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Book Review – Uche Anizor and Kyle C. Strobel. Reformed Dogmatics in Dialogue: The Theology of Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards. [Review by Dr. Marco Barone]

Uche Anizor and Kyle C. Strobel eds., Reformed Dogmatics in Dialogue: The Theology of Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022. 344 pp. $29.99, paperback. Review by Marco Barone.

This work is helpful for at least two reasons. First, it can be considered as a combined introduction to the respective theologies of both Edwards and Barth (E&B from now on). Second, it highlights a few formal similarities, and surprisingly so, considering that Barth likely never read Edwards (162). The volume covers all the pillars of their theologies: God, Scripture, election, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, aesthetics, philosophy, humanity, sin, the atonement, moral theology, the church, and the last things.

An introduction by the editors opens the book. In it, Strobel and Anizor offer reasons to warrant their project to compare and contrast two thinkers such as E&B.

Chapter one, “God,” by Kyle Strobel is a clear exposition of Edwards’ and Barth’s respective view of God’s attributes. Chapter 2, “Scripture,” by Doug Sweeney and Kevin Vanhoozer,” unsurprisingly brings to light Barth’s view on scripture that many Reformed would find ambiguous.

In chapter 3, “Election,” Christina N. Larsen offers a fascinating compassion between our theologians’ respective view of election in Christ, though the reference to God’s alleged freedom of indifference in “the Reformed orthodox” is ambiguous (61), and the secondary the related secondary sources references are relevant but outdated (6-63). After discussing election in Christ, in chapter four, “Christ,” Darren Sumner ably outlines B&M’s commonalities on the doctrine of the person of Christ. Chapter 5, “Holy Spirit,” shows his expertise in this area. This chapter is related to the previous two chapters more than it might initially appear, since E&B taught profoundly pneumatological christologies. “Creation” is the title of the sixth chapter by Uche Anizor. It is a fascinating exposition of E&B’s respective views on the end for which God created the world, with important considerations on E&B’s doctrines of the covenant. The article seems to beg the question when the author says: “If Christ concretely reveals God’s electing love, we are not free to speculate about, for instance, a decree that consigns some to acceptance and others to rejection” (137). What if that very same revelation reveals also a doctrine of reprobation?

Chapter seven, “Aesthetic,” by Amy Plantinga Pauw sets forth E&B’s respective trinitarian and Christological doctrines of beauty, usefully mentioning also the explicit or implicit philosophical commitments of the two theologians and how they play harmoniously with their theologies. This chapter is the only chapter that mentions Barth’s years-long affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (158). Chapter 8, “Philosophy,” by Kenneth Oakes, is a good exposition of E&B’s respective philosophical underpinnings. It also contains significant remarks about E&B’s respective approaches to philosophy which can often be exaggerated, for example, by thinking that they see philosophy in a much darker light than they actually do.

The ninth chapter on “Humanity” is the second and last article by Strobel in this collection. Strobel expertly sets forth E&B’s efforts to use as the first ground for their theological anthropologies, both pre- and post-lapsarian, the man-God Jesus Christ rather than Adam. “Sin,” discussed in the tenth chapter by Marc Cortez and Daniel Houck, is, on the one hand, a clear presentation of E&B’s respective position, and, on the other hand, a further confirmation of Barth’s idiosyncrasy towards classical Reformed faith on the doctrine of sin, in this case, since “with Kant, Barth denies that Adam’s descendants inherited his sin or corrupted nature” (215). Adam J. Johnson’s “Atonement,” which constitutes chapter eleven, neatly highlights E&B’s respective doctrines of the atonement and their different ways of both appropriating and complementing Anselm; though the grandiose remark about Anselm doing to “the church a great disservice” by “forgoing a consideration of Christ’s resurrection within Cur Deus Homo” could have been easily omitted (since that was not the admitted focus of Anselm’s work). “Moral Theology,” the twelfth chapter by Kirk Nolan, is almost painful to read. The latter statement has nothing to do with the quality of Nolan’s article, which is within the same high standard of this collection. Rather, the uncomfortableness is dictated by the fact that, in spite of Barth’s many good points about ethics and the Christian life, even in a purely academic discussion the question cannot be avoided: “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”[1]

Chapter thirteen, “Church,” by Matt Jenson proposes an Edwardsean corrective of Barth’s famous tendency to dissolve the church’s agency into Christ’s agency. The last chapter is by Nathan Hitchcock, and it’s on the “Last Things,” thus closing the book with E&B’s respective doctrines of the visio Dei and related points.

This volume leaves some important questions unanswered. To be fair, these questions were not included in the stated purposes of the book. Nevertheless, considering both the nature of Christian theology and the nature of these very questions, they seem unavoidable.

One of these unanswered questions is: at least broadly speaking, what does it mean to be Reformed? And, in the light of the answer to that first question, the second question is: can we consider Barth as a Reformed theologian? The problem already appeared in the introduction:

On the one hand, he [Barth] expressed formal continuity with the tradition in terms of sources and language (from Scripture, confessions, old Reformed writers), as well as the pedagogical organization of his work. On the other hand, he diverged materially from the Reformed Orthodox tradition on a number of points. (5)

The editors continue by listing Barth’s disagreements with the broader Reformed tradition: the doctrine of Scripture and revelation, election, natural and supernatural revelation, covenant theology, the attributes of God, and eschatology (6). In spite of those qualifications, the book does not explicitly answer the former question, and it seems to simply assume a positive answer to the latter.

But perhaps the third question is the most important one: to what degree, and how, one can judge a theologian by separating the theology from the person? It is quite uncontroversial that, according to Scripture, life and doctrine cannot be so surgically split apart, and that can be held without giving up to any legalism and without compromising in the slightest the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Shao Kai Tseng, a fair and insightful Barthian scholar, says what follow:

[Barth’s] ontological simul was used as a justification for the ethical contradictions in his personal life…Of course, by no means am I bringing up this point as an ad hominem attack to discredit Barth’s theology…What I am suggesting here is merely that Barth’s Christocentric ontology does not seem to have offered him sufficient motivation for the mortification of sin. His ontological simul can easily leave room for excuses to remain in sin…His Christocentric ontology, as it stands before further amendment, offers little credo ut intelligam help in making sense of the biblical command, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; Lev. 11:45)…It [Barthian theology] does not adequately encourage the quest for godliness and mortification of sin.2

Of course, these sorts of ethical requirements apply to all theologians, including Edwards and his sins. But one cannot fail to at least wonder whether the comparison is fair towards Edwards, in the light of the nature and contexts of their respective falls, and whether such comparison doesn’t run the risk of falling into an antinomian argument to excuse persistent sin rather than to contribute to a balanced measure.

Now that these reservations have been mentioned, and though the present reviewer inevitably finds some articles more readable than others because of the clinging influence of his own interests, the academic judgment of this book is a positive one. Strobel and Anizor need to be commended for gathering, with the help of the other authors, chapters that are overall consistent in quality, and that cooperate well together in making the reading smooth and the whole harmonious (which is not always necessarily the case with collections of articles). Reformed Dogmatics in Dialogue is a good addition to the literature that will benefit readers and scholars interested in systematic theology, constructive dogmatics, and historical theology.

1 Anna Katharina Sartorius Barth (Karl’s mother) as quoted in Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 2017 Vol. 74 (2), 107.

2 Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth, Great Thinkers: Critical Studies of Minds That Shapes Us series (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2021), 143-143.