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Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy

​Reeling Brouwer, Rinse H. Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), viii + 275 pp. $119.95 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Matthew A. Frost (August 08, 2016)



Since Bruce McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, the lion’s share of work in the field has gone to handling—and arguing about—the implications of that set of historiographic insights. Only a handful of works since have engaged at length in that kind of thorough investigation, which makes it a pleasure to see this new collection of pieces from Ashgate (also available under the Routledge imprint) pursuing just such a course. Dr. Rinse Reeling Brouwer of the Protestant Theological University in the Netherlands has assembled here six detailed essays into Barth’s development in relation to the theologies of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Only two of these handle Barth’s use of Heinrich Heppe’s 19th-century compendium of the period, and the approaches involved reflect the author’s commitment to the primary sources.

Thorough and insightful in their details, each of these six chapters has appeared elsewhere in an earlier form over the last decade, whether in a conference volume or—in the case of the comparative loci analysis in the sixth chapter—in the author’s own textbook. Their collection here serves as a solid and accessible point of reference, advancing our understanding of Barth’s progress from Göttingen to his mature dogmatics. The “and” of the title appears as a series of lively conversations that Barth is having with fellow practitioners engaged in a common task. The depth and structural attention Reeling Brouwer devotes to each of these interlocutors is valuable in its own right, teaching the reader as much (if not sometimes more) about the older theology in the course of describing Barth’s engagement with it.

The introduction to the volume is practically a chapter of original work in its own right, justifying the author’s framing of Barth as an engaged interpreter and critic of primary sources from this period. While it is unfortunate that Barth’s—often uncharitably—critical reception among the adherents of these older theologies necessitates such a proposal, Reeling Brouwer’s work is well-suited to its defense. His tour of the relevant sources from Barth’s personal library, complete with annotated tabular listing, allows the author to proceed into a description of the contributions of those old Protestant works to the excurses of each volume of the Church Dogmatics. Whether Barth has gotten them right—he certainly refused on principle to follow the older theologies at numerous points—Reeling Brouwer has given us every reason to push further ad fontes with him, explicitly echoing Barth’s own assertion that we “need not stop at either Schmid or Heppe, but must seek out and traverse the more arduous road to the sources” (6). This is a necessary approach if we would move beyond the limitations left by his reception history.

The first chapter draws on Amandus Polanus (1561–1610) and his Syntagma theologiae Christianae to trace a line from Barth’s early teaching at Basel through his published doctrines of God and creation. In pursuit of a “dialogical dogmatics,” where we hear the sources speaking in their own rights, Reeling Brouwer begins with a structural analysis of Polanus’ massive Syntagma intended to surpass the existing literature. This makes possible a more thorough accounting of Barth’s misgivings about what we might otherwise call “metaphysics” in his engagement with Polanus’ Ramist dichotomies. It also allows for perspective on Barth’s misunderstandings. Perceptively, however, the author does not stop with these, instead locating Barth’s key disagreements in the question of the proper subject matter of theology, and in the epistemological necessities of points of view three centuries apart.

The Leiden Synopsis purioris theologiae, with its attempted forward-looking defense of “pure doctrine” after the Synod of Dort, governs the second chapter in a similar fashion. Where Barth relied on Heppe for this text at Göttingen, Reeling Brouwer shows us how the original text came into Barth’s hands in 1928, and how its direct influence appears in corrections of the Münster prolegomena, Barth’s subsequent lectures, and his mature dogmatics. The wide-ranging thematic comparisons of this chapter do much to illustrate its conclusion that Barth is contesting not the applicability of reason to theology, but the character of reason relative to revelation, as well as what it may be said to contribute to dogmatics.

In the third chapter, the author’s detailed attention to relatively obscure sources gives way to a broader attention to the work of Johannes Cocceius (1603–69), whose contributions to Federal Theology are more widely known—and against whom Barth wrestled in pursuit of a better understanding of “covenant.” Keeping up the dialogical theme, Reeling Brouwer manages a balanced approach that poses questions to and from both Cocceius and Barth, while pushing forward with a better grasp of Barth’s own view in the integration of both protological and eschatological concerns.

Karl Barth himself comes to the fore in the second half, as Reeling Brouwer begins to lead with the interpreter rather than the sources. Not surprisingly, this approach begins with a fourth chapter focusing on Barth’s reading of Heppe for his dogmatics lectures at Göttingen. The author attends closely to Barth’s final course on reconciliation at Göttingen, from the summer term of 1925, from the angle of the ad fontes necessity Barth would later declare in his introduction to Bizer’s 1935 edition. Under this approach, Heppe becomes more clearly a guide to the sources than a surrogate for them, even as the weaknesses of his guidance remain in the doctrine of the church Barth taught at that time. Reeling Brouwer does well to keep the forward view always in sight, reminding us that Barth moved beyond this work, and often in preferable ways.

In the fifth chapter, much as it seems Reeling Brouwer would prefer to extend favor and charity toward the theologians of the early 18th century that Barth handled in his winter 1932–33 course on Neo-Protestantism at Bonn, Barth’s own response to these “Janus-faced” thinkers constrains him. Their maintenance of earlier Protestant orthodoxy, combined with adaptation to the needs of Modernity, is the opposite of the approach Barth would find necessary in the face of the German church struggle. That opposition is borne out in Barth’s conflicts with his more neo-orthodox Zwischen den Zeiten colleagues of the time. His insistence on “taking the next step,” not merely accommodating older orthodoxy to newer times, is well-presented here, and ends with Reeling Brouwer suggesting that we review our own eirenic or polemic approaches to orthodoxy and Modernity in light of the times.

The sixth and final chapter returns to Heppe’s compendium in order to discuss Barth’s developing methodological concerns in constructing dogmatic theology. Reeling Brouwer’s thorough walkthrough of Barth’s developing dogmatic lecture series by comparison with Heppe is far more productive of useful ideas than can be adequately summarized here. It gives both skeleton and flesh to the ghost of the idea that Barth preferred a loci approach to any systematic theology. The author illustrates compellingly that a loci approach does not imply any lack of structure, and shows the ways Barth’s chosen structures emerged from critical engagement with his predecessors. Barth’s noteworthy reticence to engage in methodological description of his own work has left a gap in this space for far too long. It is a delight to see it filled, not only for the benefit of Reeling Brouwer’s own students in the Netherlands, but now also for the English-language academic audience.

The even-handed treatment given in this volume, both to the older Protestant theology and the development in Barth’s own, should commend it to scholars in both fields. For some of these materials, the standard approach leans heavily on Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. With the recent Logos project translating Polanus’ Syntagma, and Brill’s bilingual reference edition of the Synopsis purioris theologiae, it is useful to have fresh secondary approaches to this material as well. But of course, the primary value is to Barth scholarship, and Reeling Brouwer has given a solid example to follow—and frequently an enjoyable read. Engaged readers should also have a look at the extended notes linked in the acknowledgements, which contain the kind of detailed citations of the older and less-accessible literature—along with occasional color commentary—that a reader of Barth’s excurses will find helpful yet refreshingly brief.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.