“For the most part” the new confession “follows the weaker or less orthodox elements and abandons those features that keep Barth more strictly in line with his Reformed foundation.”

There is an impression in some circles that the proposed United Presbyterian “Confession of 1967” is substantially an expression of Barthian rather than Reformation or biblical doctrine. Apart from the role of Dr. Markus Barth on the committee, the probable reasons for this are that (1) the language is in the new dogmatic style, (2) an impression of neo-orthodoxy is given, and (3) there are general parallels to Barth’s dogmatic presentation. Whether or not the confession is close to Barth’s theology in detail, however, is a more doubtful question that can be settled only by rigorously comparing it with his Church Dogmatics.

The understanding of confessions and their role forms an obvious starting point, for Barth, who had a hand in the Barmen Declaration of 1934, devotes several pages to this question. Parallel ideas in the proposed new confession would seem to be that confessions are subsidiary and reformable, that they can and should have a place as concurrent standards, and that they ought to contain something of general as well as purely local concern (“The Confession of 1967,” lines 10 ff.; Church Dogmatics I/2, 20, 2).

Barth, however, also demands that a confession should be evoked by an inescapable issue. The Presbyterians’ Special Committee on a Brief Contemporary Statement of Faith is in difficulty here: in the first place it has behind it the weak explanation that “a short Statement of Faith written in these times … should be of interest and value …” (“Minutes of the General Assembly,” 1957, I, 143), and in the second place the whole idea of a dated confession inevitably suggests passing opinion rather than burning conviction. The difficulty is met by (1) referring to the need for response to “a major watershed such as the eighteenth century” (in the background essay by committee Chairman Edward A. Dowey, Jr., included in the committee’s report), and (2) speaking of the search for a subject for reformulation (in the “Introductory Comment and Analysis” that precedes the confession text in the report). But the first reference leads to little positive conviction in the confession, and the artificial search shows few signs of the necessary concern. Barth, in fact, believed that a good confession (like Barmen) should be ready for the risk of a damnamus (“we reject and condemn”); it is hard to see how the “Confession of 1967” fits in with this understanding, for, when it comes to the point, it will not even come right out with a rejection of inerrancy!

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The structure of the confession also calls for notice. It is basically soteriological, Christological, and ecclesiological. The main theme, reconciliation, is treated under the two heads of God’s work and the Church’s ministry, with an eschatological addendum. Part I on God’s work is trinitarian in treatment (on the basis of Second Corinthians 13:14), but precedence is here obviously given to Jesus Christ. At first glance this seems to be an outworking of the Christological emphasis characteristic of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and it is obvious that the interrelating of Christ’s work, the Spirit’s ministry, and the Church’s mission follows the general structure of Church Dogmatics IV/1–3. Closer analysis, however, shows that for all the Christological stress, Barth’s work is quite different and more orthodoxly trinitarian in arrangement. Thus, it begins with prolegomena (Trinity and Word) in I/1–2, moves on to God in II/1–2, then to God the Creator, III/1–4, and only then to God the Reconciler in IV/1–3 (with a projected but unfinished conclusion on God the Redeemer in V). In fact, the outline of Church Dogmatics would provide a more comprehensive confession than is possible if one theme alone is made the subject. (Barmen, of course, achieves concentration in answer to a specific challenge, that of “German Christianity” under Hitlerite totalitarianism.) Another important structural point is that Barth rightly sees the need to introduce the doctrine of Scripture in the prolegomena; he solves the question of priority of God or Scripture by dealing with the latter in the context of a first trinitarian statement. In contrast, the “Confession of 1967” raises the question of Scripture only under I, 3, B, though in fact it already presupposes its doctrine in the preface (lines 11 ff.).

When we turn to lines 40 ff. of the confession and then to I, 1 (“The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ”), we find many echoes of Barth, especially Church Dogmatics IV/1–3. Thus we might refer to the “God with man” of line 41 (C.D. IV/1, 57, 1); the emphasis on Christ’s presence in the Church’s ministry (41; C.D. IV/3, 69); the bearing of our judgment (56 f.; C.D. IV/1, 59, 2); the different images for the Atonement (61 ff.; C.D. IV/1, 59, 2); the exposure of sin by Christ rather than the law (82 ff.; C.D. IV/1, 60, 1); sin in the relations to God, fellow man, (self) and world (84 f.; C.D. IV/1, 60, 1); and the wrath of God as the expression of his love against all that opposes him (96 ff.; C.D. IV/1, 59, 2). In the shorter section I, 2 (“The Love of God”), we are again in the same circle as that of Church Dogmatics when we read of God’s showing power in the form of a servant (104; C.D. IV/1, 59, 1); or of his appointing the world of space and time as the sphere of his dealings with men (109 f.; C.D. III/1, 41, 2); or of life as a gift and task (118 f., a common German play on Gabe and Aufgabe); or of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel (131 ff.; C.D. II/2, 32, 2; IV/1, 57, 2).

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I am a Christian.

I believe That Jesus is God’s Son and that he died

And rose again, and that it was for me;

This is my faith, such as it is,

And in this faith is all the hope I have;

But in the office where I work

Are men and women too

Who do not know this Way at all;

And there I am; I speak no word

For I am there, you see

I, who am filed with envy,

Self-conceit and ridicule.

I see the need they have; and, God,

I dare not say a word, though I know well

How you have said, “Go, ye …”

I fear that I am one who bears your Name

But keeps his fingers crossed.


On the other hand, there are other no less striking differences. Thus the whole treatment of Jesus Christ in I, 1, A lacks the depth and comprehensiveness of Barth’s threefold presentation of Christ: the Lord as Servant (Priest), the Servant as Lord (King), and the True Witness (Prophet) (C.D. IV/1–3). Moreover, the use of “images” for biblical statements of the Atonement seems to go beyond what Barth says, and there is nothing comparable to Barth’s strict outworking of the judicial aspect, especially with its emphasis on representative substitution. In this respect there is also complete divorce from the important thought in Church Dogmatics that Christ is both elected and rejected (C.D. II/2, 33, 2), and rather oddly only the “risen Christ” is described in the confession as “savior of all men” (69 ff.; why not “crucified and risen Christ”?). Universalism is perhaps more categorically excluded by the confession than by Church Dogmatics (77 f.: “To refuse life from him is to be separated from God in death”), though this seems to have Arminian implications that Barth tries, if not always successfully or consistently, to avoid.

A final important matter in these two sections is that Barth, in the great patristic tradition, insists that one cannot deal adequately with Christ’s work apart from his person (hence the great Christological section in IV/2, 64, 2). The confession, however, merely states that “the Trinity and the Person of Christ … are recognized as forming the basis and determining the structure of the Christian faith” (lines 31 ff.; committal to Chalcedon?). The text fails even to give Christ his title as God or Son of God, except in a less precise way in lines 41 and 134. Barth is surely on the right lines when he explicitly works out his soteriology in terms of Christ, not merely as Priest, King, and Prophet, but also as God, Man, and God-Man.

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The doctrine of the Word of God under I, 3, B (“The Communion of the Holy Spirit: The Bible”) is also strongly reminiscent of Barth’s teaching. Thus Christ as Word incarnate (lines 175 ff.), along with the word spoken through faithful preaching and reading of Scripture (187 ff.), recalls Barth’s Word incarnate, written, and proclaimed (C.D. I/1 and 2). The confession’s use of the term “witness” for Scripture (175 ff., 180, 183, and so on) is also in line with Barth’s discussion in Church Dogmatics I/2, 19, 1. Further points of similarity are the categories of recollection and expectation (cf. 180 ff.; C.D. I/2, 14, 2–3); the stress on the “present” character of God’s speaking (187; C.D. I/2, 19, 2); insistence on the truism that the biblical words are words of men (192 f.; C.D. I/2, 19, 2); and concentration on the historical and relative thought-forms and ideas of the Bible, with at least the implication that they are inadequate or erroneous (193 ff.; C.D. I/2, 19, 2).

It would thus appear that the “Confession of 1967” adopts substantially the view of the Word, and specifically of the Bible, found in Church Dogmatics. It does this, however, without the many important (if not wholly sufficient) safeguards that Barth incorporated into his work. Thus Scripture is for Barth the word written, whereas the “Confession of 1967” does not call it this but lumps it with faithful preaching as word proclaimed. Again, Barth gives the Bible precedence over preaching and thus accords it true normativeness, whereas the confession puts faithful preaching before reading, thus preserving normativeness only by way of the “faithful.”

Barth also accepts, though he does not emphasize, the original giving of Scripture by the Holy Spirit and the uniqueness of the prophets and apostles within God’s work of salvation (C.D. I/2, 19, 2; 21, 1). We look in vain for this note in the confession (except perhaps in 127 f.). Two noteworthy references to the Scriptures occur in the material accompanying the confession in the committee’s report: “The Holy Scriptures are the unique and normative witness to this work of Christ” (in Leonard J. Trinterud’s essay “Confessions of the Church: Times and Places”) and “It is not a witness among others but the witness without parallel, the norm of all other witness” (in the “Introductory Comment and Analysis”). Yet the confession itself does not accord to Scripture the uniqueness Barth strongly insists upon (an insistence not tempered by any such weak statement as the confession’s “… to whom the Holy Spirit bears witness in many ways,” lines 176 f.). Again, Barth argues that God speaks through the very words of Scripture—a version of verbal inspiration which involves him in the practical “fundamentalism” of which Niebuhr complains but for which there is no parallel in the confession. It should also be noted that when Barth makes Christ the hermeneutical key, he is in fact much more precise than the confession with its vague, clumsy, yet restrictive interpretation, “in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ” (191 f.).

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Finally, Barth recognizes in the Bible a direct, absolute, and material authority (C.D. I/2, 20, 1) that goes far beyond the imprecise “normative witness” of the confession (178). If I understand the confession rightly, it is ascribing to Scripture a historical normativeness that as such has the recognition of the Church (177 ff.). Now, this is true and important; but, as Barth points out (C.D. I/2, 20, 1), authority at this level is still indirect, relative, and formal. In virtue of its special position as given and used by the Spirit, however, Scripture has for Barth a direct, material, and absolute authority that frees it from dependence on the Church’s decisions (e.g., respecting the canon) and that makes it superior in principle to every other authority, whether tradition, fathers, councils, confessions, or teaching office. At this critical point, Barth undoubtedly sides with Reformation orthodoxy, whereas the confession with its generalization leaves the way open for accommodation not only to liberalism (“he will continue to speak to men … in every form of human culture,” 200 f.) but also to Romanism, with its list of relative authorities differing only in degree (infallible pope as well as normative Scripture). Failure at this point, of course, destroys the whole thrust of Church Dogmatics in its attempt, on the basis of the scriptural principle, to state a pure evangelical dogmatics in contradistinction to Romanist error on the one side and liberal Protestant on the other. For this, a witness that is directly, absolutely, and materially normative is required.

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Time and space do not allow us to speak of Part II of the confession, where we would in any case be hampered by the lack of Barth’s definitive ethics of reconciliation in the projected Church Dogmatics IV/4. Enough has surely been said, however, to justify certain conclusions. First, the “Confession of 1967” undoubtedly reflects many elements of Church Dogmatics. Secondly, it is highly selective in its use of Church Dogmatics. Thirdly, it seems in the main to adopt generalizations without the delimitations that are so important in Barth. Fourthly, it also follows for the most part the weaker or less orthodox elements and abandons those features that keep Barth more strictly in line with his Reformed foundation. Finally, comparison with Church Dogmatics, quite apart from other criteria, brings to light many weaknesses in the conception, structure, and statement of “Confession of 1967.”

In sum, this is a “Barthian” confession only in a diffused and refracted sense. It would in fact be far stronger theologically, and more rather than less positive from the standpoint of orthodoxy, if it were in many respects closer to Church Dogmatics, though this would still leave it open, with Barth’s work, to the final and conclusive scrutiny of the “normative witness.”


We built a temple, beautiful and tall;

we made it stronger than a Berlin-wall.

We built an altar brighter than a star,

where we could pray, forgetting hate and war;

where we could find a refuge from the heat

of human anger in the violent street.

We heard the gentle voice of one who told

of Him who talked of peace in days of old.

Calmed were our souls till it would almost seem

that Calvary was rather like a dream.

Here we, caught in a tranquilizing trance,

could meditate in holy arrogance.

We built a church out in the suburbs, far

from where the noisy, frantic people are.

We built a ghetto out of shining stone;

walled in from Man, we serve our God—alone.


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