Confessing Christ for Church and World: A Review


First, a few biases and necessary qualifications.

  • Kimlyn J. Bender’s book, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology was graciously sent to my by IVP for review. I was under no obligation to present a review in positive terms if I didn’t see it as a strong work. Fortunately, I have no problem, as you will see, giving this book high commendation.
  • Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of collections of essays–which this book is. I find that too often the essays are only loosely connected at best, and often it is difficult to see what they are together trying to accomplish. Bender’s collection does a lot to help me see how collected essays can actually be worth the effort of reading.
  • I am, for those who know me, obviously drawn to anything connected to the study of Karl Barth. So it was natural for me to want to take a closer look because I know of Bender’s earlier work on Barth’s ecclesiology.

With those biases and qualifications now on the table, let’s get into the review. I wish I could engage the book at the level it deserves, but there are such wide ranging issues covered in the book, that it would be impossible to do justice to them here. So instead, here are three of the most important qualities of this book which makes it worth getting and reading.

1) Confessing Christ for Church and World isn’t about Karl Barth, even though Karl Barth is Bender’s main interlocutor. 

This observation shouldn’t come as a surprise: the book’s title doesn’t even mention Barth.

But I admit that I came to the book with expectations that indeed, Barth would be mentioned often. He was.

Bender has previously published one of the best recent books on Barth’s ecclesiology, so I was expecting that Bender would carry on the good work he started there. He did.

But as noted, this is not a book about Karl Barth.

On the contrary, Bender succeeds, as well as anyone I have read in the past decade, to examine some central aspects of theological concern (ecclesiology, canon, christology, atheism, creation, redemption, etc.) and did so through the christological and dialectical lens which Barth has supplied.

In this regard, I think Barth would be gratified to read Bender’s book, because Bender only tells us what Barth believed about this or that topic for the purpose of getting to the substance of the debate itself, not to put Barth on display per se.

To put it another way, this is no collection of essays that tells us what Barth thought about canon or church or Christ, but it is a collection of essays displaying how understanding what Barth thought about these topics can help us to think through those topics today. Consequently, Bender should be upheld as one of that younger generation of Barth scholars who understands that Barth is important not primarily for his own sake, but because Barth helps us grapple with Scripture and the theological issues we are facing today–decades after Barth has already passed from the scene.

2) You’ve heard Barth is a “dialectical theologian.” Bender’s book not only reaffirms this, but displays how “dialectic” can actually be applied theologically today.

Again, Bender is not concerned primarily with the proper historical-theological task of documenting the various ways in which Barth’s theology is “dialectical.” That has been done ably many places elsewhere (most notably, of course, in Bruce McCormack’s work). Yes, Bender highlights Barth’s dialectical positions in many such ways in  this book. But Bender goes beyond this and takes those dialectics–the dialectics of Christ’s humanity and divinity, of Scripture as diverse and yet unified, of the irreversible dialectic of Scripture and tradition (or confessions), of the dialectic between Scripture and Church,  etc.–and shows how such upholding of both sides of the dialectic (often asymmetrically) is necessary to avoid forms of theological reductionism. It is unhelpful, in other words, to try to say, for example, “It is either Scripture OR tradition.” On the contrary, it is rather more important to say, What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition (or confession, or the church, etc.)? It is here that Barth’s dialectical positioning as highlighted in Bender can help guide us through these thorny issues.

As one who has actually worked in Barth for many years, even I have sometimes wondered how “dialectics” apply, even while I admit that it has become a lot clearer in past years. For me, the studies presented in Bender’s book will either help readers to understand what dialectics really are and why they are important, or it will provide concrete illustration of how dialectics actually informs theological decision making for those who are already theoretically committed to the underlying rationality of dialectical theology.

3) Many of Bender’s chapters simultaneously stand as self-standing primers and as constructive ways forward on certain theological topics. 

What I appreciated most about Bender’s skill is that many of his chapters could be read as stand-alone primers on a topic for a relatively keen theological novices. Want to know what’s going on in some of the contemporary currents of ecclesiology in American evangelicalism? Bender has a chapter on that. Want to know the basics of Schleiermacher’s christology? Read the “concluding postscript on Schleiermacher.”

But the great thing about Bender is that he is not satisfied with only setting out the contours of a theological debate, but expertly suggests constructive ways forward as well. Clearly, Bender is bringing pedagogical skill into his writing because he not only gives enough information on the topic to get a reader “up to speed” but invites the reader to move beyond the basics and to begin to participate in the act of theologizing itself.

Now, I wish I could summarize all of the chapters, because really, they are all worth reading. ( I don’t think I found myself once thinking, “I’ll just skip this one for the next.”) Thus, if pressed to select a favorite chapter, I would find myself in a quandary. So instead, I will highlight three of my favorites, one from each of the three sections of the book.

In “Part One: Church and Conversation,” Bender situates Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with the dialogue partners of American theology, American  evangelicalism, and Catholicism. Here I believe that his chapter entitled, “An Old Debate Revisited: Karl Barth and Catholic Substance” gets at the heart of what it is that really sets Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology apart. Bender’s ably engages with the Catholic theologian, Reinhart Hütter on the role of tradition and confession, but in the end shows why Hütter’s, and other Catholics, imprison the agency of the ascended Christ into the practices of the Church–a position which is ultimately incoherent with the ongoing free Lordship of Christ over the Church.

In Part Two: Canon and Confession, Bender’s chapter on “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism” stands clearly out for me. This is because Bender once again uses Barth to give a theological strategy of dealing with contemporary atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris–all without having to go into the messy details of what each of these have actually proposed. This is because Bender shows how Barth’s response to the atheism of his day can still stand as a model for how we engage those atheists of our day.

Most helpfully, Bender points out Barth’s refusal to address the atheist objectors on their own terms. This is usually the strategy of those who set out to respond with a apologetic for a general philosophical theism rather than a christologically and historically particular confession of the Gospel itself. Apologists have understandably struggled to provide philosophical “proof” for the existence of a triune God and have often opted simply to try to prove the reasonableness of an infinitely powerful, eternal deity.

But here Bender (via Barth’s guidance) counters: The best response to atheism is to refuse to try to prove the existence of the “god” whom atheists reject, but rather to out-narrate the atheists by re-telling the narrative of Jesus Christ. This is especially important because of how modern atheism is “parasitic” because it has its identity primarily in that which it rejects. Let’s just say, I loved this chapter and will point students to it regularly in the future.

There is a real treat in last section of the book, “Christ and Creation” and it is Bender’s essay entitled, “Standing Out in the Gifford Lectures: Karl Barth’s Non-natural Lectures on Natural Theology.” For those who may not be aware, Barth was asked in 1937-38 to deliver a series of lectures for the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, famous for being the most sustained conversation on the possibility of natural theology. Of course, Bender rightly notes the irony: “the world’s foremost opponent of natural theology now asked to give the world’s most famous lectures on natural theology” (315). It is well known that Barth, after giving only brief mention of natural theology, went on to deliver a series of lectures on the Scots Confession, an explicitly Christian theological confession written in 1560 by the Scottish Reformed church.

Barth’s tactic has often been viewed as simply his way of snubbing his nose at natural theology–and to be honest, it is at least that! But what is fascinating is how Bender draws out how Barth may not have actually been alone in questioning the assumptions of natural theology in the history of this event, noting how others such as McIntrye, James, and Hauerwas, too, have delivered the Gifford Lectures with implicit agreement with Barth at several points.

Once again, Bender is not simply satisfied with pointing out the historical parallels between what Barth and other Gifford lecturers did, but draws attention to how Barth’s lectures foreshadow what is now increasingly becoming recognized in scientific circles: that the object of inquiry demands its own methodology, and that the seeking of a universal scientific methodology which the Gifford lectures seemed to presuppose is no longer tenable even within the sciences themselves. Consequently, theology no longer needs to apologize for its own distinctive methods.


Bender’s book is, admittedly, not aimed at the beginning theological student and those without some training will likely get lost all too easily. That is too bad, because at another level, I think that Bender is doing something exemplary for us all: He is showing us how historical theology cannot be an end to itself, but serves systematic and confessional theology, and of course, the Church.

Bender teaches us that we read Barth and Schleiermacher and Calvin and Wesley and Augustine and Irenaeus and others not for their own sake, but because through them we have hope of seeing what they themselves saw or missed. In that regard, I would commend Bender’s essays as exemplary for theological students and scholars alike who want to know just what a theological essay in service to the Church looks like. May his lot increase!

Posted in atheism, book review, canon, Christian witness, Church, Confessions, Karl Barth, theology | Tagged , , ,

Deacons and Public Witness: Hints from Karl Barth

03839F2EF8074D95A7A39246910ADF29_2012_03_16_TheVision_DeaconLogo Yesterday an article I wrote this summer on the diaconate was posted on Comment Magazine, a publication I have grown to love produced by the Hamilton-based think-tank, Cardus,  It’s entitled, “Deacons, Church, and World: Hints from Karl Barth for the Church’s Public Witness.” James K. A. Smith is the Senior Fellow at Cardus and the editor of Comment. 

Personally, I read Comment using the iPad edition.

I’d love to hear your comments. Or better yet, post your comments over at Comment itself.

Posted in Deacons, Karl Barth, political theology

Ten Commandments for Theological Students, Redux and Etcetera

One of my most popular posts since I’ve started blogging (7 years ago!) is my “Ten Commandments for Theological Students.” I know it’s a lazy way for me to add another post to the blog, but given that we are still early in the academic year, I offer the page for your consideration, especially those of you labouring away in teaching contexts.


However, as an added bonus, I offer to you the following ten (of course) URLs of interest–in no particular order–related to “Ten Commandments” (in one form of another!).

1) Did you know the Ten Commandments are numbered differently in various traditions?

2) There are whole books written on the Ten Commandments.

3) The “first draft” of the Ten Commandments.

4) Reading the Ten Commandments through the lens of a theology of work. Some good brief reflections!

5) I admit: I’ve never seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston. Have you?

6) Ten Tidbits about the Ten Commandments. Example: 7. The commandment not to bear false witness in its original context does not refer to lying in general, but rather to swearing false oaths in a judicial setting…

7) A poem by Martin Luther on the Ten Commandments.  HT: David Congdon.

8) How Jesus Fulfills the Ten Commandments. Fantastic short post by my friend and colleague, Eric Ortlund. While you are there, make sure you add his Scatterings blog to your reading list…

9) The Two Great Commands are, after all a summary of the 10 Commandments. Theologian/pastor Jon Coutts’ take (via Barth) on the what it might mean to love your neighbour as yourself. Yeah, add Jon’s This Side of Sunday to your bloglist, too…one of the better ones out there.

10) The Ten Commandments (BTV, or “Brick Testament Version–Bible stories told through Lego creations!)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Barth’s Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit

A longstanding criticism of Karl Barth has been that his christocentrism so overpowers his theology that pneumatology often seems to take a theological back-seat. This was especially noted by Robert Jenson’s famous article cleverly entitled, “You wonder where the Spirit went” [Pro Ecclesia II (1993): 296–304.] Jenson, and others, while highly sympathetic to Barth’s theology, nevertheless are concerned that Barth’s christological centre is so unmoving that sometimes all we hear is “Jesus Christ” when we would expect to be hearing “Holy Spirit.” This critique focused especially upon Barth’s pneumatology as evident in the Church Dogmatics (CD). [For a similar critique, see Eugene Rogers, “The Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth,” In Conversing with Barth, 173–90. London: Ashgate, 2004.]

In reviewing Barth’s chapter in Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “The Spirit,” I observe that Barth employs a form of speaking about the Spirit–a kind of pneumatological rhetoric–that is consistent with the way he speaks of the Holy Spirit in the CD. The good thing is that Barth’s method at work in this short chapter in ET is, I believe, representative of how he speaks of the Spirit more generally in the (much longer!) CD. The chapter in ET, in other words, can serve as a primer for understanding Barth’s rhetoric of the Spirit more broadly in his theology.
It is true, as Jenson and Rogers have noted, that Barth writes for pages on end in the CD about what any informed reader knows to be about the Holy Spirit without actually naming the Spirit per se. In fact, in the 12 page chapter, Barth mentions “God,” “Jesus,” “the Word,” and “Immanuel” repeatedly in the first 6 pages, but never once the Holy Spirit–this despite that the chapter is presumably all about the Holy Spirit! Indeed, his preferred descriptor in the first half of the chapter is “the power.” In the first half of the chapter, Barth takes pains to unpack the very nature of this power which is:
  • the power which sustains and is hidden in theological assertions (48,51);
  • the power that is present and active (51);
  • the power which is superior to theology itself (51);
  • the power that makes all arbitrary presuppositions superfluous (51);
  • the power which is productive (51)
  • the power which produces security, and which is creative and sufficient to produce security (51)
  • the power which the theologian does not have under his or her control (51-2)
  • the power which is sovereign over,and which upbuilds, and sends forth the church (52)
  • Etc.

Half-way through the chapter, Barth finally identifies  the “biblical name of this sovereign effective power”: The Spirit. I obviously do not think that Barth here is somehow tripping over himself to avoid speaking of the Spirit because he would rather talk about Jesus, or that he is so focused on Jesus Christ that he is unaware of his pneumatological reserve. On the contrary, I believe Barth follows a theological rhetoric of the Spirit that seeks to that speak in accordance with the very nature of the Spirit himself: a divine, sovereign, hidden, moving, creative, personal Power that consistently does not draw attention to himself, but who quietly and humbly sustains the believer and the church to carry out its task of witnessing to Jesus Christ. In other words, Barth carefully seeks to respect the “Holiness” of the Spirit of God by speaking about the Spirit not only in terms appropriate to him, but also following a rhetoric of “indirectness” and “hiddenness” which better aligns with the Spirit’s nature and role.

Barth’s pneumatological rhetoric is in contradistinction from those who would demand an equally “direct” pneumatology alongside their Christology, so as to have a kind of stereoscopic approach to theology (with Christology and Pneumatology being the right and left lens of the theological glasses.) No, for Barth, to thrust to Spirit forward for examination in the same way and manner in which we seek to know Christ is to thrust the inquirer’s gaze directly into the blinding beam of light illuminating a cross on the steeple of a Church rather than directing the inquirer’s gaze to the cross itself (J.I. Packer). In fact, to speak of the Spirit following Barth’s kind of rhetoric is, I believe, is a superior way to worship the Holy Spirit in his own distinctive kind of humility, just as Christ himself humbled himself in a peculiar kind of way in becoming a man. To thrust the Spirit forward in the same way that we would witness to Christ would be like thrusting a Secret Service member in front of the microphone at a Presidential address rather than respecting his authority and power that inheres in his relatively anonymous role in protecting, sustaining, and clearing the way for the President. The Spirit is not there to highlight himself, but to highlight Jesus. This is not to say we should avoid speaking of the Spirit–far from it. Rather, our manner of speaking of the Spirit ought to coincide as best as possible with his Eternal Humble nature.

In other words, we might wonder where the Spirit went all we want; but that should not be surprising given the Spirit’s own nature.  After all,  Jesus tells us, no one knows from or where the Spirit is going (cf. John 3:8). We should just be grateful that the Spirit sovereignly draws us to Christ and helps us to follow him in the way of discipleship.



Posted in Holy Spirit, Karl Barth, pneumatology | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Did Barth fail? Responding to Matthew Rose

Matthew Rose’s respectful indictment of Barth’s theological failure is engaging, but in the end unconvincing because it tells us more about Rose’s theological and philosophical commitments than Barth’s.

The essence of Rose’s argument is put simply enough: Karl Barth’s genius is that he used epistemological categories of modernity to dismantle the modern liberal theological project itself. But increasingly, Barth found himself unwittingly trapped in the prison of his own critique by having to capitulate to modernity’s limitation of the use of reason in attaining to knowledge of God. Therefore, where Barth may have managed to provide a devastating critique of the rational prison of modernity, he failed to find a key that would free himself from that same prison.

How do we assess Rose’s argument? At one level, Rose’s argument is hardly new, if by making it Rose is claiming that Barth was a modern theologian who somehow never stopped being modern. If that is all that Rose is saying, his article would be rather unremarkable, not the least because he fails to mention the many scholars in the past decade who have insisted that though Barth may have undergone a radical conversion from liberalism to orthodoxy, he remained a thoroughly modern theologian from beginning to end. Here Rose would have benefited from making Bruce McCormack an important interlocutor. In his book Orthodox and Modern, McCormack makes the extended argument that Barth is best understood neither as a theologian  trying to return to a pristine “premodern” orthodoxy, nor a pre-cursor to the so-called “postmodern” commitment to non-foundationalism. Rather, Barth was a theologian steeped in liberalism who nevertheless rejected liberalism by seeking a way to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity.

But of course, Rose is not simply saying that Barth always remained modern (most everyone familiar with the field of Barth studies already knows that).  More significantly, Rose insists that Barth ultimately failed to escape what Rose calls Barth’s “flirtation with novelty.” Rose doesn’t expand on what he means by this, but the implication is clear: Barth failed to remain orthodox because in adopting modern categories, he was unable to keep his theology from jettisoning the deep traditions of orthodoxy. But what is Rose getting at here?

As we read on, we soon discover Rose’s main indictment against Barth: Barth fails because he adopts a fundamental Enlightenment epistemological axiom, mainly, incapax Dei–that human minds are incapable of gaining knowledge of God through the exercise of speculative reason.

At a basic level, I suspect that Barth would indeed concur with Rose: It is true, Barth would say, that human rationality is incapable of coming to a knowledge of God. But that would be to uncover only half of what Barth has to say. Thus, at another level, Barth would resist Rose’s charge that incapax Dei somehow functions in his theology as a fundamental axiomatic commitment. For example, in CD IV.2, Barth insists, “It is a complete—if common—misunderstanding to attribute this protest to a barren intellectual zeal for the axiom: finitum non capax infiniti, and therefore for the impassibility of the divine essence. In older Reformed dogmatics this axiom did not play the outstanding role attributed to it in later presentations” (68)–a later category of presentations among which Rose’s presentation must now be counted. In other words, even if Barth would agree with the axiom, it is a mistake to assume that the main point of Protestant theology was to defend incapax Dei with “intellectual zeal,” as if in defending it, everything else falls into place. So, Rose rightly identifies Barth’s (and the Reformed tradition in general) rejection of some kind of natural capacity for humans to come to a knowledge of God in and of themselves. But what Rose chooses to ignore specifically is Barth’s (and the Reformers in general) own explicit identification of what he would call a fundamental axiom for Christian theology, mainly, that apart from God’s own free self-revelation, knowledge of God is impossible. 

Rose critiques Barth for adopting incapax Dei, but fails to attribute to Barth his own self-identified fundamental axiomatic starting point. So what is Barth’s starting point? The basis of Barth’s dogmatic reasoning can be located as far back as his Göttingen Dogmatics (GD) where he suggests that the first and most important starting point for theology is not an anthropological assertion about the capacity of humanity, but a theological presupposition about the nature of God.

As Barth liked to put it, theology begins with the assumption of Deus Dixit–God himself has spoken. Indeed, after giving some brief prolegomenal reflections in the GD, Barth launches the dogmatics proper with a chapter entitled, Deus Dixit. To paraphrase Barth’s fundamental commitment outlined in that chapter:  “Christian preachers dare to speak about God only because they assume, in faith, that God has first addressed us and made it possible for us to have real knowledge of himself given in this self-address.” (See GD, 45-68). And it is here that Barth, without ceasing to be modern, nevertheless refuses to play the dogmatic game governed by the rules of modern epistemology. Theological knowledge is not defined first and foremost by a philosophical commitment to the limits of anthropological capacity but by theological reflection upon divine initiative. Whatever capacity we may or may not have as humans finally does not matter if God has not freely communicated himself to us and enabled us to receive that communication, whatever epistemological mechanisms might be at play.

So, Rose’s reading of Barth itself makes a fatal misstep: It assumes that all modern theological discourse necessarily starts from the assumption of an epistemological axiom and builds up from there. (And of course, that sounds very Cartesian, doesn’t it?). The problem is, Barth, in fact, does not proceed in this way at all–and never did. He does not start with a bedrock epistemological axiom from which all theological assertions stem, but rather deliberately refuses to build upon a philosophical prolegomena. In contradisitinction, Barth starts not with epistemology, but with the action of God in history as the “starting point” from which all theological knowledge comes. Even if Barth, as a modern, would accept that humans are incapax Dei, this is not to something known a priori but only a posteriori because God has revealed it to be so.

So in short, Rose’s reading of Barth tells us much more about Rose’s commitment than Barth’s. That is to say, Rose is apparently committed to the necessity of establishing a fundamental epistemological starting point for theology and that the particular starting point which he says Barth adopts is a starting point which Rose rejects. But in rejecting the incapax Dei principle, Rose necessarily commits to the opposite, capax Dei, which he calls the “classical synthesis of faith and reason” and thereby the fundamental epistemological starting point Christian theologians must assume in order not to fail. But does this not tell us much more about Rose’s epistemology and anthropology than Barth’s? And does not Rose’s essay falter because he fails to address Barth’s own explicitly stated starting point? Thus, in my mind, Rose’s essay could have been much more fruitful if he could have shown evidence why Barth’s commitment to Deus Dixit is ultimately the point at which Barth’s theology fails. But such an argument remains to be made.

Rose’s essay is unconvincing because it makes the argument that Barth fails because he is a Protestant who is following through on the deep Protestant cry of sola fide–that there is no knowledge of God apart from a gift faith in hearing the Word of God. In other words, Rose’s argument is not really against Barth, but against anyone who rejects the classical synthesis of faith and reason deeply imbedded in Thomistic Christianity.

Posted in Karl Barth, modernity | 6 Comments

Do Humans Possess the Image of God?

“What man does not possess he can neither bequeath nor forfeit.” Karl Barth Church Dogmatics, III.1, 200.

So says Karl Barth on the question of whether the divine image (imago dei) is something that humans can either pass on or lose. No, he says, on both accounts. Why not? Because the image of God in humans beings is not something we possess and so cannot be passed on to our descendants. Nor is it something that we can willingly dispose of, which would be true if it were somehow our possession.

So what then? It is something lost? No again. The image of God is neither something that is a long lost posession in a past ideal state or history, nor is it something that can be, by human failure, be something which can be obliterated beyond recognition by our own volition, whether evil or good.

Characteristically, Barth insists that the image of God in humans, therefore, is not something either passed on or lost in some way, but something which is continually and freely given as a grace of God to every male and female human. The image of God in us is pure gift, the possibility that in you and in me, others encounter a being who, by definition, is what he or she is strictly by virtue of a relationship to God.

To be human is to be related to God by his initiative–no more and no less.



Posted in Genesis, Image of God, Karl Barth, theology

Christmas Story Redux

I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.

But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours),  I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.

However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask,  Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.

Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.

Posted in Christmas, history, Jesus Christ, Luke | Tagged , ,

If God is so rich, why are there so many poor?

A sermon I preached at Briercrest College chapel, September 18, 2012


If God is so rich, why are there so many poor? September 18, 2012 – College Chapel

I begin this morning with a confession. I grew up in a time and place where, frankly, I was pretty sheltered from the reality of poverty in our world. It’s not that I grew up in a privileged, rich family. My dad was a farmer who had to work a second job just to make ends meet. That said, I never remembered a day when Mom and Dad said, “Sorry, kids, no supper tonight because we ran out of food today.” So though we didn’t have a lot of cash, we never went hungry. I usually had something new to wear to school in the fall, we always got Christmas and birthday presents, and Mom and Dad always gave their tithe to the Church and to missions. I don’t think anyone would have confused us with the poor but neither would anyone have mistaken us as rich.

Fast-forward to the mid-90’s. While attending a conference in San Francisco, I had opportunity to walk around the streets in the downtown core. I was struck by all the panhandlers and their creative signs designed to empty my pockets of spare change. (My favorite was the guy who had a sign that read, “Spare some change for a beer?” as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “No use lyin’!”) Oh, sure, I had seen panhandlers before, but I had never seen whole streets full of them, many of whom were living in cardboard boxes…or less. So by then, I thought I had seen poverty. I think it was then that I finally began to ponder the question of why it was there were so many poor people and how it is that God allows that.

Eight months ago, I was privileged to spend a week together with a dozen or so students from Briercrest in the little country of Ecuador, South America. I had gone, along with Myra Daughtery and a couple of the leaders from Compassion Canada, to learn about children’s development ministry first-hand.

Ecuador is an amazingly beautiful country, but it is also a country where there are many, many poor people. We visited some of the little brick houses in which these people lived, sometimes with 10 or 12 people (and sometimes a few chickens or other animals to boot) living in a house barely the size of my own living room. Surely, I thought, I had now seen some of the poorest people in the world! So I asked Aaron Gonyou (who, by the way, I can be proud to say, was a former student of mine way back in the first class I taught in Briercrest in 1993) if he could rank the villages we were visiting on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the “best” of the poor and 1 being the utterly destitute. I knew that Aaron had seen poverty the world over, and that even though we probably weren’t seeing the world’s poorest yet, I was hoping that he would say something like these people rated a 4 or 5 on the poverty scale. You can imagine how my heart fell when Aaron said, “Oh, these are about 7’s or 8’s!” And so, even now, I feel like I know so little about what poverty is really all about, or what it is really like to live in such desperate situations.

When I was growing up in rural Alberta, we used to sign a chorus named, “He owns the Cattle on a Thousand Hills.” It goes like this:

He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
The wealth in every mine,
He owns the rivers and the rocks and rills,
The sun and stars that shine,
Wonderful riches more than tongue can tell
He is my Father so they’re mine as well
He owns the cattle on a thousand hills
I know that He will care for me.

It hadn’t occurred to me why those in our church liked that song so much, but it makes sense now, especially since I married the daughter of a cattle farmer! To say that God owns the cattle on thousand hills is a pretty impressive and poetically compelling way for farmers to grasp that God is rich beyond our wildest imaginations. As for me, that song gave me warm comfort that God would take care of everything that I needed, even though in reality, I didn’t ever feel like I was in deep need. But there is something utterly true about that song, isn’t there? God is the Creator of everything and as Creator, owns all that there is. So, I don’t have to worry; God will provide. But as I gained gradual first-hand introduction to poverty, I am now sometimes left wondering: If God is so wildly rich, why are there so many who are so utterly poor?

So now I have a second confession to make. The fact is, the more I have contemplated this question, the more the answers I would have been satisfied with before seem to fall flat.

As a theologian, as I read Scripture I tend to move quickly to the fall of humanity into sin as giving some important insight into this problem. Consequently, it is easy for me to say that it is because of human sin and evil that there are so many poor people in the world. There are so many poor people in the world because there is so much sin and evil in the world. Right?

Now make sure you hear me correctly: I am fairly confident sin and evil has at least SOMETHING to do with poverty. There’s little doubt in my mind that a good portion, if not the entire problem of poverty, stems back to the first sin of Adam and Eve, a sin which could be characterized as a failure to live in gratitude for that which God has already given. In fact, Karl Barth argued that pride was not the first sin, as many have argued, but ingratitude. And where there is ingratitude—thanklessness—there the sin of greed is close behind. And where there is greed, poverty is not far off, as one group of people hoards more than they need, leaving another group with not enough. And so, in that respect, we shouldn’t be surprised if God takes the question we’ve put to him and turns it straight back to us. We ask, “God, if you are so rich, why are there so many poor people?” and it is as if Jesus says right back to us, “Yes, indeed, why ARE there so many poor people?” It causes me to swallow hard to think that God is in fact waiting for me to answer my own question…

But despite the truth that the Fall is at the root of poverty, I am not yet convinced that even an appeal to sin and evil settles the question. Maybe there is more to it. As I reflect on some other scriptures, I think there just may be. For just a few moments, turn with me to James 2:1-7. Let me suggest that we need to take two things away from this passage.

First of all, notice this: James doesn’t actually deal with the question as I have posed it. In our politically correct ways of looking at things, we have been taught to see inequity between rich and poor as a good occasion to shout, “Injustice!” But here James seems oblivious to what we see as obvious. Indeed, James doesn’t seem to take it as odd at all that a rich man might come into the Christian assembly and unlike so many Christians today, he certainly doesn’t berate the rich man for being rich. On the contrary, he lets everyone else have it for how they treat the rich man. He chastises the church—which would have likely been predominantly made up of poor people—for caving in to what the rest of society already believes: That the rich are somehow better than the rest and to be given a place of deference, even in the midst of the Church. So James doesn’t see injustice as the existence of the rich over against the poor; rather, James calls it unjust—discriminatory!—when the church behaves as if the rich are those who have been especially blessed by God and need to be honored above everyone else. Such thoughts, he says, are the thoughts of self-appointed judges who perpetuate the world’s view of riches.

So what then, IS the answer to our question: If God is so rich, then why are there so many poor? Well, unfortunately, James refuses to give us an answer—at least not in the way that we might hope. Fortunately, he does go on to tell us something quite significant. In verse 5 we hear the following: “Listen my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him?”

As I prepared this message, it was here that I got smacked between the eyes with something I am still struggling to understand.It seems to me that as long as we keep asking, Why are there so many poor people? we still assume that being poor is something inherently bad, inherently evil. That shouldn’t surprise us, of course, because that is the economic gospel we are taught over and over again in our Western world: Salvation comes to those with thick wallets, and damnation has already come to those who have no wallet at all. As long as I assume that the poor are at a spiritual disadvantage, it is unlikely that I will ever understand that they may have a kind of advantage that I do not have. And the advantage the poor have, if they have one at all, is simply this: Those with nothing have everything to gain in Christ; but those with everything fear little else but losing that which they already have.

Of course, it would be an entirely inappropriate exegetical and theological leap to conclude from this that rich people are in every way barred from the kingdom of God. Jesus never says that rich people will be barred from heaven, but he does point out just how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. And here, I think, James picks up on that very point that Jesus makes: For some reason, people who are poor by the standards of the world are the very ones who are able, much more easily than the rich, to be full—to be rich—in faith. Is it any surprise, then, that it is the economically poor of the world who are, in droves, entering through the doors of the Kingdom, while droves of the rich stand by in our comforts, or worse yet, are dragging the poor into courts and throwing them into the jails (v. 6-7)? It is these poor who we have discriminated against, James says, thinking that somehow they have little to teach us and that we have something to teach them. I’m just starting to see how very wrong we are!

Last January in Ecuador, I met a giant of the faith. This giant physically measured a towering 4½ feet in height and was chronologically a ripe old 15 years in age. But spiritually, I estimated her to be about 10 feet tall and an elder in the faith. Her name is Nelly and I had a chance to meet her with some of her family in their home together with some of your fellow Briercrest students. As Nelly talked to us through a translator, we heard her tell us not so much that she was grateful for the help that Compassion Canada was giving (which she was grateful for!) but moreso for the fact that through Compassion and the Church she attended, she had been introduced to Jesus and His Word—and that this was the most important thing for her, the greatest treasure she had!

I think it was here that I finally began to understand what James meant: God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith. Nelly was so rich that I began to feel spiritually impoverished in her presence. I have so much yet to learn. I went to see poor people, but discovered just how poor I am yet in my own faith. Who, then, is the rich and who, then, is the poor?

Posted in James, poverty, sermons, sin

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Final Day

On this last day of the Karl Barth conference, two papers were delivered. The first was by Dr. Gerald McKenny (University of Notre Dame) on the freedom of the human agent as evidenced in Evangelical Theology. (Sorry, I missed the title of this one).

McKenny opened by reminding us that for Barth, human agency is made possible only as it arises out of and inheres in prior divine action. However, this raises the question of whether Barth’s understanding of the ethical subject precludes the possibility of growth in virtue. As is well known, various Barth interpreters have criticized Barth for what appears to be a ruling out of such growth in the human agent independent of the moment-to-moment divine action. Thus, the question critics have asked of Barth is, “Does the agent defined as he or she is by divine decision and action allow the agent to be fully human?” Or to put it another way, “Doesn’t the human agent need some ‘virtue’ in and of her or himself to be able to respond to the divine command?”

McKenny went on in his paper to show, through broad attention to the structure of Barth’s argument in Evangelical Theology (ET) that human encounter with the command of God creates an “ethos” whereby the full humanity of the agent is ensured as one given freedom by virtue of prayer, existence, exposure to threat, and active work.

In this regard, McKenny points out how part 1 of ET is concerned with the “place” of theology, not defined in terms of the relationship of theology in the university or relative to other academic disciplines, but relative to the object of theology’s inquiry—the living, speaking God. Theology, and by implication, the theologian, is constituted in the first order by God’s Word spoken to the human agent. Further, the human agent is only able to respond as the Spirit enables. Consequently, the human agent is enabled by God from the outset to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit in order that the human might continually be freed for service to God.

McKenny argues that parts 2-4 of ET move to a description of how theology demands that the human agent engage in genuine human work. In part 2, “Theological Existence,” Barth describes wonder, concern, commitment and faith as the defining characteristics of a theologian, all of which demand of theologians a free response to God. Further, in part 3, Barth describes the threats to which the human agent is exposed—solitude, doubt, temptation—all of which the human must come through successfully by hope in the object of theology, the God of the Gospel. Finally, in part 4 Barth describes the activity of the agent engaged in theology—an activity which requires prayer, study, service and love, each of which is indicative of ethical demand. McKenny thus concludes that Barth’s theological description of the human agent is one which in response to God’s Word, the agent is constantly an existing, threatened, acting human being, but a human being which remains free in light of these demands, not in light of an ongoing growth in virtues of the agent in and of her or himself.

The second and final paper of the day was delivered by Dr. George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary” and was entitled, “Karl Barth on what it means to be Human: A Christian Scholar Considers the Options.” For this paper, Hunsinger focused on Church Dogmatics III/2 where Barth both provides a formal description of theological anthropology and considers alternative non-theological anthropologies of his day. Hunsinger noted at the outset that Barth distinguishes in his anthropology between the “real” and the “phenomenological”. In this regard, Barth insists that any non-theological anthropology may give genuine insight into human phenomena, but apart from a theological perspective, there is no possibility of gaining full insight into the reality of the human constitution.

Hunsinger then outlines what he calls Barth’s basic criteria for establishing a theological anthropology, each of which must be present to legitimately be called “theological anthropology.” Not surprisingly, each of the elements is also christologically focused for Barth. The six criteria are: 1) Divine presence – God is not generally present to humanity, but concretely present to humanity in Christ. All human creatures are thus conditioned by Jesus. 2) History – God exists for humans in a history of redemption—a covenant history which humans cannot be understood apart from this history, most specifically as they relate to the history of Jesus. 3) Glory – Divine glory is not compromised or lost in Christ who is God for man and man for God and in whom all humans are included and exist therefore for God’s glory. 4) Sovereignty – God’s lordship is seen concretely in and through Jesus, especially over the death of Christ on the cross. 5) Freedom – Freedom is substantive (freedom to decide for God), not merely formal (freedom of choice). Any human freedom is understood only in light of the substantive freedom to decide for God. 6) Service – Humans don’t exist for themselves, but for God. Such service to God is thus shown in prayer and praise to God, and witness and service to fellow humans.

Hunsinger then went on to delineate four types of anthropologies (three non-theological and one alternative theological) that Barth assesses. They are 1) Naturalism – typified by A. Portmann’s 1948 book on Evolutionary biology; 2) Idealism – typified by J. G. Fichte; 3) Existentialism – typified by K. Jaspers; and 4) Neo-orthodoxy – typified by Brunner.

Observing how Barth assesses these anthropologies, Hunsinger sees a helpful pattern for the development of a theological anthropology today. First, Barth examines contemporary voices attentively but assesses them normatively using theological criteria. Barth refuses, in this regard, to de-theologize his assessment on the terms specified by the anthropologies under consideration. Second, Barth always engages in description of the anthropology before giving assessment, and when he does assess, he is willing to provide both internal and external critique. Third, through it all, Barth maintains a consistent christological focus in the assessment of other anthropologies. This is not to say that he rejects the findings of non-theological anthropologies, but insists that such findings are only partial unless coupled together with a theological center in Christ.


Posted in anthropology, ethics, Holy Spirit, Karl Barth, theologians, theology, Word of God | 1 Comment

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 2

Two papers were given this afternoon, both of which sought to bring Karl Barth into closer conversation with theologians who have traditionally been understood as representing theological contrasts, namely, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann. [Disclaimer: Both papers presented were quite dense, and even then, due to time, were both shortened. I think most of us in the audience look forward to the day when the papers will be available in print form so we can follow the arguments a bit more closely, but I’ll do my best to give as short summary of each to whet your appetites for what is coming down the pipe in Barth scholarship! I’m fairly certain I will not do justice to the argument of the papers without making the post unnecessarily long, but hopefully readers can catch the gist of both. Exciting stuff!]

The first paper was given by Dr. Kevin Hector of the University of Chicago and was entitled, “Theology as an Academic Discipline: Reconciling Evangelical Theology and Theological Encyclopedia. Hector introduced the paper as an extended commentary on Barth’s own statement in the opening pages of Evangelical Theology where he says: “I wish to forgo any special explanation of the word ‘introduction,’ which appears in the title of this work. At the same time, I wish to refrain from any discussion (which would be both polemic and irenic) of the manner in which a similar task has been conceived and carried out by Schleiermacher, as a ‘Short Presentation of Theological Study,” and by various others, as “Theological Encyclopedia…” (ET, p. 12). Hector thus introduces his own paper as an attempt to show how Barth’s theological approach, despite Barth’s self-distancing to Schleiermacher, is nevertheless compatible with Schleiermacher’s approach. The failure to see this compatibility to date has been, Hector argues, at least in part, because Barth himself (amongst others) misunderstood what Schleiermacher was proposing as a valid approach to the task of theology.

The first section of the paper briefly outlined Barth’s view of the task of theology, which fundamentally, Barth says, is the task of the Church in clarifying, criticizing and, when necessary, correcting its own speech about the Word of God it has heard. Hector advocates one amendment to Barth’s view of theology which he thinks is consistent with Barth, but which Barth did not otherwise explicitly state, mainly, that not only is the Church’s speech tested by the normative Word of God, but also its doxastic, practical and emotional commitments (i.e., its commitments in belief, practice, and emotion).

From there, Dr. Hector went on to note that Barth’s worry is that Schleiermacher has essentially collapsed divine transcendence into human piety (i.e., Schleiermacher’s notion of Gefühl  or “feeling”), with the result that Schleiermacher’s theology has become entirely subjectively, rather than objectively, based. However, Hector argues that what is needed is a corrected, fuller account of what Schleiermacher meant by Gefühl, especially in light of the fact that the word “feeling” used in English does not accurately convey what Schleiermacher intended. (Hector observed that  Schleiermacher explicitly rejected the use of the word “feeling” as an adequate translation.)

So what does Gefühl mean for Schleiermacher? At this point, I can’t even attempt to replicate Hector’s exposition of Gefühl. But suffice it to say, Hector argued that Gefühl for Schleiermacher represents a nexus of beliefs, practices, and emotions which are pre-reflective harmonization of oneself to one’s surrounding circumstances. Gefühl is, to use Hector’s terminology, Schleiermacher’s way of specifying how one finds oneself in atunement with others in a community.  It is this Gefühl that Schleiermacher argues needs to be evaluated against the norms of Scripture. Consequently, for Schleiermacher, the task of theology is one in which the community of faith constantly seeks to make explicit not only the ground of its speech about God and his Word, but also the whole nexus of speech, beliefs, practices and emotions (including accounting for the sinfulness of the Christian community) toward God for the purpose of submitting it the assessment of Scripture’s description of the original apostolic community and its Gefühl. 

At least two implications of this, Hector argues, follow: 1) If one were to follow this rendering of Schleiermacher’s account of Gefühl (and the corresponding idea of God-consciousness wrapped up with this concept), it is apparent that there may be greater affinity between Barth and Schleiermacher than has previously been thought. (This is not necessarily to fault only Barth for his reading of Schleiermacher, but to recognize that the “traditional” understanding of Schleiermacher that was contemporary to Barth’s day has been increasing come under question and thus begs the question of whether Barth and Schleiermacher are as different as many have assumed.) 2) If one were to follow Schleiermacher’s theological vision, then it implies that some form of ethnographic study of the Christian faith community would become a vital component of what it means to subject the communities nexus of faith to evaluation in light of the Word of God.

The second paper was similar in intent to the first, but with a different theologian in mind. David Congdon (PhD candidate, Princeton) gave a paper entitled, “Theology as Theanthropology: Barth’s Theology of Existence in its Existential Context.” Congdon began by noting the remark Barth makes in CD IV.2 about the “quiet conversation” that he announced he had been having with Bultmann. In this light,  Congdon demonstrated how much of what Barth wrote in the last years of his life was an implicit response to the concerns and concepts raised by Bultmann. Even Evangelical Theology can thus be read as an indirect response to Bultmann! Or, to take another example, in 1957 Bultmann wrote his famous article, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” Bultmann’s answer, of course, was “no,” but Barth,  made it famously clear in ET that theology cannot have any presuppositions, but must ever be ready to respond afresh to the new Word of God spoken to us.

Congdon’s then paper went on to juxtapose Barth’s notion of “theanthropology” (introduced originally in Barth’s essay “The Humanity of God”) and Bultmann’s notion of “anthrotheology”. As Congdon argues, Barth’s complaint with Bultmann, while multi-fold, had primarily to do with Bultmann’s starting point in existential philosophy and moving from there to the Gospel. One can understand how for Barth, this certainly would have smacked of the same problem he saw earlier in his life in the liberal theology which he resisted. There, too, the methodological approach started in anthropology and was, in Barth’s eyes, ever in danger of making theology nothing more than anthropology writ large.  

However, Congdon argues, even Barth in the 1950’s had recognized that the deity of God is a deity that elected from all eternity to be a God with humanity, thus the recognition of Barth to speak not merely of “theology” but of “theanthropology.” Indeed, Barth had come to the place where he knew that to speak of God one is compelled to speak of Jesus in human flesh; to avoid Jesus in flesh is for Barth to speak of inadequately of God.

Despite Barth’s recognition of the need for speaking of God from a “theanthropologic” perspective, he nevertheless remained determined to resist Bultmann’s starting point in anthropology for fear that existential philosophy (or some other anthropological construction) would overtake or overshadow God’s own speaking in of himself in Christ.

But here Congdon argues that Bultmann and Barth are closer together than Barth was able to have thought possible. Though Barth is constantly aware of the question of how the human words of proclamation can be used by God to deliver God’s own Word–an identification of the missiological problem of translation–he keeps the issue of exegesis and translation separated by relegating the problem of exegesis to dogmatics and the problem of translation to practical theology. Bultmann, however, is also aware of this problem of the relationship of exegesis and translation, but rather than relegating translation to practical theology, he brings them together such that all exegesis is seen by Bultmann as already an act of translation.

Congdon concludes his paper by suggesting that the issue is not to decide on whether Barth or Bultmann are right, but to recognize that Barth’s “theanthropological” approach to theology needs Bultmann’s “anthrotheological” approach and vice versa. They are, in other words, complementary approaches rather than an aporia in which one must be chosen over the other.

After the evening meal, we had one more presentation from the staff of the Princeton Theological Seminary library. Although a big part of Princeton’s library development is the ongoing construction of a whole new wing of the library to replace the old Speers library, an online repository of over 50,000 Biblical and theological books available to anyone with internet access was presented. Although I’ve only begun to dip in, it truly does like like an amazing and generous contribution of PTS to the wider international Christian community. See the “Theological Commons” website here:


Posted in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, theologians, theology, Uncategorized, Word of God | Tagged | 2 Comments