Karl Barth on Calvin


I’ve been sitting on my back porch on this lovely June day reading Karl Barth’s 1922 lectures on John Calvin’s 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Chapter 9, on “Christian Liberty.” I am preparing for The 25th Karl Barth Summer Session for Pastors sponsored by the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers, an organization founded in 1692. Calvin was chosen this year to commemorate his 500th anniversary.

I haven’t been to all 25 of them, but I’ve been to a great many, and have some wonderful memories of rich theological conversations with pastor theologians and visiting Barth scholars. Some of those scholars I have heard and talked with over the years have included Hans Frei, George Hunsinger, and Alexander (Sandy) McElway, just to name a few. This year’s leader is Dr. Clifford Anderson, curator of Reformed Research Collections, Princeton Theological Seminary. Cliff, my friend and fellow Confessing Christ blogger, was also the leader in 2006.

The format of the two-day sessions is a morning dedicated to the Barth readings, and an afternoon dedicated to a practical issue, contemporary or historical. In the case of this year we will ponder Nathaniel Ward’s Body of Civil Liberties. Ward was a Puritan minister, writer, and attorney, who compiled this code of statutes for the Commonwealth in 1641.

There are gems galore in Barth’s rich appreciation of Calvin. Here’s a small sample: “We must not view Calvin’s church of holiness as a catholicizing confusion of divine and human commands, at least not as far as Calvin himself was concerned, no matter what misunderstandings might have arisen among his successors. Calvin himself clearly saw the possibility of such a confusion. Under the pressure of the order and holiness that he found in God, he realized that order and holiness are incommensurable. They cannot be imitated on this side of the human sphere that is not to be confused with the other world, in the little city of Geneva that even at the pinnacle of his success he never truly regarded as a Jerusalem. With a certain resigned wisdom and grim humor, if we might put it thus, he spoke only of honoring God by bonds of humanity so far as this is possible seeing that we live on earth. Calvin did not fall victim to the illusion that gripped the Middle Ages and that has gained force again in the modern age, the illusion that there is a continuous path that leads step by step from an earthly city of God to the kingdom of heaven. For him the divine was always divine and the human always human.” (The Theology of John Calvin, by Karl Barth. Translated by Geoffrey Bromily. Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1995. P 201)

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