Stock up on Summer books

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


Here’s a few examples:

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

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

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

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

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



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.


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:


Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 1

This morning’s papers were so rich that I decided I would do a quick summary before the afternoon sessions and hope to do part 2 of the day later on tonight. Our second day of the Karl Barth conference opened with a pair of papers that I will simply be unable to do justice to here, but hopefully you will get the gist. (I hope you will forgive me if these summaries aren’t as well written as they should be. I’m going for keeping up to date rather than perfect synopses!)

Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) treated us all to a homiletically and theologically rich presentation entitled, “The Theological Existence of the Pastor.” Sonderegger focused on the chapter in Barth’s Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “Temptation.” She noted, of course, that the word “temptation” in English does not quite convey the richness of the German word Anfechtung of which Barth spoke. In her lecture, Sonderegger sought to address how it is that pastors (and along with them, theological teachers) ought to view the failures which they will inevitably face in their ministry, despite the fact that such ministries are perennially concerned with the attention to the Word and God as their subject matter. In this regard, Sonderegger was careful to note that Barth does not so much exclude the role of Satan the tempter in an account of temptation as much as he makes Satan subject to the one work of God; Satan here is an unwitting agent in God’s hand.

But more importantly, Sonderegger points out how Barth locates the matter of temptation or trial–and most specifically, the trial faced by the pastor in those times when God is silent–directly in the context of the Goodness of God. God, according to Barth, is not only good by nature, but also in act, such that God is not only the ground of goodness (his being and nature) but also the God who in all his ways acts in goodness toward his creatures. Consequently, even in the experience of silence, the pastor must first remember that silence ought not be be equated to absence–a mode of speaking that is sometimes used in the mystical traditions and a notion which Barth would explicitly reject. For God to be silent is never to be taken as evidence that God is absent.

Sonderegger went on briefly to tie Barth’s description of temptation/Anfechtung together with his doctrine of “Nothingness” (das Nichtige), noting that for Barth, negation is not to be equated with evil. For example, a creature is not God, but this by no means implies that the creature is evil; rather, Negation in creation is the shadow of God’s good creation. Consequently, when dealing with failure, and indeed silence, in the service of God, the pastor/teacher/Christian must recognize that whether God speaks or is silent is no denial of God’s providential goodness toward us. On the contrary, the pastor must realize that both in God’s speaking and in his silence toward us, he is ever the good Judge who judges in freedom. Sometimes this means that silence is not to be regarded as a negation of our work and sometimes that silence is precisely a judgment of us as weak, sinning covenant partners, but always, whether in God’s speaking or in his silence, we must truly believe that in that speech or silence, God is truly good toward us.

The second paper, also profound beyond my ability to summarize here, came from Dr. Adam Neder (Whitworth University). Neder’s paper, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Some Barthian Thoughts about Teaching Theology,” sought to bring some of  Barth’s thoughts in ET to bear on the matter of theological pedagogy. As Neder introduced the paper, he noted that ET can be read as good news to the theological teacher, mainly, that theological work can be one of the most important tasks a human can be asked to do and when done properly is “pleasing to God and helpful to people.” But ET is also a warning that when done badly, theological teaching  can be “the most terrible thing on earth.”  ET, as Neder put it, can be read as if were an “MRI of a sick theologian which reveals that such a malady as vain theological teaching is not only serious and contagious, but deadly.”

Neder’s outline was almost deceptively simple, yet profoundly moving. According to Barth, he argued, three things can be said about theological teaching:
1) Successful theological teaching depends on the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is so obvious that it almost needs no defence, yet as Neder pointed out, it sets before the theological teacher a serious conundrum: Whatever one does in the theological classroom will be meaningless if the Holy Spirit does not do his work, and yet, as the free Holy Spirit of God, there is nothing one can to do guarantee the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the theological teacher, as Barth says, “to sigh, cry, and pray that the Holy Spirit will show up.” This means there are no failsafe pedagogies upon which one can rely, and consequently, what works today may not work tomorrow. Whatever else we do, then, we must figure out how it is that we will ensure that at the very least, we do not fail to invoke the Spirit, in hope, into our classroom.

2) When the Spirit acts, our classes will NOT be a safe space filled with bored spectators. Neder began by pointing out how common it has become to assume that a classroom must be a place of safety for a student–a place where he or she can ask questions and not fear reprisal or ridicule. While that is a good philosophy as far as it goes, such a philosophy may lead a teacher to assume that when a student has enjoyed or felt safe in a class that it has therefore been successful. As Neder humorously put it, “If students are enjoying your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they are enjoying your classes!” However, as he points out, such a safe environment of enjoyment may not be the best place of learning. 

Here Neder pointed out how Barth insisted that theological teachers must be ever aware that the teaching of the Gospel demands a confrontation and a decision, a space in which a personal response to GOD is required (not just a response or reiteration of the class material). In this regard, Neder points out that Barth distinguishes between teaching a student about God and seeking to bring students before what God has said to them. It is only as we lead student to realize that they are recipients and addresses of God’s Gospel that we will be truly doing our duty as theological teachers. And in such instances, the classroom may be the least safe place, but it will certainly not be boring.

3) Good teaching is an act of service and love. As Barth put it, “Without love, theological work would be nothing more than miserable polemics.” Here Neder addressed the temptation to vanity that theologians face, and as he put it, theologians must learn ever anew that you cannot simultaneously win the praise of God and the praise of people–with the latter category uncomfortably indicated in in pursuit of top classroom evaluations, tenure, peer-reviewed articles, etc. The vain theological teacher is an ironic affront to the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Just as it is difficult to hear the billionaire quote from the Sermon on the Mount, so, too, it is difficult for students to hear the Gospel when their teacher is self-evidently concerned more about their own promotion and comfort than that their students should be confronted and comforted by the Gospel. True theological teaching, therefore, requires self-emptying love and service, but that runs contrary to every natural impulse we have toward self-promotion and self-preservation in our careers.

Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 1

The Annual Karl Barth Conference hosted by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary officially began on the evening of June 17, 2012, with a banquet. This was followed by a short introduction by Prof. Bruce McCormack to the conference’s theme: Karl Barth’s Trip to America: A Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Evangelical TheologyIt was in 1962 that Karl Barth made his one and only trip to America, during which he spent 7 weeks at various locations, including time for lectures given in Chicago (University of Chicago), Princeton (Princeton Theological Seminary), and New York (Union Theological Seminary). The lectures with additional material were later published in English as Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, hereafter referred to as ET.

Prof. McCormack also gave a short tribute to Dr. theol. Hans-Anton Drewes, who served from 1997-2012 at the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel Switzerland, and who is a co-editor for the ongoing project of editing and publishing Karl Barth’s collected works (Gesamtausgabe).

Monday morning, June 18, the conference began in full swing with two papers. The first was by Dr. Hans-Anton Drewes who delivered a paper entitled, “…’In the Same Solitude as Fifty Years Ago…’ The Way from CD IV/3 to Evangelical Theology. In his paper, Drewes noted that Barth’s whole theological corpus might be understood from the motif of “solitude” as expounded upon in ET. As Drewes explained, the solitude of the theologian is to be expected (even if not essential) insofar as the theologian seeks to ensure that what he writes corresponds to the one subject matter of theology, the God of the Gospel. In this regard, Drewes gave documentary evidence within Barth’s corpus of how Barth himself sought to pursue the truth of God as a matter of turning afresh each day to be attuned to the free Holy Spirit, even if it meant parting ways with friends and colleagues, and indeed, with his own work. For example, at one point in the 1950’s, Barth was re-reading an essay he had published in 1916 on theme of waiting for the Kingdom of God–an article published in Barth’s student days and some time before the emergence of the “dialectical” theology of the Romerbrief. At that point, Barth lamented that perhaps “dialectics have become stable”–signalling to him a need to listen afresh to the free Holy Spirit, even if that meant entering once again into a period of solitude similar to the one he had experienced when the bombshell of the Romerbrief exploded on the scene.

The second paper was by Dr. Daniel Migliore of Princeton Theological Seminary. As Migliore noted, Barth’s presentation at Princeton in 1962 were under the auspices of the B. B. Warfield Lectures. It will be recalled that Warfield was principal of PTS from 1887-1921 and also the Charles Hodge Chair of Theology. Consequently, Migliore gave a comparative paper  entitled, “‘Come, Holy Spirit’: Reflections on the Role of the Spirit in the Theologies of B.B. Warfield and Karl Barth.”

Prof. Migliore started by asserting that there might be initial temptation to throw Barth and Warfield too sharply into contrast and thus fail to see some of their broad similarities. For example, both Warfield and Barth were deeply concerned to see theology rooted in scriptural exegesis, both were in battle against the forms of liberal theology of their day (including their common agreement that it was important to resist Schleiermacher!), and both were in broad agreement about general aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in an Augustinian/Calvinian frame, including a commitment to the filioque! (I had to get that in there!)

From there, however, Migliore sought to show some of the main differences between Warfield and Barth’s pneumatology in four areas: 1) The Spirit and the Free Science of Theology; 2) The Spirit and the Witness of Scripture; 3) The Spirit and Christology; and 4) The Spirit in the Triune Life of God. Despite significant divergences between Warfield and Barth in these areas, Migliore did affirm that the lesson to be learned is that there is significant room in the Reformed theological spectrum to stretch the theological imagination in regard to pneumatology. However, Migliore was significantly more critical of Warfield’s account, noting that Warfield’s pneumatology was either silent on some matters (such as the role of the Spirit in the activity of Christ’s life, or on the inner trinitarian life) or  unnecessarily restrictive (such as reducing the role of the Spirit in inspiration only to the production of the original scriptural autographs). In this regard, Migliore noted that Warfield’s commitment to theological apologetics (as the means of validating foundational theological axioms) did not allow him to move back into the Spirit’s role in the inner life of God, whereas Barth’s greater reticence of the use of reason in theology nevertheless allowed him to speak freely of God’s inner life. Migliore concluded by noting that whatever one thinks now of either Warfield or Barth, it is imperative to remember that the first century of Princeton’s history owes a debt to Warfield, while it is arguably Barth, who only appeared at Princeton once, has had greater influence in Princeton’s second century of existence.

After morning prayers and lunch, the conference reconvened with two afternoon papers. The first by Dr. Peter Paris (Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Princeton) was entitled, “The Church’s Prophetic Vision: Insights from Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr.” It will be recalled that Barth and Luther King, Jr. met only briefly at Princeton, pictured below at the door of Princeton University’s chapel.

In this paper, Dr. Paris noted both similarities and differences between Barth and King’s theological approach to how the church was to respond to political matters, especially when they felt they needed to speak out against the “terror of an unjust state.” Dr. Paris suggested that both Barth and King’s theologies were deeply rooted in the particularity of the Incarnation of Jesus, not merely as an abstract ethical principle, but in obedience to Christ’s example and command. In this regard, Paris argued that King’s view of Jesus’ command to love one another and Barth’s view of the centrality of forgiveness as the outworking of the Gospel were parallel ethical constructions.

A second paper of historical interest was given by Dr. Jessica DeCou, who has just completed a PhD at University of Chicago. Her paper examined an aspect of Barth’s 1962 visit which has been under-represented, mainly, his visits to three prisons while in America. She began her paper, “Barth’s American Prison Tours, 50 years Later” by citing from one of Barth’s sermons in 1952 delivered to the Basel prison inmates in which he argued that the two criminals who were crucified together with Jesus were technically the “first indissoluble Christian community.” She noted how Barth remained committed throughout his life to preaching in prisons and how when he came to America, he was eager to find opportunity to view the American prison system.

DeCou recounted some of the conditions of the three prisons Barth visited. The first, a particularly atrocious prison, was Chicago’s Bridewell City Jail–a jail which Barth called “Dante’s Inferno on Earth.” Shortly after seeing the prison and being in New York, Barth, upon seeing the statue of liberty, spoke about the prison he had visited (without naming it) as a “contradiction to what Americans believe the statue of liberty stands for.” Likewise, in response to Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticism of Barth’s failure to speak against the communist uprising taking place in Hungary, Barth responded by saying, “When Reinhold Niebuhr speaks out against the injustices of the American prison system, then perhaps I will be ready to speak out about Hungary.”

DeCou notes that the second and third prisons which Barth visited (San Quentin in San Francisco and Rikers Island in New York) were certainly in better shape and had significantly greater attention to the possible rehabilitation of prisoners. To his credit, Barth admitted that some of what he saw at Rikers was even better than what he saw in his home town Basel.

After DeCou’s presentation, attendees broke up into discussion groups. I was privileged to be part of the group with Dr. Drewes and we had an excellent discussion about the reception of Barth in the Ango-Saxon world. Dr. Drewes lamented that the renaissance of Barth’s thought in North American far outstrips that of Europe where to this day, Barth continues to be marginalized in the continental university theological system. When asked to explain why this might be, he suggested that at least three reasons could be given. First, he noted that Barth may have been simply too familiar and suffered somewhat of the “prophet in his hometown” syndrome. Second, the European system has tended in past decades to emphasize breadth of knowledge (i.e., knowing the contributions of many scholars) over against indepth understanding of a single scholar. Since Barth is such a difficult scholar to master, his work has simply been passed over as being too difficult to summarize when so many other scholars are also expected to be mastered. Finally, (surprisingly, I think to most of us present), Dr. Drewes noted that Barth’s German is simply too difficult for most German students to understand. Consequently, even German students tend to resort to English translations which have served well to make Barth more accessible–explaining why English speakers have tended to study Barth when Germans are more apt to give up!

After dinner, we were treated to a historical paper upon the friendship developed between Karl Barth and John Mackay, third Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary. Ms. Cambria Janae Kaltwasser, a current Princeton PhD student, delivered the paper entitled, “Transforming Encounters: The Friendship of Karl Barth and John Mackay.” After outlining the early life of Mackay and the friendship developed between Mackay and Barth in 1931 (where Mackay tutored Barth in conversational English in preparation for Barth’s first visit to Great Britain), Kaltwasser noted how Mackay’s initially was critical of Barth for what he perceived as a failure on Barth’s part to make room for personal, subjective encounters of Christ–even if he owed Barth a debt of gratitude for the language of encounter which he received from Barth. Later, Mackay invited Barth to participate in Princeton twice, but Barth turned down both invitations. Fortunately, Barth  accepted a third invitation (after Mackay’s tenure as president was complete) which became Barth’s Warfield lectures in 1962. Interestingly, at that time Mackay’s criticism has already softened as was evidenced in Mackay’s 1956 tribute to Barth in an article in the journal, Theology Today, which Mackay was instrumental in launching.

Theommentary is Two! (PLUS, a Contest!)

Today is Theommentary’s second birthday! Ain’t he cute? 

To commemorate the anniversary of the second year of Theommentary, I will first of all bore you a bit with what I’ve learned about blogging in the past two years. Then, to make things a bit more exciting, we’ll have a little contest–which includes a REAL prize you could win for participating!

Three Things I’ve learned about Blogging

1) Good intentions are just that. I originally envisioned Theommentary as an extension of my teaching ministry, and to an extent, it has done just that. But what actually happened probably didn’t even get near as close to my intentions as I’d hoped.  I hope that there is still an occasional nugget that you find interesting, encouraging, or maybe even a good bit of exhortation! But so far, I’ve been unable to keep up the pace or consistency that I would like. Being an administrator and a professor, and now a church elder (not to mention father and husband!) ensures that my blogging is only a sideline hobby. But I still enjoy it when I can get around to it.

2) Shorter is better. I tend to be long-winded. Ask my wife and my students! Blogging has forced me to try to say things a bit more precisely. I’ll stop there on this point. 🙂

(Ok, one more thing: I recently discovered a neato website called “The Khan Academy.” Basically, this one guy has posted hundreds (thousands?) of short tutorials on various subjects (though mostly in math and science). Apparently he is getting hundreds of thousands of hits per month. His secret: The tutorials are short and to the point. Take a look! P.S. When I posted this link, there were over 1500 people on his site! You can also see a CNN article on it here. HT: Kathy Hillacre–thanks, Sis!)

3) I am surprised at how people find my blog most often. According to my Blog stats from WordPress, of the over 25,000 hits to the page (other than the over 14,000 hits that came directly to the top page), three postings ranked in the top. These were posts that supposedly people came to Theommentary directly after a web search, without necessarily coming through the top home page:

  1. Primer on the Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth – 655 unique hits.
  2. Experiencing Bob Dylan – 504 unique hits
  3. The Shack – A Review – 409 unique hits

Needless to say, three very different topics and three very different subjects. My busiest day was November 5, 2008, the day after I posted my Bob Dylan concert experiences. (Apparently, there are a LOT of Bob Dylan fans who troll the net looking for the latest concert reviews…)


Since I assume that most of my readers are interested in theology, the following is a good ol’ theological quotation quiz.


  1. “True gratitude or thankfulness to God for His kindness to us arises from a foundation laid before, of love to God for what He is in Himself; whereas a natural gratitude has no such antecedent foundation.”
  2. “The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. The person who comes into fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear.”
  3. “Who is it that expounds the Bible? We answer with the ancient axiom which must be the axiom of all hermeneutics: Scriptura scripturae interprets. With respect to the Holy Scriptures, that means: These writings, as God’s Word in human words, expound themselves, are in themselves . . . everywhere perfectly clear and transparent.”
  4. “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”
  5. “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God.”

Answer in the comments section below. I will give the answers by Monday morning (September 6).

The Prize: The first correctly to identify all five of the speakers/writers of the theological quotations may choose between one of two books: 1) Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (by Grenz, Guretzki and Fee Nordling); or 2) The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism (Karl Barth). (No, I won’t be hurt if you choose Barth over me!)

Donald Bloesch (1928-2010)

It seems a generation of evangelical theologians is passing us by. I just learned of the death of Donald Bloesch, one of my favourite evangelical theologians. Bloesch passed away on August 24, 2010. He spent many years teaching and writing at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Bloesch is well known for his two volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology (completed in the 1970’s) and his more recent and extensive (7 volumes), Christian Foundations series in systematic theology. I continue to use several of Bloesch’s volumes in my own seminary classes. I was also privileged to supervise one of my former students, Dustin Resch, as he did a superb master’s thesis on Bloesch’s doctrine of Scripture.

For me, Bloesch was an important evangelical voice who was neither afraid to agree or disagree with Karl Barth (though it is probably the case that he agreed with him more often than he disagreed). But Bloesch was not content only to converse with Barth. Indeed, here is a list of those theologians to whom he dedicated some of the volumes of his Christian Foundations:

God the Almighty – “Dedicated to the memory of Karl Barth & Emil Brunner”

Jesus Christ – “Dedicated to the memory of Peter T. Forsyth”

The Holy Spirit – “Dedicated to the memory of John Wesley & George Whitefield”

The Church – “Dedicated to the memory of Philip Schaff”

It is a great little exercise to read through the quotations that invariably appear at the beginning of each of Bloesch’s chapters. One typically finds there a scriptural quotation alongside a quotation from Ireneaus, Kierkegaard, Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Pinnock, Luther, Wesley, Forsyth, Chrysostom, Blumhart, Pannenberg…well, the list could go on quite extensively. What I’ve admired most is Bloesch’s ability to summarize (usually quite faithfully) the position of a theologian in a terse, well-placed phrase. This can be frustrating for the beginner, but for those who have read extensively in some of those theologians he summarizes, all one can do is admire Bloesch’s ability to “nail” the position so succinctly!

A couple obituaries can be found here and here.

Clark Pinnock’s theological method

I’ve had a least one request for my Master’s thesis entitled, “The Theological Methodology of Clark H. Pinnock.” So I’ve put it into a PDF which can be downloaded in the box somewhere over there —>.

Or you can link directly to it here.

Disclaimer (!): This thesis was finished in 1995 so it is admittedly dated and does not cover some of the more recent works, but does cover his books, The Openness of God and Unbounded Love.

For those who are a bit nostalgic about old computers, you might be interested to know that the original thesis was produced on a CP/M (pre-MS-DOS days) based word-processing program called Wordstar on my trusty old Kaypro (still sitting in the attic in my garage).

Frustration with Biblical scholars–and theologians

For a fantastic quotation from A. H. N. Green-Armytage about “the world of biblical scholars” in contrast to the rest of the world, I encourage you to  jump over to Eric Ortlund’s blog.

But lest I become a bit too smug or look too far down my nose at the biblical scholars, I admit that there is significant parallel to what could be said about theologians as well. Though I’m not entirely sure how to represent the perspective of “the rest of the world” in contrast to the theologians’ world, I do sometimes feel similar frustrations, as a theologian, with the “theologians’ world” in which I find myself living.  For example:

  • In our theologians’ world, precision over the meaning of a word means life and death, salvation or damnation. In the rest of the world,  everyday synonyms and roughly equivalent ideas work just fine in daily conversation and in living the Christian life.
  • In our theologians’ world, we are apt to evaluate an idea on the basis of its theological provenance, designating an idea flawed (or even heretical) if it even it only remotely smacks of in similarity to our perceived theological enemies. (“It is clear you have been unduly influenced by Origen/Schleiermacher/Hegel/Calvin/Barth/Augustine/Luther/[insert one’s own theological enemy here]”!) In the rest of the world, ideas are rarely accepted or rejected with such a critical eye on their origin.
  • In our theologians’ world, we are ever mindful of being the ones who carefully traverse the blessed middle way (precipice?) between those fundamentalist radicals over there vs. the dangerous liberals over there. (I’m convinced that all of us assume that our theology is a perfect middle way between those on our right and left. For a recent example of this tiresome “via media” approach, see here. )
  • In our theologians’ world, we tend to worry a whole lot more about what 10 or 20 other theologians  might think of what we say or write than making sure that the 3 or 4 people in our family, or the 50, 100 or 200 people in our congregation have a better knowledge of the God whom they serve.

Don’t hear me wrongly: Professional theologians (and biblical scholars) are required, and ought to, worry about theological issues in ways that ‘everyone else’ doesn’t have to. My point isn’t to denigrate the work of theologians (I am one, after all!), but simply to remind us (and my theological students and colleagues) not to be surprised when the average Christian raises a suspicious eyebrow about what it is that we do! (If that is your concern, then I recommend one of John Stackhouse’s recent posts entitled, “What good are theologians?”)

Christ the Mediator and Christian Community

In preparation for a faculty retreat tomorrow, we are all reading the first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together. The chapter is called “Community.” One of the key elements of Bonhoeffer’s theology of life together is his understanding of the complete and eternal mediation of Christ, not only as the mediator between God and humans, but also as the mediatior between humans themselves. There is no unmediated Christian community, Bonhoeffer says; only a spiritual fellowship of men and women mediated in and through Jesus Christ.

But it was his description of the nature of how it is that Christ stands between us that really struck me.

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together [Harper, 1954], 35-6)