the flesh, the devil and the world (p. 65).

To be sure, there is a militant note here, especially toward the end. But one might well read the believer's struggle with the powers to be primarily as an inward, private affair. Perhaps considering the actual history of Reformed political engagements, Barth spins the questions in a more overtly political direction. He writes:

Christ reigns -- through the Word and through the Spirit. Everything that, we think has some "power" (political or otherwise) is at bottom no power at all. What has real power, real might, real dynamism? The Word, the Spirit; these are almighty. Any other kind of power is but subjected to this power (p. 66)

A traditional two-kingdoms Lutheran, I imagine, would have no problem affirming this gloss. The twist comes, for Barth, when Calvin draws out the ramifications of Christ's kingship to the lives of believers: What it means is that they have "freedom of conscience." and not just in spiritual matters but in a much broader and more public sense.

"Freedom of conscience" comes from the fact that Jesus is present. That is all. It comes from the fact that he alone has all power, because in his Word and in his Spirit we have the sum of all possible power. Thus it is that his own are accorded freedom of conscience. They have nothing to fear. Nothing can ultimately threaten their security (pp. 66-67).

As someone who grew up influenced by Dickens' portrait of Madame LaFarge and her comrades raging madly against the system -- the "worst of times," indeed! -- I at first found Barth's concluding twist a little surprising, even jarring:

I think it would be interesting to study more closely what are the historical and spiritual relations between Calvin and that good French Revolution. Who knows? Perhaps it is time for Christians to defend the French Revolution! (p. 67).

Perhaps this is a side of Calvin unfamiliar to many of us. But Barth's remarks seem even more pointed when one considers the context: He was lecturing in 1942, in francophone Switzerland, perhaps with a word of encouragment to the comrades in la Résistance across the border:

In any case, under the Vichy goverment it is necessary to side with the freedom of consciences (ibid.).


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castaway said…
Thank you so very much ... as a Calvinist (not neo-) and a Barthian, both understood clearly that the church lives in time ... and at no time, can the times be dismissed or ignored. Both Calvin and Barth knew the injustice and cruelty of big systems aligned to support the powerful. Though Calvin, like Luther, abhorred anything smacking of Anarchism, Barth, as you note, with his hint of it, strikes at the very heart of the powers that always claim divine right for their existence. Keep up the good work.
Well put. Thanks for reading, and for your kind comments.
Anonymous said…
Barth preached the Christian faith through the creed at a time of injustice. Liberal theology accommodate with ruling powers. Barth has great value to Liberation Theology. As a Catholic his theology has value to me.
Glad to hear it. Perhaps my liberal friends can still learn something from Barth as well.

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