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The Reformers as fathers of the church: Luther and Calvin in the thought of Karl Barth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 November 2019

Kimlyn J. Bender
George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, Waco, TX
E-mail address:


Karl Barth's understanding of Luther and Calvin is not best illumined by an examination of his direct citation of their work, but by a consideration of his description of their vocation as church fathers as outlined in Church Dogmatics, I/2, a position held with remarkable consistency over the course of his career. Barth's discussion of Luther and Calvin there not only sets forth his understanding of the Reformers in a historical genealogy of revelation and its witnesses, but places them in an ordering of church authorities. Moreover, his description of their unique vocation sheds important light upon his understanding of the modern discipline of church history itself. His treatment of the Reformers thus both exemplifies and follows from his conviction that church history is not an independent theological discipline but can only accompany the central disciplines of exegetical, dogmatic and practical theology.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 By rough count, there are more than 660 direct references to Luther in the Theology of Zwingli and more than 280 in the Theology of Calvin: see Barth, , Die Theologie Zwinglies 1922/1923 (GA II.40), ed. Freudenberg, Matthias (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2004)Google Scholar; and Barth, , The Theology of John Calvin, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995)Google Scholar. The third source for most mentions of Luther and Calvin alike is the 1923 lectures on the Reformed Confessions: see Barth, , The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, trans. Guder, Darrell L. and Guder, Judith J. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002)Google Scholar.

2 By rough count there are more than 950 references to Calvin in Theology of Calvin, and more than 280 in the Theology of Zwingli. By themselves, of course, such numbers mean very little. Hunsinger, George is thus correct when he states: ‘What Barth learned from Luther cannot be appreciated through statistical calculations’ (Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), p. 280, n. 2)Google Scholar. Again, it is the quality and use of references, not their frequency, that is of importance.

3 Barth could remark in an interview late in his life that, though he had read Luther and Calvin before his first academic appointment, he was not a true confessional Reformed person (konfessioneller Reformierter) when he entered it, and that upon assuming this position he had to engage with the thought of Reformed theology with seriousness for the first time (Jetzt mußte ich mich gründlich mit reformierter Theologie beschäftigen, zum ersten Mal eigentlich). It was during this period that he studied Zwingli, Luther and Calvin with concentrated intensity – a time, as he recalled, of tremendous labour. See Barth, Karl, ‘Interview von H.A. Fischer-Barnicol, Südwestfunk (5.5.1964)’, in Gespräche 1964–1968 (GA IV.28), ed. Busch, Eberhard (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1996), p. 151Google Scholar.

4 See Barth's letter to Eduard Thurneysen of 22 Jan. 1922, in Barth–Thurneysen Briefwechsel 1921–1930 (GA V.4), ed. Thurneysen, Eduard (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1974), p. 29Google Scholar.

5 Barth, , ‘Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist: Its Basis and Purpose’, in Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920–1928, trans. Smith, Louise P. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 74111Google Scholar.

6 Barth, Karl, ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, in The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Hoskyns, Edwyn C. (Oxford: OUP, 1968 [1933]), pp. 34Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., p. 7; cf. p. 22.


8 Barth, ‘Preface to the Third Edition’, in The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 18–19.

9 In point of fact, this type of list was already prefigured in the Romans commentary, but there it was more a list of association than of ancestry. See Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 57, 117; cf. p. 137.

10 Barth, , ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology’, in The Word of God and Theology, trans. Marga, Amy (London: T&T Clark, 2011), p. 182; cf. p. 183CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Barth believed that Schleiermacher represented the end result of the betrayal of the Reformation, a conviction he expressed to his students in Göttingen: ‘Protestantism has not in fact had any greater theologian since the days of the reformers. But this theologian has led us all into this dead end! This is an oppressive and almost intolerable thought. How can it really be reconciled with confidence in Protestantism's power of truth? Or should we in fact say that this was and is the normal and legitimate continuation of the Reformation, the completion of the work of Luther and Calvin: this doctrine of the feeling of absolute dependence or of the universum and all that is connected with it? If it were, for me the right thing to do would be to become a Roman Catholic again.’ See Barth, , The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24, ed. Ritschl, Dietrich, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), p. 259CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Barth, ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology’, p. 196.

13 It is important to note, however, that Barth had at this point not yet elaborated the technical distinction between primary and secondary witnesses to God's revelation, which came only with his reflections upon apostolicity and canon in his Göttingen theology lectures, which commenced in 1924.

14 Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, p. 70; cf. pp. 80–81. See also pp. 70–71: ‘A good member of the Reformed communion must begin by simply recognizing Luther's unique position in the Reformation, not moving away from or forsaking Luther, nor, in following the hints of Zwingli and Calvin, feeling compelled to go a step beyond him; but instead, while consciously following those hints, constantly coming back to him. At the outset we distinguish ourselves from Lutherans in this way. As disciples of the most loyal disciples of Luther, we do not detract from Luther any more than Lutherans do, whereas they for their part can never manage to promote regard for Luther without open or concealed polemics against Zwingli and Calvin.’

15 See Barth, Theology of John Calvin, pp. 81–2; cf. pp. 87–90. These are distinctions between Luther and Calvin that Barth would hold for his entire life. See Barth, , ‘Gespräch mit Rheinischen Jugendpfarrern (4.11.1963)’, in Gespräche 1963 (GA IV.41), ed. Busch, Eberhard (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2005), p. 260Google Scholar; cf. Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, pp. 43–4, 80–81; and also Church Dogmatics [hereafter CD], 13 vols, ed. T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–74), IV/2, p. 509. These estimations changed little over Barth's lifetime, evidenced in Barth's comments in 1965: ‘Luther and Calvin are essentially always concerned with two great things: Luther teaches the freedom of the Christian person as one who believes in the Word of God. Calvin teaches the majesty of God, which gives us the freedom to have faith and to render obedience. These are, so to speak, the two poles of the Reformation. Luther is more human-oriented and Calvin more oriented to God. One should not make this out to be a contradiction between them, but it is a difference.’ See Barth, ‘13 Interview von G. Puchinger (15.4.1965)’, in Gespräche 1964–1968 (GA IV.28), p. 193 (author's trans.).

16 See Barth's 1923 lecture ‘The Substance and Task of Reformed Doctrine’, in The Word of God and Theology, p. 223 (cf. p. 231): ‘The Reformed confessions [over against the Lutheran ones] did not lay the emphasis on the fact that the human is justified through faith instead of through works, but, rather, that it is God and not the human who completes this justification’. Gerhard Ebeling judged this criticism of Luther's subjectivity as the foundation of all Barth's later criticisms of Luther. See Ebeling, Gerhard, ‘Über die Reformation hinaus? Zur Luther-Kritik Karl Barths’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, Beiheft 6: Zur Theologie Karl Barths: Beiträge aus Anlaß seines 100 Geburtstags (1986), pp. 36–7Google Scholar, cf. p. 47.

17 In other words, Barth judged that for Luther the indirect identity of revelation and the creaturely medium of revelation was flattened into a direct one, such that the Creator–creature distinction was jeopardised. Therefore in reference to christology and sacraments, Barth wrote in his 1923 essay on Reformed doctrine: ‘The Lutherans went so far as to make a direct, miraculous, but earthly identity out of the indirect identity between the heavenly and earthly gifts that are only perfected in God himself, between the thing and the sign, between witness and revelation. Thus they made a direct mediation out of revelation, which, if it is real, is always a veiling. They constructed a religious “givenness”’ (‘The Substance and Task of Reformed Doctrine’, in The Word of God and Theology, p. 227; see also ‘Luther's Doctrine of the Eucharist’, in Theology and Church, pp. 99, 108–11; cf. CD I/2, pp. 163–71; CD IV/2, pp. 51–2, 75–7). Even more pointedly, Barth worried that Luther's emphasis on subjectivity and the intermingling of the divine and human natures of Christ in christology, which failed to maintain the irreversibility of their relation, opened the way for Feuerbach's critique of religion as the divinisation of the human. See Barth's 1920 lecture, ‘Ludwig Feuerbach’, in Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920–1928, pp. 230–31. In later years Barth criticised Luther along a third major line, specifically, as the source for a law and gospel distinction that Barth maintained played into German nationalism.

18 Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, p. 90.

19 For an intensive account of Barth's relation to Luther traced over time, including details and criticisms beyond those considered here, see Ebeling, Gerhard, Lutherstudien, vol. 3, Begriffsuntersuchungen – Textinterpretationen – Wirkungsgeschichtliches (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1985), pp. 428573Google Scholar. For a very succinct summary of the central criticisms, see Lohse, Bernhard, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Schultz, Robert C. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 227–8Google Scholar.

20 See Barth's 1922 essay, ‘The Problem of Ethics Today’, in The Word of God and Theology, p. 168.

21 See Barth, , ‘Reformation als Entscheidung’, in Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1930–1933 (GA III.49), ed. Beintker, Michael, Hüttenhoff, Michael and Zocher, Peter (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2013), pp. 532–5Google Scholar.

22 As Barth would later write in his Gifford Lectures of 1937/38, the fundamental fact of importance regarding the Reformers, regardless of any problematic elements of their thought, was that ‘the revival of the gospel by Luther and Calvin consisted in their desire to see both the church and human salvation founded on the Word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as it is attested in the Scripture, and on faith in that Word’. See Barth, , The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation: Recalling the Scottish Confession of 1560, trans. Haire, J. L. M. and Henderson, Ian (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005 [1938]), pp. 89Google Scholar.

23 These three areas are found in CD I/2, pp. 597–603, 603–20 and 620–60, respectively.

24 CD I/2, p. 603.

25 Ibid.


26 Ibid., p. 604.


27 Although Barth acknowledged that these tendencies could also be found in the Reformed tradition, he held that the latter was in general more circumspect, esteeming Calvin e.g. solely for his ecclesiastical instruction. Ibid., pp. 604–5.

28 Ibid., p. 606.


29 For an understanding of Luther in light of the developments in Germany from the time of the Reformation, through the Enlightenment and the liberalism of the nineteenth century, up until Barth's own time, see Opitz, Peter, ‘“Wer darf sich ernslich auf die Reformation berufen?” Die gefeierte Reformation und Karl Barth’, Zeitschrift für Dialektische Theologie 32 (2016), pp. 734Google Scholar. Opitz recounts how with the 450th anniversary of Luther's birth in 1933 renewed attention was given to Luther, but now in the context of a rising National Socialism and its portrayal of Luther as ‘the great German’ (ibid., pp. 8, 10). For Barth's reactions against this celebration of Luther, see his 1933 essays, ‘Luther’ and ‘Reformation als Entscheidung’, in Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1930–1933 (GA III.49), pp. 478–87 and 516–50, respectively; see also Opitz, ‘Wer darf sich ernslich auf die Reformation, berufen?’, pp. 9–10. Opitz traces a long-standing line of development tying Luther to German nationalism and shows that this nationalistic emphasis intensified during the rise of National Socialism. One example of such extreme nationalism was the church historian Hans Preuss, who paired Luther and Adolf Hitler as great ‘German leaders’ (deutsche Führer) who stood above their contemporaries even while suffering in struggle for them against the foes of their respective times. Such views were not peripheral in Germany at the time but are widely attested (ibid., pp. 21–2).

30 Barth, ‘Luther’, pp. 485–6.

31 Ibid., p. 486.


32 Ibid., p. 487; cf. Barth, ‘Reformation als Entscheidung’, pp. 528–9.


33 Kierkegaard, Søren, The Book on Adler, ed. and trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 173–88Google Scholar.

34 Thus, Barth recounts, when Luther died it was said in the evangelical church of the Reformer that ‘a prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist was among us, a man of God, a bearer of the light, a theologian whose theology came directly from revelation’ (‘Reformation als Entscheidung’, pp. 530–31). In a similar way, Calvin's Institutes was esteemed by his own respective church tradition as a book the likes of which had not been seen since the writings of the apostles themselves (ibid., p. 531). The Reformers were and thus are rightly recognised as singular church fathers, teachers of the church. What the Reformers are not, Barth insists, are ‘poets, philosophers, or kings’ (ibid., p. 526).

35 Barth, ‘The Substance and Task of Reformed Doctrine, in The Word of God and Theology, p. 215.

36 Barth, , ‘Thoughts on the 400th Anniversary of Calvin's Death’, in Fragments Grave and Gay, ed. Rumscheidt, Martin, trans. Mosbacher, Eric (London: Collins, 1971), p. 105Google Scholar.

37 Ibid.


38 Ibid., p. 109.


39 Ibid.


40 Barth, ‘The Substance and Task of Reformed Doctrine’, pp. 213–15.

41 CD I/2, p. 607.

42 For Barth, this entailed that the spiritual authority of the Reformers took precedence over our own individual reading (CD I/2, p. 620). This did not mean, however, that Barth subjugated his own reading to the Reformers when he took it to be contrary to the witness of scripture itself, as is especially evident in Barth's break with Calvin on the question of election in CD II/2. Barth could put this approach in quite frank terms: ‘Holy Scripture is the object of our study, and at the same time the criterion of our study, of the Church's past. As I read the writings of the “Fathers”, the witness of Holy Scripture stands continually before my eyes; I accept what interprets this witness to me; I reject what contradicts it. So a choice is actually made, certainly not a choice according to my individual taste, but according to my knowledge of Holy Scripture.’ See Barth, , Credo, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005 [1962]), p. 183Google Scholar.

43 CD I/2, p. 609, where Barth also asks: ‘Will those who will have the Bible alone as their master, as though Church history began again with them, really refrain from mastering the Bible?’

44 Ibid.


45 Ibid.


46 Ibid.


47 Ibid.


48 Barth notes that this question parallels his earlier judgement that while the canon is open in principle, it is closed in practice, since a change in the canon would require an agreement of the universal church (see CD I/2, pp. 597–603; also CD I/1, pp. 99–111). In a similar manner, Barth holds that until the (evangelical) church receives new truth resulting in a new confession and the replacement of the authority of the Reformers with that of new teachers, it is to accept the previous and ongoing confession of the church, including its recognition of the ecclesiastical authority of Luther and Calvin. It therefore should ‘not play truant from the school of Luther and Calvin until we are better instructed, but to learn in it what there is to be learned. It is a matter of instruction in understanding Holy Scripture, when and to the extent that the Reformers are genuine teachers of the church’ (CD I/2, p. 612).

49 CD I/2, pp. 609–12.

50 CD I/2, p. 613.

51 Ibid.


52 CD I/2, pp. 613–16.

53 CD I/2, p. 617.

54 Ibid.


55 CD I/2, p. 618.

56 See Opitz, ‘Wer darf sich ernslich auf die Reformation, berufen?’, p. 23.

57 Barth did not think that one could simply solve theological challenges of the present by parroting the Reformers. As he stated: ‘“Back to …” is never a good slogan’ (CD IV/1, p. 372). Earlier in 1935 he could more pointedly state with regard to simple retrieval of the past: ‘Repristination is nonsense’ (Barth, Credo, p. 182).

58 CD I/2, p. 619.

59 Ibid. Late in life, Barth stated to his conversation partners that in the face of a vibrant Catholicism what was needed was that Protestants ‘must rediscover the work of Luther and Calvin, but not be prisoners of their work’. Barth, ‘Interview von H.-Ch. Tauxe, Gazette de Lausanne (20.4.1965)’, in Gespräche 1964–1968 (GA IV.28), p. 199 (author's trans.).


60 Barth, , ‘Was bedeutet uns Barmen heute?, 1954’, in ‘Der Götze wackelt’: Zeitkritische Aufsätze, Reden und Briefe von 1930 bis 1960, ed. Kupisch, Karl (Berlin: Käthe Vogt Verlag, 1961), p. 163Google Scholar.

61 CD I/2, p. 620.

62 Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, p. 110.

63 Busch, Eberhard, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. Bowden, John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 417Google Scholar.

64 Barth, ‘The Substance and Task of Reformed Doctrine’, p. 206.

65 Ibid., p. 208. Barth added that this kind of confessional stance ‘does not bow down before any hat propped on a stick, even if it is the hat of Calvin himself” (ibid., pp. 208–9). As earlier noted, Barth thought that in this respect the Reformed were more circumspect than their Lutheran counterparts (ibid., p. 214). In his lectures on Reformed theology, Barth stated: ‘The well-known Wittenberg saying, “God's Word and Luther's teaching will not perish now or ever” (Gottes Wort und Luthers Lehr vergehen nun und nimmermehr!) could never be uttered by a Calvinist. To put Calvin in the first line, pairing it with God's Word, would be impossible for even the most enthusiastic Calvinist’ (Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, p. 21).


66 ‘But interpretation of the confessions or of the writings of Luther and Calvin is just as little the special task of dogmatics as is biblical exegesis. It cannot become merely a report on various doctrines of the fathers, or have as its aim, even its subordinate aim, their rehabilitation. The theology of the fathers and the confessions must be used as a pattern only in proper subordination to the Word of God attested in Scripture. It must never allow an appeal to them to replace the thinking for which it is directly responsible to Scripture. It is not by referring to the fathers and confessions and reproducing their doctrine, but only by actually learning from them, that it maintains its confessional attitude. We can be confessional only κατὰ πνεῦμα. If we try to be so κατὰ σάρκα, we shall not be so at all.’ CD I/2, pp. 837–8.

67 John Webster has put this point succinctly: ‘Genuine and fruitful theological work on Barth's account is always objective, in that it takes its rise in astonishment at the Sache by which the mind is seized.’ See Webster, John, Barth's Earlier Theology: Four Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), p. 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 ‘What is called church history does not correspond to any independently raised question concerning Christian talk about God, and it cannot therefore be regarded as an independent theological discipline. It is an auxiliary science indispensable to exegetical, dogmatic and practical theology.’ CD I/1, p. 5; also CD I/2, pp. 722–40.

69 Barth's engagement with historical criticism exceeds what can here be examined. For a magisterial introduction to this topic, see Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Römerbrief Period (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004)Google Scholar.

70 Perhaps no one in the modern period has drawn this distinction and detailed its ramifications as succinctly as Lewis, C. S. in his essay, ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’, in God in the Dock, ed. Hooper, Walter (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 212–15Google Scholar.

71 Burnett, Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis, pp. 58–9. We might say that Nachdenken is that which unites Barth's reading of scripture with his reading of its witnesses, and then extended to all reading of all persons. It is that which unites his special and general hermeneutics (see CD I/2, pp. 457–72).

72 One cannot help but think of how Luther and Calvin were thrown into their role as Reformers apart from and even against their own desires and choices.

73 For the dangers of doing this to Barth specifically, as well as to others more generally, see Webster, Barth's Earlier Theology, pp. 7–10.

74 Bartley, William W. III, The Retreat to Commitment (LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1984)Google Scholar.

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