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A conversation between Calvin and Barth on revelation

CALVIN:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

BARTH:  Above all we must recognize that God stoops to reveal Himself.

CALVIN:  No but it's a stooping revelation.

BARTH:  Yes but it's a stooping revelation.

CALVIN:  But what we see is God in His condescension.

BARTH:  Amen!  We see God in His condescension.

CALVIN:  But we can't know God except that He accommodates Himself to us.

BARTH:  Yes but we do know God as the One who accommodates Himself to us.

CALVIN:  In all humility we cannot presume to know God apart from His condescension.

BARTH:  In all humility we cannot presume that God is any other than the One who condescends.

CALVIN:  No but when He condescends He clothes Himself in a character foreign to Himself.

BARTH:  ... And how do you know that it's foreign to Himself?


Who do you like in this battle of the reformed giants?


22 thoughts on “A conversation between Calvin and Barth on revelation

  1. Heather

    Looks about like a lot of the arguments Christians have.

    Both sides make points and continue to counter each other rather than acknowledge that "the other guy" actually said something worth considering before shooting back.

    I do like "Barth's" final statement, though.

  2. Emily

    "CALVIN: No but when He condescends He clothes Himself in a character foreign to Himself."

    Would Calvin really say that? (That's not an argumentative question - I'm just surprised!)

  3. John B

    Echoing Emily's question about that last statement of Calvin's.

    Also, I think their extended conversation might include an exchange something like this:

    CALVIN: God also reveals His eternal power and divine nature in creation. The cosmos reveals God's glory.

    BARTH: Nein! God could speak through them if he wants to, but even Scripture is only a token of revelation.

    I like both of these men, but I have more confidence in Calvin as a classical theologian. Barth breathed the Kantian air, like we all do now.

  4. Glen

    Hi Emily and John,

    Take this example from Calvin's commentary on Hosea 11:8 ("My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.")

    "As to this mode of speaking, it appears indeed at the first glance to be strange that God should make himself like mortals in changing his purposes and in exhibiting himself as wavering. God, we know, is subject to no passions; and we know that no change takes place in him. What then do these expressions mean, by which he appears to be changeable? Doubtless he accommodates himself to our ignorances whenever he puts on a character foreign to himself."

    You can't read Calvin for long without coming across his recourse to 'accommodation' at some point. In the Institutes he likens it more than once to a lisping nurse-maid. The nurse-maid doesn't naturally lisp but accommodates herself to the child:

    "For who does not know that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height." (Institutes, 1.13.1)

    Whatever you do with alleged 'anthropopathisms' or 'anthropomorphisms' (and they always must be 'alleged' it's never *obvious* that God's being anthropomorphic - especially since we are theomorphic!) you still must take their revelatory character seriously. Even if you deny certain correspondences with human experience, you don't have to call it a 'stooping far below' or a character 'foreign to Himself.' But Calvin does this all the time.

  5. John B

    Is Barth objecting to the idea of God's condescension to humanity in the Incarnation? If so, isn't he at odds with the historic confessions of the church across the traditions? And, if so, isn't Calvin just one among many theologians whose views Barth would reject on this point?

    Setting aside for now the merits of Barth's view, do you see this as primarily a point of contention specific to just he and Calvin?

    I don't know enough about Barth to know if this is an issue for him, but it does seem to be the trajectory of this Meeting of Minds style conversation between he and Calvin.

    God not only talks baby-talk to us, in history he became a baby for us!

  6. Bobby Grow


    I like'm both. I really appreciate Barth for his recasting of predestination and election (although I might want to qualify some of what he said with the help of TFT and some of the Scots). And I appreciate Calvin simply because he's Calvin.

  7. Emily

    Not having read much of either of these theologians, I wasn't doubting the validity of their "conversation" as such, I just expected better of Calvin, given his historic influence... but then maybe that explains a lot...
    I'm definitely with Barth on this one!

  8. Paul Blackham

    Thanks for this Glen. Deep and important stuff. When I read Barth I feel more in touch with the apostolic fathers, but I always love Calvin too. The first book of the Institutes is the best [for me]... just as 1/1 is my favourite part of the Dogmatics. Your conversation is good because it is trying to show that Calvin begins with the utterly transcendent God before the world began... whereas Barth wants to always begin with the actual point of contact, the one mediator, Jesus Christ. I find that both theologians lead me to worship.. reading them both is like walking into a grand cathedral. Calvin carries me away to eternity, to divine counsels and the being of god in a more classical sense. Barth confronts me with the Word of God, Jesus Christ, here and now. He declares to me this Person rather than the divine being. When I know that human flesh has no foundations, that the world is passing away, that this is an age of darkness, Barth tells me that Jesus loves me and I know this because the Bible tells me so.

    I find myself thrown into more Bible reading after reading Barth, because I find it utterly wonderful and glorious that here and now, not by my own power or skill, but by His sheer love and grace and power and freedom... He may speak the Bible to me and I hear Him. The Bible is not only the Word that God once spoke [infallibly and inerrantly] but also He may speak that same word again to us again... and our blind eyes are opened, our deaf ears are unstopped and we are called from death to life.

    I love both theologians... and I read both for devotion as well as knowledge... but Barth speaks to me as a wretched, ignorant sinner who could know nothing of life, God or salvation without Jesus in a way that I don't ever quite hear in Calvin. Barth makes me love Jesus... and I forget that I'm reading theology and feel that he is both ripping away my false confidence and also pointing me to the One Person who can graciously reveal to me His Way, Truth and Life.

  9. John B

    Hi Paul,

    Your comment is a great encouragement to me to read Barth; certainly for devotions, although still with reservations about his theology. You say that Barth gets you "more in touch with the apostolic fathers". But it's now twenty years since Richard Muller posed the question: is Barth a new Athanasius or Origen redivivus?

    The assessment of Barth will continue far beyond my days, so the time-tested orthodoxy of people like Calvin continues to carry much weight for me.

    Here's a good summary statement by Muller on Barth:

    "If brilliance alone were the test of greatness, Barth might well find his place in the company of Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. But the test also requires that the brilliant mind carry forward the great tradition of Christian witness with new insight into the meaning of its norms and with respect for the boundaries of formulation that it has established over the course of centuries."

    Muller says Nein!

  10. Paul Blackham

    Thanks for the post.

    Obviously I struggle with the kind of project that Muller is trying to carry out. The fact that he includes Aquinas in that list speaks volumes to me. Aquinas is much, much further from the evangelical tradition than Barth could ever be. Think of Aquinas' definition of the way of salvation! His method has only the lightest connection to the Scriptures. When I worked my way through the Summa Contra Gentiles and then the Summa Theologica many years ago I was constantly stunned by the lack of Scripture reference. His authority was quite clearly the schoalstic tradition reaching back to Aristotle... and his quotations of Aristotle seemed to be more numerous than his Bible references! I know that seems quite aburd, but that is how I remember him.

    One cannot have both Aquinas AND Barth in a top ten list of theologians- that much is clear. They are mutually exclusive! One lives for natural theology and the other regards it as the invention of anti-Christ. One wishes to show the compatibility of 'Christianity' with the ruling philosophy of the day, whereas the other opposes any attempt to do that kind of thing.

    I remember attending a lecture by Muller when he was essentially arguing that the Reformers were still engaged in the long running process of the scholastic tradition. There was such concern from the audience, especially from those who were fans of the Reformers ... like me! The difference in tone between Luther/Calvin and 'the schoolmen' is stunning. Yes, it is easy to show how both Luther and Calvin [in spite of all their protests against the schoolmen] still adopt many of the assumptions, structures and arguments of the schoolmen... and yet... what a different atmosphere! The commentaries of Luther & Calvin are not on the Sentences of Lombard but on the Bible itself! The Scriptures are the centre of gravity not the scholastic tradition. Listen to Luther's sermons... and catch the mood. And... oh the sheer glory of Melancthon's 1521 edition of his Loci Communes. Yes, by the time it gets to the later editions it is of no real theological value... but in that first edition when he was still full of the passion and courage and power of the Word... Wow!

    Anyway... to me Barth is very much in the tradition of Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards... not only in his faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also in his passion to reject those alternatives that lead us away into mere theism.

    If you have never read Ron Frost's brilliant critiques of Muller's project, it is essential reading. Muller misses the entire affectionate tradition of Puritan theology because he sees everything through his scholastic grid. Sibbes represents the affectionate tradition, exemplified in his Bruised Reed sermons... and Perkins represents the will/habitus tradition. Muller misses the internal polemic within Puritanism because he is constantly trying to paint the picture of his long story of scholastic theology.

    Anyway... again... compare Barth's commentary on Philippians with anything that Aquinas has done on the Bible and see who represents faithfulness to Jesus.

  11. John B

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I greatly appreciate all of your comments on this blog and have also enjoyed listening to several wonderful sermons that I've had the pleasure to hear you preach.

    Muller is a serious scholar who it seems is asking the right questions. When Barth's work is put forth as an authoritative modern articulation of evangelicalism, it seems apt to consider whether he's building faithfully and consistently on the work of the great theologians in the church who've preceded him. Muller's a very credible voice to weigh in on this question, as are you. Thank you for the tip on Ron Frost, as his is another voice that I will gladly seek out to hear his thoughts on Barth.

    I too, am perplexed as to why Muller included Aquinas in his list, but at the end of the day the question at hand isn't about Aquinas, nor Muller, nor the Calvin-character presented in Glen's hypothetical conversation. It's about Barth's body of work. Obviously a vast topic. Thankfully, this thread has focused specifically on revelation.

    My understanding is that Barth sees the Bible as an inspired means of revelation that includes historical errors, but we don't know what they are, and these include theological as well as historical errors. Therefore, Scripture isn't trustworthy; and anything taught from it is, ultimately, arbitrary. There can only be faith without reason. Barth separates the human writers meaning from God's message, which itself God changes to reveal himself to the particular reader. This paves the way for both allegory and enthusiasm. Sounds like Charismatic Catholicism.

    I'm no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I fear that Barth leads eventually back to Catholicism. Many there endorse him already. A magistrate will be needed to sort through all of the ambiguity that Barth brings in.

    And oh! Look! There's Aquinas!

  12. Heather

    I’m no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I fear that Barth leads eventually back to Catholicism.

    John B,

    Do you believe then that Barth's writing has nothing to offer and should be completely disregarded?

  13. Paul Blackham

    Thanks for the warning about the approach of Aquinas. That's not the kind of person you want creeping up on you. You sound even more scared of him than I am!

    It's hard for me to recognise your account of Barth on revelation. Yes, you could piece together parts of that from some of the things that Barth has written... but imagine what a view of Augustine you could produce on the same basis! The idea that Barth thought that Bible teaching is ultimately arbitrary... wow... that is hard to connect to the actual writings of Barth. I find the very opposite when I read him. I find him [and me with him] glorying in the sheer uncompromising authority of the Scriptures.

    No, when I want to indicate the kind of view of Scripture that Barth practically holds, I like to go to his massive and glorious and unparalleled exegesis of Genesis 1.

    Barth, of course, developed his expression of the doctrine of Scripture as he went on in life. He had to acknowledge that some of his earlier comments left him open to some of the criticisms that you have made. You find him assessign and responding to these criticisms throughout the Church Dogmatics. I personally enjoy the early stuff simply because it is the most focussed and deadly attack on the entire liberal tradition.

    Yes, in doing this with such intensity and single-minded purpose there is the possibility of "collateral damage"... but I appreciate the fact that Barth wants to trumpet out that great truth of the freedom and sovereignty of the Living God. We may wander into Bible study with all our tools and all our 'intelligence'... yet it pleases the Father to hide the truth of Jesus from just such students. Yet, in humility and brokenness and dependence we come to the Bible ... and He may graciously open our eyes to the glorious LORD Jesus who is alive and ready to meet us.

    For all my deep love of the Scriptures, it took Barth to shake me up and make me realise that I need to be more than a Pharisee in my zeal for the Bible. They studied the Bible and loved it and momorised it with all they had... and yet missed the central character. They did not love and trust and follow Jesus. Rather, we come to the Bible as to a rendezvous point... the one place where we can meet our Divine Lover. The Pharisees believed that they knew the system of truth, that they had the theological answers sorted out... and yet they did not know Jesus, the one Mediator between God and humanity. Barth constantly reminds me of this danger... and summons me to the Living LORD Jesus.

    It is not that God changes the meaning for each individual reader. Barth never says anything like that. Rather, each individual is addressed when God speaks that Living Word. Barth is trying to give expression to that common expereince when we think "it was as if he was talking directly to me". Barth wants to say that it is not just 'as if'... but it really is!

    Is Barth enough on his own? No. None of them ever are. If I had read only Barth without all my background in the church fathers and the Reformers and the Puritans, then I might not have all the provisos in place... yet, that is true of all the big theologians. When I read Augustine I find him so compelling... and yet, I'm often making provisos... editing him for my own usage... supplementing him. It is not surprising that Jerome had to correct him on his Biblical work! When I think of Augustine, though, I'm not filling my mind with all his nonsense about using state violence for church discipline.

    The fanatical Barthians can be as blinkered as his critics. Sure. I don't really spend time with either these days. If people can appreciate what Barth was trying to say... glory! If they don't get it... fine. It's best for them to stick with those writers who they can get. Barth is not an easy read, even for those who have had some theological training. The wonderful genius of Calvin's Institutes is that it is so easy to read. In the Battles edition he is easier to read than most 'introductions' to theology. Barth can never have that kind of reach and influence.

  14. John B

    Do you believe then that Barth’s writing has nothing to offer and should be completely disregarded?

    Hi Heather — I'm really of two minds on this question. Part of me says: "Disregard?? I want to go all Fahrenheit 451 on his books!" And the other part of me says: "Is the canon still open? Is it too late now to include some Barth?"

    Sorry, just kidding!

    Barth's a great and brilliant theologian. Aquinas is brilliant as well, and also great in terms of his profound influence on church history. The works of both men are rightly of high regard and worthy of study. Neither infallibility nor inerrancy are required of our teachers. I think that the Bereans provide a good example for us to follow.

    There is such depth and devotional richness in Barth! I find him very difficult to read, and yet enjoy him immensely in small doses.

    The implication of Glen's post seems to be that Barth's views on revelation articulate for our age a clearer evangelical doctrine than that of the Reformers. Barthians often make this case and stress that a new doctrine like Barth's is now needed in response to the pervasive subjectivism and skepticism that's arisen from the Enlightenment and manifested in liberal higher biblical criticism. I'm a relativist as much as the next guy. The Barthians may be right! But for me there are too many red flags to make the leap.

  15. John B

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks again for your very insightful comments. They're definitely helpful to me in trying to work through my misperceptions about Barth.

    When studying these great and prolific theologians, they can readily be quote-mined and fashioned into a wax nose of many shapes.

    I remain mired in my concern that Barth gave away too much in his doctrine of revelation while seeking "peace in our time" with liberalism. He seems to have entirely ceded the humanness of Scripture to them. Yes, he vigorously insisted that God is speaking in Scripture, but with the proviso that this is understood subjectively. I think that liberalism is quite happy to accede to this view.

    I especially appreciate your closing paragraph and the wise advice included therein. I've even labeled your idea there as the "perspicuity of Calvin principle". Following the Reformers, we take every text of Scripture like God spoke every word for us.

  16. Glen

    "The humanness of Scripture" is a great way of putting Barth's concern. He rejected the idea that we need to get around the worldliness of the word (you can hear echoes of my imagined conversation above).

    For Barth there *is* no other word but the one that deals with us in our worldliness, whether this word is Christ, Scripture or Proclamation. (btw the threefold Word is the absolutely crucial context for understanding Barth's theology of revelation. Perhaps I'll post on this)

    The unfortunate step in Barth's argument was the equation of 'worldliness/humanness' with 'capacity for error.' I'd say it flows out of his central error - supposing that Christ assumed fallen flesh. This is a serious error - but one that, when spotted, is fairly easily side-stepped by the discerning reader. But with this knowledge at hand- the parallel with his view of Scripture is instructive. Barth *never* argues for any actual errors in Scripture (just as he never argues for any actual sins in Christ) - only for the vulnerability of the word as a thoroughly human word.

    But for all that *humanness* (or to put it in the terms of my post - all that *stooping*) Barth's overwhelming insistence is that IN that *stooping* the living God is revealed in all His majesty. He is none other than the stooping God (there is no god behind the back of Jesus).

    I heartily recommend I/1 as a resounding affirmation of the Godness of God IN His revelation.

  17. Heather

    John B

    I’m really of two minds on this question. Part of me says: “Disregard?? I want to go all Fahrenheit 451 on his books!”...


    Actually, I assumed you were of the "Berean" perspective. I just wanted to hear you say it ;)

    It most definitely is dangerous to swallow whole the works of any mere man and become a devoted xyz-an-ite-ist.

    Much appreciate you response. Thanks!

  18. John B

    Hi Glen,

    Thanks for your comments. There's much for me to ponder here! It certainly is a pleasure to have the benefit of both your and Paul's keen insights on Barth here on the blog.

    I'm unable to grasp the notion of not distinguishing between the Word as Christ, Scripture, or Proclamation.

    Also, Jesus in His condescension revealed God, and there is no other God. But I don't know what Barth says about the pre-existent and exalted states of Christ.

    So you've pointed me toward two key areas that I need to look into more closely and get some background in Barth. Meanwhile I'll continue to watch for any related posts and comments on the blog. I know that the possible post that you mentioned on the threefold Word would be most helpful.

    This is very difficult material for me. I appreciate your fine efforts in making this material more accessible.

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