David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2009), xiii + 221. $130.00

Reviewed by Sung-Sup Kim (July 23, 2010)

David Gibson is currently Assistant Minister at High Church, Hilton, in Aberdeen, Scotland. This book is a lightly revised version of his dissertation written under the supervision of Francis Watson at the University of Aberdeen. Its thesis is fairly straightforward: John Calvin and Karl Barth exhibit contrasting sets of theological relationships between Christology and election, and the root of this contrast lies in how the two theologians read Scripture. This book adds to the recently growing subfield of studying these two theological giants in tandem; furthermore, it contributes to the growing awareness of the inseparable relationship between exegesis and doctrine.

Chapter 1 (“Calvin, Barth and Christocentrism”) is an introduction to the whole project, laying out the thesis and discussing methodological issues. Gibson argues that both Calvin and Barth develop “christocentric” doctrines of election. The point of contention, of course, is what is meant by christocentrism. The author follows Richard Muller’s argument that Calvin (along with the Reformed orthodox) follows “soteriological christocentrism” and Barth “principial christocentrism” (6). The former places Christ at the historical and soteriological center of God’s work of redemption, and its christological interests are driven by the question of salvation and Christ’s economic function. The latter, on the other hand, sets Christology as the methodological rule of all theological thinking. Gibson comes up with a correlative distinction to describe the two theologians’ approaches to Scripture: christologically extensive (Calvin) and christologically intensive (Barth). He uses these concepts to show the similarities and differences in how Calvin and Barth read Scripture and develop their respective doctrines of Christology and election.

In Chapter 2 (“Christology and Election”), Gibson focuses on Calvin’s commentary on John’s Gospel and Barth’s fine-print exegetical section on the prologue to the Gospel in Church Dogmatics II/2. Barth famously criticized Calvin’s doctrine of election for picturing Christ only as a means of executing a hidden absolute decree, but Gibson faults Barth for not mentioning Calvin’s commentary at all—especially on verses such as John 13:18 and 15:16, where Calvin does understand Christ as the subject of election in his role of appointing apostles. The crucial difference, however, is that while Calvin maintains a conceptual distance between Christ ensarkos and asarkos in the so-called extra Calvinisticum, Barth removes it with his direct identification of Jesus with the Word. Furthermore, while Barth sees Christ as the true object of election in whom we also are elected, Calvin pays more attention to the soteriological significance of Christ as the object of our faith. In short, Calvin’s main interest is in showing “what God does” and wills for our salvation, and Barth’s is in “who God is” (42).

The election of Israel and the church occupies Chapter 3 (“Community and Election”), and Gibson here follows Calvin and Barth’s exegesis of Romans 9-11. It is a meticulously close discussion of where the two theologians diverge while reading the same text. For Calvin, the eternal choosing of one people to belong to Christ comes to fruition in the form of two different economic dispensations: Israel in the Old Testament, and the church in the New. There is a linear movement from Israel to the church so that “Israel is typological of the church,” but for Barth “both Israel and the church are typological of Christ” (153). The two form one community of God with different vocations. The difference again lies in the two different kinds of christocentrism. For Barth, the inseparable unity of judgment and mercy in the one person of Jesus Christ leads to the unity of Israel and the church. Calvin, on the other hand, focuses not on God’s being but on his will in the temporal history of salvation to choose some and to reject others. The disjunction between the elect and the reprobate is more emphasized.

In Chapter 4 (“Hermeneutics and Election”), Gibson further develops his argument that Calvin’s exegesis is christologically extensive and Barth’s is christologically intensive. He shifts his attention to the Institutes and the dogmatic parts of Church Dogmatics in order to explicate their contrasting hermeneutics. Calvin does not identify Christ exclusively with the Word. He famously disliked speculation, and as an antidote he resorted not to a christological ground but a textual ground—the written Word, giving “a form of methodological priority to the written rather than the incarnate Word” (175). Barth, on the other hand, exclusively identifies Christ with the Word, and Scripture, the written Word, is a witness to this one living Word. Jesus Christ himself is the content of biblical witness. Consequently, Barth’s christocentrism in his exegesis is intensive. On the other hand, Calvin places Christ at the center of covenant history and hence at the center of Scripture, but in his reading each part of Scripture has a relatively independent standing.

This book offers a carefully constructed comparison of Calvin and Barth with a close reading of their exegetical works. Too often these theologians’ dogmatic characteristics have been attributed to everything from their philosophical mindset to their quirky personalities, but not enough to differences in how they read the Bible. Gibson draws attention in the right direction. Furthermore, the distinction between soteriological and principial christocentrism (and the corresponding distinction between extensive and intensive christocentrism) that he places in the center of his thesis has the power of simplicity to carry the whole argument to the end with coherence.

Gibson claims that this book does not provide an evaluation of either theologian’s exegesis or his doctrine of election. Nor does it examine Barth’s relationship to Calvin—such as whether his criticism is right or to what extent Barth is indebted to Calvin. Rather it is a descriptive analysis and comparison of the two theologians put side by side. But it is difficult not to ask whether such an attempt may risk taking them out of their respective contexts. As Cornelis van der Kooi shows in As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God, the great ditch named Kant lies between the two so widely that a direct comparison would seem somewhat forced. Furthermore, it is sometimes doubtful whether Gibson really takes a merely descriptive stance between Calvin and Barth. His central thesis of soteriological and principial christocentrism comes from Muller, whose anti-Barthian sentiments are well known. Of course, Gibson may use Muller’s concepts without subscribing to his sentiments, but the line sometimes seems blurry. An example is his discussion of the relationship between the Trinity and election in Chapter 2. Touching on the controversial topic in recent Barth scholarship, Gibson sides with the interpretation of Edwin Chr. Van Driel et al (against Bruce McCormack et al) that God’s eternal decision of election is a self-determining decision but not a self-constituting one. But Gibson’s argument leaves an impression that he wants to bring Barth as close as possible to Calvin in their trinitarian understandings. Has his indebtedness to Muller perhaps motivated him to defend Barth and harmonize him with Calvin in some way?

Nevertheless, this book does well what it sets out to do: to lay “the necessary foundation for such evaluations” (27). And “such evaluations” should ask the really interesting questions that this book anticipates: What is the theological relationship between Calvin and Barth? Did Barth read Calvin correctly? Whose doctrine of election is more faithful to the biblical witness? Whose reading of Scripture makes more sense? Those who work on such questions will find a great resource in this book. In fact, these are some of the questions that we cannot avoid asking in our struggles to find the proper identity of Reformed theology in our time.

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.