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  • As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God: A Diptych
  • R. Ward Holder
Cornelis van der Kooi . As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God: A Diptych. Studies in the History of the Christian Tradition 120. Trans. Donald Mader. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005. xiv + 478 pp. index. bibl. $169. ISBN: 90–04– 13817–X.

As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God: A Diptych takes on an enormous task. Cornelis van der Kooi seeks to grasp the knowledge of God in two theologians famous for the difficulties and nuances in their doctrines. In both Calvin and Barth studies, numerous tomes have been written about the knowledge of God. Van der Kooi connects the two with Kant's thought, as a representation of the changes imposed on theology by the Enlightenment. The courage of the project is not unrewarded by the depth of the output. However, problems persist in methodology, which leaves the reader with several questions.

Both sections of the book are well executed, with deep discussions of the issues and literature on various points. After an introductory first chapter, the second chapter turns to John Calvin and the ways of knowing God. The third chapter considers the doctrine of God, while the fourth considers the Lord's Supper as an instrument of the knowledge of God in Calvin's thought. The work is quite erudite throughout, with excellent knowledge of the literature. The section on the dispute between Parker and Dowey on the knowledge of God is a particularly good example of the strength of the work here. Van der Kooi avoids some of the traditional traps by seeing the various manners of revelation that Calvin recognizes, as well as grasping the faculties within the human subject that accept them.

The author calls his fifth chapter "the hinge of his diptych." This chapter considers Kant and the turn to the subject. This is not because of Barth's dependence on, or response to Kant. Rather, it is because van der Kooi sees in Kant an encapsulation of the Enlightenment, which he posits as the chasm that stands between the modern and premodern realms of thought. He links the fundamental uncertainty of modern theology to this event in Western intellectual history.

In the sixth chapter, van der Kooi turns to Karl Barth. We see the same essential care exercised that he has devoted to Calvin's thought. The sixth chapter discusses Barth's consideration of the nature of the knowledge of God, and the way that his doctrine turned traditional questions on their heads. The seventh chapter considers the knowledge of God and reflects on Barth's anti-agnostic focus, demonstrated by his argument about God's being, which Calvin had denied. The eighth chapter covers Barth's views of the sacrament of baptism. In all cases, the author demonstrates a strong grasp of the relevant literature, and an excellent facility for drawing pertinent connections. The ninth chapter is the conclusion, where van der Kooi sets out the profit from the implicit and explicit comparisons between Calvin and Barth.

Though the book is well researched and argued, it is not without problems. At times, this seems to come from the methodology. How can an author situated on one side of a historical and intellectual chasm evaluate and compare without seeing greater value in the theologian who faced the more contemporary [End Page 202] challenges? Further, although he makes a case for it, van der Kooi's choice of using only a particular section of Barth's work is problematic. It is not parallel with the treatment of Calvin, and keeps him from tracing out some of the parallels — for instance, how did Calvin and Barth differ or agree on their exegesis of key biblical texts?

The book is both an excellent challenge to historians of doctrine and theologians, and a fine example of closely argued consideration of doctrinal points. At times, van der Kooi's points may invite critique and engagement — but that is the cost of being audacious enough to write a book worth reading. This work absolutely fills that criterion.



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pp. 202-203
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Archived 2009
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