Bijdrage paneldiscussie over te verschijnen nieuwe en volledige Engelse vertaling van de Göttingen Dogmatics


Barth Conference 2022, Karl Barth and Reformed Theology, June 20, Monday evening 7.30pm, panel discussion on the (completion of the) translation of Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics

  • Contribution Rinse Reeling Brouwer

During the three semesters in Göttingen, when Barth offered lectures under the title Instruction in the Christian Religion (alluding to Calvin’s Institutes), he certainly did not present a ‘confessional’ theology, but he did study Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics as his master, to understand Christian Instruction of all ages from the perspective of a specific tradition. He preferred Heppe, and not, e.g., Alexander Schweizer, because Heppe chastely tried to honour his sources without being determined by his own position in 19th Century theology – although Richard A. Muller and his school attack Heppe in an excessive way in this respect (namely because of his reproduction of the infamous tabula praedestinationis of Beza; ET, 147f.). Remarkable in the selection of Heppe is that English and Scottish presbyterian theologians are lacking, although historically the interaction inside the Reformed world of the 17th Century demonstrably has been intensive. Personally, I studied the Locus of the Church in Heppe and Barth, and there the dominance of voices from the Swiss confederation and from the Republic of the United Netherlands evidently is disadvantageous, because these sources presuppose a ‘dominant’ Reformed Church, privileged by the civil authorities – what would appear to become a problematic line for the rather congregationalist Barth after the Second World War.

In 1924 Barth acquired the Synopsis theologiae & speciatim oeconomiae foederum Dei of Franz Burman and quoted it during a lecture on the 12th of December. In this way, he began to tread upon the ‘more arduous road to the sources’, that he recommended to the readers of the new edition of Heppe in 1935 and that we encounter frequently in a range of excursuses in the Church Dogmatics. One can debate these interpretations of the sources separately – as I personally criticised Barth’s neglect of the Ramistic methodology in his Basle predecessor Amandus Polanus, whom he highly admired – but, after studying Barth’s marks by pencil in the 37 personal copies of post-Reformation orthodox theologians in the Karl Barth Archiv, I am sure that these excursuses are based on an independent and often stubborn reading of the sources. The Jury that in the year 2000 refused to award Barth with the title ‘greatest theologian of the 20th Century’ because he allegedly exploited his students for writing these excursuses certainly used an incorrect argument!

After the Prologomena, treated in the Summer Semester 1924, the material of the Winter Semester 1924/1925 – comparable with the disposition of the Lutheran textbook by Heinrich Schmid – contains ‘the doctrine of God’ and ‘the doctrine of human being’. The first volume of the English translation makes an arbitrary cut between §17 on election and §18 on Creation, both paragraphs component of the Doctrine of God. Barth stresses that both paragraphs treat an aspect of the acts of God that accompany the message of the Saviour and of salvation. In this way, e.g., the concursus Dei in the locus of Providence preludes the Chalcedonensic relationship of two natures in the one person of the Mediator. Some sentences sound ‘unbarthian’ in our ears because human beings appear here, with Heppe, against the background of them breaking the ‘covenant of nature’. As the doctrine of God, in its Reformed understanding, finds its specific identifier in election, the doctrine of human being finds this in covenant. In his second Letter to the Romans, Barth had been very critical with respect to ‘covenant theology’ and its implicit historicism and in reading the book of Gottlob Schrenk during the Christmas holidays of 1922/1923, he had been confirmed in his aversion. However, reading Heppe compelled him to differentiate his judgement. Now, in §24, a foedus naturae doesn’t seem to be a bad concept, not as a stage prior to foedus gratiae, but as an implication of it. However, foedus operum cannot be a good concept. It suggests that Adam in paradise should have been a contractual partner of his Creator, and therewith that the beginning of the relationship of God and human being should have been of a Pelagian nature – and that is inacceptable.

In the Summer Semester of 1925, Barth started with §27, ‘The faithfulness of God’, that is Heppe’s Locus on the covenant of Grace. Here we find his reconstruction of the contribution of Johannes Coccceius, with the remarkable sentence: ‘The eternal decree of election = nothing else than the mutual pact between the Father and the Son = nothing else than the eternal testament = the presupposition of the covenant of Grace in time’. This discovery of May 1925 will in Church Dogmatics II/2 result in the thesis, that Cocceius can help to overcome the Augustinian view on predestination: when in the mutual pact the Father gives the Son as a redeemer and head of his people, the Son in turn offers himself to fulfil the work of redemption, and that mutual act should be the election ‘in Christ’ of Ephesians 1:4, then Cocceius should have anticipated a Christological correction of classical doctrine. Unfortunately, however, Barth’s reading of Cocceius is inaccurate in many respects – namely because for Cocceius, the double election of individuals by the Father has been taken place independently from the later promise of the elected people to the Son as a reward for his redeeming work. But at the same time, we can say: Barth’s misunderstanding of his source has caused a very productive renewal of doctrine!

The structure of the first Part of the semester is a creative one: §27 on the Covenant of Grace at the beginning and §34 on the Church at the end include two paragraphs on Christology as well four paragraphs on soteriology (which include the Loci on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; only Heppe’s locus De sacramentis in genere is missing). The heading of this complex is ‘reconciliation’. This is a word, Barth preferred after reading Paul (and probably because of the heritage of the Ritschlian tradition); he didn’t find it in Heppe, where it only functions in a limited sense as the objective aspect of the sacrifice of Christ in which he reconciled us with God (without saying that the Father had to be transformed from an angry to a reconciled God, for such a notion would have undermined the doctrine of the unchangeable divine decree). Moreover, the choice for ‘reconciliation’ as a header enables the use of ‘redemption’ for Eschatology, that Barth would treat in the Winter Semester 1925/1926 in Münster (and that shows a decreasing number of references to Heppe and Schmid).

As a result, the structure of the Göttingen Dogmatics is ambiguous. One can say: four semesters, four main parts: 1 Prolegomena – 2 God and Man – 3 Reconciliation = Christology and Soteriology – 4 Eschatology. On the other hand, in his Amsterdam lecture ‘Church and Culture’, June 1926 – and therewith after finishing his first cycle of dogmatic lectures and before starting his second cycle in Münster –, he takes over his former, trinitarian scheme of the Tambach lecture of 1919: nature – grace – glory. In that case, we must understand the second semester on ‘God and human being’ as the first Part on Creation, the third semester as the second part on Reconciliation and the fourth semester as the third one on Redemption. Indeed, this will be the structure of the Münster Dogmatics, where – as Amy Marga has told us – the doctrine of God has been involved under the point-of-view of Creation, and where the two paragraphs on the covenant of nature and the covenant of grace frame the doctrine of sin. That is a step forward: sin is no longer understood against the background of human being breaking the covenant, but in the light of the covenant that must be seen as the one covenant of grace, with its implication of being covenant of nature. Later, of course, the Fourth Part of the Church Dogmatics will carry this integration a step further, by understanding sin in the light of the work of Christ. Besides, the Church Dogmatics will introduce four main Loci instead of three: first the perspective of the one and only God, then the perspective of this God in his three ways of acting: Creating, Reconciling and Consummating. At the end of Church Dogmatics I/2, where Barth offers a brief survey of these four Loci, to be developed in the further Volumes, it is striking, how near at that moment his intending is to the order of Loci in Heppe. But when we look to the execution of this intending in the following decades, we will discover that in practice he ever more went away from Heppe and from the tradition Heppe represents.

In summary: after writing his Epistle to the Romans, Barth already had developed an evidently independent and innovating contribution to theology. However, he had to learn the technical aspects of the discipline of Dogmatics. Then, he discovered Heppe (accompanied by Schmid), and he chose him as his master. However, students must try to surpass the masters they have chosen for themselves. How this surpassing happened with Barth, we can recognize in the development of Church Dogmatics, with its ‘quiet but persistent movement’ (Preface CD IV/2). By studying the Göttingen Dogmatics, as the document of the start of this movement, we can discover how we in our turn can surpass Karl Barth as our master.

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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