Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mediaeval and Modern

Barth rounds off his treatment of the Reformed confessions with an account of the Synod of Dort. Whereas the earliest Reformed confessions were primarily directed against Roman Catholicism, and then Lutheranism, Dort deals with a new opponent: Modernism. The Remonstrance, brought by the Arminian party, was based soundly on modern principles, modern views of humanity, modern approaches to the Bible. At Dort, we see the Reformed churches locking horns with what would become modernist, or liberal, Protestantism.

But Barth sees nothing new here. In fact, he sees this modernist Christianity as having just the same foundations as mediaeval Christianity: faith in reason, a high view of the human being, the freedom of the will. In short, both begin with the autonomous human being, and end up with a co-operative view of salvation which can be labelled semi-Pelagian. On both fronts, against mediaevalism and modernism, the Reformed stress the sovereignty and majesty of God, who in Christ is the sole agent in redemption. God, and only God, saves.

In short, Dort was fighting the battle that has always been fought when God's Word comes up against intelligent, refined human philosophers and theologians.

In the conclusion to his lecture series, Barth asks: how do things stand with us? His answer, in 1923, was not encouraging: "If we look at our theology, then what we see first of all is a pile of ruins". Certainly, that was true then, as liberal modernist Protestantism carried all before it. We have done some rebuilding since, but I wonder whether I am alone in thinking that sometimes the rebuilding looks like a museum rather than a house to be lived in. We can say the words of the old confessions, and mean them, but do we grasp (have we been grasped by!) the beating heart of their theology? Do we have the courage to be exposed to revelation, to hear the gospel again, and to wrestle with the issues our fathers wrestled with in the language and concepts and context of the 21st century?


  1. what would that look/sound like?

  2. I'm not quite sure, Chris! I think that's the million dollar question. I guess there would have to be some ground-clearing first: we'd have to lose the instinct to be suspicious of anything not expressed in Biblical or confessional vocab, and we'd have to spend more time studying our own culture. We'd need to redevelop the practice of tracing theological and philosophical statements back to their presuppositions and forward to their knock-on effects - that's something that has really struck me looking at older theology (e.g. the eucharistic disputes ultimately go back to christology etc).

    And then I think we'd have to try to read the Bible again.

    If we took that seriously, I think it would lead to new confessions. And I think that would be a good thing.

  3. Anonymous9:54 pm

    Man, where are you living that Christians can actually say the words of the old confessions? And can I live there too?

    Down my street that certainly isn't the case. If it were, that would be no small progress away from our historically-ignorant individualised anti-credal minimalistic mongrel version of the faith.

    We are decades away from being able to write new confessions imo. We're way too immature and short-sighted theologically speaking, anything we came up with would on a whole range of things be retrogressive and not an advancement on the past. As well as all the things you say we need to do (study our culture/ read the bible) a whole bunch of us would also need to read the old confessions and actually understand them - we've no hope of improving on them if we don't, and our new confessions will simply re-tread old ground or commit errors in areas where our brothers and sisters in the past saw with much greater clarity than we do now.

    Though I totally agree that new confessions are what we should eventually want - taking the old confessions as 'timeless' is a form of idolatry. But I'm not sure that's the main idolatry I see at play in UK evangelicalism - we're far too disconnected from our history and from our brothers and sisters in the past for that.