Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy. By Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer. Pp. viii, 275, Aldershot/Burlington,
Ashgate, 2015, £65, $119.95, e117.40.
The story is well known; certainly amongst Barth scholars, or generally amongst anyone who takes the development of neo-orthodoxy in Reformed/ Evangelical/Protestant theology seriously; that is, how the young Karl Barth, fresh from his youthful years as the ‘red pastor’, a fledgling Reformed Church cleric in an obscure working-class parish in the middle of the Swiss mountains, a young minister who rejected his heritage in nineteenth century neo-Protestant Liberalism, who made no secrecy of his Marxist sympathies, published his controversial commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Karl Adams wrote: ‘Barth’s Römerbrief (1919). . . hit like a bomb on the playground of the theologians, comparable in its effects to the encyclical on antimoderism of Pope Pius X’. It challenged the prevailing hermeneutic of suspicion, the snobbery of the academy, the Kantian- Hegelian establishment that treated the Bible as an antiquarian curiosity. Despite being panned by critics from the old guard – the establishment -Barth ended by joining the establishment; his rebellion was rewarded by his being given a chair in 1921 – a professorship in Reformed Theology!
But, as Barth admitted years later, he knew virtually nothing of Reformed theology and Reformed Church history/ so had to learn fast; he was on a fast learning curve. RB’s book examines Barth’s encounter with his Reformed heritage, both church tradition and theology; he shows how the fruits of this reading – what he learned from and with the great theologians of what RB calls ‘post-Reformation orthodoxy’ – led to The Church Dogmatics. Much of this understanding came from the personal collection of what even in the 1920s were rare out-ofprint texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; Barth sought these texts out for his private collection; this was Reformed Orthodoxy. Working back from The Church Dogmatics, RB identifies, analyses, and discusses the sources of Barth’s ‘conversation’ with this repository and demonstrates how it influenced his professional career – also his use, and sometimes what is considered his mis-use, of parts of the Reformed tradition.
What he gives us are six extended essays/chapters of considerable depth and length, with, predictably, the name Heinrich Heppe (nineteenth century German Calvinist theologian and church historian) emerging as perhaps the most important and influential figure, but also Polanus, Cocceius, et al. Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics powerfully influenced the ultimate shaping of Barth’s The Church Dogmatics. RB concludes ‘… Barth’s development from what was more or less a commentary on Heppe to his far more independent Church Dogmatics can be studied in much greater detail, especially with regard to the doctrine of reconciliation. The same is true for Barth’s elaboration, or rather non-elaboration, of scholastic reasoning. Similarly, the fact that he paid particular attention, with the help of his personal library, to the confessional differences between Reformed and Lutheran theologians has for the most part been neglected here and would be worthy of a separate study’ (p. 243).
Most Barth scholars are ignorant of much of the Reformed traditions that Barth laboured so assiduously to master in the 1920s, the fruits emerging initially in The Göttingen Dogmatics, the abortive Christian Dogmatics (both from the late 1920s), and finally fully evident in The Church Dogmatics (c. 1936-1968) – even when Barth sometimes – for many, often! – re-writes and re-interprets afresh the Reformed tradition for the benefit of both the detail and the over-arching systematic structure of The Church Dogmatics. Writing from within the Reformed tradition, RB analyses the genealogy of the masterwork of the Swiss theologian whom Pius XII described in 1951 as ‘the greatest theologian since Aquinas’.
Wimbledon Paul Brazier
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