Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Barth and the Problem of Grace and Nature Dualism, with special emphasis on the Bible as the Word of God

Over at Pilgrim.Not.Wanderer, I've been discussing Barth's doctrine of the Word of God. I appreciate Pilgrim's critical eye for Barth, as I have the tendency to plunge wholeheartedly into any theologian that I like with blinders on. However, I think Pilgrim's concerns for Barth's early trajectory of theology, while good concerns in themselves, are not warranted, esp. when we read the later works. This is copied from a comment left in the comment box.

And God speaks and acts and enters into covenant with us. So He can't really be "wholly other" in any way that is meaningful to us as God's people.

I know somehow this fits into his unfolding dialect[ic] style of theologizing somehow. But why think this way to begin with? Why talk this way?

I think Barth saw exactly the problem that you are sensing here. In fact, later on he criticized his early work for being too transcendental (like the Romans commentary in 1916). However, even early on Barth saw his polemical mode of writing as a necessary "ground-clearing" in order to put forth his positive message. It's important to see both aspects in his writing.

In order to understand Barth, one needs to understand the theological liberalism in Europe that he broke from (and is largely responsible for breaking for the benefit of the Church). Any of Barth's early writings have pretty specific and cutting language to describe his contemporary theological setting. The jist of it is this: theological liberalism assumes that God is immanent in creation and specifically in His creatures to such a degree that the distinction (or the "qualitative difference" as Barth would say) is virtually lost between God and humanity. Instead, basically ALL human language (that is, modern language), and the various ways that we extend ourselves through history, culture, religion, etc. are the GRACE of God. "But is this true grace?" Barth wants to ask. It's here that Barth gets a lot of influence from Kierkegaard. While it's important to not see Barth as post-modernist (as some scholars like to heroicize him), you can see how Barth saw the brilliant lie all around him:
"Here was a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its religion and morality reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.”
Or listen to an address by Barth in 1916 called “The Righteousness of God,” where he suggests that at the hands of “the happy gentleman of culture who today drives up so briskly in his little car of progress and so cheerfully displays the pennants of his various ideals, the longing for a new world has become the joy of development.”

Morality, the state and law, religion – the building blocks of what Barth later called “liberal, positive, cultural Protestantism,” are nothing less than self-wrought human righteousness, an evasion of the sheerly critical, utterly different, will of God. “His will is not a corrected continuation of our own. It approaches us as Wholly Other.”

For all their talk about grace, the liberals had domesticated it and robbed it of its true power. This is very similar to the critique of "cheap grace" that Bonhoeffer lobs at the increasingly nationalist Lutherans of his time in "Cost of Discipleship."

Now, how does this connect with your discussion with the Word of God? First of all, I should clarify that to understand Barth one must understand his exegesis of Scripture first. I think too many people, me included, put so much weight on his rejection of liberalism that we give it too much credit for his later thought. I don't want to give you the impression that Barth is merely a product (or anti-product, as it were) of his context. And this is certainly not the case of his theology. Barth, for all we might disagree with him, is trying to be true to Scripture in his theology. It's always important to have this in mind, even as Barth could confess that "I am a child of the 19th century."

That said, I think this discussion of the Word of God needs to ask questions regarding our own context: is there a domestication of grace going on now with regards to how we view the Bible? If there is, then we might need to heed advice from Barth.

First, Barth wants to confess the Bible in a biblical way, in a way that does justice to what the Bible says about itself, and what the biblical writers would say about their own writings. This means that it's not "just" a text as the liberals would want to see it, although it is certainly a human work. Nor is it supernatural in the way that conservatives like to make it out, simply just raw divine speech. It is not simply a deposit of God-info, a frozen artifact that we now need to unpack for all its theological nuggets. God is a Living God, and His word is a Living Word.
If I may vent a bit as you have, my frustration with evangelicals lies in their consistent misinterpretation of the Bible, both in what it is, and (therefore) what it says.
Behind the word "biblioatry" I suspect Barthians are (or at least should be) making this claim, which I support: the Bible is not God's Word given to us so that now it is OUR possession. The Bible remains God's Word, which means that it is God's possession.

Now why make this distinction? Because evangelicals like me want certainty, and we want certainty on our own terms, i.e. the world's terms. The life of faith in modernity (and postmodernity, which is just another form of modernity in my opinion) has ironically consisted of discovering new methods to apologize to this world for our identity as Christians. Yet the life of faith as Jesus describes it has no affinity with this world. While evangelicals are willing to confess their counter-cultural Christian stance in ethics, they seem to think that the realm of knowledge plays by a different set of rules. So the Bible has been made into the foundation of our knowledge of God, instead of God being the foundation (and means) of our knowledge of God. That is why revelation is such an important piece for Christian theology. It helps not to domesticate God in the text, but sees him both above it and in it at once (similar to how we think of the way in which we hold that Christ is both divine and human). But notice, it also helps not to domesticate the Bible, nor us as readers. We are all (God, the biblical writers' testimony, and us) in relationship to one another through God's act. [here I'll add a new tidbit] There is no way to know God except through revelation. There is a long debate between Barth and Brunner regarding how and where revelation takes place, and whether or not "nature" has enough grace embedded in it that all humanity can and should recognize God, a la Romans 1 . I think Paul was being ironic in talking about universal human knowledge of God, and it's is a foundation that he wants to quickly throw away. I can't go into this now though. See Doug Cambell's essay in International Journal of Systematic Theology, 1999.

The Bible is the Word of God, but in no different a way than a preacher's word is the Word of God. The Bible does not point to itself as God's Word (I'll welcome a proof-text here to prove me wrong); it points to God. That is, it testifies to God's "speech-acts" (to use the trendy language of today) in the history of Israel and the Church. Likewise, the preacher (if he/she is fulfilling their commission), is preaching the Word of God as they point beyond themselves to God. We have to ask "what about those that hear or read the Word of God?"

This is where your critique of Barth (even if it's misappropriated) is right on. If human language is indeed too wretched, and God is so wholly other that we cannot have relationship or correspondence with Him, then we're indeed walking away from what Scripture tells us about God and His grace towards us in Jesus Christ. There is no other God except this One. Barth does not want to overshadow the human being, and I think that's why he makes such great effort to speak about our "hearing" and "knowing" of God in the first volume of Church Dogmatics.

Ultimately, Barth's critique against himself came when he realized that the God who acts and speaks to us through grace is God's being IN HIMSELF. I think this is one of the most beautiful trinitarian insights that Barth offered to theology - that the "God for us" is the only God there is, and there is no other God behind Him (i.e. God the Father as the God of Providence and Wrath that we might have inherited from less Reformered thinkers).

By the way, you say at the beginning of your first post :
Or if I hear any more about how the bible "contains" the word of God... or about how the word equals revelation, and that the revelation of God is the "self bestowal" of the person of God, and specifically not a linguistic-message/word/promise/announcement /judgement from God... then I'll loose it again.

God's self-bestowal does not negate or even operate separately from the language of God, since they are made one in each "speech-act." That is, God's speech is God's act, and vice versa. Whether these Barthians mispoke or you misheard, to say that self-bestowal is NOT a linguistic message/promise/judgment is antithetical to Barth, in my reading of him.

To me it says more about what Barth was setting himself up against. But is Barth's strategy of dealing with an admittedly good enemy a good one? A faithful one? Or do we have way better resources with which to deal with this stuff nowadays?

I think Barth would applaud this question, since he always said at the end of his life (as he had gained recognition as the great Protestant thinker of his time) that he wished people would write more about the things he was "trying" to write about (i.e. God), and to do them better than he did, instead of just writing about him. If anything, Barth should be given credit for having always pointed away from himself as John the Baptist does in Grunewald's Crucifixion. This was Barth's favorite painting. To him, theology always had the task of pointing away from oneself and towards God, saying with John the Baptist: "He must increase, I must decrease." That said, no one has surpassed him yet (especially if you look at ALL his work, and not just excerpts of early works, which is a requirement for reading any theologian I think). There have only been a handful helpful corrections, and a LOT of revision of the early Barth interpreters like Torrance, von Balthasar (generally seen as Pro-Barth), and Van Til/Schaeffer (generally seen as Anti-Barth).

I recently picked up the best beginner's introductory text on Barth that I've read so far (and I've read 5 or 6 of them). It's part of the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, it's written by John Webster. Very comprehensive, and manages to sum up the themes of the Church Dogmatics in a very concise and clear manner. It also brings a lot of healthy criticism of Barth by contemporary theologians towards most of his doctrinal treatments.

This is sufficiently long, but to interpret Barth means to bring various angles on that matter. I'll go ahead and post this on my Karl Barth Society of Amherst. It'll be interesting to see what corrections I get handed. Feel free to respond there and here, as it'll make it easier for me.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Response by Andrew Dole on Spiritual vs. Social Gospel

Professor Andrew Dole, a friend of mine who teaches religion at Amherst College and a Schleiermacher specialist (sorry, had to wipe the saliva off the monitor there), has written a nice response to my earlier piece on the Spiritual Gospel vs. the Social Gospel. He has allowed me to post it. It is more of a concern regarding the limited definition of "social gospel" that evangelicals like me have inherited. Giving "social gospel" work this broader definition I think reiterates the point that we cannot bifurcate the two.

"Dear Chris,

Since I've just finished teaching a course in which the Social
Gospel figured significantly, I do have a comment to make about
this. Basically, Stott's grasp of what the 'social Gospel' entails
seems pretty thin. In its classic forms it went far beyond simply
'helping people with daily needs'. Those who argued, in the early
20th century, that the primary social task of the church was 'helping
people with daily needs' were saying something very different from
the social Gospel types, and not infrequently were trying to resist
what they were up to.

The social Gospel movement concerned itself not simply with
alleviating the suffering of the unfortunate-- that was widely seen
as an important task, but one that was too limited. What the social
Gospel people addressed themselves to were the societal causes of
suffering: structural features like wage inequality, flagrant labor
exploitation, militarism, nationalism and the like. They were
interested, to cite the title of a book by Rauschenbusch, in
'Christianizing society'. This took various forms: advocation of
child labor laws, unemployment insurance, and minimum/living wage
legislation; activism on the side of workers' rights to organize and
participation in labor-capital negotiations; advancing Socialist
party policies and candidates; advocating pacifism; and preaching
against racism, greed, traffic in the sale of alcohol, and rampant
nationalism. In comparison to this kind of aggressive social/
political program, those who called for the church to do no more than
engage in charitable relief were often trying to restrict the scope
of the church's activities.

Barth's relationship to this tradition was an interesting one.
Overall he's seen as a political quietist: one who thought the
church had no business meddling in politics. But it's become clear
since his death that he was passionately committed to socialist
politics in his private views, and there are those who have argued
that his theological work is shot through with a pro-socialist
program (this is a highly contested claim).

You'll be learning far more about this over the next few years, of
course, but I wouldn't want you to start your seminary education with
such a thin notion of such an important Christian movement.

Take care, Andrew Dole"

I'll respond later on Barth's political life, particularly his relationship to socialism, and the contentious debate surrounding how much CD is filled with this. I invite anyone else to add their say on this issue, or simply respond to the general problem of social/spiritual gospel.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Barth and Brunner Part 4


In 1929, Brunner goes beyond Barth’s explication of the primary task of theology as scientific interpretation of the Word of God, forming the discipline of “eristics,” derived from the Greek word erizein, which means “to debate.” According to Brunner, eristics allows the theologian to fight on two fronts: (1) the philosophical presuppositions of non-believers; and (2) the existential theology of believers in response to the Word (in contrast to the objectivistic dogmatic theology of Barth). Barth writes to his friend Edward Thurneysen in 1930 to express his intention to distance himself the from the “dialectical theology” movement he had earlier been ascribed to along with Friedrich Gogarten, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, as well as Brunner:

"The whole line is entirely not a good thing: under no circumstances do I want to be associated with it. Is it not the case that all of us, who apparently stand close to each other, have gradually come to want exactly what we . . . did not want and struggled against from the beginning – standing in the nearest relationship to . . . a grounding not in actuality, but in laying the possibility of faith and revelation on the table? . . . What is all this . . . if it is not the renewal of the relationship between theology and philosophy, just like Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, De Wette, etc. – only that now, for a change, philosophy has become something negative, existential, etc. . . . Is it just a question of a harmless difference, while the rest of our theologies are “fundamentally” at one? I don’t know, . . . but I simply oppose with all the hairs on my head the entire state of affairs . . . , and I don’t know whether I should bunch together one great article of resistance and bid farewell to Emil, Paul, Friedrich, and Rudolf."

Barth decides to write such an article, and entitles it “Theology and Modern Man.” Here, Barth claims that theology raises three scandals to the modern person: (1) God’s freedom in revelation forces modern people to engage the doctrine of predestination; (2) theology binds itself to the church; and (3) faith – rather than history, psychology, or philosophy – becomes the way to obtain human knowledge of objective truth. This third scandal is particularly challenging because it suggests that theology does not (nor must it) offer any proof for its propositions, but calls for obedience without guarantee.
Barth then goes on to show three typical responses to these scandals: (1) atheism, which rebels against theology’s primary task; (2) Liberalism, which seeks to tame theology; and finally (3) Roman Catholicism, which desires to control theology. Barth describes these three responses in the following analogy:
"If you see a wild and threatening horse galloping straight at you, you could either jump out of the way [atheism] or try to soothe it with friendly words [Liberalism]. Or, if you had enough self-confidence, you could jump on its back and become its rider and master [Roman Catholicism].”

Barth goes on to describe his colleagues as giving various formulations of the third response:

"Perhaps it might be a negative metaphysics, an apparently very non-Thomistic metaphysics, not the zenith but the nadir of human knowledge, an ontology of the “hollow space,” to whose dimensions faith and theology correspond exactly, and . . . are clearly indicated [Bultmann]? Perhaps an “eristic” theology, which would have the task of making it clear to the modern person, with paternal wisdom, that he, without recourse to Christian faith, necessarily must become entangled in an evil self-contradiction [Brunner]? Or perhaps a doctrine of history, whose truth would correspond exactly to what the biblical presentation describes as the reality of the relationship of God and humanity [Gogarten]? (p.394) . . . It is more dangerous [than Roman Catholicism] because unbelievably good theology loses its way at one small point: it no longer says that human thinking reckons with the Word of God only through faith. But isn’t it precisely on this one little point that everything hinges? Is there any secure place which we can give to theology? Is not theology precisely theology only in the uncertainty of the real science of faith, . . . only as a stranger in the areas of the other sciences, without its own area? . . . Perhaps this is the fatal question which our generation asked, whether theologians are in the position to recognize this last and dangerous temptation for what it is."

Brunner responds to the article by trying to show that Barth is unconscious of how his own theology depends and assumes a rational certainty and a set of “guarantees” prior to and coupled with faith. He views Barth’s use of Anselm as evidence that Barth cannot escape Brunner’s undertaking. Brunner writes:

"Anselm is a powerful Eristician. ‘Why did God become man?’ – that is entirely and completely an eristic way of asking the question, just as the way he conducts his proof is eristic. Eristics . . . is the demonstration of the gap which God’s revelation or God’s grace covers . . . Whoever says possibility says eristics. Whoever sets up conditions of grace, guarantees it."

Brunner views Barth’s article as a “case and point” of the dialectical watch-dog that barks at everyone including Barth. He finds the article unhelpful due to its polemic against theology seeking certainty because he thinks all theology does exactly that, even Barth’s. Brunner believes Barth has overlooked the constant certainty of human logic utilized in his own theological thinking. Brunner writes:

"[Just look at] your unsubdued faith in the power of (theological) logic, with which you trust yourself to examine thoroughly the depths of the Trinity. How solid you must consider the human capacity for thought, that you trust your conclusions so unconditionally based on a concept of revelation. . . . How does it happen that humanity, which has nothing left of the image of God, has such a phenomenally trustworthy logic? . . . In reality you trust humanity in its fallen condition no less than I (your proof is not by virtue of regenerated logic, but is a result of purely natural logic), but you do not want to bring it into relationship with the original possession of a knowledge of God through creation."

Here we begin to see the development of a concept of a general revelation through creation that Brunner will later expound in Nature and Grace, where he ascribes to human logic the possibility or entry point for this revelation, which further allows the entry point of special revelation in Jesus Christ.
Barth responds by showing their theological alliance as having inevitably come to an end, and that the differences are so fundamental that there can be no rectification through the clarification of terms. This rift upsets him greatly, mostly because Brunner failed to see it sooner. Barth writes:

"Accept the fact . . . that you completely misunderstand not only my prolegomena, . . . but also my Romans, since you have obviously not noticed that since 1920 (not 1930, but 1920) it has been for me a question of “constructing theology from predestination.” . . . What have I said to you in this lecture that I have not always maintained as my presupposition, and which I have often expressed to you? And which of my “constructions” in all their forms do not spring from the ground of this presupposition, bound to it and conditioned through it, up to the last little proposition? That is true of my Prolegomena as well. . . . You have not let it be pointed out to you . . . that this anthropological background is lacking in me. Thus, my entire work, despite all the manifold similarities, is to be explained differently from yours. Thus, if not from the very beginning, then for a goodly time, you should have made the most fundamental stand against my work. . . . Why do you interpret me thus now . . . as if I indeed work with ‘guarantees,’ when you used to be in the habit of reproaching me in other discussions that I lacked such guarantees and that you must, so to speak, supply them with your eristics? . . . Have you ever heard from me . . . anything other than that I consider all theology to be nonsense which does not absolutely begin ‘formally’ with obedience?"

Finally, Barth suggests that at this point one must persuade the other to convert: either Brunner converts Barth to adding the other task of theology found in “eristics,” or Barth converts Brunner to “a theology which, like a spinning top, supports itself on only one point.”

John W. Hart sums up Barth’s definition of this theology as “a theology which respects the absolute freedom of God in his revelation, a reality which creates its own possibility, a reality which is both received and thought out only within the realm of the church and faith. As a theology of the living God, it relies on no external preconditions or possibilities or supports, but only upon grace, revelation, and faith.”

Friday, June 16, 2006

Karl Barth has died

Yes friends, Karl Barth has died. Read about it here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Word of God and Faith . . . and Stephen Broyles

Tonight I had only one comrade in dogmatics - Stephen Broyles - as all others were busy. I should mention in passing (and will devote an entire post soon) that our Scott Jackson was busy receiving his Ph. D. from University of Chicago last week, and so congrats to Scott.

Stephen and I have known each other for about six years now. Stephen is a true renaissance man, as you'll see when you visit his website above, or look at the various talks he's given at the Andreas Center. Stephen was kind enough to travel from Greenfield to join me in finishing Barth's section on "The Word of God and Faith" in CD I/1.

In many ways, Stephen's life has been a witness to the faithfulness of God. His book, The Wind That Destroys and Heals is a vivid portrait of this faithfulness in the midst grieving the loss of his wife. Stephen, even as he has an incredible wealth of knowledge at his disposal, is a regular guy just like you and me, and just as vulnerable to destruction and healing by God as you and me. Please pay his website a visit. He comes from Alabama, so when he speaks Old English, his Southern accent doubles the charm.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

J-Web's Blog

Jerod and I have attended the same church for quite some time. He is working on some pretty cool stuff as a Computer Science grad student at UMass, involving visualisation technology for the blind, and sign-recognition. He's certainly one of the most eclectic people I've come across, being a proud Nebraskan cyber-punk who has a punk radio show at WMUA 91.1 in Amherst on Wednesday afternoons. Always a treat, I suggest you keep up w/ Jerod's blog.

Tony's Guitar Blog

I'm proud to know Tony as a brother in Christ. His commitment to excellence has always astounded me, as well as his deep awareness of God's beauty in this world. We not only share the love of theological propositions, but also music, and the idea that these two arenas coinhere in very mysterious and beautiful ways. Tony has devoted himself to some incredibly difficult pieces by solo instrumental guitarists, which I was blessed to see the fruit of last Friday night at the Amazing Things Arts Center. Tony opened with a twenty minute set for Brooks Williams, our local guitar hero. Tony has taken lessons from Brooks over the years, and I think I managed one or two. It was a wonderful night of watching the Master and the Little Grasshopper in action. Read about it at Tony's Guitar Blog and check out the cool backstage photos.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Stand Against Torture

Thanks to George Hunsinger and the people over at National Religious Campaign Against Torture, this ad will be on display in the New York Times on June 13.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Salt and Light: "Social Gospel" vs. "Spiritual Gospel"

The following comes from a meditation on Matthew 5: 13-16 (the "Salt" and "Light" passage), John Stott's commentary entitled "The Message of the Sermon on the Mount" (also called "Christ and Counterculture") from his wonderful biblical commentary series "The Bible Speaks Today." Finally, of course, it incorporates the following comments by Karl Barth in CD I/1:

"But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognized to be an integral element of the life of the Church, namely, the expreession of helpful solidarity in face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is part of man's response to God. When and because it is the response of real man, necessarily in terms of Matthew 5:14f. it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church's prayer, praise, and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter into quite superfluous competition with society's necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, nor can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. "That they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven," that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God's help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in casees like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. Then and in this way its light has shone out. . . If the social work of the Church as such were to try to be proclamation, it could only become propoganda, and not very worthy propoganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action" (p.50).

First, we need to ask the question: is there really a difference between "the social gospel" (helping people with daily needs) and "the spiritual gospel" (talking to them about Jesus Christ)? Where did we get these categories from? And who told us they were separate things?

I understand these categories well. I used to think of the spiritual Gospel (aka, the four spiritual laws, or some form thereof) as being of a higher order than the social gospel, and thus the true basis for any social work in the world. Surely when Jesus talks in Matthew 25:31-46 about separating the sheep and the goats, implicit within the sheep's social work is preaching of the spiritual gospel! Right?

The missionaries, for example, who accept this view might then decide to use social work as a tool for gaining favor with people, showing themselves to be a good people, perhaps a light in an otherwise dark place. Then, if social work is consciously and strategically done solely to gain a platform for sharing the love of Christ, it is often referred to as a Christian bait and switch method, an inauthentic witness. Is this a fair critique? Is there any other way?

If we are afraid that social gospel work might get confused with altruism by the world if we do not give explicit speech and confession of Jesus Christ, what makes us any more certain that our preaching, that our proclamation, our explicit speech and confession, might not be confused with something else?
Okay, perhaps we can be certain that the world could never mistake our "Spiritual Gospel" for something else. After all, words are so much more exclusive and explicit than action and body language and deeds (that is, if you have a Western perspective on communication).

So let's take a more common Western response to the Spiritual Gospel: what if it is ignored? What if people are indifferent? Do we pull out from doing work with the poor because it's not doing its true job - getting souls saved? What if it's not even looking as if our social work is opening the door to spiritual conversations? Is it simply a waste of time?

Which then gets to the bottom of this whole problem: the issue of salvation, which is entailed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If he is "the Center," as we pray when we sing that wonderful worship song "Be the Center," then how is He involved in this dark world in which we are called to be salt and light? Did He just send us and stay home on the throne (at the right hand of the Father)?

I used to think that Jesus just got the ball rolling, but that it was all up to me for here on out. Send up some prayers to God to figure out how to live obediently and tell people about Jesus.

While I cannot think of one particular time of conversion-experience, I can certainly remember multiple mysterious encounters with God that led me to repentance and transformation. But I am now convinced that Jesus Christ, as well as the God the Father and The Holy Spirit, are fully self-involved in my full life. Likewise, Jesus Christ is fully self-involved in this world, which seems so dark to us. Yet, if we take Christ's work seriously enough, we realize that all the current forces have already been defeated and will come to pass.

While it’s certainly true that Jesus Christ is: a.) the One who saved us at the Cross, thus defeating the power of sin and death in this world, and b.) the (not just “a”) model and teacher of how we are to live on this earth as a people in but not of this world, He is even more than this. Jesus has promised Himself for the whole world as the sacrifice for sin, and is fully committed to the darkest places as the Redeemer. He is quite capable of doing this Himself, but has chosen to involve us, His Body, in this redemption of the world. We need to begin to see the presence of Christ with us now, not just in our past and in our future. He is eternal, after all, which means ALL the time.

We are continually made and sanctified as His Church again and again as we are addressed by God. Being a Christian is not just a one-time thing - “you’re saved, you’re in, batta-bing, batta-boom.” It would do us well, then, to realize that God is fully at work in this world, and that our explicit speech and confession has no more ability to save or redeem this world than the drink we give to the thirsty. If God wants us to do either, He will tell us. And if He chooses to hide the fruits of our labor from us, if our speech and work go unheard, it’s okay. And if He wants to redeem the world using people like Brian, then God is still glorified! We should not compete with the world in social work, nor should we think that there can be an automatic deduction from our helpful speech and work to the saving fact that “God helps.”

Ultimately, we give as the Church give water, food and shelter because we worship God through Jesus Christ in that person. It is Christ who gives every person dignity as a creature of God, regardless of whether they believe it or anyone else. Likewise, when we preach the Gospel, we are responding to Jesus Christ in that person. Either way, a person’s response is just as secondary (if not irrelevant) as the skill with which we preach or work. May all our thought, speech, and work be directed to God, and by God.

So let us not have faith in our speech, in our work, in our thoughts, but in Jesus Christ alone. And let all of our speech and work be a worthy response to Him. He already reigns on this earth.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism

This is hilarious. Period.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Barth and Brunner on Natural Theology: Part 3


During his tenure at Göttingen, Barth begins developing a systematic theology based on the self-grounded axiom of God’s actual revelation of Himself to humanity, such that his dialectical theology finds its roots in the doctrine of the Trinity. Brunner, on the other hand, moves in a different direction, publishing an essay on the relationship between philosophy and theology entitled “Law and Revelation: A Theological Foundation.” The Law, for Brunner, is essentially the epistemic border for humanity. Hart summarizes Brunner as follows:
Brunner writes that in the relationship between theology and philosophy, “there is a border where both touch each other, thus where they . . . touch like two army spearheads over-against each other. This common point, which is precisely the point where there is a collision, is the Law.” Thus, for Brunner, there is a double significance for the Law. In the positive sense the Law is the way in which God encounters humanity as humanity proceeds on its own way to God. Negatively the Law, as that which uncovers humanity’s sin, separates God and humanity. The Law is the “stage prior to the ‘face of God’ . . . : It is God and yet not God, God as he wants to be for us but as he maintains himself against us.” Therefore the Law brings a crisis: it brings knowledge of sin and judgment, which points to the need for revelation of grace. Revelation alone makes possible the “full” knowledge of sin; nevertheless, since the Law is the touching point between revelation and philosophy, philosophy knows “something of the Law.”

Barth writes to Brunner in response to this essay with deep concern:

"Now that I see more clearly where you’re headed, I have nothing against you. Except that a demon (whose voice I still cannot translate into a scientific formula) prevents me from following you, (1) in your undertaking as such, which seems to me (as you usually conduct your undertakings) to be “somehow” too grandly designed (I still don’t know clearly enough what theology is, so I can hardly venture to think about its relationship to philosophy . . .); and (2) in the execution of your undertaking, which appears to me to be “somehow” too simple, too unambiguous. (It’s the same here as with your other works. . . . I see you giving answers where I am really first stirred up at discovering questions.) . . . I have absolutely no desire whatever to get involved in the hand-to-hand combat of philosophers with one another (1) because I don’t have what it takes, (2) because it’s not my office, and (3) because nothing would be more unpleasant for me than the realization that my theology stands or falls with a particular philosophy. You must understand how strange it makes me feel to look at you with your “foundation” – where one must first be converted from being an Aristotelian into a Kantian, and then from a Kantian into a Christian, and also that as a Christian one must necessarily be a Kantian (which I will concede is the most desirable and helpful position)."

For Barth, this polarity depicting law and gospel as opposites is a result of Brunner’s Kantian philosophical commitment. He asks Brunner:
“Is not the Law also revelation, [or is it] only punishment and opposition? Or does the praise of the Law in Psalm 119 count only as a ‘limit . . .’? . . . philosophy as such can ‘sense’ something of the ‘Law’ in the theological sense, it can say nothing, and that is a matter of importance. For then one must consider whether philosophy can ‘sense’ the ‘Gospel’ just as much as the ‘Law.’” Barth asks why Brunner calls his article a “theological foundation” if he builds upon an understanding of the Law which is common to Kantian philosophy. Barth concludes by remarking on the fact that people are reading Barth’s and Brunner’s works side by side: “While I am grateful that by the means of your clearer formulations many people better understand my ‘abracadabras,’ you must certainly take account of the fact that in my work there remains an ‘X’ of which you have not laid hold.”

Brunner apologizes to Barth for sounding too certain, but refuses to give up his undertaking:
“It was not my intention . . . to lay a theological foundation. . . . Nothing was intended other than a preliminary attempt to define the borders of philosophy and theology. But now, I think, it sits there, condemned: ‘foundation.’” . . . “We cannot avoid this task” of engaging with philosophy, because poor theological conclusions often result from the appropriation of bad philosophy . . . Brunner argues that he is simply reformulating what Paul and Calvin teach: the law is the tutor for the gospel. “This point of connection (Beziehungspunkt) [between revelation and reason cannot be] surrendered . . . I am not capable of speaking of revelation in the Christian sense without marking out the border of revelation against that which is not revelation, i.e., reason. Perhaps this comes in my genes, being the son of a teacher; but clarity as such appears to you to be somewhat pedantic and dangerously certain. But how do you answer your students when they ask about your doctrine of revelation: “Yes revelation is necessary – one does not know Christ through reason. But doesn’t the person who knows nothing of Christ know the Law just as well as the person who does?” With a dig at Barth’s dogmatic lectures, Brunner concludes by arguing that Barth cannot escape the question of revelation and reason in the long run: “It is more important that we clarify the relationship of reason and revelation – which is identical to saying that we must clarify the concept of revelation – than that we be instructed in all the subtleties of the doctrine of the Trinity.”

For Barth our theology is a posteriori (for our purposes, this term means “after the experience of revelation”) or Nachdenken (“reflection”) in relation to the revealed Word of God in Jesus Christ, through which we come to an understanding of God. Brunner is a more philosophical theologian in the sense that he is concerned first with the point of contact between our doctrine of God as revealed [Barth’s starting point] and our doctrine of humanity as receiver of this Word, and the proper conditions that help the former reach the latter. Brunner’s premier construct for this condition will be the image of God in man, which we will discuss later.