‘Barth and Post-Reformation Theology’



Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer

A Helpful Discovery

In the fall of 1921 Barth commenced his duties as honorary professor of Reformed theology in Göttingen. However, given that confessional awareness was very low in the Swiss churches, it should hardly surprise us that his knowledge of the Reformed tradition was also rather inadequate. Many years later he would reflect on this period and write: ‘I actually only became acquainted and grappled with the substantial mysteries of Reformed theology especially over the course of the rather arduous bouts of nightly labour in Göttingen’ (GA 16, 9; ‘Vorwort’ to the new edition of the Epistle of the Romans. First edition, 1963).

During his first Göttingen semesters, Barth offered courses on the theology of several major historical documents of the Reformed tradition, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, Calvin, Zwingli and the Reformed confessions. After this, however, Barth became bolder and planned a series of lectures on ‘dogmatics’. As he prepared his first course, Barth had difficulties deciding upon the best approach for this project. Then, however, he made a helpful discovery. Later on, at the end of his German period (Bonn, February 1935), he would write in retrospect:

‘I shall never forget the spring vacation of 1924. I sat in my study in Göttingen, faced with the task of giving lectures on dogmatics for the first time. No one can ever have been more plagued as I then with the problem, could I do it? and how? My Biblical and historical studies to date had more and more expelled me from the goodly society of contemporary, and, as I began to realise ever more clearly, of almost the whole of the more recent theology; and I saw myself, as it were, alone in the open without a teacher. … Then it was that, along with the parallel Lutheran work of H. Schmid, Heppe’s volume … fell into my hands; out of date, dusty, unattractive, almost like a table of logarithms, dreary to read, stiff and eccentric on almost every place I opened; in form and content pretty adequately corresponding to that what I, like so many others, had described to myself decades ago, as the “old orthodoxy”. Well, I had the grace not to be so slack. I read, I studied, I reflected; and found that I was rewarded with the discovery that here at last I was in the atmosphere in which the road by way of the Reformers to Holy Scripture was a more sensible and natural one to tread, than the atmosphere, now only too familiar to me, of the theological literature determined by Schleiermacher and Ritschl. I found a dogmatics which had both form and substance, oriented upon the central indications of the Biblical evidences for revelation, which it also managed to follow out in detail with astonishing richness – a dogmatics which by adopting and sticking to main lines of the Reformation attempted alike a worthy continuation of the doctrinal constructions of the older Church, and yet was also out to cherish and preserve continuity with the ecclesiastical science of the Middle Ages. I found myself visibly in the circle of the Church, and, moreover … in the region of Church science, respectable of its kind (GA 52, 746ff.; Heppe 1950, v-vi; ‘Zum Geleit’ to the second edition).’

Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics (first edition 1861) offered a systematic collection of sources for  Reformed theology between circa 1560 and circa 1710. Because Heppe himself did not have any constructive intentions with his textbook, Barth preferred it above the works of Alexander Schweizer as at the same time ‘more modest’ and ‘more solid and instructive’ (Heppe 1950, vii). As to Heppe’s weaknesses Barth indicates, that ‘according to modern claims it is anything but a source book’ – indeed, all the quotations in Heppe’s work are lumped together without distinguishing schools, periods, kinds of spirituality, or other contextual aspects of the quoted text. Furthermore, ‘according to him, wonderful to relate, not Calvin but the later Melanchthon must have been the father of Reformed theology’. And ‘for him the incursion of the covenant-theology of Cocceius and his pupils, proclaimed alongside of Cartesianism, into the line of the older expositors of Reformed doctrine seems not to involve any deeper problem’ – actually, the Medulla theologiae Christianae by the Swiss federal theologian J.H. Heidegger of 1696 seems to be the most important example of an arrangement of the several loci for Heppe (Reeling Brouwer 2015, 207-9.). And lastly, Barth recommends: ‘to acquire a knowledge of (sc. Post-Reformation, RRB) orthodoxy we need not to stop at either Schmid or Heppe, but must seek out and traverse the more arduous road to the sources, in which once more everything often enough acquires an appearance quite different from that which the excerpts offered by Heppe might lead us to suppose.’

Barth in conversation; an overview

As a matter of fact, between his Göttingen lectures and the writing of the 1935 Preface, Barth himself had been traversing this ‘more arduous road’ ad fontes. In his lecture of 2 December 1924, he quotes the Synopsis Theologiae by Francis Burman (1678), and that appears to be the first evidence of the private book collection that Barth assembled in those years and that he increasingly used in his work. From 1951 onward we find 37 copies of original editions of the main systematic works of the Post-Reformation period in his library, which still can be found in the Karl Barth Archiv (see the list in Reeling Brouwer 2015, 7-13).

Unfortunately, Barth, in spite of his love for history, never availed himself of the opportunity to lecture on ‘the history of Protestant theology in the seventeenth century’, as he did for the history of newer Protestant theology from 1700 onwards (PTNC). Instead the old Protestant theologians function as conversation partners in Barth’s systematic argument. Nevertheless, the step he took from simply explaining textbooks like Heppe and Schmid to the actual consultation of the original sources also implies that Barth did not debate in general with a theological account of ‘the’ Reformed or Lutheran doctrine, but with very specific, individual voices from these distinctive confessional traditions. At times — and then always to his own great satisfaction — Barth hints in the text that he knows the individual and contextual peculiarities of the figure in question, of that figure’s main systematic work and of his theology.

Nine titles in Barth’s personal collection are by Lutheran theologians, and 28 — to which we can add 10 others taken from the Index of Names to the Church Dogmatics — by Reformed theologians. This proportion is in line with the actual development at the centres of theological inquiry in the post-Reformation era, where Reformed theologians in that period definitely formed the majority.

When we consider the development of old Reformed theology, we can observe that most of the shortcomings of Heppe’s selection of sources are reflected in Barth’s compilation of his personal collection. Here too the accent lies on theologians from Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany, whereas France (especially the Academy of Saumur), England, and Scotland are neglected. We see the consequences, e.g., in Barth’s reference to the doctrine of the church in Heppe (GA 38, 349-377; Göttingen lectures 28-31 July, 1925). All the Reformed theologians quoted by Heppe favour an aristocratic form of government. Some of these – mostly continental – theologians explicitly distance themselves from the current they call ‘Brownist’ or ‘Independent’, which is now known as ‘Congregationalist’. Van Mastricht, who perhaps found himself under pressure from certain quarters of Reformed Pietism, declares in his Theoretico-practica theologia (1698) that the Presbyterian order is in accordance with the New Testament and is grounded in the ius divinum, and that therefore the potestas gubernandi cannot be, as in the opinion of these English groups, a matter of the whole congregation. After World War II Barth will plead for these English Congregationalists, among whose descendants he observes an interestingcontribution to theological and ecumenical renewal. But for this plea he could not find any support in the textbook of Heppe (Reeling Brouwer 2015, 169).

Among the most quoted sources by Barth we meet early reformed theologians like Bucanus (Lausanne, main work 1605), Polanus (1609) and Wolleb (1626) from Basel, Walaeus (1640) and his colleagues from the Leiden Faculty after the Synod of Dordrecht (1625). From the covenant theologians, among others, Cocceius (1669) from Leiden and Fr. Turrettini (1679-1685) from Geneva are present, from the more pietist current Voetius (1648) and the already mentioned Mastricht from Utrecht. Since his 1932-1933 lectures on the theology of the beginning of the 18th Century of 1932-1933, and in connection with the German Church Struggle (especially his debate with Emil Brunner), Barth showed a special interest in the theologians of the so-called ‘Reasonable Orthodoxy’: they did not attack the doctrine of their church, but at the same time they were driven by a completely new spirit (CD I/2, 4). In their program one can observe that the Enlightenment was not the enemy of the Protestant world, but from the beginning also a fruit of its inner renewal. In 1936 Barth holds his inaugural address in Basel on Samuel Werenfels (1718), as a representative of this current and of the genius loci of this city: Werenfels does not combat the reformation doctrine of justification, yet at the same time is clearly abandoning it (Barth 1936).

When looking at what shaped Barth’s conversation with Post-Reformation theology as a whole as well as with its currents, we can distinguish several stages. In the Summer Semester of 1924 in Göttingen he only uses certain specific loci from Heppe’s textbook: Locus 6 on the Holy Trinity, Locus 17 on the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace (or the Person of Christ), and Locus 2 on scripture. In both following semesters (but much less so in the additional semester on eschatology, in the winter of 1925/26 in Münster), he really developed a kind of ‘Sentence Commentary’ (McCormack 1997, 334) on Heppe (and on the parallel work Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche by H. Schmid, 1843). In the middle-ages a baccalaureus sententiarum had to show all the possibilities and implications of the existing text (by Peter Lombard), as well as its problems. He could be critical when necessary, but even if he proposed to correct the propositions of his textbook, he had to do so from within that textbook’s system. He was not writing a summa, for he was not yet moving freely, in the ‘open air’, so to speak, of his own project. Thus Barth initially behaved as a baccalaureus, until he dared to fly freely, writing his own summa, which would become the Church Dogmatics.

In the first volume of this Church Dogmtics the concentration of quotations from old Protestant theologians – in part already collected in Göttingen and Münster, although eventually their number increased significantly – is the highest. A general look at the statistics teaches us that out of the total of c. 750 quotations found in the Church Dogmatics, 275 quotations (or more than a third of the total) can be found in these prolegomena. Definitions, propositions, and clarifications are adopted from a great variety of witnesses, in the same way Barth had found patristic quotations in the Roman-Catholic textbooks of his time. But beginning with the excursus on the concept of ‘religion’ in theology (CD I/2, 284-291) and on the doctrine of the Inspiration of holy scripture (CD I/2, 522-526) a new approach becomes visible. Starting with these discussions, Barth seeks to evaluate the treatment of a certain topic in Post-Reformation theology in terms of its contribution as well as its dangers, often focussing on several well-chosen conversation partners. This will be the dominant procedure in the doctrines of [1] God (CD II/1, chapter VI), [2] Election (CD II/2, chapter VII), [3] Providence (CD III/3), and [4] Reconciliation (CD IV/1 §§ 57.59-60 and CD IV/2 §§ 64-5). In the last volumes of the Church Dogmatics, Barth seems to be flying at such heights, increasingly freed from the necessity of any conversation with tradition, that the amount of quotations of the orthodox ancestors strongly decreases. In the fragment on baptism, he takes only a short, critical look at the arguments of Schmid and Heppe on the issue (CD IV/4, 103-107).

After this global overview it makes sense to first take a look at the early Göttingen Dogmatics and then to briefly discuss several examples of Barth’s conversation with Post-Reformation theology in the Church Dogmatics on the four topics just mentioned.

The Göttingen Dogmatics as a commentary on Heppe

In the Winter Semester of 1924-25 Barth commented on Heppe’s Loci 1.4-5.7-10.12 under the title ‘The Doctrine of God’and on the Loci 9.11.13-15 as ‘The Doctrine of Man’. For the Summer Semester of 1925 he had planned to deal with the Loci 16-19 as ‘The Doctrine of Reconciliation’ and the Loci 20-27 as ‘The Doctrine of Salvation’ (GD, 323). This division corresponded with the Lutheran one, as he could find it in Schmid (who speaks of ‘The Principles of Salvation’ and ‘The Means of Salvation’, respectively). However, when the semester started, Barth actually commented on the Loci 16-27 together under the title ‘The Doctrine of Reconciliation’. The reason for this was his decision to revert to a former division found in the Tambach lecture ‘The Christian in Society’ (1919), which joined the doctrine of the threefold royal office of Christ in the kingdom of nature, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory (GA 48, 578 where the editor of this volume, Hans-Anton Drewes, refers to Schmid quoting the orthodox theologian Johann Gerhard from Jena, 1610-22). Barth connects these three perspectives to the main loci creation – redemption – consummation (1919) or creation – reconciliation – redemption (from 1925 onwards; through the later, stronger, distinction between reconciliation and redemption Barth meant to stress the importance of the third, i.e., the eschatological viewpoint). In the second cycle of his Dogmatics lectures, Münster 1926-28, Barth also accommodated his ‘Doctrine of God and of Man’ to this threefold scheme, subsuming it under the perspective of creation.

Barth acknowledges taking over the doctrine of predestination as part of the Doctrine of God as well as the doctrine of the Covenant as part of the doctrine of Man, as a specific inheritance from the Reformed tradition. The God of whom we speak here is a deciding God, and humanity is destined to participate in a covenant with this God, and in this way we will remember the actual character of revelation (GA 20, 383f.): along such lines the newly discovered Reformed tradition was integrated into the theological actualism that characterized his own The Epistle to the Romans (second edition).

Now Reformed doctrine, as documented in Heppe, distinguishes a twofold Covenant. Since Ursin, one speaks of a prelapsarian ‘covenant of nature’ and afterwards of a ‘covenant of grace.’ From the beginning Barth stresses: ‘there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God’ (GA 20, 398), and he tries to resist the tendency to historicize this single covenant. At the same time, however, Barth is ready at this stage to make sense of a certain twofoldness, when one dares to look back from reconciliation to creation. Thus we read such a rather ‘unbarthian’ sentence during this period as: ‘in the theology of revelation natural theology is also included and brought to light, and in the reality of divine grace also the truth of Creation’ (GA 24, 22; quotation from 1926). And therefore the concept of a ‘covenant of nature’ should not be excluded. Only the category of a Covenant of Works, as found in Heppe’s locus 13, that is, a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises life eternal in return, must be rejected as a Pelagian concept. Nevertheless, Barth is following orthodox Reformed doctrine, when he sketches sin as a violation of the original covenant and a transgression of the law, and again it sounds very ‘unbarthian’ when we read sentences like: ‘in anthropology, as the doctrine of man apart from Christ and apart from the redemption accomplished by him, we have to abide by the revelation that declares man guilty’, or: ‘only when one has spoken genuinely and  emphatically about sin, one is able to speak genuinely and emphatically about grace’ (GA 20, 417, 440f.). We have to admit, however, that already in the Münster cycle of Dogmatics, Barth corrects himself. There he will unfold the doctrine of sin not in contrast to the covenant of nature, but in contrast to the covenant of grace (until, as is well known, in his doctrine of reconciliation of the 1950s the speaking of sin will arise from the knowledge of Jesus Christ).

At the end of his third draft of the prolegomena in 1937-38, Barth offers a sketch of the remaining volumes of his Church Dogmatics in accordance with the main loci chosen by that time, God (no longer, as formerly in Münster, part of the perspective of creation), creation, reconciliation and redemption (CD I/2, 870-83). When one compares this overview with the content of Heppe’s textbook, it becomes clear that at that time Heppe was still functioning as the main conversation partner regarding the question of the order of dogmatics (Reeling Brouwer 2015, 226-230). However, when we compare Barth’s plan at that time with the actual framework of volumes II, III and IV of the Church Dogmatics as they actually unfolded between 1939 and 1967, we see how Barth even in the structure of his argument continually becomes more independent and free from Heppe, his teacher, and the tradition represented by him.

Post-Reformation theology in the Church Dogmatics – four examples

  • God. Barth and Polanus and the Discourse on the Divine Perfections

Amandus Polanus, ‘my illustrious predecessor’ (CD III/2, 381) as professor in Basel, followed the didactical method of Petrus Ramus in his Syntagma theologiae Christianae (1609-10). This logical system limited itself to defining and dividing. General definitions were followed by ever-expanding ramifications. The presupposition of this organizing principle was that both parts of a division always presuppose a fundamental unity. Along these lines, in theology Polanus distinguishes, for example, between logical arguments and the message of scripture, divine Essence and divine works, and in the framework of divine Essence, divine attributes and the Persons of the Godhead. Barth does not explicitly discuss this method, but time and again he takes issue with its outcomes as symptoms of an alleged fundamental dualism in its content.

Barth has 131 references to Polanus in the CD, and 47 of these occur in CD II/1. The highest density of references occurs where the question of human speaking of the names and perfections of God (CD II/1, 327-335) is dealt with. There Barth reproaches the scholastic tradition that in a so-called ‘semi-nominalistic’ way it stresses the simple and undivided divine essence, as if the divine reality were a totally undifferentiated identity, presupposing an abstract and pale conception of oneness. Even though a scholar like Polanus tries to speak as realistically as possible about the multiplicities of perfections in the biblical speaking of God in his 11 axiomata on the essential divine properties (Syntagma II.7), in the end, in Barth’s eyes, Polanus cannot succeed in his endeavour precisely because of this abstract presupposition. Against this tradition, Barth himself wants to develop the doctrine of the divine essence from the doctrine of the Trinity representing Christian knowledge based on the revelation of the biblical God, divine theology from the divine economy (the divine ‘works’), the one and single divine essence from the multiplicity of divine perfections, and then also logical argument in theology from the starting-point of the biblical witness.

In this criticism, Barth according to my observation – neglects the historical distance with respect to the different frame of thought between Polanus and himself (also Te Velde 2010, 373). For Polanus there can be no contradiction between any Scriptural and logical argument, between any theological and metaphysical speaking of God, between an ‘inadequate’ speaking in terms of multiplicity and an ‘adequate’ referring to the divine essence, because both parts of these dichotomies speak of the same truth, and this truth is always one. Only ‘achetypal theology’, that is, the essential and uncreated knowledge that God has of Himself, is able to understand both dimensions at the same time. ‘Ektypal theology’ in heaven is also able to know the multiplicity in one simple act, but ‘our theology’, the theology of homines viatorum, of pilgrims on earth, has to reconcile itself to the limits of its discursive mind. At the end of the period of Post-Reformation theology, this distinction of archetypal and ektypal theology falls into oblivion. At the same time, the presupposition of the unity of metaphysics and theology disappears, and a new type of natural theology becomes the basis, foundation, and rule of revealed theology (Jean-Alphonse Turrettini; Joh. Fr. Buddeus around 1700; Breukelman 2010, 234-240). After this happened, it became nearly impossible to fall back on the presuppositions of Polanus, and therefore we can understand why Barth – at least in his theological methodology – tries to go a rather different, more strictly focused on biblical revelation, way of Christian speaking about God.

  • Election. Barth and Turrettin on the Object of Predestination

At the end of § 33.1, ‘Jesus Christ, electing and elected’ Barth offers a long excursus on the seemingly esoteric – although not considered church-disrupting – debates in Reformed theology between supralapsarians and infralapsarians (CD II/2, 127-145). In this context he refers circumstantially to the authoritative François Turrettini as a spokesman for the infralapsarian approach (CD II/2, 129-132; reference to his Institutio theologiae elencticae Locus IV quaestio 9). For he clearly defines the question at stake: ‘whether the object of predestination was man creatable, or capable of falling; or whether as created and fallen’ (Turrettin 1992, Vol. I, 341). Turrettin argues for the second option. For ‘when man not yet created and fallen were indeed the object of predestination, then creation and fall would be instruments of predestination. But they are not. Man might well have been created and have fallen without the question of election or reprobation ever arising. Creation and fall belong to the natural order of providence. Salvation and damnation form the specific content of the supernatural order of predestination, that is’ – as Aquinas had already taught – ‘part of providence. Creation and fall must be regarded as necessary from the standpoint of predestination not as a medium, but as a condition for it’ (Turrettini l.c. IV.9.12-13). Barth comments (CD II/2, 136): it is clear that the infralapsarians wanted to avoid the impression of a deterministic-monistic divine plan from eternity, as the strict Calvinists defended. But by limiting the election to man after the fall, they obscured the question ‘with whom we have to do in the God who created man and the universe, and who permitted the fall of man.’ ‘It was inevitable, then, that the infralapsarian construction could help towards the later cleavage between natural and revealed theology’ (that would become manifest in the days of Turrettini’s son Jean-Alphonse, RRB). However, as Barth also remarks (CD II/2, 133), François Turrettini was not unambiguous in this respect, because in his Institutes the Locus ‘The decrees of God in General and Predestination in Particular’ follows on the Locus on God, and not, as it would have more consistently – and as it can be found, for instance, in the equally infralapsarian Leiden Synopsis from 1625 – after the doctrines of sin and law.

After detailed weighing, Barth declares himself in favour of the supralapsarian position. For ‘no despite can be done to the sovereignty of … the God of the Bible, the God who is Judge and yet also merciful, the God who is Judge just because he is merciful’ (CD II/2, 142). But this has to be a purified supralapsarianism. For the – rightly posed – question of the ‘object of predestination’ deserves a deeper and more fundamental answer than that of the supralapsarians of the seventeenth century, as Barth exposes in the main text (CD II/2, 116ff.). The crucial statement is that Jesus Christ, ‘in virtue of his divinity, was appointed Lord and Head of all others, the organ and instrument of the whole election of God and the revelation and reflection of the election of those who were elected with him.’ Certainly the Reformed tradition had taught Jesus Christ as elected – as it had also taught him as electing, a proposition for which there are more witnesses than Barth presumed (Muller 2008, 159). But the tradition omitted to actually think through these assertions. Both the supralapsarian and the infralapsarian saw the decree of predestination as a decretum absolutum, an utterance of an isolated divine will with regard to isolated individuals. ‘We have to expunge completely this idolatrous concept’, Barth writes, ‘and in place of these we have to introduce the knowledge of the elect man Jesus Christ as the true object of divine predestination’ (CD II/2, 143). Accordingly, the very thing Turrettini rejected may be true, namely that creation must be seen as an ‘instrument of predestination’. Thus through this, as we said, seemingly rather esoteric debate, Barth in fact made a fundamental decision with regard to the structure of the following volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

  • Providence. Barth, and Rivet on Divine Government and the Common Good

In his Preface to Church Dogmatics III/3, Barth writes: ‘In the doctrine of providence I have found it possible to keep far more closely to the scheme of the older orthodox dogmatics than I anticipated’. At the same time, ‘the radical correction which I have also undertaken will not be overlooked’ (CD III/3, xii). Both, the ‘keeping’ and the ‘correction’ can be illustrated here from a conversation with the Leiden Synopsis, although it should be noted that the scheme on providence presented by its eleventh disputation does not fully follow the structure – conservation, concurrence, governance – Barth found in other spokesmen for orthodoxy, a difference of which Barth himself appears not to have been aware.

The Leiden Synopsis contains a series of disputations, held by four professors at the Leiden University after the decisions that were made at the Synod of Dordrecht regarding the Arminian controversies, and published to document the process of ‘purifying’ theology. The eleventh disputation, with André Rivet as president, discusses the Providence of God (Poliander and others, 2014, 260-283).

In an excursus to his treatment of God’s government (CD III/3, 170-175), Barth quotes from this disputation Thesis 18: it does not belong to Providence ‘to direct each and every thing to a particular goal suitable for it’, but absolute (‘in itself’) to a goal ‘that agrees with the operation as a whole’. Just as when we burn wood in the house, we do not do something that corresponds to the particular purpose of the existence of wood, but rather something that corresponds to the purpose of the house in general. Divine world-government must be compared to the providence with which a father rules his house and the king his country. The bonum commune is more important to it than the bonum singulare, so that he must pay more heed to the well-being of the community than to that of the individual. And Thesis 19: When we consider the objects of the divine gubernatio there is a difference between those things over which ‘he exercises his providence for the sake of themselves’, and ‘other things in which he shows providence for the sake of something else’. In the universe as a whole there are some things that belong ‘essentially’ to its perfection and therefore must not be destroyed, and others that can and necessarily do perish and therefore last only as long as they have to in the interests of the first group (Poliander and others 274-5; CD III/3, 172f.). Barth comments:

‘This is a type of argument which is very enlightening and most dangerous in its amiable brutality … Between the free governing will of God sub-ordinating and co-ordinating all things and individual creatures and their existence there is interposed quite independently an all-embracing third factor, the house or state, the totum opus, the universum, the communitas, in the interests of which and in relation to which the individual is reduced to mere means…. It may easily be seen that a divine world-government of this type will inevitably result in the unequivocal abasement of the individual creature or at any rate the majority of individual creatures…. At the end’ [we find ourselves in 1948-1950, in the midst of the highest tensions of the Cold War] of the thread which begins here there lies in the ethical sphere the political or economic totalitarianism which has caused us so much anxiety to-day both in its Western and also in its Eastern forms…. [In conclusion] it is impossible to equate the much too primitive ordering of the world and society with the divine world-governance [as] the kingdom of righteousness (CD III/3, 172-173).’

Rivet’s remarks on providence can be analysed within the broader perspective of a development in the history of western thinking. Already with Aquinas the doctrine of providence had the function of integrating reflection on immanent physical and historical processes to be studied scientifically as part of the divine dispensation. In the seventeenth century thinkers like Malebranche attempted to interpret the providentia specialis in such a way that the new science of physics could be incorporated into it. In this context, the Stoic notion of the acceptance of ‘collateral damage’ in favour of a higher law was revived. Barth’s question for Rivet and his colleagues would actually be whether they did not do too much to promote this neo-Stoic, potentially totalitarian tendency of the age, instead of countering it. On the other side, he displays a certain appreciation for the Lutheran theologians specifically on this point, because their rather Epicurean inclinations were better able to safeguard the freedom of the individual creature. As far as the Reformed tradition was concerned, in Barth’s eyes indeed a ‘radical correction’ (as announced in the Preface) had to be considered.

  • Reconciliation. Barth and Cocceius on the Abrogation of the Covenant of Works and the Counsel of Peace

The covenant is the execution of the eternal divine decision of election in time. It is, Barth says in CD III/1 (§ 41.3), the causa interna of Creation – a category we can find in Heppe (1950 [2007], 195), but in this form we quite likely do not encounter it in scholastic reflection. And in a next step, it is also the decisive ‘presupposition of Reconciliation’ (CD IV/1, § 57.2) – decisive in such a measure, that Barth (according to Eberhard Busch) was thinking of calling the entire fourth part of the Church Dogmatics a ‘doctrine of the covenant’. At the end of the subparagraph on the covenant, Barth offers an excursus on the historical phenomenon of federal theology (CD IV/1, 54-66), largely based on the information in the classical study of Gottlob Schrenk on the subject, that he had already read in Göttingen during the Christmas holidays of 1922-1923. In his eyes, this current succeeded in correcting the older orthodoxy (by means of making dynamic the former static Loci-method in a baroque way), but at the same time it was precisely this operation that created room for dangerous theological developments in later neo-Protestantism.

Johannes Cocceius himself, however, was for Barth in a certain sense an exception in his own generation: ‘the main strength of the thinking of Cocceius is at the very point where formally the main objection is made against him’ (CD IV/1, 61): ‘certainly, he took over from his predecessors that idea of a covenant of nature or works which was alien to the Reformers. But … he had such a strong sense of the uniqueness of the divine covenant as a covenant of grace that, although he could begin his narration with the covenant of works, he could understand everything that followed only in antithesis to it, as its increasing abrogation.’ With this concept of abrogation, the reformation doctrine of justification by grace and not by works is actually affirmed. Cocceius sketches five stages of this abrogation, and the greatest deviation in this sketch is the second one, which in a ‘scene in heaven’ consists of ‘the institution of the covenant of grace. God adopts man into a new agreement by which he wills to give man a Mediator and therefore in this just person new fellowship and peace with himself and the promised eternal life, not now as a reward which had been earned but as a free gift.’ This is understood as ‘an eternal and free contract (pactum) made between the Father and the Son, the latter adopting the function of a Mediator and pledge in the place of men.’ Already in Göttingen 1925 Barth had the impression that this eternal pact or ‘counsel of peace’ (Zech. 6:13) had to be identified with the eternal decree of predestination (GA 38, 17), and therefore in his doctrine of Election he would take up Cocceius as an ally in his own christocentric renewal of the older Reformed doctrine (CD II/2, 114-115).

In the light of the newer Cocceius research, especially that of the late Willem van Asselt, these claims are questionable. Van Asselt, like Schrenk before him, reads the category of ‘abrogation’ not as implying a process of degradation but rather as a transformation of the covenant of works, either in a more historicizing ‘salvation-historical’ or in a more psychologizing ‘order of salvation’ way (Van Asselt 2001, 277). And as far as the counsel of peace is concerned, he argues that for Cocceius predestination precedes the pactum. For in this treaty the Father gives the elect who were known beforehand, to the Son (Van Asselt 2001, 215-222). Cocceius also agreed with the general conviction in Reformed theology that the decree of predestination (in his terms: ‘the decree of grace and wrath’) is a work of the Father that refers to the personal election or reprobation of separate individuals. After that, in the eternal inner-trinitarian covenant, the Father and the Son agree that the Son will allow himself to be sent to give his life for the elect who were given to him by his Father and who will, by the Holy Spirit, receive the power of the deity and the love and friendship of the Son as the fruit of their election. In conclusion we can say that although Barth developed his own christological correction of Reformed doctrine in an undoubtedly intense conversation with post-Reformation theologians like Cocceius, he stood more alone in his proposals for the renewal of this doctrine than he had hoped. Nevertheless, his way of conversing with these predecessors remains exemplary and inspiring for us as a generation of his successors.


  • Asselt, W.J. van (2001). The Federal Theology of Johannes Coccejus (1603-1669). Leiden: Brill.
  • Barth, K. (1936). ‚Samuel Werenfels (1657-1740) und die Theologie seiner Zeit‘, Evangelische Theologie, 3/5, 180-203.
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R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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