Recently I have posted a few links on the recent Wheaton theological conference which discussed the works of Tom Wright. I have also written a few summaries on Karl Barth’s book Evangelical Theology. Then I remembered that actually I’ve written a post on Wright and Barth some times ago, although I did not post it at that time. So perhaps now it is a good time to do so, to tell my personal story behind all these. I have edited the post here and there and here we go.
If you asked me why I read Wright and Barth, honestly I would answer that it was because of reaction. I reacted to the general antipathy against both of them in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, the tradition which I cherish and belong to. For Wright, I knew about him from various conservative Reformed blogs which criticized his works. I had a quite substantial amount of book voucher at that time and I decided to buy two of his books so that I could read what Tom Wright really said (pun intended). I didn’t want to just relying on others’ opinion about him. Well, the two begot a couple more, and it did not take a long time before two became thirty.
My reading of Karl Barth started not too differently. I just obtained a one-day discount offer after watching a movie screening at SKS bookstore, and I bought Church Dogmatics (A Selection). Then I read a reflection on the 500th birthday of Calvin in a Reformed mailing list, with a blast on Barth. Again, it only made me to be more curious to read Barth further to find out whether the charge is true or not; true to our Protestant heritage, ad fontes — back to the source! (or I am just a curious rebel, after all, and curiosity is a virtue for everyone who works in the research field)
How have I fared now, then, after drinking heavily from the fountain of Tom and Karl? Have I denied Christ? Me genoito! May it never be! Although, on the other hand, if you asked me about how I think of my Reformed tradition now, I would answer that I have reworked some of its elements and stayed Reformed nonetheless. I am huge on the covenant. And I believe this could explain why, ironically, it was the Reformed tradition which reacted strongly against both of them. The tradition where Tom and Karl actually deserved to be part of it. It was because both of them used traditional Reformed elements and vocabularies and reworked them such that now they mean differently from the traditional meaning attached to them. For example, predestination in Barth and covenant in Wright. Indeed, both of them reworked the whole landscape: as a response to (and dialogue with?) modern theology for Barth and incorporation of Jewish flavour for Wright. The battle is, indeed, intra-Reformed.
Nevertheless, when I think about it, such battle perhaps is one of the characteristics of the Reformed tradition itself. The Reformed tradition emphasized pretty heavily on teaching/doctrine. It is one of the ‘three marks of the true church’, i.e., teaching, ordinances, and church discipline (!). Historically, a strict standard of teaching has been a mark of Reformed tradition. And it explains why theological debates are common in this tradition. We would be amused to see how the Reformed tradition is concerned with every minutiae of its theological system. Precision is a virtue. And sound teachings with a high standard of precision means endless debates.
But in the end I guess I need to clarify the approach that I have used and will use for my own theological construct. And on this manner I side with Tom and Karl. To be faithful to Calvin (of course, assuming that he was faithful to Jesus and Paul in the first place) does not mean you should repeat every single thing that he said. To be faithful to Calvin precisely lies in reworking those that he had done in Geneva for our own context. Imitation does not mean identification. It means improvisation.