Karl Barth was a PostCalvinist and not an Evangelical Calvinist

karl-barth-evangelical-calvinist In 1922, Karl Barth loved John Calvin so much that he wrote a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen to confess that he could spent the rest of his life with Calvin alone! (♥) This short letter, which I've quoted below, has become so famous that anytime Calvin and Barth are mentioned in the same sentence this letter is referenced. I've seen it happen a half-dozen times this week alone! Barth loved Calvin, but does this make Karl Barth some sort of Evangelical Calvinist? The answer in short is Nein! Yet Barth was a Calvinist in his own way. I will explain, but first read the quote:

Karl Barth's letter to Eduard Thurneysen on June 8, 1922

". . . Eduard, what a business this is and how questionable whether it is quite that. I am definitely not homesick for the pastorate but have only a certain feeling that something thoroughly different should be taking place from what I am able to do here within the narrow limitations imposed upon me by vocation and capacity. The little bit of 'Reformed theology' that I teach is really nothing in comparison to the trumpet blast which needs to be blown in our sick time . . . Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin. But it is really like this for me at each point of the history . . . In the next semester there will be the same exercises in Zwingli. But it will always be only a beginning over which I must wring my hands . . . Thus 'teaching office' ==groaning; there can be no talk of "splendor." More than once what I presented at 7 a.m. was not ready until 3-5 a.m."

Barth, Karl, and Eduard Thurneysen. Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925. Richmond: John Knox, 1964. 10. Print.

Karl Barth and John Calvin at Göttingen

Barth's love for Calvin was forged in Göttingen, but they were introduced in Geneva in 1909-10 while Barth was a young pastor at the very same Church that John Calvin had made famous centuries before. Barth had preached from the same pulpit as Calvin. This was long ago, even before Barth had been a pastor in Safenwil.

At the time of this letter, Karl Barth was a young honorary professor at the University of Göttingen (1921-22) lecturing on the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions. According to his biographer Eberhard Busch, Barth was not an expert on the Reformed confessions when he was tasked to teach it. Barth wasn't excited about the subject matter of his lectures at first, and he thought the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism was not very good. This disposition quickly changed as Barth fell in love with the Reformed faith in the midst of his Lutheran faculty and this renaissance in Reformed Theology caused Barth to fall in love with John Calvin in particular and the Reformed Tradition in general, and is easily proved by the myriad of Reformed quotations throughout the Church Dogmatics. Busch describes these events as follows:

"'I can now admit at that time I didn't even have a copy of the Reformed confessions, and I certainly hadn't read them—not to mention all the other terrible gaps in my knowledge.' 'Fortunately it turned out that my theology had become more Reformed, more Calvinistic than I had known, so I could pursue my special confessional task with delight and with a good conscience.' But first of all he had to get on with it. 'In fact it was only in Göttingen that I again familiarized myself with the mysteries of specifically Reformed theology, burning the midnight oil in my struggle over it.' By undertaking this work, Barth became more and more a committed Reformed theologian, and 'slowly but surely became intent on pure Reformed doctrine'.

It was only now that the second, 'more Calvinistic', version of his Romans appeared"

Busch, Eberhard. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. 129. Print.

Barth's influence on Calvin Scholarship

Barth's infatuation with Calvin during his Göttingen period not only made him more "Calvinistic" but also has impacted Calvin scholarship worldwide to this day. One of the most influential Calvin scholars in the last century was Wilhelm Niesel, who was Barth's student during this time at Göttingen, and wrote a highly influential book The Theology of Calvin, which contains this comment about his instruction on Calvin from Barth: 'As Wilhelm Niesel puts it, 'I have sat under [Adolf von] Harnack in Berlin, under Karl Heim in Tubingen and, above all, studied under Karl Barth in Göttingen.'" This work spanned many other excellent works on Calvin by François WendelRonald Wallace, John T. McNeill, Rogers and McKim, Peter Barth, etc.

This new trajectory in Calvin studies, does John Calvin the great service of shaking Calvin from the poor caricature of his theology such as poorly pedaled by the Young Restless and Reformed crowd that shamefully reduces Calvinism to the T.U.L.I.P.  (an English acronym purportedly and recently invented to reduce Calvin and the Synod of Dort to a gross simplification of Double Predestination). Ironically, if being a Calvinist today is defined by allegience to the T.U.L.I.P, then even John Calvin was not a 'Calvinist' as such, because Predestination was not the central doctrine for Calvin. This is expressed well by Bruce McCormack:

It was Wilhelm Niesel, a student of Barth's during his Göttingen period, who first succeeded in marginalizing Calvin's doctrine of predestination vis-a-vis his theology as a whole. In his great work on Calvin's theology in 1938, Niesel noted the then still widespread view that predestination was Calvin's central dogma and observed, "If this be the case, then all that we have so far said is false. Then Calvin's doctrines are not like so many signposts pointing through the far-ranging and complex fields of the Bible to the one incarnate God. It would rather be true to say that Calvin's theology is a system of thoughts about God and human kind preceding from the one thought of the utter dependence of humanity upon God."(23) Niesel's tendency to minimize the importance of Calvin's doctrine of election was given added impetus by François Wendel in 1952.

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), p48-49

Barth's reconstruction of Calvin's Doctrine of Election

Everything changed after 1922. Barth's writings on Calvin were published in his book The Theology of John Calvin. In this fertile soil of Barth's study of the Reformers and the Reformed Creeds, he went on to revise his 1919 earlier edition of Commentary on Romans (Romans I), and publish in 1922 his famous revised Commentary on Romans (Romans II). The Barth we all know and love was revealed to the world through his Romans II, and this was an epoch in Barth's career that was further advanced by the many volumes of Barth's Church Dogmatics published throughout the rest of his academic career.

Barth's 1922 Calvin-love-letter belonged to the early Barth of Safenwil that was later eclipsed by the mature Barth of the Church Dogmatics. It was Barth's 1920's encounters with Calvin and the Reformed tradition that caused Barth to revised his Romans I, and it was his Romans II that changed Barth's career forever. Barth's opinion of Calvin must not be judged by his 1922 letter, but by the Barth's own reconstruction of Calvin at the apex of his career, most notably expressed in Barth's preface to the Church Dogmatics, Vol. II/2 in 1942:

"To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin's doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction."

Barth, Karl. Preface. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God II.2. Vol. 10. London: T & T Clark, 2010. N. pag. Print. Study Edition.


Karl Barth deeply loved John Calvin. He loved him when he preached at Calvin's church in Geneva in 1909-10. Barth loved him when he wrote his first Commentary on Romans 1918 (Romans I). Barth loved him when he taught on Calvin at Göttingen in 1922. Barth loved him when he wrote his second Commentary on Romans in 1922 (Romans II). Barth loved him when he wrote his own Doctrine of Election in The Church Dogmatics Vol. II/2. And, Barth loved him through the endless quotations and reflections on Calvin's works throughout his entire career. So Yes, Karl Barth was a Calvinist!

If an Evangelical Calvinist is defined by affirming the T.U.L.I.P., then hell no, Karl Barth was not an Evangelical Calvinist! (But neither was John Calvin!) Barth knew this misrepresentation of Calvin, and that's why he called Calvin a "demonic power" in his 1922 letter. Karl Barth did not affirm John Calvin's doctrine of Double Predestination (and even Calvin admitted it was a horrible and dreadful decree.) Karl Barth utilized and pillaged Calvin's theology, and entirely reconstructed Calvin's doctrine of predestination to his own revolutionary reconstruction of the doctrine of election in The Church Dogmatics, Vol. II/2. But, Barth was able to do so because he stood on the shoulders of the giant named John Calvin. Karl Barth is not an Evangelical Calvinist, but he is one the greatest interpreters and students of John Calvin, and therefore Barth was a PostCalvinist!

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