Christianity and History

On March 22, last, Dr. W. Stanford Reid, a historian of reputation in Reformed circles, opened a series of lectures at Dordt College with a discussion of the idea of history in modern theology. Dr. Reid was especially critical of Karl Barth’s approach in which Barth makes a distinction between Historie and Geschichte; Geschichte wherein the events of the history of revelation are taken out of the context of historical verifiability and become Geschichte events. In stressing this kind of event character, Barth had removed himself from the traditionally orthodox and Reformed tradition in his view of revelation.

The same day that Dr. Reid delivered his lecture, the postman delivered the March issue of the Reformed Journal to that part of our country’s hinterland where Dordt College is located. As our thoughts were already historically oriented, our attention was immediately drawn to an article by Dr. James Daane entitled “Christianity and History.” Therein Daane immediately brings Barth and Brunner in for favorable mention with respect to their views of history. Under the circumstances the college students had access to these conflicting points of view. This resulted in some confusion as Daane also purports to speak from a Reformed point of view.

It is not my purpose to draw Dr. Reid into this discussion. I do not have a verbatim transcript of his lecture. So I shall not refer to it again in this discussion but cite other Reformed scholars. (A good short work for non-specialists is the little volume by Dr. A. D. R. Polman, Karl Barth, a part of the “Modern Thinkers” series edited by David F. Freeman.)

In his opening paragraph, Daane lauds the corrections which Barth and Brunner have made over-against the errors of mystics and rationalistic idealists with respect to a view of the history of revelation. In contrast to these, Barth and Brunner have “insisted that God alone can impart knowledge of Himself and He did so in His coming and action in Jesus Christ” (p. 19).

At this point Daane does not pause to point out that Barth, for example, does not think about the events of revelation as in the context of temporal chronology of history but as in a sort of revelation never-never land which he calls Geschichte. Daane does not stop to show us that Barth realizes that his readers, and also Daane’s readers, tend to think in terms of an exclusive contrast between historically verifiable events and non-historical myths. Barth holds this exclusive contrast to be invalid so he sets about to find some middle way.

For Barth, when we set about to refute the idea of revelatory myths we must not assume that the contrast is an event which is like those we meet in our daily experience. For instance, in the resurrection we have an event that happened but not some 2,000 years ago in the chronology of world history. The resurrection appearance takes place only in relation to those who were or are believers in Christ. We cannot attempt to establish the fact that the resurrection has happened by an appeal to historical science as we might the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Without elaboration on Barth and Brunner, Daane goes into a criticism stating that “Demythologizers who deny the historicity of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, reducing them to mythological ideas of the Easter faith of the early Church, undercut the gospel itself” (p. 19). To stress Barth’s emphasis on the event character of revelation and then to criticize the demythologizers for denying the event character of revelation is highly misleading. It is to give the uninitiate the impression that the approach to history of the demythologizers undercuts the intent of the Christian gospel while the approach of Barth does not; a conclusion which leading Reformed theologians have not sustained.

Does Barth disagree with the demythologizers because he is interested in defending the Reformed conception of revelation? Certainly not. Would it then not be an aid to clarity and a service to lay readers, and perhaps to theologians as well, to point out that Barth must disagree with Tillich, for example, because Tillich allows too much from the human side. Barth looks at Tillich as too immanentistic because Barth has gone in the opposite extreme to stress transcendence, God as the Wholly Other.

Let me bring in a discussion by Dr. Robert O. Knudsen at this point.

Tillich claims that reason can drive to its own limits, and that man can work to get the hindrances out of the way which prevent him from coming to the limiting situations in which he intuits the transcendent. To the contrary, Barth says there is nothing that cim be done from our side to guarantee or even to make way for the nearing of the Word of God….Barth detects metaphysical and non-activistic elements in Tillich’s thought. Barth wishes to be entirely activistic. Revelation is only in the act of revealing; it is the opposite of al given objective content.”

It turns out now, contrary to the first impression which we received from the sequence of Daane’s discussion, that Barth is not interested in refuting the demythologizers in order to defend the traditional Reformed view of revelation. He is interested in a theological aberration of his own which has as its foundation a pseudo-history which he calls Geschichte. Barth’s God must remain wholly hidden while he is wholly revealed. This cannot happen in the course of scientifically verifiable history.



Following Barth’s activistic lead, presently in the course of the discussion Daane asserts that a mere idea about an event in the history of revelation accomplishes nothing. To prove this from Scriptures, Daane resorts to a ludicrous exegetical tom de force. He refers to Matthew 6:27 where Jesus suggests that by taking thought we cannot add one cubit to our stature. It should be obvious to the thoughtful reader that Jesus is not concerned here with the power of thought, but that he is giving assurances of God provident care for his people. Moreover, to belittle the potency of ideas does nothing to enliven an event of the past. The event or its significance can only come to us by way of an idea.

Has it not been the Reformed or Calvinistic understanding that revelation can be carried in propositional form; that it can be carried in fixed ideas from one age to the next and must so be carried; and that its basic meaning does not change from age to age? Moreover, this revelation has not been coextensive with a Christ-event. Daane’s Christomonistic emphasis and his emphasis on the “event character” of revelation are transparent parallels of Barth’s views.

However, it is especially in his discussion and criticism of the Reformed view of election that Daane shows his Barthian leanings. He is dissatisfied with the definitions of election which do not encompass in one statement the election of Christ, the election of Israel and the election of individual Christians. In the Reformed view, to quote Daane, “The election of the nation of Israel, for example, is regarded as a merely temporal, historical expression of eternal election which, having served its purpose can now be ignored in the definition of election” (p. 19).

I criticized this theological idiosyncrasy of Daane in an earlier article. Let me here call in the discussion of Dr. Polman to show that Daane’s preoccupation with Jewish election grows out of a Barthian concept of election. Discussing Barth’s doctrine of election Polman writes,

God uses Israel, the obstinate and hardened. They arc used in the service of God to let the undeserving character of his mercy to the elect be seen. The obstinate whom he uses to do this service can only come to good. There lies over their apostacy the reflection of the divine act of love in which even his own Son was not spared but was delivered up for us all. The Jews have served to deliver over Christ and to make Paul an apostle to gentiles.

The casting away, the hardening and making obstinate, thus stand here entirely under election, and do service in the one design of God to have compassion in Christ. The seven thousand under Elias and the others, the hardened, form one people, the congregation of God. Christ uses both in his service. His election spans in one people elected reprobate and elected elect. Unbelief and obstinancy, and the schism of the synagogue, is not an eternal fact but one limited in time. How could unbelief ever create or be an eternal fact since it is constantly denied of God? On the basis of the cross and the resurrection of Christ, it cannot be believed. In a broad explanation of Romans 9–11 Barth reads this into the text.2

Polman goes on to take exception to this view of election. 1t becomes obvious in the course of the discussion that a special concern with the election of the Jews as a future event is not essential to or part of a Reformed, that is, Biblical view of election. Polman writes:

We need not go into further detail. The main point here is that after the coming of Christ, Scriptures offer no basis for a distinction between two groups within the one people of God, one which preaches God’s mercy and the other judgment. The people of God are now no longer a national church but a congregation within the church. Christ’s people are now the true Israel (Gal. 6:16, I Cor. 10:18, Rom. 9:6) and the true seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29, Rom. 9:9).3

Going back to a reiteration of his thesis that we must stress the event character of revelation, Daane ends several paragraphs of discussion with these words, “Without thinking in terms of event, one cannot conceive of the truth of the Cross. Every attempt to do so reduces Christian truths to mere ideas (human of divine, of both), which are then, as mere ideas, capable of being wholly expressed in that arrangement of ideas which expresses a judgment—in what we call a propositional statement” (p. 20).

The first statement in the above quotation, no doubt, is true beyond dispute. The second statement, however, carries with it a dubious insinuation. On the one hand it may suggest that Reformed thinkers have been doing the wrong kind of thinking about the events of revelation because they have stressed propositional revelation. This has been true only in exceptional cases. We do not presume, of course, that propositional statements can exhaust the mystery of revelation and the Incarnation, but the second direction of Daane’s second statement, as just quoted, would be open to the suggestion that revelation now does not occur without an event or that the then character of the event of the past must take on a now character in the present and we must construct our propositions de nove. This would require a change from a propositional view of revelation to an actualistic view. The latter view has not been part of the Reformed tradition. Let me can in Calvin via Polman.

God has—to give a few quotations from Calvin–first spoken through hidden revelation to the patriarchs who then passed on orally what they had received to their descendents. (In propositions beyond doubt. NVT) Thereafter, it pleased God to provide a more glorious form for his church, and he willed that his Word should be placed on record so that the priests would take out of it what they should pass on to the people according to his rule. Then came the prophets. Here also God commanded that their prophecies be placed on record and be considered as part of his Word because it pleased the Lord that the teaching be clearer and more extensive in order that weak consciences might be strengthened…Even the apostles are under the same law. They might interpret the old Scripture in no other way than that which was from the Lord, that is, from the spirit of Christ, which went before and, as it were dictated the words. And this applies not only to their speaking but also to their recording of the gospel. They were thereby the sure and authentic servants, the pledged notaries of the Spirit, so that their declarations consequently had to be regarded as God’”s Word. Even the language and style of the writers was thereby arranged by the Spirit.4 (Cf. lnst. IV, VIll 6–9.)

Time and again in his various writings Daane expresses dissatisfaction with the traditionally Reformed views of predestination and grace. From “Christianity and History{ we must call attention to the following:

Two Christian doctrines are especially expressive of this historical-event character. They are the Christian doctrines of divine election and divine grace. Neither of these are, quite obviously, necessarily and, in that sense, eternally true. On the contrary, both are, as we have seen, expressions of free, unnecessary, and sovereign acts of God, of God’s own history. And precisely for this reason both are particularly difficult to express in theological statement.

For example, the Church to this day has not been able to present a theological (propositional) definition of the biblical doctrine of election that includes the election of Israel, the election of Christ, of the election of the Church. The best the Church has been able to do is to present the idea of an eternal election which, by its very definition, bears no relationship to any concrete, historical-temporal individual or nation. Election is thought of as an eternal idea in the Platonic sense and not, as in the biblical sense, as an eternal idea which is also an event, an act of free, divine decision. Since the classical definitions of election lack this ingredient of event and idea—of idea which is also an event—they are devoid of that historical ingredient that alone could relate God’s eternal election to the temporal-historical realities of Israel, of Jesus, and of the Church (p. 21. Italics Daane’s).

To see the obvious Barthian parallel let us now go back to Polman’s discussion of Barth’s views on this subject.

According to Barth, the classic doctrine of predestination viewed God’s foreordination as firmly established ordination so that it could not be changed event by God himself. The concept of decree implied a stature which henceforth was unchangeably established. God has chosen once and does not choose anymore. The vivacity of his deeds is an eternal past. For the present the vivacity of God’s deeds consists only in the execution of this unchangeable ordinance. God has determined everything and does not determine anymore. And such a non-actual, inflexible God, cannot be an object of faith.

In opposition Barth sets forth a doctrine of actual predestination. Barth does not want to overlook the concept of a decree which speaks of the constancy, faithfulness and absoluteness of the free love and choice of God. God is in fact unchanged in his choice and unchangeably the one he is. God takes upon himself an undertaking, and obligation. Whoever does not acknowledge this falls into the doctrine of absolute arbitrariness, as was propounded in the Middle Ages by Duns Scotus. The decree of God is nevertheless full of life and actuality. It is an eternal present perfect tense, harder than steel and granite, but because it is here concerned with the life of God, it is also present and future. God’s eternity not only comes before but it accompanies time super-temporally and it outlives time as a post-temporal eternity. God’s predestination is therefore unchanged and unchangeable, God’s dealings eternal occurrences which are not closed and immovable. Predestination occurs eternally in lime, in the calling and direction of the believers, of Israel and of the church and, though hidden from us, of the history of the world, God is never caught in his own predestination. He always stays free. He has not decided but always continues deciding so that there is no election that cannot become reprobation and no reprobation that cannot become election. God has not predestined men but he predestinates them from moment to moment. This is no decree before the foundation of the world.5

In the concluding paragraphs of his article Daane suggests that there has been some right emphasis in the Reformed approach to predestination and grace but there is also much room for improvement. He sums up the situation as follows:

Yet Reformed theology can never hope to gain greater acceptance with the Church (What does this reference to the Church include? NVT) until it relates both election and grace specifically, directly, and inseparably with Israel, and with—especially with—Jesus Christ. When this is done, Reformed theology and the Reformed churches will recognize that Jesus Christ, who is Himself both God’s idea and God’s act is therefore, also Himself both the truth of God’s election and the truth of God’s grace. When this occurs, grace and election will be understood and doctrinally formulated in terms of Jesus Christ, and not in terms of a mere idea of a propositional statement. Reformed theology will then possess the resources to distinguish itself effectively from liberalism, and to correct both variant conservative and variant evangelical theologies effectively.

For that day this, Journal has existed and worked. It may not live long enough. But if it contributes to the coming of that day, its existence will be justified (p. 2.2).

Before making a few concluding remarks, we do well to go back to Polman for his summary criticism of Barth’s (Daane’s) view of predestination.

First of all, Barth does not do justice to Augustine’s and Calvin’s conception of the decree of God. His criticism is completely justified with respect to many followers who deal with God’s decrees as naked decisions of his wilL Augustine and Calvin, however, maintain, in the light of the scriptural doctrine of God’s decrees, that God acts in the fulness of his divine virtue and perfections. His sovereign independence of all things and men, his unchangeableness as over against all the changeable here below, his knowledge which is increased by nothing here on earth, his love which is not awakened in time, are all revealed therein….The Lord wills nothing new out of the course of history but he follows it with the eternal, unchangeable interest of his divine wisdom. The Lord has no new love but his eternal, unbegun love is just the sure guarantee that in time he shall remain loving us….The old, genuine doctrine of predestination possesses an actuality which does not detract from God his invariableness and sovereignty, nor from man his responsibility. With Barth’s actual predestination this three-fold richness (God remains God to the full; he is unchangeably related t0 everything; his council spans the entire reality) is lost and is exchanged for an actuality which subjects God himself to changeableness. And it is absurd to aver that God otherwise is captive to his own decrees. (Daane regularly stresses the freedom of God to make a contrast with traditional Reformed emphasis. NVT) He wills unchangeably. He wills himself. And the Barthian objection makes us think of the Spiritualists of the days of the Reformation who considered it an insult to the Holy Ghost that he should be bound to the letter of the Holy Scripture. What Calvin brings lip against them must be addressed to Barth as well: As if it should be dishonoring to the Holy Ghost (in Barth’s case, God) that he remains everywhere the same and is in agreement with himself, constantly steadfast in everything and free from every change” (I, IX, 2).6

Now referring back to Daane’s final sentences, it seems fair to say, if we may use a figure, that Daane hopes for the day when his aberrant theological breezes will be the prevailing winds of doctrine in the Church, the Christian Reformed Church, that is. To this end he has dedicated his Journal. Polman suggests that the Barthian deviations, like other deviations previously, will presently pass. It seems strange that some students of theology in the Reformed community of our country. Johnny-come-latlies by almost a generation, are now espousing and propagating Barth when he is already largely passe in his native Europe.

And what are we to say to the inquiring student of theology or young minister who avidly pursues the new and strange in the hope that he will become relevant? Quotations from Barth, Brunner and various others who have deviated from the traditions of Reformed theology become the guarantee that the young theologian has done his home work. Should anyone then be surprised to learn that one of our young Christian Reformed ministers in the course of his sermon took the pulpit Bible from the podium and threw it on the floor to dramatize his assertion that the Bible as a book was not the Word of God?

And what does one say to one of his pre-seminary students who has been advised by a Christian Reformed minister that he must avidly read Daane for new and fresh ideas? Perhaps the answer should be, “Consider the source.” It would be a boon to clarity if Daane would cite book and page from the writings of Barth when recommending specific Barthian doctrines. This would do little to create a reputation for freshness but it would be in the interest of theological scholarship. We would be getting to the source as we should. This would also lend clarity to a study of “Christianity and History.”

1. Robert D. Knudsen. Symbol and Myth in Contemporary Theology. Available from the author in bound mimeograph volume.

2. Polman, Op Cit. p. 41

3. Ibid p. 42

4. Ibid. p. 26

5. Polman, p. 38

6. Polman, p. 39ff.