Stock up on Summer books

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I just got notice that Christian Book Distributors has a summer clearance sale on many books, including some up to 99% (yes, you read that right–99%!) off. Take a look, you might find something.

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Here’s a few examples:

Oliver Crisp’s Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology. – $1.99 (US)

Catherine Kelsey’s, Thinking about Christ with Scheiermacher. – $0.99 (US)

Gregory Alan Thornbury’s,  Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry,  – $1.99

Rupert Shortt, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, – $1.99 (US)

And of course, Karl Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics! – $179 (US)!

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Three Reasons to Give Bultmann Another Chance

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When Stanley Hauerwas was informed that he had been named by Time magazine as one of America’s “best” theologians, he responded as he ought to have responded:  “best is not a theological category.”

Similarly, the word “successful” is not a theological category. So when I say that David Congdon’s little book on Bultmann is successful, I hope I’m not making a categorical mistake.

Nevertheless, I will persist.

There are at least three reasons why Congdon’s book, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade, 2015) should be rightly designated a “successful” theological book–successful because it gives good reason for those who have either given up, or never even looked at him in the first place, to give Bultmann a(nother) chance.

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THREE REASONS TO READ CONGDON’S BOOK, or, THREE REASONS TO GIVE BULTMANN ANOTHER CHANCE

1. Congdon successfully casts into serious doubt, if not demolishes, many of the (mis)perceptions that many have held and taught about Bultmann’s thought. 

I don’t know which friend it was that Congdon is speaking about who “upon finishing the famous programmatic essay on demythologizing for the first time, told me he kept waiting for the sinister demythologizing he had heard so much about but which never arrived” (xv), but I, too, had a similar experience a year or two ago after reading Jesus Christ and Mythology. Clearly, not everything I had been taught or read about Bultmann is true.


That said, let me also say that Congdon’s book will not necessarily transform readers into devoted Bultmannians.That is because defending Bultmann isn’t so much what this eminently readable book is all about–even if Congdon is clearly sympathetic to much of what Bultmann was saying. Rather, the success of Congdon’s book is that he portrays, with great clarity and with excellent primary evidence, a portrait of Bultmann not as one who was seeking to destroy faith–as some conservative critics are still apt to assume–as much as he was seeking to preserve faith in God in the increasingly secularized and scientifically-oriented modern world. Congdon helped me to realize that I need to be much more cautious in teaching others what Bultmann’s program represents.

Most important in re-orienting me to Bultmann were the three chapters respectively entitled “Eschatology” (chapter 1), “Dialectic” (chapter 2), and “Self-Understanding” (chapter 4, which in my opinion, was one of the most clarifying chapters of the whole book). For it was in these three chapters that I discovered how Bultmann was locating himself in the 20th century debate about the nature of the kingdom of God (ch. 1); was seeing himself as a faithful participant, together with the early Karl Barth, in the project of dialectical theology (ch. 2); and was seeking to show that “faith understands God only by simultaneously understanding oneself, because the God [we] encounter in revelation is the God who justifies [us]”(60 – ch. 4).

Here I have to ask: Does this latter statement not sound a whole lot like Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Calvin, Institutes, I.1)

2. Congdon successfully makes the case that Bultmann should not be interpreted only through the lens of his associations and disagreements with Karl Barth.

One of the most clarifying moments I had in reading Congdon’s account was in his chapter on “dialectic” where he highlights, in line with Bruce McCormack, that it is Bultmann, not Barth, who most consistently works out the existential theology first discovered in Barth’s commentary on Romans. In other words, the true “heir” of the early dialectical theological programme inaugurated by Barth is none other than Rudolf Bultmann! As Congdon explains,

Barth would eventually change his mind [after his Romans commentary] about . . . eschatology. In his later dogmatic writings, he grounds the eschaton, and so theology, in the historical person of Jesus, and thus replaces existential theology with a certain kind of christocentric theology. Bultmann, however, consistently develops the theology of Barth’s Romans. . . . If Bultmann remains faithful to the theological position of the early Barth, then it follows that he remains a dialectical theologian, even in his later work.

In other words, in as much as the roots of dialectical theology  can be traced to Barth, Bultmann is more properly the one who seeks to “conserve” these roots. Thus, when Barth later broke publicly and adamantly with Bultmann, it wasn’t because Bultmann had changed, but because Barth had changed! (If you want to get a sense of my own interpretation of Barth’s mature understanding of dialectic, take a look here.)

Of course, the question remains whether one is persuaded to follow Barth’s christocentric vs. Bultmann’s existential theological center. But after this, I will follow Congdon in pointing out that Bultmann is actually more consistent in carrying out Barth’s earliest form of dialectical theology than Barth himself. It also illustrates yet another place where there was more change in Barth than he often was willing to admit.

3.  Congdon successfully demonstrates that Bultmann, whether one agrees with his approach or not, was not trying to destroy faith, but to understand faith under the conditions of modernity.

It is the case that to this day, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is still commonly understood as simply seeking to” de-supernaturalize” the teaching of the Bible. Take Bultmann’s following oft-quoted statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (quoted in Congdon, p. 105)

This statement has been regularly used as a key piece of evidence that Bultmann didn’t believe in miracles or that he somehow thought that everything in the Bible needed to be explained in naturalistic terms. However, as Congdon argues,

Bultmann does not think that belief in the wonder world of the NT can be isolated from the cultural context in which that belief comes to express, just as the use of the radio and modern medicine presupposes a distinct cultural context, as missionaries to remote tribes today understand well. Indeed, he would say this spirit and wonder world is not even an element of the NT kerygma, since it was a world-picture shared by everyone in that cultural context. It was as natural to them as our belief today in the capacity of scientists to discover the biological cause of a person’s illness. The early Christian apostles necessarily made use of their world-picture in bearing witness to what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth, but that can be no more essential to the kerygma than the use of Greek or Aramaic. (105-6)

So what, then, is Bultmann trying to do? Congdon convincingly argues that Bultmann was trying to take seriously the fact that we live in a “radically different–even incommensurable–cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since . . . we are not reducible to our cultural situation” (107)

Once again, we may or may not agree with how Bultmann sought to carry out what is essentially the missionary task of translating the Gospel into various 21st century contexts and cultures, but few would disagree that the task nevertheless needs to be done. Few, if any, believe that we can simply read the pages of the Bible in original Greek or Hebrew to a modern audience and expect them to hear and respond to the Gospel. Yet this is what Bultmann, Congdon argues, was simply trying to find a way of doing. In other words, Bultmann wasn’t trying to desacralize an “other-worldly” Bible into a “worldly” Bible, but was actually trying to highlight the dangers of pretending that we can bring the “other-worldliness” of the Bible into our world without risking the loss of its essential other-wordliness altogether! 

Let me conclude simply by commending Congdon’s “little book on Bultmann” to you, especially if you aren’t quite ready to delve into his “big book on Bultmann” quite yet. That is my next task…!
 

Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Follow up and Announcement

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I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to keep up with the conference postings. We had a number of great lectures and good discussion both yesterday and this morning. However, evening commitments last night and getting back to the airport today prevented me from getting to the summaries. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee having time to finish these up, as I have heavy commitments in the next two weeks. My apologies for those who were waiting for these.

Announcement: It was exciting to hear the announcement for the Karl Barth conference in 2017. Prof. Bruce McCormack informed us that in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (Luther’s 95 theses were written in 1517), next year’s conference will focus specifically on “Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal, 1918-1933.” In attendance will be 12 invited scholars from around the world, including three Jewish scholars. The conference will seek to produce original research giving historical, theological, and cultural context of these pivotal “dialectical” years for Barth in his conversations with both Lutheran and Jewish scholars. This conference will undoubtedly be a “big deal” so save the date: June 18-21, 2017.

  

Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. John Flett – Evil, Demons and Exorcism

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Dr. John Flett, author of a newly released book on Apostolicity,  began his lecture (June 20, 2016) by noting that the practices of exorcism and healing are “key missional activities and issues in today’s world.” With over 25% of world Christianity self-identifying within the Pentecostal tradition, and with the practices of exorcism and healing taking place in regular and daily occurences in the Asian, African, and Latin American context (i.e., the churches in the global south), to avoid these issues is “theologically irresponsible.”

  

Karl Barth on the Demonic and the Lordless Powers

Flett approached the topic by expounding first on Karl Barth’s account of evil and the demonic. In this, Flett paid special attention to Barth’s concept of the Nothingness (Das Nichtige) and his account of the “lordless powers.” In short, Flett argued that Barth refused to accept the binary situation in which we find ourselves when speaking of the demonic. That is, it is often assumed that one can only either deny the demonic on the one hand, or to pay too much attention to the demonic on the other hand. But to think about the demonic in either of these ways is to pose false alternatives, both of which give the demonic the “power” is does not merit. To ignore the demonic is to leave it unfettered in its opposition to God’s ways; to pay too much attention to it is to give it the power it does note merit. In this regard, Barth counsels that Christians accept the biblical realism of the demonic, to give the demonic a theological account, but to give an account which does not place emphasis on the demonic itself, but only as understood under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Whatever the case, Barth is  concerned that too wrong thinking about the demonic is to fundamentally to misunderstand the essential nature of the demonic as “falsehood.” Nevertheless, Barth feels need to give account, even with “just a glance”!

Flett summarized the main points of Barth’s demonology as follows:

  • The demonic has a form of existence, but not in the form of personal agents of evil.
  • The demonic exists as “Nothingness” and “falsehood”; it is anything which sets itself up against the “Yes” of God. 
  • The demonic is the “false mimicry” of the truth of God; therefore the demonic is not “real” in the sense of participating in the truth of God, but the “demonic is not nothing.”
  • Barth differentiates between the demonic and the “lordless powers” spoken of in the NT–powers which are “real and efficacious” in a way that demonic Nothingness is not.
  • Because Barth believes that the demonic and lordless powers work in the created order, he believes that demonic possession (in the sense that one can be “demonized” and fall under the illusions of falsehood) is possible, but that exorcism (which Barth assumed to require only under a concept of demons as agents) is not possible. 

  

    Amos Yong on Healing and Exorcism in Pentecostalism and the Churches of the Global South

    Flett turned secondly to examine Amos Yong’ account of healing and exorcism as one working from a Pentecostal perspective. Yong believes that demonology is a central factor of how the Gospel is proclaimed and received in most of the non-western cultures in the world. In this regard, Pentecostalism, as a world movement is received as a religion of salvation (read: liberation, though not liberation in a neo-Marxist sense, but in the sense of real release from demonic oppresssion) in a world inhabited by spirits and demons in largely non-western cultures (i.e., the Global South). Indeed, Yong asserts:

    Human experience exclusive of the demonic remains impoverished.

    That is to say, those who have not come to grips with the reality of the demonic have not yet understood the salvation and liberation which Christ came to give.

    Yong seeks to develop an “ontology of the demonic”. For Yong, the demonic arises out of the natural evolutionary processes of the world, but they are also not merely “material” in nature. Yong also acknowledges that demons are real, but with Barth, is somewhat hesitant, but certainly more open, to seeing them necessarily as personal agents. 

    Furthermore, Yong insists that the notion of exorcism, while certainly possible, has tended to highlight the activity of the demonic only as “individual and episodic” to the exclusion of demonic activity as  “ongoing and communal.” In this regard, Yong argues that true “exorcism” is the process of carving out space both individually and communally to renounce the powers of evil in both cosmos and in intergenerational communities. This is accomplished as the Church gathers in public worship and liturgy, confession, baptism, etc., but also in the working of the church in the sphere of political, ethical, legal and social contexts where the demonic still holds sway. In short, Yong accepts the possiblity and need for exorcism and that this is entirely possible at an individual level, but that individual exorcism must not be allowed to overshadow the larger communal context in which the lordless powers need to be exorcised from the community.

    Barth and Yong in Conversation

    Flett concluded his paper by highlighting some of the similarities and differences between Barth and Yong.

    For both Barth and Yong:

    • Too much focus on the demonic can itself become a demonic form of activity itself
    • The demonic powers are overcome only through participation in Jesus’ kingly victory, not through personal or ecclesial efforts or rites
    • The demonic has real/efficacious effects in the world and a cosmology that overlooks the demonic has fallen either to a form of reductionism or naturalism

    However, Barth and Yong differ in the following:

    • Barth refuses to give the demonic personal (agential) status; Yong is more open to the “personal” nature of the demonic, as is evident in the practices of world Pentecostalism
    • Barth refuses to allow for exorcism precisely because it presumes the demon as a personal agent (though Barth appears also to ignore scriptural evidence that seems to point plainly in this direction; Yong allows for exorcism, but with Barth is nervous about focusing too much on exorcism as an individual practice in favor of more corporate practices of ongoing renunciation of the demonic in corporate life of prayer, confession, baptism, etc. 


    Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. Nimi Wariboko – “Spirit & Ethics: Barbarians at the Barthian Gates”

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    Dr. Nimi Wariboko is Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University School of Theology. 
     

    Dr. Nimi Wariboko, Princeton Seminary, 2016

     
    Dr. Wariboko delivered a rich paper in which he sought to bring Barth into conversation with Pentecostals (i.e., the theological barbarians outside the Reformed theologian’s gate!) and their theology of tongues (glossalalia). Throughout, Wariboko noted that the attempt is not so much to show that Pentecostals and Barth would agreed on the topic of speaking in tongues as much as he is seeking points of commonality upon which further conversation and dialogue could occur. In this regard, speaking as one from within the Pentecostal movement, Wariboko noted, 

    You don’t have to understand tongues speech to understand Barth; but you must understand Barth in order to understand tongues.

    Wariboko highlighted three important features of Barth’s theology of language:

    • God’s Word is essentially understand to be in the form of “Divine command” to humans; humans are thus called upon to respond in and through correspondent forms of speech. These divine and human forms of speech are aligned in a way that George Hunsinger calls “asymmetry” (God’s speech takes priority over human), “intimacy” (that the speech actually goes together in history and are inherently connected), and “integrity” (divine and human speech, even though connected, retain their respective divine or human reality–God’s word remains God’s word, and human word remains human). 
    • God’s Word is full of grace, but it is also shattering and disruptive to human speech. God’s Word upsets our basic expectations of how it is that God works and speaks.
    • God’s Word remains ec-sistent to the human, i.e., it remains “outside of us” yet is constitutive of our being; it is not “inside and constitutive” (ex-istent) of our being as humans.

    These three features, according to Wariboko, are useful parallels in Barth to a Pentecostal understanding of tongues. In short: 1) tongues comes from God in response to God’s Spirit; 2) they are disruptive to normal patterns of human and social interaction, and 3) they constitute the humans from outside rather than from within the human speaker.

    Barth, the Spirit and Ethics

    In order to bring Barth’s theology of language into conversation with a Pentecostal doctrine of tongues, Wariboko appealed to Lacan’s triad: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. In this regard, there are three forms of tongues spoken of in Scripture, each corresponding to a leg of Lacan’s triad. 

      

    1. Xenolalia  (speaking in many recognized languages – cf. Acts 2) corresponds to the “imaginary” in Lacan. Here the coming together of the disciples to speak glory to God through many existing languages highlighted the “separateness” of the nations, whether Jew or Gentile. However, by speaking in these known languages in the context of  single event (Pentecost), a new–separate–community identity (i.e., a community not limited to linguistic barriers) is formed which transcends the limits otherwise imposed by different langugages.
    2. Interpreted Glossalalia (speaking in speech which is unintelligble but translated – cf. tongues and interpretation of tongues in 1 Cor 12:10) corresponds to Lacan’s “symbolic” category. Regardless of what the words or sounds of the “language” being spoken is of less relevance than the fact that God himself gives interpretation of what the words/sounds mean. By so doing, both the speaker and hearer are incorporated in the larger community of faith in their speaking and hearing.
    3. Non-interpreted Glossolalia (sounds or languages which are unintelligble and unable to be interpreted through regular means, i.e., they cannot by definition be translated into a discernible human message) corresponds to Lacan’s category of the “real.” In this sense, such speaking points to the freedom of the human speaker to respond to God’s speaking in such a way that it represents the “real” inbreaking and enigma of divine speech. Such speech may be unintelligible  from a human perspective but is no less “real”. It represents that human who is compelled by God to speak but who does not conform to human expectations or systems of “acceptable” speech. It represents the ability fo those who otherwise have no voice but are enabled by God to “speak up.” (Here especially we think of those under political, social, or other forms of oppression who are normally “silenced by the system” but under God’s authority are enabled to “speak up” in a prophetically disruptive way.)

    Barth’s Theology of Language and Modern Pentecostal Theologies of Tongues

    Wariboko completed his paper by drawing out the common ethical assumptions underlying both Barth and many forms of Pentecostal theologies of tongues in the Western tradition. Here he pointed out that common to Barth and Pentecostal theologies is the notion of the “nakedness” of the ethical subjectivity. For Barth, it is assumed that the human speaks in obedience to God’s command but cannot be based on any external factors. This is because such speaking is entirely by grace. Likewise, the Pentecostal assumes that anyone, regardless of gender, culture, or back ground, can speak in tongues by the free working of the Spirit. However, Wariboko sees a philosophical parallel to Kant’s categorical imperative, which assumes that doing the “right thing” ethically is assumed to be true universally of every individual, regardless of culture, language, or location.

    So, though Warikobo sees Pentecostal theologies of tongues and Barth being aligned at many levels, not least of which is seeing it as the disruptive, free working of the Spirit in humans, he also sees both in need of further supplementation with an attention to the cultural and historical location of the exercise of that human freedom under the Spirit. 

    Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. Michael Welker – The Spirit and Creation (June 19 PM)

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    I’m happy to be joining the Karl Barth Conference again this year at Princeton Theological Seminary. I will do my best to summarize in very brief form the plenary sessions this year. The overarching theme of the conference is Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement.

    Sunday evening, June 19, began with an evening lecture from Dr. Michael Welker, who is professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University. His topic was the Spirit and Creation.

      

    Introduction

    Welker began by reviewing what he believed was Barth’s, and his own, commitment to critical realism in theology. Theology is realistic in that it believes that God has independent reality to which theology seeks to speak. Theology is critical in that it must always be subject to correction and clarification.

    1) Unfruitful and fruitful orientations in the doctrine of Creation.

    Today, when the doctrine of creation is spoken of, there is a too-common assumption that creation speaks of the totality of nature. In this regard, “creation” is nearly equated with that which can be examined through the disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Welker called this a “naturalist” orientation. Furthermore, he noted that even up until the middle of the twentieth century, creation was more closely associated with “mentalism” whereby the human in his or her “self-consciousness” and “consciousness of the world” constituted the prime focus of the doctrine of creation, i.e., creation as “spirit” or “spiritual.” This “mentalist” notion Welker connected with Descartes and Fichte.

    Karl Barth, Welker argued, sought to give both nature and spirit their due, even if Barth “leaned slightly” toward the spirit end of the doctrine of creation. This is consistent with Barth’s emphasis on both the Word and Spirit. Furthermore, when Barth speaks of the “Spirit” of God, he also does so in a trinitarian framework. There is, in other words, no “non-trinitarian spirit” to speak of in respect of God. This admittedly may be of less interest to those who are seeking pneumatologies that are not so tied to the Christian conception of God. Barth’s form of pneumatology is thus problematic for those seeking a more “philosophically” oriented form of theism that is not necessarily tied to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. For this, Welker made no apology: The doctrine of Creation, if it is to be Christian, relies on a trinitarian formulation. To speak of the Spirit of God is already to speak of the Trinity.

    Barth refused to see creation only as natural or spiritual, but rather spoke of creation as the whole cosmos in relationship to full nexus of human culture and history. Creation cannot be “everything except humans and their culture and concepts.” The Christian doctrine of Creation includes the historical human culture as well as everything beyond it. More to the point,  the Spirit of God, Barth insisted, is to be sought only in connection with the incarnation of the Word in human history. Thus, Welker argued, Barth resisted any notions of the Spirit in a doctrine of creation that “floats above” human history and bodily existence, and especially those notions of the Spirit that overlook or ignore the incarnation of the Word. Notions of spirit as “mind”, “pure transcendence” etc. are useless to Barth for a doctrine of creation.

    2) God’s Power and Creation’s Autonomous Power

    Welker pointed out that far too often in the history of theology, God’s power (omnipotence) has been portrayed–weakly–as the idea that “God has created everything.” This, he argued, runs roughshod over the biblical accounts of creation in which God is not portrayed as creating “everything,” but of creating heavens which have some independences, the plant and animal worlds which have their own manner of existing, and of course, human history and culture, including all the artifacts which humans have made. Barth also emphasized that creation itself is given “powers” which are able to come into direct conflict with God. Thus, whether these powers are political, religious, legal, social or moral, they are autonomous powers given to humans to exercise–powers which in the Gospels and Epistles are all portrayed as ironically coming into conflict  with Jesus Christ. The main point, Welker noted, is that God’s omnipotence does not mean that God has effected by his power all that his power could enact, but that his power has given real autonomy to humanity in creation–autonomous power which can be used to serve or to rebel against God’s good creation.

    3) Barth distinguishes between God’s Spirit and human & created spirits.

    Welker suggested that ever since Aristotle, the human spirit has been closely associated with and unified with rationality. More specifically, this yields a God who is by definition one whose knowledge of the world is unified with the world itself. 

    Barth, Welker notes, strictly resisted the conflation of the divine and human spirits. Indeed, for Barth, though the Spirit of God gives freedom, he nevertheless is a Spirit who “commands” and “rules” the human spirit.

    In this regard, Welker noted that despite Barth’s insistence of the distinction between the divine and human spirits, he was nevertheless still too influenced by the binary polarity that inheres in the Aristotelian notion transmitted through the history of philosophy and theology. Welker thinks this shows up in Barth by his continuing to posit the tension between body and spirit–an inherent dualism which Welker admits also appears even in the Apostle Paul’s “flesh/spirit” distinction. However, in light of more recent scholarly (e.g., Gerd Thiessen) work on Paul which sees the spiritual, rational, social, etc. dimensions inhering more inherently in the Pauline concept of “body” or “flesh”, Welker argued for the need to be prepared to explore, intellectually and conceptually, at the level of a “poly-polarities” which shows up in the multiplicity of ways the Spirit of God is joined to and gifts  humanity. There are many bodies in multilayered manners of relational joining. In this regard, Welker went on to suggest that Barth already had a concept at hand which could have helped him break out of the bipolarity which still marked his own penumatology and anthropology. This concept is the biblical idea of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which, of course, Barth explored extensively in CD IV.

    4) God’s Creative Action in Creation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

    In order to move beyond bipolar ways of thinking about the Spirit, Welker advocated the notion of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which can be most clearly discerned in the book of Act–and which, of course, Barth explores extensively in CD IV. It is in Acts that we see the outpouring of the Spirit not simply in the union of the body and soul, as it were, but in a multitude of ways which was manifest in the community. These include works of service (diaconate), prophecy, and priestly ministries, which concretely include word manifesations (including preaching and the Pentecostal phenomena of prophecy and tongues), freeing from spiritual and physical oppression (demonic, illnesses), and through caring for one another’s needs–all done in recognition that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Although there is a biblical concept of “inpouring of the Spirit,” the church–widely–has still focused more on the indwelling of the Spirit in the individual soteriology, and often to the exclusion fo the “outpouring” o fthe Spirit on the community and its multiple forms of ministry.

    Dialogue on Dialectic: An (Imaginary) Conversation with Karl Barth

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    The following is the manuscript of a presentation I did, together with my pastor and colleague, Dr. Blayne Banting (playing the part of the host, Ian McKinnen) at Briercrest College & Seminary Faculty Colloquium, April 8, 2016.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and playing the part!

    Barth and McKinnen (aka Guretzki and Banting) - 8 April 2016


     

    Interviewer (IN): Good afternoon. Welcome to “Theology Today” here on BCS radio. I’m your host, Ian McKinnen, and we are pleased to have a special guest with us today, the eminent Swiss theologian, Professor Dr. Karl Barth. Dr. Barth is professor of dogmatics at Basel University, a post held since 1935! Welcome, Dr. Barth. You are looking very well today!

     Karl Barth (KB): Guten Tag, Herr McKinnen! I blush at your comment of my appearance. I had difficulty with my hair this morning. But please, call me Karl! If I were speaking Deutsche, I would be glad to address you in the familiar du! And I am sehr happy to share some time with you, even though I must admit that it was difficult to pause in the writing of my Church Dogmatics this morning. You see, I am working on a troubling section entitled the “sloth of man” and not long ago I finished a section called the “pride of man.” When I received your kind invitation to come on the show today, I pondered the extent to which I am subject to the judgment of both categories: Pride, for agreeing to be interviewed in such an auspicious setting, and sloth, for delaying work on my Church Dogmatics!

    IN: Well, then, I guess we are fortunate that we were able to appeal to your pride to convince you to be on the program! I hope God will show you a measure of grace for choosing the program over your dogmatics today!

    Now, as you know, our objective this morning is to get a handle on the essential character of your life-long work in theology. Here in the English speaking world we have become accustomed to speaking of your work, along with others such as your colleagues Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Emil Brunner, as “neo-orthodox theology.” Can you comment on this broad theological characterization?

    KB: Neo-orthodoxy! It is such an unfortunate and distasteful term, wouldn’t you say? It is of first importance to understand that while I have sufficient reserve of Christian charity to acknowledge Bultmann, Tillich, and Brunner as co-laborers in the task of dogmatics, I continue to be dismayed that I am lumped together with them as colleagues under this rather crass and misleading category called “neo-orthodox theology”! Indeed, those who call me neo-orthodox are just about (though not quite) as single-mindedly concerned to paint me into the corner of their predetermined categories as those American fundamentalists who denounce me even while seeking to open conversation with me. You can understand, I hope, that I have little patience for such simplistic caricatures.

    Nevertheless, I am honour bound to address your question formally. First, it should be of interest to you that virtually no Deutsche speakers in Europe, not even my harshest opponents, have adopted the term “neo-orthodox” except you Anglophones, especially those in America. More substantially, I reject the term “neo-orthodox” as an appropriate descriptor because of its unfortunate inference that somehow my theology represents a “new orthodoxy.” As if it were my task, or even those of my dogmatic colleagues, to provide the Church with a new orthodoxy! That has never been my goal or vocation, nor should it be the goal of any theologian or preacher—even if it appears to me that Tillich and Bultmann have in some ways capitulated to this felt need to find new ways of addressing modern man in his present theological existence!

    No, on the contrary, I see my task as a theologian to be a servant to the Church by assessing and clarifying its proclamation of the Good News against the standard of God’s own self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is not only my task, but the task which every generation of the Church is called upon to do.

    IN: So if I am to understand you correctly—and if I wish to maintain a good friendship with you in the future!—I should herewith refrain from calling you a neo-orthodox theologian!

    KB: That would warm my heart greatly! And even more so if I knew that my critics would at the very least allow me to reject their labels, even while I allow them perfect freedom as theologians to reject my conclusions! But to be utterly clear for hopefully the last time, let me simply say that I am at least as far from neo-orthodoxy as I am today from my old desk now residing at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary! (Imagine that—they wanted my desk, which of course, I joyfully gave up in exchange of a new-fangled model now in my home in Basel! I now feel like a Swiss banker sitting behind that grand piece of furniture! Dear old Luther didn’t know the half of it when he spoke of the mirifica mommutatio, the wonderful exchange!)

    barth desk Pittsburgh

    IN: I’m more than a little envious! I wish someone would allow me to trade in my old desk for a newer model! At any rate, you’ve made your non-neo-orthodoxy stance eminently clear. Nevertheless, before we fully leave this topic behind, might I ask the question from a slightly different angle? If you reject the designation of being a “neo-orthodox” theologian, is it true that, at the very least, you are seeking to be “orthodox” in your theology?

    KB: That is a much better question, Ian. Of course, there are a few theologians who would proudly plant their flag against orthodoxy. (Though I have my suspicions about certain theologians whom I will not name!). So, yes, for what it’s worth, I am one with Christian theologians throughout history who see themselves working on the side of orthodoxy.

    However, note this well: I am deeply concerned that the concept of “orthodoxy” has become a mere conceptualization or even historical descriptor dissociated from the reality of God himself. My dear old teacher, Herr Professor von Harnack, fondly identified orthodoxy as if it were some kind of latter political consensus isolated from the Gospel and Jesus himself. In contradistinction from him, however, I understand orthodoxy, not as an independent conceptual rule of faith standing outside or historically beyond the canon of Holy Scripture, but a characteristic which can only properly be associated with God himself. There is, in a very real sense, only one who can be orthodox, and that is God himself in his own self-speaking. Materially, orthodoxy can only be spoken of strictly as the content of God’s own self-disclosure of his eternal existence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, even the biblical authors are themselves witnesses to orthodoxy and are restricted, at the very least, by their own human finitude. Here the saying, finitum non capaxi infiniti—the finite cannot contain the infinite, is appropriate. Consequently, all human doctrinal statements, whether creeds, dogmatics, or even the Scriptures themselves, are what they are relative to how well or how poorly they witness to the orthodoxy that can be said of only God himself.

    IN: Dr. Barth, your discussion of orthodoxy has led me to an increased state of cognitive dissonance. Do you see yourself working for orthodoxy or not? If God alone can be truly “orthodox” in his speaking, what might that say about your own theological programme and conclusions?

    KB: If it is possible to resist a question while welcoming the questioner, that is where I find myself at this moment. For you see, I do not accept the assumption I believe is embedded within your question. If, by asking of my orthodoxy, questioners want to know how well my theology aligns with the particular historical forms of the Church’s proclamation—whether that form be that of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, the Westminster Catechism, or even the Barmen Declaration of which I played a central role—well, I refuse to use those forms to be the measure of my own theology’s “orthodoxy.” I view these documents, as wonderful as they are, as the formal witnesses of the Church to the material reality of God revealed personally in Jesus Christ. Thus, when I say I am on the side of orthodoxy, it is because I count myself to be a theologian of witness to God’s very own Word, Jesus Christ. It is not so much that I aim to pass a test of orthodoxy against this historic statements and dogmatic proposals, as much as I hope that my statements and dogmatic proposals will serve as signposts to the living Orthodoxy of God himself, the right worship of God (orthodoxy, after all, means “right worship”) initiated, incarnated, and consummate by God himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    And so, to be short—and you know dear Ian that I have long struggled to speak about most matters with brevity!—the only standard of orthodoxy is the living rule which, or more properly, who is God’s own Word, Jesus Christ, attested to in Holy Scripture and proclaimed in the Church.

    IN: That is intriguing! But now I am left with a conundrum, Dr. Barth. The purpose of our interview was to try to get at the essential character of your theology. So if we cannot pin your theology down as either neo-orthodox or orthodox, it still begs the question, then, how we shall characterize your theology? So, I suppose this is a good point to transition to the main substance of what I wanted to talk with you about today.

    I know that many have designated your theology a “theology of crisis,” while still others have called it “dialectical theology.” If you are neither happy with orthodoxy or neo-orthodoxy as descriptors, what about these concepts? For us English speakers, at least, the idea of a theology of crisis sound very much like a theology responding to an emergency. Is that an accurate way to describe what you have been attempting?

    KB: Ahh, the theology of crisis! This designation brings back a flood of memories from my days spent in Safenwil while I was a pastor and when my friend Eduard Thurneysen and I would converse late into the night on the discoveries we were making! We called it learning our theological ABC all over again from the beginning. As I reflect on those heady early days—you will remember that it was right around the time of the Great War—that there was indeed a sense that Thurneysen and I were seeking a theology in response to an emergency. The urgency we felt was that so many of the German intellectuals under which we had just finished our theological studies were now standing up publicly to justify the war effort by making it seem as if God were obviously and unreservedly on their side. Despite my utter respect for my teachers such as Harnack and Hermann, I became increasingly dissatisfied— alarmed even—with the confusion which their pronouncements were causing.

    IN: What kind of confusion and distinction are you talking about?

    KB: If I were to make it as plain as possible, it seemed to me then—and now!—that an important distinction was being lost between the words of God and the words of us, mere men. You see, the reality of the world as God sees and describes it and the reality of the world as we see and describe it are qualitatively and infinitely distinct, to play on a phrase of dear old Søren Kierkegaard. Indeed, there is an even greater distinction between God’s perspective on the world and ours than between the perspective of Kierkegaard and a Great Dane, though the Philosopher and the Canine are both great indeed!

    IN: I hadn’t taken you as either a lover of existentialist philosophy or of large dogs! But I will be transparent here and confess that I’m struggling to understand what you are talking about, despite your clever metaphor. Can you unpack this a bit more? Surely you mean more than simply the declaration that God’s words and man’s words are simply different?

    KB: Ha! Don’t feel badly, dear Ian. I lead a sheltered life and I realize that my metaphors, not least my jokes, are strained, at best, and often simply bad, at worst!

    I think the best way to clarify is to return to the observation you made earlier about how the word “crisis” in English is used quite differently than the way I, and even those who were naming the early theological movement of which I was a part, were using it. As you noted, for English speakers “crisis” speaks of an emergency which must be dealt with in the moment, but which, once sufficiently attended to, ceases to be a crisis. But for me, the meaning of the word “crisis” arose out of my study of St. Paul’s Epistle the Romans. There I discerned that the whole world, due to not only to its sin, but its finitude, was under the judgment, the word krisis in Greek, of God. Thus, the crisis, the judgment, under which we and the world persist, is, according to the apostle, that God’s judgments alone are right (Romans 2:5), and ours are insufficient. God alone is capable of speaking rightly about what the world is like and indeed, what we are like. Conversely, whatever we might say about God and the world constantly comes under his judgment. It is in that sense, then, that those observing my work from close and from afar came to speak of my theology as a theology of crisis, a theology which resisted—Protested!—the assumption that we could be confident of the correspondence between our words and the reality of God. God, in other words, did not simply rubber stamp the word “Yes” across each of our theological pronouncements either on him or the world. On the contrary, we first needed to come under the same weight of judgment under which Paul labored, mainly, that all us men are all under God’s Judgment of “No” all of the time and against all of our clever theological words.

    IN: Ahh! Now I see why some the early observers of your work suggested that your commentary on the Epistle to the Romans fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians! While so many others were saying, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” you were saying, “Let God be true and every man a liar!” (Rom 3:4).

    KB: You are a quick study, my dear Ian! If you had just submitted that comment on a theological examination, I would be pleased to give you a bonus point!

    IN: Ok. Here is another question that will perhaps give us even sharper insight. I recall an early essay of yours in which you mention the strange world of the Bible. Does this have anything to do with the theology of crisis?

    KB: Yes! You are right to recall that essay of mine. You see, it was while I studied the great Epistle of Romans I rediscovered the “strange world in the Bible” you mention. I called it strange because the world portrayed in Holy Scripture speaks of a cosmos created, ruled, and held accountable to God and to God alone. Contrast that with our modern era, with our mighty ships, war machines, and banking empires (and believe me, we Swiss know a thing or two about banking!) which seems to portray a world created, ruled, and make accountable us mere men. But herein lies the clash: Between the world of reality—the essentially alien world in which God is Creator, King and Judge over all things, and the essentially comfortable world of illusion which we daily inhabit—the world of our social, economic, political, and philosophical construction. The former world, the world over which God is Lord, seems to us moderns to be a fairy tale and myth, while the latter, the world in which we find ourselves daily laboring in at our homes, businesses, schools, and government, seems to us to be “really real.” But according to God’s own Word, this latter world is not only an illusion, but a delusion. Consequently, for us to hear God’s Word—to really hear it!—is to first hear that all of our perceptions of what is real, and good, and right, is countered—nein, contradicted! —by God’s righteous judgment. In that sense, the hearing of God’s Word to us, today and every day, is the unsettling experience of hearing that our highest cultural, intellectual, and even aesthetic achievements (with perhaps some room for exception in the music of Mozart!) falls short of God’s Word and God’s glory!

    IN: Although I understand now what you are saying, I have to confess: It is quite unsettling to me, and perhaps to our listeners, if what you say is true. It sounds to me like you are claiming that all of our judgments as humans can never quite “cut the mustard,” as the colloquialism might put it, and that whatever we say and do, God already speaks in contradiction to us. Is that correct?

    KB: Fortunately for you, you are correct to understand the situation as I have put it in that way, but unfortunately for all of us, you are also correct in your assessment! As you yourself quoted, “Let God be true and every man a liar!” (Rom 3:4) Let me simply say that the crisis, the judgment, under which we find ourselves before God is not temporary—a crisis in your English sense of the word—but a permanent situation under which we find ourselves as creatures, even before we fell into sin. Even in the biblical creation account before the fall, God alone is God and we are dust. It just so happens that the situation in which we find ourselves as rebellious sinners after the Fall simply puts us at a two-fold distance from God—a distance first inherent in our creatureliness and now second, exacerbated in our sinfulness.

    IN: This is unsettling indeed. But we must now move on! Now, I had spoken to you that I wanted to speak to you about the notion of your theology being “dialectical” in nature, and in speaking of it in that way, I assumed that “dialectic” meant something along the lines of “dialogue.” But if we are in what I might call this “metaphysical contradiction” between God and us humans—how can we speak of theology as dialectical, or dialogical? Is there any sense in which your understanding of theology as a “dialectical” task has anything to do with the common understanding of dialectic as dialogue?

    KB: Let me assure you, friend, that your understanding of dialectic is not far off the mark. The word “dialectic” has many senses, but you are correct that in its most basic sense, dialectic is dialogue or conversation. Thus, theology, as a human task, is in fact an exercise in dialogue. It is, after all, a dialogue amongst human conversation partners much as we are doing today. But if that were all there was to theology—a cluster of clever or not so-clever individuals engaged in conversation about supposedly divine matters—then theology would be no different than any other human conversation, whether in philosophy, grammar, history, art, or even science. No, what makes theology a unique kind of dialogue is because its primary dialogue partner is not simply other humans, but God himself! We speak because God has first spoken. As I said from the early days of my first attempt at dogmatics while in Göttingen, Deus dixit, “God has spoken and continues to speak.” This, my dear friend, is the fundamental assumption which theology must make if it is truly to have God as a conversation partner, and not to be simply talk about God amongst us men. If God has not first spoken, then all our speaking is circular and speculative. It may be interesting, even poetic, but there is no guarantee whatsoever that it could be true or fruitful. True dialectical theology is thus nothing less than the response of prayer and praise to God.

    IN: Dr Barth, I am unsure to what extent you are familiar with some of the classic films in America, but at this point, I am beginning to feel a bit like Westley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride as they faced the Fire Swamp! It feels like we are facing an insurmountable challenge forward or backward! If I may, please let me try to put these two concepts together: On the one hand, you seem to be saying that the reality of the utter and infinite qualitative distinction between God and humans makes the possibility of saying anything meaningful about God, well, impossible. And yet on the other hand, you are saying that theology is a dialogue, a conversation of sorts between God and humans, albeit a conversation initiated by God. Are we not in a contradictory or at least paradoxical situation in such a state of affairs? If you will forgive my infelicity, it sounds like you are speaking out of two sides of your mouth by telling us that theology is impossible, on the one hand, and yet insisting on its possibility, on the other!

    KB: An impossible possibility, you say? I am drawn to the beauty of that phrase such that I may use that phrase myself some day! But yes indeed, you catch the essence of what it means for theology to be dialectical in nature.

    Perhaps it would be helpful for me to point you to another essay of mine where I unpacked this “impossible possibility” situation (see, I am already plagiarizing you!) as following: “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.” You see, my eloquent examiner, I believe most strongly that our words can never, in and of themselves, capture the very essence and nature of God as he is. So in that regard, you are right: It is impossible to speak of God. But that said, the Scriptures demand of us, the Church, nevertheless to be witnesses to God’s action in Christ. “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), Dr. Luke records Jesus saying. And so, though we cannot speak of God, we nevertheless must, even while acknowledging the extremely constrained limits of our human language. Consequently, there is only one more thing we can do in such a difficult situation, and that is to pray that God would take our words, commandeer them even, to use them by his mercy and grace, to testify of himself, to the praise of his glory.

    IN: The dialectical way of looking at the task of theology is compelling. Nevertheless, as I listen to you on this, I have cause, obviously, to wonder if there are alternative ways to look at the task of theology. Are you suggesting that this dialectical method of yours, if I may be so bold to call it a method, is the only and correct way to do think about and do theology?

    KB: Such a very good question, Herr McKinnen! I should very much enjoy having you in one of my seminars at Basel to liven the bunch up on occasion! Indeed, you are right to wonder about other ways of thinking about the task of theology. In fact, the history of Christian dogmatics reveals at least two other non-dialectical ways of thinking about theology’s task. I call these two the way of dogmatism and the way of self-criticism respectively.

    In dogmatism, the theologian seeks to speak very directly, by way of the Bible and by way of the settled dogmas of Christianity (Christology, Trinity, etc.) about who God is and what he has and is doing. Indeed, I acknowledge that this is the historic way of so-called “orthodoxy” which seeks to conserve the longstanding teachings and assertions of the faith by reiterating what has already been said and tested in the past to be in congruence with Holy Scripture. As the ancient theologians were apt to view it, theology has nothing to do with declaring the novel or new, but only with re-affirming the ancient and true. In the way of dogmatism, the words of the Churches in its creeds, dogmas, doctrines, confessions and even its hymns are assumed to have the capacity to capture, at least in approximation, the reality and truth of God. This is the way which medieval and Reformed scholastics understood the task of theology, and which, in my moments of deep introspection, I am drawn to myself. Here I freely confess that it is the theologians of the dogmatic method from whom I learned much of God and his ways.

    However, the other way, the way of self-criticism, or better, the way of self-judgment or negation, represents the venerable mystical tradition of Christian theology—the via negativa. Here the theologian explicitly and implicitly knows that all of his or her statements about God simply are wholly inadequate. Consequently, the way of mysticism is when, in the end, the human confesses that God is fundamentally the One who he or she desires but who is otherwise fully unknowable—ineffable, unable to be named—and who is not him or herself. At best the theologian can utter the negative, albeit utterly true, maxim that God is not us!

    But in the end, my dear Ian, I remain convinced that the dialectical method is the preferred “third” option. And this is not because I can prove it to be superior, but because I believe it better corresponds to the fundamental assumption I see evident in Paul and the Bible writ large, mainly, that there is an infinite qualitative disjunction that exists between God and creation. God as the Lord is eternally “over against” the world and never to be confused with the world. But God is also the one revealed in Scripture to be the one who is Immanuel, God with us, and who has, by his own self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, allows himself to be known by us as we seek him in faith. As I see it, we humans are compelled to speak dialectically because we stand simultaneously affirmed and negated, negated and affirmed, by God himself.

    IN: I see that I have some homework cut out for me to catch up with these developments, but I also see from our producer that we are running out of time, Dr. Barth—Karl! Thus, to wrap up our conversation today, may I ask this: As you think of this important concept of dialectic theology, what would you most like our listeners to remember?

    KB: To return where we started: The theologian, the pastor, the everyday Christian, is called upon to speak about and of God, but we simply can’t do so due to the finiteness and fallenness of our humanity. This is the real dialectic that exists in the fullness of divine and created reality when considered together. Nevertheless, in obedience to God’s call, Christians (and indeed, all peoples whether Christian or not) are designated to be witnesses to God’s saving acts in Christ and so therefore we are obligated to speak. Christians, thus, in greater and lesser obedience to the call, must therefore speak. This is the dialectical method by which we seek to do theology, indeed mission and evangelism and preaching and pastoral care, a method which I believe more closely corresponds to the dialectical reality that exists between God and the world. This method simultaneously allows God alone to be God (which the way of self-criticism aptly asserts), but also allows the possibility of human language to be used by God’s Holy Spirit to say something meaningful and true about God (which the way of dogmatism is confident can happen). Thus, dialectic keeps both divine and human poles of speech active without allowing either the Godness of God to be confused with human language, or the humanness of language to be confused with God’s own speech. In this way, theology is a confession of our weakness before an Almighty God, and yet also a prayer of hopefulness in a gracious and good God who deigns to be with us in our weakness.

    IN: At this point, I wonder if our listeners are, with me, feeling weak in the knees as we consider how to live up to the demands which this dialectical theology seems to impose!

    KB: I have and do feel some of the anguish you are experiencing, Mr. McKinnen. So let me comfort you with this: Being weak in the knees is the entirely appropriate response because it demonstrates, hopefully, that it is not our words or theological concepts that justify or save us, but only God’s own speaking and God’s own initiative by his grace that ultimately matter. Weak-kneed people can only fall to their knees, together with the publican, and plead with God that he would be merciful to us sinners. It is then and only then we may cry out “Soli Deo Gloria! To God be the glory alone!”

    IN: Thank you, Dr. Barth. You have given us much to ponder!

    KB: Thank you, Herr McKinnen! Please come and visit my home in Basel some day!