In January-February 2010, Modern Reformation’s executive editor Ryan Glomsrud reviewed a collection of essays published by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Bruce McCormack entitled Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008). Recently, Professor McCormack has written a letter to the editor which we offer below along with a response from the editor.

Response to Ryan Glomsrud by Professor Bruce McCormack

I have to confess that I was disappointed by this “review.”  Part of my disappointment has to do with the fact that I did not find in it a serious engagement with the argument(s) advanced in my essays.  In fact, I do not see that those argument(s) have even been identified in this brief article.  What I do find, in place of a serious engagement, is an attempt to describe “McCormack” which is based exclusively on the Introduction.  The problem with such an approach should be obvious: an Introduction is not a treatise.  If statements are made in it which are left (relatively) unexplained, a reviewer would do well to consult other writings by the author in which the topics under discussion are explained in full before assigning to him positions which are not his own. In any event, the errors of fact in this brief article are numerous – and that is the greater reason for my disappointment.

1.  This is not the promised companion volume to my Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology.  I will be writing that volume eventually, but it won’t be a collection of essays.  The material found in this book consists simply of essays relevant to a debate which I unwittingly launched in 2000 with the publication of my “Grace and Being” (an essay contained in this collection).  These essays are offered to them as a way of explaining how my thinking has evolved over the last decade.

2.  The suggestion that “McCormack and others such as T.F. Torrance tend to argue (with great exaggeration) that Barth’s mature, critically realistic dialectical and actualistic theology was free of philosophical commitments, having been purified by ‘biblical’ and ‘Christ-centered’ reflection” – confuses my views with those of a man I deeply respected but with whom I disagreed on many important matters, including this one.  I have always argued that Barth’s philosophical resources were different than those found in the ancient, medieval and Reformation periods – which was to grant, of course, that Barth made use of philosophical resources.  It is, therefore, very hard for me to understand how Glomsrud can say that I acknowledge Barth’s debts to Kant and Hegel in one breath and then turn around and say of me that I claim that Barth offers a theology purified of philosophy.  How is this inconsistency to be explained?  Certainly not by reference to my writings.

3.  Glomsrud ascribes to me the view that Barth was “completely free and unconstrained by the creeds and confessions of the Church…”  He adds that a confessionalism of the spirit, which I (following Barth) advocate “floats free from any past understanding of theology and is unhinged from creeds, confessions or any written document.”  This again is wrong. To interpret a creed “spiritually” in Barth’s sense is to seek first to understand it historically, in terms of the issues under discussion, so as to obtain a proper understanding of what was meant.  It is then to ask: can we say the same thing in other words than these?  Is it necessary to subscribe to the philosophical terminology which the Fathers, for example, borrowed to speak of the Christian God or may we look to other resources in our efforts to say the same thing in other words?  To reconstruct doctrines from the ground up does not mean, when seen in this light, to reconstruct them freely.  It means to reconstruct them under the guidance of creeds and confessions while drawing upon different resources (Note 1). In none of this is there any hint of a spirit-letter dualism, of a free-floating theologizing or of an “Anabaptist impulse.”

Some years ago now, I gave a paper on Barth’s treatment of ecclesial authority at a conference in Heidelberg (Note 2).  Afterwards, I was sharply criticized by Prof. Michael Welker of Heidelberg for advocating a “crypto-Catholic” understanding of the role of the church in theology!  Not Anabaptism, then, but Catholicism was seen by this eminent theologian as McCormack’s temptation!  Now I am not ready to concede the validity of Welker’s critique, but he (at least) had a greater appreciation of where I was coming from.   In my view, any theological reconstruction which wishes to describe itself as “Reformed” must be able to show how and in what way it is constitutes a legitimate development of the doctrine(s) taught in the Reformed confessions.  That is why I have spent the last twenty four years of my life teaching Reformed confessions – and defending their importance in my own church.

4.  Glomsrud writes, “McCormack shares with the nineteenth century (and with Open Theists today) a number of misconceptions about God’s impassibility, mistranslating the Latin to mean that God has no passions or emotions rather than, correctly, that God cannot be thought to suffer harm.”  My treatment of “impassibility” does not rest on the translation of the word but on its use by Christian theologians through the centuries.  I do not ascribe to the word impassibility any other meaning than that which I find in the Westminster Confession. In Chapter, the Confession says of God that He is “without passions.”  That “passions” are not to be simply equated with “emotions” should go without saying.  For that reason, I have never accused any Christian theologian who makes positive use of the word of seeking to suggest that God is “without emotions.”  All Christian theologians know that God is compassionate, for example – and the best ones know that He is capable of wrath.  So that is not the point of my critique of “impassibility” at all.  The point is that those who believe in impassibility think that God is incapable of suffering.  That is the view I reject in rejecting impassibility.  That God does not “come to harm” through His suffering – that He does not cease to be God when He submits Himself to the human experience of suffering and takes that experience into His divine life should also go without saying.

5.  Finally, Glomsrud holds that I accept “the substance” of Cornelius Van Til’s “interpretation that Barth was and remained a critical (i.e. Kantian) and dialectical (i.e. Hegelian) theologian from his early to his later years.”  This judgment is too formal to be of any value.  I do not find much in the interpretations of Kant and Hegel offered by Van Til to be valid.  Therefore, when I speak of Barth’s “debts” to these philosophers, I am speaking of something altogether different than Van Til was.  Glomsrud is not the first Van Tilian to congratulate me on my “confirmation” of Van Til.  But that only shows – as this brief essay does – that he (and they) have not read my work carefully.

6.  One final thought: I do not have any particular interest myself in an alleged contrast of the “static” with the “dynamic.”  Such terms are sheer abstractions which prevent us from seeing what is at stake in particular issues.  I would much prefer – as I believe my essays demonstrate – to attend to questions surrounding divine ontology by beginning with the concrete and the particular – i.e. the narrated history of Jesus of Nazareth as attested in Holy Scripture – and proceed from there to speak of the being of God.  Such an approach has little or nothing to do with a personal preference for dynamic thought-forms.  The ultimate criterion by which a Protestant theology is to be measured is Holy Scripture – and that is my ultimate concern as well.

Bruce L. McCormack
Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

1. I would take it that this approach to the authority of creeds and confessions is not unlike that taken by John Calvin.  “Wherever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with – and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment…” Calvin, Institutes IV.ix.8.

2. See Bruce L. McCormack, “The End of Reformed Theology? The Voice of Karl Barth in the Doctrinal Chaos of the Present”, Wallace Alston, Jr. and Michael Welker, eds., Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003): 46-64.

From the Editor (Ryan Glomsrud)

Dear Professor McCormack,

Thank you for responding to my review in the January-February issue of Modern Reformation. As an editor, I do always appreciate feedback, even from those who sometimes register their dismay with the perspectives we advocate. For almost twenty years we have been committed to an open discussion of important issues that face evangelical theology today.

Ultimately, MR subscribers will need to determine for themselves where your theology, Karl Barth’s, and the theology of the Reformed tradition converge and diverge. My review, which was fewer than a thousand words, was not meant to be an extensive interaction with all the theses you propose in each of your essays, much less the entire body of your scholarly research, but was rather intended to be an introduction, a setting of the stage, a whetting of the appetite. Your objections notwithstanding, I remain convinced that I have adequately summed up the most general thesis of your book in the space of a few paragraphs and offered at least one Reformed perspective by way of response and evaluation. It appears that we have several disagreements in this regard, but I would argue that the “errors of fact” to which you refer are better understood as matters of interpretation that point to areas of genuine theological difference. It is possible to have both understood and disagreed with many of the arguments and claims you make.

I note at the outset of my review that Reformational lay readers will likely find your introductory material as well as two other easily digestible chapters to be of the most interest because of the provocative and overarching theses you develop there. The paucity of traditional systematic theology in American Protestantism today continues to be a real factor in the ongoing interest in the theology of Karl Barth. However, your particular way of framing Barth’s relationship to orthodoxy and modernity, confessional Reformed theology and Protestant liberalism, does constitute a macro-level thesis that is certainly controversial and not at all a given. It is also strikingly similar to the way scholars such as Brian Gerrish and Dawn Devries argue for the genuine “Reformed” identity of Friedrich Schleiermacher, namely by appealing to a kind of faithfulness to the spirit of Calvin’s intentions. This is an interesting point of continuity between Barth and the nineteenth-century liberal tradition which deserves further elaboration, although this is neither the time or place.

Whatever impression you may have received, I am very familiar with and appreciative of your work. I have benefited from your efforts to place Barth in his proper historical-theological setting, and while a great deal more needs to be done in this regard, you have pioneered a contextual reading of Barth that I have tried to model in my own doctoral and postdoctoral work. I am sure I am not alone in saying that if this current collection is not it, I eagerly await the follow-up volume to Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology.

You are correct in pointing out that my review inadvertently merged your interpretation of Barth with that of T. F. Torrance, a comment which I am happy to qualify. Whatever Torrance’s view of later philosophical influence on Barth, you have certainly offered a more nuanced and sophisticated paradigm for explaining Barth’s development from his student years in Marburg up to and beyond 1936. Torrance held that Barth’s theology became anti-metaphysical, that it outgrew residual metaphysical influences and presuppositions. However, you point out that Barth continued to be informed by neo-Kantian and Hegelian concepts and motifs throughout his entire career even as he recast them for his own theological purposes, as he did with post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This happens to have been the subject of both of our doctoral dissertations. Still, one wonders what the difference finally is between Torrance’s claim that Barth was free of philosophical commitments and your own elaboration of Barth’s progressive actualization of the doctrine of the incarnation, a move that you describe as an overcoming of classical metaphysics (p.270 fn.22 for example). You clearly intend that this later actualism is a metaphysics or a specific theological ontology (thereby differing from Torrance’s sometimes naïve characterizations), and yet your description of Barth’s development as well as your proposal to correct Barth by Barth consistently gives the impression that this trajectory is both “antimetaphysical” and “postmetaphysical,” terms you use in several places (cf. pp.263-264). The contrast you draw then is between a so-called essentialist, “classic metaphysics,” or “largely Platonic ontology” (p.202) on the one hand and on the other an actualist ontology that is now finally purified to some extent by Barth’s interpretation of biblical christology and predestinarian teaching, something which, with your help and elaboration, is being offered literally for the first time in the history of Christianity. This latter claim is one you have forwarded in a variety of settings and does actually remind me a great deal of Torrance’s rather grandiose thesis in “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 39 (1986). There is much more to discuss here in another setting, and I hope we have that opportunity sometime.

For my own part, I am interested in Barth’s relationship to nineteenth- and twentieth-century pietism. I would argue that Barth, many Barthians, and much of the liberal Protestant tradition can be said to have incorporated what I call generally an “Anabaptist impulse” that has been inherited from pietism. As I suggested above, this amounts to a certain noticeable tendency to describe one’s loyalty to the Reformation in terms of Paul’s spirit-and-letter distinction, or at least to employ those terms as a way to dichotomize between a dynamic, ever-evolving, “fresh” formulation of doctrine over against the confessional tradition, which although honored as a guiding “witness” for the church is nonetheless frequently skewered as static, fixed, and slavish if taken to be a present basis of authority in the church in more than theory. Confessional subscription of most kinds – whether the confession is taken to be authoritative “in so far as” or “because” it summarizes the teaching of Scripture – has never been acceptable to pietist theologians either on the so-called conservative end of the spectrum or the so-called liberal end.

While Barth was clearly a predestinarian, grace- and Christ-centered, Augustinian-style Calvinist pietist (whew!), he and many of his students have resisted the tradition at precisely this point among others. Although you claim in your letter above that “in none of this [i.e. your treatment of Barth’s relationship to the confessional tradition] is there any hint of a spirit-letter dualism,” readers will find that you do in fact use these categories, for example in the introduction to Orthodox and Modern when you write,

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it meant to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and confessions seriously – how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter (p.17).

You have implied this same spirit/letter contrast in other places as well, such as in your 1989 doctoral dissertation:

Barth violently opposed confessionalism which binds its adherents to a fidelity to the letter of the confession. He was however, all in favour of a confessional theology which, recognizing its own limitations, allowed itself to be guided by the witness of the church in the past … [and] depends moment by moment on the gracious work of the Holy Spirit (“A Scholastic of a Higher Order: The Development of Karl Barth’s Theology, 1921-31” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1989), p.3).

What is not in question here is your or Barth’s relative degree of respect for Reformed confessional writings but a dynamic versus static paradigm for understanding the authority of the church’s doctrinal symbols. On your view (following Barth), a traditional Reformed perspective on the authority of the confessions seems to amount to “repristination,” a most dreaded error to be almost ridiculed. Freed from that, a super-strength pneumatology teams up with an historicist sensibility so that the church’s doctrinal formulation is always provisional and incomplete, constantly in need of fresh revision. Put simply these are not the alternatives of the confessional Reformed tradition but those of Protestant pietism. I am not surprised, then, by your anecdote about Michael Welker’s response to your work, for Calvin’s view was always that Anabaptism and the Roman institution shared some things in common, namely an appeal to something outside Scripture as the basis for theological revisionism (in the case of Anabaptism, the appeal is made to the ongoing leading of the Spirit and a historicist necessity and in the case of Rome, an appeal is made to the teaching magisterium of the church).

Needless to say, this is not a suitable forum for a full discussion of these matters, although I would refer you to my recently published chapter in a festschrift for W. Robert Godfrey where I develop my thoughts in greater detail (see my “Karl Barth and Modern Protestantism: The Radical Impulse” available online). This was a paper that I originally gave at the Barth session of the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2009 where the group also discussed your volume of essays. The festschrift, Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey is available at the Westminster Seminary California bookstore and also includes a related chapter by Michael S. Horton entitled “Reformed and Always Reforming.”

In sum, Modern Reformation is more than a slogan or our name, it is what we aim to accomplish. We believe that a healthy church is a confessing church, a church that confesses in practice and not just in theory. That being said, we appreciate and want to encourage the persuasive defense of theological orthodoxy wherever it may be found, whether in confessional institutions, mainline seminaries, Reformed denominations, or various evangelical communities. As one engaged in theological reflection at various levels, I look forward to ongoing discussion of your proposals for the revival of evangelical theology.

The Executive Editor,
Ryan Glomsrud