During his visit to Taipei last year, Professor Wayne Grudem asked me to summarize my forthcoming IVP Academic title in one sentence.
“Barth got Reformed orthodoxy wrong,” I replied.
He laughed, of course, because this was obviously meant to be a joke—more or less. Barth’s interpretation of Reformed orthodoxy is at once flawed and deeply inspirational.
There is little question that Barth is one of the most influential theological thinkers in the history of the church, but over the past decade he has been increasingly shown in the secondary literature to be an unreliable source for the history of Christian doctrine. Many have pointed out that he misunderstood Schleiermacher—though Barth has always taken care to tell his readers that his interpretation of Schleiermacher might have been wrong. Barth probably misunderstood Hegel. John Hare has argued that Barth got Kant wrong. Barth offers conflicting accounts of Luther in CD §61, titled “the justification of man,” where he on one hand acknowledges the normative Lutheran interpretation of Luther that the “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae… is an exact statement of his view” (p. 522), while on the other hand he intimates, with reference to his own version of Christocentrism and actualism, which replaces Luther’s existential view of justification with an ontological one, that “it could probably be shown that this was also the opinion of Luther” (p. 528). And of course Barth got Calvin wrong—though his influence on twentieth-century Calvin scholarship is immense and his emphasis on Calvin’s Christocentric notion of the unio can be felt even at Westminster Theological Seminary today.
To say that Barth made some technical mistakes in his interpretation of Reformed orthodoxy is not at all to discredit his contribution to historical scholarship. Adolf von Harnack’s compliment on Barth’s acumen in historical theology finds an echo even in Richard Muller’s famed Christ and the Decree: “[Barth] might have been a great historian of doctrine had he not undertaken to become a theologian” (p. 9). Yet, we ought to remember that Barth is a dogmatician and a creative thinker, rather than a technical interpreter or analyst of the history of doctrine. Thus Bruce McCormack acknowledges that although Barth’s Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum “is a book on Anselm” and “not a book on Barth’s theology,” “at the end of the day… it tells us more about Barth than it does about the eleventh-century theologian” (Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, p. 428).
The same may be said of Barth on Reformed orthodoxy. Particularly, his excursus on the Lapsarian Controversy in CD II/2, §33 tells us much more about his own theology than the historic debate on election and the fall.
In Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology I examine the Swiss theologian’s treatment of the lapsarian problem. As a note of explanation, the Lapsarian Controversy is a debate on the doctrine of election that arose in late sixteenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. Supralapsarianism (supra-lapsum: before the fall) maintains that the object of election is God’s eternal conception of unfallen humanity. Contrastingly, infralapsarianism (infra-lapsum: after the fall) states that the object of election is God’s eternal conception of fallen humanity. Tracing the development of Barth’s lapsarian thinking from 1920 to 1953, this book comprises two major considerations, one concerning what lapsarian position underlies Barth’s mature doctrine of election, and the other how he came to develop this position.
One aim of this book is to challenge the common perception of Barth as a supralapsarian, an assumption that, to my knowledge, has not yet been explicitly questioned. George Hunsinger has argued that for Barth, election presupposes creation and the fall; mainstream Barth scholars would generally agree with Bruce McCormack that for Barth, “the object of God’s electing grace” is the “sinful human.” While Barthians still think of Barth as a supralapsarian, for readers familiar with historic Reformed theology these statements about the Swiss theologian would seem to place him at least close to the infralapsarian camp.
This discrepancy reflects a longstanding difference between Barthians and evangelicals with regard to their understandings of supra- and infralapsarianism. Robert Letham, for instance, has shown that John T. McNeil’s description of Calvin as favouring supralapsarianism is based on a Barthian definition incongruent with the terminology of historic Reformed orthodoxy. While John Gerstner and other evangelical scholars, especially those in the field of Puritan studies, would describe Jonathan Edwards as infralapsarian or at least holding to a complex view closer to infralapsarianism, Barthians such as Ross Hastings usually perceive Edwards as a supralapsarian on the basis of Barth’s lapsarian definitions. I believe that sorting out this terminological discrepancy by going back to the source of the Barthian definitions, namely, Barth’s own treatments of lapsarianism, would be helpful for on-going dialogues between Barthians and evangelicals.
More importantly, clarifying Barth’s lapsarian position in the context of the broader Reformed tradition and appreciating its dialectical shape, especially its leaning towards the infralapsarian side, would be a fruitful endeavour in many ways: it not only helps us to gain more insight into Barth’s theological development, but also it can lead to deeper and more accurate appreciation of the tradition so formative of his theological thinking—this is the final aim of the book.
The following passage from the final part of the conclusion to my book demonstrates this final aim:
While nineteenth-century dogmatics has generally deemed the Lapsarian Controversy to be speculatively metaphysical, Barth is convinced that “we are not in any position to dismiss the seventeenth-century problem as superfluous, or to abandon the problem to merely capricious solution.” Rather, he believes that seventeenth-century lapsarianism can “shed light upon the path which we have to tread.”
As Barth sees it, confronting the lapsarian problem is worthwhile and necessary, but the solutions formulated by seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy inevitably posit a God above and behind the God self-revealed in Jesus Christ. Whether he is right on Reformed orthodoxy is for experts in Puritan and Reformation studies to decide—I have shown that he does not demonstrate thorough familiarity with Reformed orthodoxy.
Whatever the case, Barth’s own theological intention in developing a “purified” version of the lapsarian doctrine is clear: he wants to make sure that the electing God of whom his theology speaks is none other than Jesus Christ, the Word of God revealed, and that God’s act of double predestination, including reprobation, is not out of the “caprice of a tyrant,” but perfectly corresponds to the being of the God who is always in the free act of love. In Jesus Christ God is immutably God, and Christ is the unchangeable decretum absolutum Dei in whom God’s gracious No against sin eternally negates the nothingness that threatens God’s covenant partner, so that God’s Yes to all in Christ is the final and definitive Word whereby all of history is determined in and by the history of Christ.