Why Karl Barth is ultimately Free Church in his Ecclesiology


marxist land“It is certain that we all have reason to ask ourselves each of these questions, and in every case quickly and clearly to give the answer:

“No, the church’s existence does not always have to possess the same form in the future that it possessed in the past as though this were the only possible pattern.

“No, the continuance and victory of the cause of God which the Christian Church is to serve with her witness, is not unconditionally linked with the forms of existence which it has had until now.

“Yes, the hour may strike, and perhaps has already struck when God, to our discomfiture, but to his glory and for the salvation of mankind, will put an end to this mode of existence because it lacks integrity.

“Yes, it could be our duty to free ourselves inwardly from our dependency on that mode of existence even while it still lasts. Indeed, on the assumption that it may one day entirely disappear, we should look about us for new ventures in new directions.

“Yes, as the Church of God we may depend on it that if only we are attentive, God will show us such new ways as we can hardly anticipate now. And as the people who are bound to God, we may even now claim unconquerably security for ourselves through him. For his name is above all names, even above the name that we in human, all too human, fashion have hitherto borne in his service and in a kind of secular forgetfulness, confused with his own.”

(Karl Barth, How to Serve God in a Marxist Land, 64-65).

Remembrance Day for Aliens and Strangers


Briercrest College Chapel November 9, 2015
Text: 1 Peter 2:11-17

It’s September 14, 1938, and my father is on ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s his 9th birthday (he remembers getting a whole orange to himself!) and he is with his family—his father and mother, his grandfather, and 8 other siblings, and thepoppyy are headed to Canada, leaving their homeland of Poland behind. Rumours of war have been brewing in Poland, and their pastor has encouraged the Guretzki clan to leave for their well-being. Why? That has never been made clear to me, but it may be because the name Guretzki was a common Jewish name, and you only need to be scarcely aware of some of things happening during that time that might suggest the need either to lay low or leave. Indeed, just a few weeks after my father’s family arrived in Canada, on Nov 9, 1938—77 years ago on this very day—that Hitler’s so-called Storm Troopers attack and destroy Jewish homes, businesses, and houses of worship. The terror, Kristalnacht—The Night of Broken Glass—would result in dozens of Jewish deaths, and the arrest of tens of thousands of other Jews who were sent to concentration camps, many of whom never returned home. By God’s providential mercy, my father’s family—the family with the Jewish sounding name—were spared.

But things were far from rosy in the dilapidated farm house north of Edmonton where my father’s family settled after the long journey from Poland. The winter that year was brutal. Water left in a pail in the house would be frozen solid by morning. There was no social assistance, and the family survived on potatoes and cabbages given to them by the folks from the local Pentecostal church. My grandparents wondered if they’d made a mistake in coming. Then on Feb 14, 1939, just months after arriving in Canada, my grandfather fell sick. He was rushed to hospital 40 miles away, which turned into a nightmarish journey because the car kept breaking down along the way in the sub -40 below zero temperatures that day.  That night Grandpa died, leaving behind his young widow and family. Say what we want about Christian hope of the resurrection, but I can’t imagine Grandma took easy comfort that Valentine’s Day. For her, Feb 14 must have ever after been a perpetual reminder of the horrible day she and 9 kids under 14 were left alone, aliens and strangers in a strange new world.

Dan asked me some time ago to provide some reflections on a Christian perspective on Remembrance Day which we will observe this week, so you’ll forgive me if this bit of my own family’s life history may not seem immediately to relate. I hope it eventually will. As far as  Remembrance Day goes, my family hasn’t been involved much in the military. My Dad was too young to serve in the military, and few in my extended family have served. I have two uncles who served, but frankly, I know little of their story. One I didn’t even know and one I visited maybe twice in my life, and all I know of him is that later in his life, the war memories haunted him to his dying days. So I can’t really speak from the perspective of one affected directly.

When I began preparing for today, I start where I usually start: In search of a text. As I prayed, I landed on 1 Peter 2, which we have just heard read. Turn with me again to this text and let me point you first to vss. 13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Sure, it would be easy, and indeed, right, to tell you that Remembrance Day, for the Christian, is one day when we should stop momentarily, remind ourselves and one another, that much of what we enjoy today—the freedoms to worship, to move around freely, even to attend a theological school—were won and protected by the blood and scars of many before, especially in those instances in the past when we went to war to fight an evil that seemed to be so clearly Evil, and when the Just cause seemed to be self-evidently Just. My father’s family didn’t know it in their immediate tragic situation, but eventually would see the blessing of having escaped the ravages of the war in Poland. And eventually enjoying the blessings of living in a country like Canada, despite their initial hardships.

And so, I must not fail to exhort you today to obey what Peter by the Spirit has commanded us: Honor the authorities, honor the king. And do this by honoring the ones sent, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, to do the king’s bidding. We don’t have to agree on our theology of war or Christian involvement in the military to do this very thing. It is significantly different to honor the king than to agree with the king. Indeed, I can’t imagine Peter agreeing with the King of his day, especially since it was possibly Domitian (Dom-ish-an) who was the Emperor at the time and who opposed all who denied his divinity. But Peter—and Paul in Rom 13—both say: Submit to the authorities and give honor where honor is due. And so on this Remembrance Day, do what you can to honor those who have served, even when those “in charge” have sometimes acted against our own theological convictions. You may attend a Remembrance Day service, or wear a poppy, or not. Or you may say a pray for those who are serving now and those who have served, and especially for those injured in body, mind, and spirit in the midst of their service. You don’t have to agree with individual’s decision to join the services. You don’t have to agree with the all the reasons we have gone to war. But at the very least, a basic sense of common honor should keep us from scorning those who have and do serve in this way.

But if that were all I had to say, I think you should be disappointed. I don’t give the preceding advice tritely, but there is nothing particularly Christian about it. Virtually anyone of any religious or political stripe should be able provide some level of civil honor. You don’t have to be Christian to be civil. But is that all that Peter is saying to us in this text?

As I studied the text more carefully, it was “context” that finally nailed it for me. You know, that fundamental rule of hermeneutics: always read a passage in its context. So as I reflected on Peter’s imperative to submit to authorities, I looked at the larger context. Unfortunately, in lots of Bibles there is a break between vs. 12 and 13, as there is in my NIV. But that break causes us to miss something vitally important, and that is that the way in which we submit to the authorities and honor the king depends in large part in first understanding who it is that we are. Let me explain.

Jump back to v. 9-10. There we discover we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. We also discover that once we weren’t a people but now we are the people of God. Such royal language! We should be proud—and indeed, we can be proud in the Lord. But then Peter does something unexpected in vs. 11. It as if he says, given all that you are, do not be surprised by what I am about to tell you: You are out of your element! Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war [or as some translations put it, “wage war”] against your soul.” Here Peter, under the Spirit’s inspiration, reminds us that though we are a royal chosen people, we are nevertheless aliens and strangers in this world.

I guess when I first read that, I came to realize that really and truly, I don’t have much clue of what it must be like to be an alien and stranger, but as I recalled the stories from my father’s family—of their feelings of alienation and insecurity both in their homeland and in the land to which they have come—that I got maybe just a tiny glimpse of what it means to be an alien in our own world. Maybe there some of you here who can indeed relate firsthand to what Peter says, either now or at some time in your life. You know what it feels like to be the alien and stranger. We could learn a lot from you, I’m sure. But I also know that really, probably most of us really don’t “get it.”

Here’s the thing: Whether you can relate to the experience of being a “foreigner in a foreign land” or not, Peter here reminds us that regardless of the presence or absence of a feeling of alienation, the fact is that we, that strange band of Christ followers called the Church, are indeed aliens and strangers. As followers of the Stone rejected by men (v. 4), we should, therefore, not be surprised to be rejected also by the world.

But something really unfortunate has happened: Christ’s followers, us, have at times become so comfortable in this world that we have forgotten how unlike the world we are. We have forgotten that we really do not fit into the expectations and patterns of this world. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical state of being strangers and aliens who have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers! As my dad’s family struggled to find their place, I can’t imagine that they had to pinch themselves and say, “Oh yeah, we are strangers in this land!” They knew it and they lived it every day.

Now hold on to that thought for a moment, and let’s move on to the second thing that Peter points out in the second half of verse 11. Having reminded us that we are in fact aliens and strangers, Peter urges us: “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Some versions more accurately call these “fleshly desires”, but whatever they are, Peter makes clear how dangerous they are: they are waging war for your soul.

Notice how Peter combines two images: a sociological image—aliens and strangers—and a militaristic—of things waging war. And no doubt Peter combines these images for good reason. Even a semi-honest accounting of human history tells us that war, civil strife, and military action have caused more human alienation and suffering than anything else. Is this not what we are seeing in places like Syria even today?

Peter knows war damages stuff deeply. And not only stuff, but the people who engage in it and the people who involuntarily suffer under it. And yet, he also reminds: there are other things than war itself—things as hellish as war itself—that can and will do great damage to our very being.

At this point, we might cue up images of an ominous battle scene, the Orcs vs. the Dwarfs, Elven and Hobbits, complete with epic battle music! But that is not what happens. We might expect Peter (like Paul?) to say, “Now that you know these things are coming to destroy you, get ready to do battle with every piece of spiritual weaponry and bravado that you have!” But he doesn’t.

Instead he says: Abstain from these things. WHAT? Yes, you heard it. “Avoid those things.” Peter’s response is almost laughable. But indeed, that is all he says. Abstain from them. Simple measures for epic dangers.

Well, ok. But what are these things? Frankly, he doesn’t give us a list. He gives us no indications of what we should be on the look-out for. Why not? Maybe it’s because the things that seek to destroy us, that wage war against our souls, are self-evident when we see them. Sort of like seeing an Orc. You never have to wonder whether Orcs are of the friendly or unfriendly type. We just know they are there to destroy you. And there’s no second guessing the things that are waging war on our souls. Why not?

I think it’s because those of us who are living stones of God’s spiritual house (v. 5) already know full well what those Orcish, hellish, demonic desires are. Peter doesn’t tell us because the Spirit of God is fully capable and faithful of doing just that–in his time and in his way. Sure, we all need instruction of wise teachers and spiritual examples of godly living. But when it comes to the things that could destroy our soul, we already know what they are. We don’t need Peter, and you don’t need me and I don’t need you to tell me because God’s Spirit has already made it plain. You know it. I know it. That’s not the problem. By God’s Spirit you may even be able to name it right now. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t know it. The problem is that I simply don’t want to abstain from it.

And this is where the two images of v. 11 come together. You see, the problem is twofold: On the one hand, we have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers in this world; and on the other hand, we have gotten too comfortable and made false peace with those very things that are destructive to the souls of Christ’s followers. So what then shall we do? How do we show ourselves to be aliens in this world? How do we avoid being destroyed by these evil desires?

Peter gives us insight in v. 12: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong (as indeed, they will), they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” In other words, Peter says, Start living in this world as the aliens and strangers you already are. The world may not like it, and the world may not understand it, and the world may even accuse us of wrong doing. But know this one thing: One day, they will know what is right and that your citizenship is with God, and they will glorify God when Christ returns.

Well, where does that leave us when it comes to Remembrance Day? No, I haven’t forgotten about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about political theology? About pacifism and just war theory? About theories of political engagement? Certainly, those have their place, and those who know me know that I think these are critical issues to work through. But as I looked at this passage, I came to realize that these discussions are finally secondary to the fundamentals we’ve discussed this morning.  No matter your view on military service, 2 things are firm: 1) God’s people are strange, and 2) their strangeness is manifest in their refusal to make peace with the very things which are seeking to destroy us, AND that the things most trying to destroy us aren’t other peoples or nations. That doesn’t mean we don’t honor the King, but it does mean doing so in a way that refuses to allow our strangeness to be domesticated by the King’s demands.  I think this is implicit in the three things that Peter commands to us do in v. 17: Love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king.

1) First, love the brotherhood. Peter knows our Lord’s word: “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, by how you love one another.” It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: Our primary “love allegiance” is not to the mother or fatherland, not to the flag, and not to the King or Queen. Our primary allegiance is with the King of Kings, our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the Church over whom he is Head. Therefore, we remember well when we remember to love our brothers & sisters in the Lord. (IDOP yesterday). And yet, when it comes to a day like Remembrance day, it is tragically ironic how easy it has been for a Christian pacifist violently to denounce his brother or sister in the Lord for taking a just war stance. And it is equally tragic and ironic how easily a Christian just war theorist can unjustly denounce, and even punish, her or his brother and sister who conscientiously objects, even to the point of labelling them as traitors to the State. Our failure to love another in the midst of our theological differences about Christian participation or abstinence in the military is already to put the allegiance to the Flag or the Country ahead of our Spiritual Communion in Christ’s Church.

The failure to love is the first and most deadly danger to Christians which Remembrance Day presents. Whether our theology permits us to participate or not, may we not grieve Holy Spirit of peace by treating our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree as if they were the enemy. Practically, that means simple things like not turning your nose down at those who may wear a poppy though you may think you should not.  And vice versa. Or more positively, it might mean taking the time to sit down and listen to those with whom we disagree to get a better perspective. But whatever we do, me must do it with the recognition that we are CHRISTIANS—aliens & strangers—first, and Canadians (or Americans, or whatever) second, not the other way around.

2) Second, fear God. Notice that Peter puts Fear God before Honor the King?  Yet it is an unfortunate reality that so much of our present political climate is based on fear of each other (terrorists, immigrants, politicians, political parties, nation-states, etc.) rather than our fear of God. It is a sad state of affairs that we can so boldly pronounce our favor or disfavor for the State’s foreign policy, in its use of the military, and in its treatment of the foreigners and aliens in our midst, and yet be so timid in boldly pronouncing to one another against those things that battle for our very souls, and against the ways of God. It is, frankly, easier for us to condemn a political platform, or social or foreign policy, than to condemn the greed, laziness, gossip, rage, covetousness, overindulgence, prayerlessness, sexual immorality and plethora of other things that are killing our very souls. But let us recognize that our propensity to advocate for the things that make us safest and most security politically—even if there is nothing wrong to do so—is perhaps evidence that we more often speak and act out of our fear of people than out of fear of God our Father and Maker. On Remembrance Day, and on every other day, let’s not forget that all of us, kings and servants, prime ministers and citizens, men and women, rich and poor, will be called upon to give an account in the Last Day. And the question which we must soberly ask every day: Am I abstaining, even fleeing, from those desires that war against my soul?

3) Third, Honor the king. We do well to heed Peter’s words here. Peter doesn’t make the wrong assumption that fear of God means snubbing our noses at the King. On the contrary, being a follower of Jesus means acknowledging that all authorities in heaven and earth are under his domain. We do not have to dishonor lower case “k” kings in order to honor the upper case “K” King of Kings. But what we must remember is that it is only as children of the King of Heaven that we can honor the earthly kings and authorities. We do not honor God by honoring the king; we honor the king by first fearing the King.

So, on this coming Remembrance Day, let us never forget that first, we are aliens in a foreign world. We will be hated and challenged, whether at home or abroad, and so we should not be surprised when even in our observances of honor, we may be criticized because we haven’t fallen prostrate to the King, or we don’t jump on a militaristic bandwagon. Christians should be the first to realize that the State is Fallen, indeed, it often does evil things. Yet neither should we be armchair rebels and electronic revolutionaries who take potshots on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere at those who have given and served on behalf of their fellow citizens, sometimes even with their own blood. To do so is to exercise a strange form of Christian anarchism that thinks we can live under the authorities without submitting to them, as Peter says, for the Lord’s sake. Indeed, for the Lord’s sake and for his glory, let’s us pay honor to those who have served, to those who are serving, even while remembering that we do so as spiritual expatriates whose kingdom is from above and whose King shall live forever. Amen.

Thinking about Faith and Politics: A Non-Partisan Reflection


IMG_4537Last week, I was asked to participate in a Faith and Politics faculty forum here at Briercrest. We had a good representation of college and seminary students attend. It was a great experience! We were asked to prepare answers to three questions. Although I didn’t end up reading these verbatim, I thought I’d share them with you.

Question #1: Should faith inform our voting? To what extent?

Yes. Fully.

Christian faith, as I understand it, is founded upon the confession of God’s divine sovereignty revealed most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, the fundamental and primal confession of our faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Lordship, as confessed in the first century context, was fully political in its connotations. Roman citizens of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were encouraged to declare, “Caesar is Lord” and so the confession, Jesus is Lord, was undeniably political, and indeed, confrontational to the political powers of the first century. Beyond that, it would be difficult to understand what Christ could have meant when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” if political authority was somehow not included in the “all.” Jesus is Lord means that every authority—political, ecclesiastical, familial, cultural, corporate, etc.—is ultimately answerable to Christ.

Although in some sectors of Christianity through history “faith” has been compartmentalized or isolated from public and political life, I believe such privatization of faith cannot be legitimately sustained. So, in my view, not every issue is necessarily directed by matters of Christian doctrine or by Scripture, but no issue can be viewed as being irrelevant or inconsequential to our faith–political issues no less.

When we take these two elements together—the Lordship of Christ and his all-encompassing authority received from God—it seems to me that voting, like every other aspect of our life, needs to be informed by our faith. Paul understands this when he claims that he is seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. If voting is about making an intellectually, morally, and civic decision, then it is about making such a decision in obedience to Christ as part of our discipleship.

[I also made a point that the exercise of voting, of course, would have been foreign to the NT audience. Although I believe that Christians should always consider voting, I also believe that under circumstances, Christians should also be prepared purposely not to vote as a form of protest. I’ve not yet faced that scenario in my voting years, but it isn’t inconceivable that at a local level, I might be uncomfortable voting for any of the members running in my riding, and federally or provincially, I may believe no party deserves even qualified support.]

Question #2: Should a specific area of a political platform take priority in a Christian’s decision in voting? E.g. economy, military, foreign affairs. How much should an individual moral/ethical issue influence a Christian’s vote?

I’m of firm conviction that there are indeed specific areas of attention to political platforms that should have heightened priority for scrutiny in a Christian’s decision to vote. But I am the first to admit that sorting that out can be a very difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I believe that we have to do our best to sort through the political platforms and promises, and discern what a political party’s fundamental priorities are. Is it about safety and comfort—whether economically or social? Is it about wealth creation? Is it about a sense of fairness? (and don’t assume that fairness equals justice—I don’t think it does, nor do I think the Bible does). And so on.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians need to realize that our own context is constantly shifting and issues that might be the most pressing in a previous election campaign may not be the most pressing issues today, no matter what the parties themselves state. For me, especially in the current election we are about to engage in, I am more interested in what the parties are not saying rather than what they are saying. Silence is more often an indicator of what a platform is either not concerned about or what they may be wanting to avoid or hide.

Martin Luther (supposedly) said, “‘If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” That means that Christians need to discern, by the Spirit’s help, what issues may need to take priority in an election and push the representatives to speak about those issues and reveal their stances on their issues, even if the party platforms dictate that they would rather talk about other issues.

In practice, I think this means starting with a sense of realism about political parties and making sure that we clearly understand the dangers of seeing political parties as the primary instrument of bringing about Gospel justice or some form of Christian moral ideals. They are not replacement Messiahs. There are no perfect political platforms other than God’s own sovereign purposes, but I do think there are better and worse platforms. Therefore, I think we need to think in terms of a hierarchy of issues facing us and decide which issue is indeed more important—morally, theologically, even politically—than other issues, and then choose to vote for a party (or a person) who best represents that stance.

[Related to the above, one of the panelists made reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”]

If I may speak a bit more personally, for example, I believe we are in a position in Canada where NO political platform of the main political parties speaks about protecting the most vulnerable lives, the unborn, as a priority. God seems especially concerned for those without a voice, and the unborn are the most voiceless of all. To me, that is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Canada is one of only a few countries in the entire world—we are in same club as North Korea—where protection for the unborn is completely unlegislated. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most dangerous and unprotected places to be in Canada is in a mother’s womb. In that regard, difference of opinion on economic policy or social programs or even medical or employment issues, seem to me to pale in significance. Consequently, we may have to realize that we will need to vote for those who at least are most likely to take a stance, or have taken a stance, where such justice and protection of life itself is most likely to be advocated or protected. Personally for me, that means that I will plan to vote for an individual in my riding that I can count on to take that stance rather than voting on the basis of a political platform of a Party per se.

As for the second part of the question, I suppose I would want to reword it differently. If by “individual” we mean a matter of individual conscience on a disputable area, then I would say, we should not vote primarily on the basis of convictions on issues that Christians can genuinely disagree about, e.g, economic policy; level of  support of business or arts, etc. If by “individual”, though, we mean, an issue that is clearly spoken to by Scripture and which pertains to the sanctity of life or the freedom for worship, then, yes, we may and probably should allow that individual issue to influence our vote.

Question 3: How does our faith shape our expectations of what government should do/what a party should promise? I.e. what is the role of government from a Christian perspective?

I believe this is one of the central questions of political theology because it is asking the question of how we believe God uses the secular state in the outworking of his providential plan. Fundamentally, I think there are really only two main starting points or assumptions by which we can answer this question. Every Christian tradition would agree that the State is under God’s authority, but traditions differ on whether the State is a part of God’s good creation as originally instituted, or whether the State is instituted by God as a result of the Fall of humanity into sin. How you answer that question will answer the question of what you believe the Government should do and what we expect the Government to do, and of course, give us insight into when we think the Government is failing. In the first view, the State is a gift of God to mediate good things to humanity, even while ideally protecting humans from the evils of sin. In the second view, the State is also a gift of God, but is given primarily to protect from the evils of sin, and secondarily and incidently (and sometimes accidently) to mediate good things to humans. These two positions might seem only to be a difference in emphasis, but the end view of what Government should be expected to do has resulted in great differences. Thus, those who see Government primarily as God’s post-Fall means of restraining evil will likely have far less confidence in seeing government doing much more than punishing wrong doers and keeping people relatively safe. Those who see Government as part of God’s original creation, however, believe the Government, fallen as it is, still has responsibility to be doing what it can to bring about common good for all peoples.

I personally believe that State is part of God’s good creation (and here we distinguish between the State and particular governments) and that even mankind had not fallen into sin, there would have been need to “govern” how people lived together in harmony. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God present in both OT and NT scriptures, indicates that even in the eschaton, things will be “governed” and God will Reign forever. In the meantime, however, humans and Governments and States are fallen, but are nevertheless accountable to God. So it is the Church’s job to remind the State of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Interestingly, in 1 Tim 2, Paul enjoins his readers to pray for all the authorities “that we would live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I think that encapsulates the fundamental and central reason that the State is supposed to exist: To ensure peaceable relations amongst all peoples, regardless of their faith stance, and to allow the Gospel of God’s righteousness and holiness to be proclaimed freely to everyone because, as Paul says shortly after, God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation. Thus, where the preaching and promulgation of the Gospel is hindered, the State is, by definition, not doing its job. Thus, for me, the State’s fundamental role is to ensure that all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) are free to worship (or not), to speak of their faith in freedom without fear of persecution. When the State fails to ensure these conditions are met, the Church is obligated to resist it, and when necessary, obey God rather than men. In that regard, there is going to be tremendous differences of opinion on how best to take care of social issues like health care and employment insurance, how to run the economy, whether to balance the budget or to be in deficit. But I am going to be especially attuned to the question of whether the Church is, in smaller or greater ways, being hindered legislatively to carry out the task of proclaiming and living the Gospel, including restrictions on speech and carrying out good deeds.

Advice to a Young Pastor: Karl Barth


The following was on a handout I picked up at the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton this past summer. Unfortunately, there is no source included. Enjoy!

Student: What one thing, sir, would you tell a young pastor today if you were asked, is necessary in this day and age to pastor a Church?

Karl Barth: Ah, so big a question! That is the whole question of theology, you see! I should say, I hope that during your studies you have visited yourself earnestly with the message of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. And not only of this message but also of the Object and Subject of this message. And I would ask you, are you trained to visit not only yourself now, but a congregation with what you have learned out of the Bible and of church history and dogmatics and so on? Having to say something, having to say that thing. And then the other question: Are you willing now to deal with humanity as it is? Humanity in this twentieth century with all its passions, sufferings, errors, and so on? Do you like them, these people? Not only the good Christians, but do you like people as they are? People in their weakness? Do you like them, do you love them? And are you willing to tell them the message that God is not against them, but for them? That’s the one real thing in pastoral service and that is the question for you. If you go into ministry to do that work, pray earnestly. You’ll do difficult work but beautiful work.

But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God’s grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty.


Training up children: Some thoughts about Proverbs 22:6


Recently I was asked give my interpretation of Proverbs 22:6.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (NIV)

Although not stated, I assume that the person asking wanted to know whether this Proverb can be taken as a promise, and if so, why is it the case that Christian parents will sometimes see their children stray from the ways of the Lord, even if they have been raised in them? A great question!

Interpreting Proverbs

Before I examine the Proverb itself, I should say a few things about interpreting Proverbs themselves.

As I understand it, the interpretation of Proverbs must be approached as a particular genre or type of literature which requires great interpretative care. Scholars call the book of Proverbs “Wisdom” literature—not “Promise” literature as some might wish to use it. Thus, Proverbs is designed to give insight for God’s people into wise ways of living out God’s Law (or Torah) in the world and in life. Wisdom is thus a “memorable, Torah-informed rule of thumb.” Note the two qualifiers I’ve used here to describe a Proverb: Memorable (easy to recall because of its poetic form) and Torah-informed (consistent with the Laws of God and therefore the Character of God).

For example, look at Prov 22:11 just a few verses after the text I was asked about:

“He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend.”

Now, we know that there are many pure and gracious people of faith who have nevertheless found themselves enemies of the king. I think today even of the many who are being martyred for their witness to Christ by the very kings and authorities that these people would hope their purity and grace would persuade to do otherwise. So what is the Proverb saying?

Although it loses its “punch” when stated in a more prosaic form, this Proverb is saying: “Generally speaking, purity of heart and gracious speech are markers of a person who is devoted to God’s Torah, and consequently, such a person is much more likely to be honored, even by those in power and who make worldly laws and judgments, than the one who operates with an impure heart and with a slanderous or harsh tongue.” Unfortunately, my clunky prose is far less memorable than the original saying.

Further, when I go back to the opening of Proverbs, we find: “Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance—for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (1:5-7). Essentially, I think these verses lay out the purpose of the Proverbs and how best to use them. We study wisdom, knowing that in life, it is ALWAYS better to follow wisdom in the fear of the Lord, REGARDLESS of actual outcomes. It is better to follow the way of wisdom, not just because we get the preferred results (sometimes we don’t) but because it is simply a reflection of what ought to be our whole stance in life: To live in fear of the Lord and to align our actions and words with God’s revealed character.

Training up Children. . .

So what does Proverbs 22:6 mean? Let’s take another look.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (NIV)

Even if it were granted the Proverb is in fact a promise to parents (which by now you can see that I don’t think it is), we shouldn’t forget a couple of key factors. First, none of us parents “parent” perfectly, so if a child strays, we should at least realize that we weren’t likely faultless in bringing them up in the ways of the Lord. Even if our words are biblically sound, in the end we know that our actions and words often do not line up. Surprise, surprise, we don’t always practice what we preach! Second, children are sinners like everyone else and have a God-given will to exercise. Just like us, they can choose to go against things they have been taught or even against things they know to be true and right. That’s just the way we sinning humans operate. It’s the way I operated as a child and it is the way our children sometimes operate.

But as I have been arguing, Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise. Here’s why…

When it comes to “Train up a child…and when he is old he will not turn from it”—we are not talking (as with other Proverbs) about an ironclad guarantee. It is not simply, “Do X and Y will result.” Proverbs are not rules of causation. But the Proverb does, I believe, address exactly how we are supposed to work with our children, regardless of the outcomes. Wise, God-fearing parents seek to train children in the ways of God’s Torah. And for Christian parents, this means training children in the way of the new Law of Jesus Christ, in the Law of Love, which is none other than the path of Christian discipleship.

Practically, what does this Proverb then mean? Negatively, I think of two things. First,  at the very least it speaks to those who might think good parenting means to let children “figure it out” on their own. I’m alarmed by how many in our world take that approach, thinking that a child can make decisions about matters that are far beyond their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity to make decisions about. I think, for example, of the movement to let children as young as toddlers and pre-schoolers sort out on their own their gender identity. Or perhaps more close to home for most readers, parents should never be afraid of training their children in the ways of discipleship and in following Jesus. It is not up to parents to let their children “explore all the options.” We are parents to our children, not scholars of religion. Sure, we need to inform children that there are other religions and worldviews, but it is not our job to open wide spaces for them to make up their own mind without bias (as if that were even possible) but rather to show them in word and action why following Jesus is the very best thing they can do. So I think that the writer of this Proverb would pull no punches and call laissez-faire approaches to child raising exactly what it is: Foolish.

Second, the Proverb undoubtedly and more gravely speaks to those who more actively lead children into unwise ways. Unfortunately, we all likely do this at some point or another, precisely because we ourselves, as parents, do unwise things. In that regard the Proverb implicitly challenges parents to ask, “Am I actually training my children in wisdom or am I encouraging something, even unintentionally, that goes against what I know God’s wisdom and God’s character might otherwise indicate?” And woe to those, as Jesus says, who causes a little one to fall (Matt 18:5-6).

But what about the second half of the Proverb? Does it not say, If we train children in wisdom, then when they are old they will not turn from that wisdom? Yet again, I insist that the Proverb is not giving us assurance our children will never stray from the right ways—often they will. But it does warn us that if we DON’T train them up in the right ways of God, why in the world would we expect our children to find their way in life in honoring God? No, there is no “money back guarantees” for our children; but it is certainly an indication of our own foolishness as parents if we think our children will be okay if, in the absence of a guarantee or a promise, we simply stop trying to train them in the right way.

So I suppose I see this Proverb as telling us something more important about us as parents than the eventual spiritual outcome of our children. For to train a child up in wisdom shows us that we ourselves have learned (and are learning) the lesson of wisdom. And chances are, our children won’t forget that wisdom, even if they end up making foolish decisions themselves. Indeed, when they have made those foolish decisions, it may well be precisely because they were brought up in wisdom that they will KNOW that they have made a foolish mistake—and will have opportunity, under the gracious mercy of a Father who forgives those who come to him in humility, a chance to return to a life walking in the ways of his Son Jesus.

God, Bureaucracy, and Eschatology


As I see it, the doctrines of universalism and double predestination, seemingly incompatible, are actually two peas in a pod. Or to use a theological version of the biological taxonomy, they are two doctrinal species under a single theological genus. How can this be?

Helga Nowotny once lamented that the nostalgic idea of the future, which is understood to be open and contingent, is being replaced “by the idea of an extended, but manageable and controllable, present.” The future, in other words, as we think of it, either can be, or will be, depending on one’s perspective, be abolished through careful management of human options. As Bauckham and Hart put it, “A world without future will be a world in which everything, including people, will be completely managed by bureaucratic administration.”

It is unfortunate, to be sure, that for many Christians, the study of eschatology has become little more than an attempt to peer into the divine decisions for the future–an attempt to peer over God’s shoulder as he methodically applies his sovereign control (bureaucratic administration).

Or to put it another way, if there were a way to completely wrest away all human choice through the exercise of divine bureaucracy, then there are really only three ways to accomplish it:

  • God could make a singular choice to damn the every single human being (a doctrine never seriously taught to my knowledge–theoretically possible but never actually entertained in the history of doctrine); or,
  • God could make the choice on behalf of every human such that each and every human is, by God’s eternal, hidden decree (Calvin’s “Decretum horribilis”? Institutes, III.17), either elect or damned (i.e., the doctrine of double predestination); or,
  • God could make the singular choice to redeem all, regardless of their status or relationship to God in life (i.e., the doctrine of universalism).

However, setting the options out in this way reveals something quite appalling: it makes God out to be a rather efficient bureaucrat whose decision is dictated wholly by a singularly applied divine decision (call it the “divine policy”) that is no respector of persons. Whether all are damned, some damned and some saved, or all saved, the result lies solely upon the Divine Bureaucrat carrying out his pre-determined policy. And in all three versions, we do have an eschatology at work, but in none is there a sense of hope for which Scripture seems to enjoin Christians to exercise (e.g., Titus 2:13), but only a sense of fait accompli. For whether damned or saved, all such eschatologies are no longer about hope for mercy before a gracious but righteous God. Rather, it is either a wish that one’s fate will fall on the positive side of God’s Divine Ledger of Salvation (double predestination), or else an epistemological certainty that regardless of what happens, all will end well for everyone (including me) after all (universalism).

Einstein once said, “God does not play dice.” Although I am sure he was speaking more about his repulsion toward “randomness” in the universe, the other side of the coin (to mix the metaphor) is, “God does not push buttons.”

John Calvin and the “Selfie”


I recently saw a collection of pictures from people around the world using selfie-sticks. (Think of the potential for infinite regress: pictures of people taking pictures of themselves taking pictures of others taking pictures of themselves, etc….but I digress.)

What is it about this whole phenomenon?  Why do we like the selfie, let alone the selfie-stick, so much? Are we just a bunch of narcissists? Narcissism is probably a part of it, but I don’t think that descriptor says enough.

Here’s my guess: The selfie (and by extension, pun intended, the selfie-stick) allows us to present ourselves to others as we have chosen to frame ourselves, that is, as we want them to see us.

Recently, I took part in a family photo session to celebrate my Mom’s 80th birthday. Problem is, I had no control over the pictures. I just had to try to smile nice and not close my eyes (which is near impossible for me, it seems). But the selfie-stick changes all that. It allows me to take a picture of myself–repeatedly even–until it is framed just as I want, even to the point where my eyes are actually open! The selfie lets me show myself to others as I would hope they would see me.

But here’s the thing: Does it really matter about how I frame myself? Is it really so important that I try to convince others to see me as I want to be seen?

At this point, you probably are thinking, “This is a theological blog, so obviously Guretzki is leading up to a theological point.” (Indeed). And you might think that my conclusion is,  “No, it doesn’t really matter how others see me, because what is more important is that people see God (or Jesus), not me.” Well, you would be thinking wrongly.

Recently I was reviewing the opening of John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion and I began to wonder, “Would Calvin take a selfie?” Ok,  not really, but I think his discussion may help us here.

In book 1 (1559 edition, Battles’ translation, McNeil’s edition, pp. 35-39), Calvin leads off with a nice three point sermon. (To be clear, the headings are supplied by theologian Otto Weber in his German edition of the Institutes.) Here it is:

  1. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. (35)
    What?? Shouldn’t we expect Calvin to start from the other direction? Wouldn’t we expect Calvin to start with the claim, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”? Yes, we might expect that. But he doesn’t!

    Even though I’ve read this passage dozens of times, I have to admit, even I was surprised. Calvin is so often portrayed as a theologian of God’s glory that he is underappreciated for his positive anthropology.  You see, Calvin recognizes that it is possible, justifiably, for humans to be aware of their own unique giftedness and the great advantages they have over the rest of creation. Humans are indeed glorious creatures.

    So Calvin doesn’t start by denigrating the human, but by acknowledging their created glory. However, Calvin goes on to observe that it is only once we begin to understand “these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us” that we shortly thereafter start to become disillusioned with an increased awareness of our imperfections. For all of our giftedness, we quickly become painfully aware that we lack something–that we don’t quite measure up.

    But this is good, Calvin says, because as we become aware of this lack, this want, this failure, we are actually in  a position, hopefully, to contemplate that all this goodness has a source. The dew of heaven, hopefully, leads us to the spring itself (36), Calvin says.

    In other words, after looking at a thousand selfies, we begin to realize that no angle, no longer selfie-stick, no better pixel depth, will reduce our feelings of failure or inadequacy. But make no mistake, Calvin insists, having that self-framed portrait of ourselves is a good place to start, because it is through our own self-awareness that God “leads us by the hand to find him” (37).

    He goes on…

  2. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. (37)
    Ok, that is what we expected! In good “Calvinist” fashion, Calvin makes the point that we cannot truly frame ourselves properly as humans apart from a knowledge of God.

    Most of us who have come up in Protestant churches have absorbed very well this truth of Calvin, even if we don’t realize it. But unfortunately, our understanding of this claim usually comes out, tragically, I think, this way: “Compared to God we are nothing.”

    Some have justifiably called this perspective “worm theology” (i.e., we are but worms) and many have associated worm theology with Calvinism. And although worm theology may in fact be Calvinist, I’m not sure it is from Calvin. Certainly the opening of the Institutes does not bear this out. Indeed, every human is endowed with “mighty gifts.” This doesn’t sound like a worm to me.

    So it is important to note well: Calvin does not start with an axiomatic understanding of the failure of humans (that is where, far too often, popular presentations of the Gospel start), but with an acknowledgement of the goodness of humans. Sure, it is followed quickly with a clear statement of the subsequent failure recognized within ourselves. But let’s not miss Calvin’s actual starting point.

    You see, for Calvin, it is not a simple, “Human is bad, God is good” contrast. Rather, Calvin says, set alongside God, whatever we might think of as pure and perfect and righteous shows itself to be “miserable weakness” when compared to the glory of God’s perfect goodness. Human knowledge is, in other words, dialectically derived by a relationship of comparison to God, not by delving either into the depths of the human essence or condition, neither by flight into the contemplating the depths of the divine mystery. In fact, these have been the twin theological temptations theologians have faced throughout Christian history: Either theology ends up being anthropology, or theology ends up being abstract divinity, disconnected from human reality. On the contrary, Calvin helpfully reminds us, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves as human go intimately together.

    In short, if we don’t have a point of comparison, mainly, comparison with God, we wouldn’t know that our self-framed “perfect selfie” isn’t, well, perfect.

    Moving on…

  3. Man before God’s majesty. 
    In essence, Calvin goes to note the various stories in Scripture where men and women–saints even–came into contact with the presence of God. It is clear, Calvin observes, that wherever and whenever God’s glory is revealed to humans, they are invariably “shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death…almost annihiliated.”

    And so, Calvin says (or at least, I infer that he says!): No amount of self-framing, no “selfie stick”, will be up to the task of helping us either to know ourselves, or to present ourselves to others in such a way as we really are created to be: To live before and in the presence of God. As Calvin points out, “We must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (39).

But here’s the Good News….

We do not have to frame ourselves with our phones and selfie-sticks, because God has already framed us in his own self-portrait–a self portrait named Immanuel, Jesus the friend of sinners. You see, God is no narcissist because he elected, from eternity past, to include us, his human creatures, in his selfie from the start.

It is just too bad that we keep trying to duck out of the family portrait.