First, a few biases and necessary qualifications.
- Kimlyn J. Bender’s book, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology was graciously sent to my by IVP for review. I was under no obligation to present a review in positive terms if I didn’t see it as a strong work. Fortunately, I have no problem, as you will see, giving this book high commendation.
- Generally speaking, I tend to be wary of collections of essays–which this book is. I find that too often the essays are only loosely connected at best, and often it is difficult to see what they are together trying to accomplish. Bender’s collection does a lot to help me see how collected essays can actually be worth the effort of reading.
- I am, for those who know me, obviously drawn to anything connected to the study of Karl Barth. So it was natural for me to want to take a closer look because I know of Bender’s earlier work on Barth’s ecclesiology.
With those biases and qualifications now on the table, let’s get into the review. I wish I could engage the book at the level it deserves, but there are such wide ranging issues covered in the book, that it would be impossible to do justice to them here. So instead, here are three of the most important qualities of this book which makes it worth getting and reading.
1) Confessing Christ for Church and World isn’t about Karl Barth, even though Karl Barth is Bender’s main interlocutor.
This observation shouldn’t come as a surprise: the book’s title doesn’t even mention Barth.
But I admit that I came to the book with expectations that indeed, Barth would be mentioned often. He was.
Bender has previously published one of the best recent books on Barth’s ecclesiology, so I was expecting that Bender would carry on the good work he started there. He did.
But as noted, this is not a book about Karl Barth.
On the contrary, Bender succeeds, as well as anyone I have read in the past decade, to examine some central aspects of theological concern (ecclesiology, canon, christology, atheism, creation, redemption, etc.) and did so through the christological and dialectical lens which Barth has supplied.
In this regard, I think Barth would be gratified to read Bender’s book, because Bender only tells us what Barth believed about this or that topic for the purpose of getting to the substance of the debate itself, not to put Barth on display per se.
To put it another way, this is no collection of essays that tells us what Barth thought about canon or church or Christ, but it is a collection of essays displaying how understanding what Barth thought about these topics can help us to think through those topics today. Consequently, Bender should be upheld as one of that younger generation of Barth scholars who understands that Barth is important not primarily for his own sake, but because Barth helps us grapple with Scripture and the theological issues we are facing today–decades after Barth has already passed from the scene.
2) You’ve heard Barth is a “dialectical theologian.” Bender’s book not only reaffirms this, but displays how “dialectic” can actually be applied theologically today.
Again, Bender is not concerned primarily with the proper historical-theological task of documenting the various ways in which Barth’s theology is “dialectical.” That has been done ably many places elsewhere (most notably, of course, in Bruce McCormack’s work). Yes, Bender highlights Barth’s dialectical positions in many such ways in this book. But Bender goes beyond this and takes those dialectics–the dialectics of Christ’s humanity and divinity, of Scripture as diverse and yet unified, of the irreversible dialectic of Scripture and tradition (or confessions), of the dialectic between Scripture and Church, etc.–and shows how such upholding of both sides of the dialectic (often asymmetrically) is necessary to avoid forms of theological reductionism. It is unhelpful, in other words, to try to say, for example, “It is either Scripture OR tradition.” On the contrary, it is rather more important to say, What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition (or confession, or the church, etc.)? It is here that Barth’s dialectical positioning as highlighted in Bender can help guide us through these thorny issues.
As one who has actually worked in Barth for many years, even I have sometimes wondered how “dialectics” apply, even while I admit that it has become a lot clearer in past years. For me, the studies presented in Bender’s book will either help readers to understand what dialectics really are and why they are important, or it will provide concrete illustration of how dialectics actually informs theological decision making for those who are already theoretically committed to the underlying rationality of dialectical theology.
3) Many of Bender’s chapters simultaneously stand as self-standing primers and as constructive ways forward on certain theological topics.
What I appreciated most about Bender’s skill is that many of his chapters could be read as stand-alone primers on a topic for a relatively keen theological novices. Want to know what’s going on in some of the contemporary currents of ecclesiology in American evangelicalism? Bender has a chapter on that. Want to know the basics of Schleiermacher’s christology? Read the “concluding postscript on Schleiermacher.”
But the great thing about Bender is that he is not satisfied with only setting out the contours of a theological debate, but expertly suggests constructive ways forward as well. Clearly, Bender is bringing pedagogical skill into his writing because he not only gives enough information on the topic to get a reader “up to speed” but invites the reader to move beyond the basics and to begin to participate in the act of theologizing itself.
Now, I wish I could summarize all of the chapters, because really, they are all worth reading. ( I don’t think I found myself once thinking, “I’ll just skip this one for the next.”) Thus, if pressed to select a favorite chapter, I would find myself in a quandary. So instead, I will highlight three of my favorites, one from each of the three sections of the book.
In “Part One: Church and Conversation,” Bender situates Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with the dialogue partners of American theology, American evangelicalism, and Catholicism. Here I believe that his chapter entitled, “An Old Debate Revisited: Karl Barth and Catholic Substance” gets at the heart of what it is that really sets Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology apart. Bender’s ably engages with the Catholic theologian, Reinhart Hütter on the role of tradition and confession, but in the end shows why Hütter’s, and other Catholics, imprison the agency of the ascended Christ into the practices of the Church–a position which is ultimately incoherent with the ongoing free Lordship of Christ over the Church.
In Part Two: Canon and Confession, Bender’s chapter on “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism” stands clearly out for me. This is because Bender once again uses Barth to give a theological strategy of dealing with contemporary atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris–all without having to go into the messy details of what each of these have actually proposed. This is because Bender shows how Barth’s response to the atheism of his day can still stand as a model for how we engage those atheists of our day.
Most helpfully, Bender points out Barth’s refusal to address the atheist objectors on their own terms. This is usually the strategy of those who set out to respond with a apologetic for a general philosophical theism rather than a christologically and historically particular confession of the Gospel itself. Apologists have understandably struggled to provide philosophical “proof” for the existence of a triune God and have often opted simply to try to prove the reasonableness of an infinitely powerful, eternal deity.
But here Bender (via Barth’s guidance) counters: The best response to atheism is to refuse to try to prove the existence of the “god” whom atheists reject, but rather to out-narrate the atheists by re-telling the narrative of Jesus Christ. This is especially important because of how modern atheism is “parasitic” because it has its identity primarily in that which it rejects. Let’s just say, I loved this chapter and will point students to it regularly in the future.
There is a real treat in last section of the book, “Christ and Creation” and it is Bender’s essay entitled, “Standing Out in the Gifford Lectures: Karl Barth’s Non-natural Lectures on Natural Theology.” For those who may not be aware, Barth was asked in 1937-38 to deliver a series of lectures for the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, famous for being the most sustained conversation on the possibility of natural theology. Of course, Bender rightly notes the irony: “the world’s foremost opponent of natural theology now asked to give the world’s most famous lectures on natural theology” (315). It is well known that Barth, after giving only brief mention of natural theology, went on to deliver a series of lectures on the Scots Confession, an explicitly Christian theological confession written in 1560 by the Scottish Reformed church.
Barth’s tactic has often been viewed as simply his way of snubbing his nose at natural theology–and to be honest, it is at least that! But what is fascinating is how Bender draws out how Barth may not have actually been alone in questioning the assumptions of natural theology in the history of this event, noting how others such as McIntrye, James, and Hauerwas, too, have delivered the Gifford Lectures with implicit agreement with Barth at several points.
Once again, Bender is not simply satisfied with pointing out the historical parallels between what Barth and other Gifford lecturers did, but draws attention to how Barth’s lectures foreshadow what is now increasingly becoming recognized in scientific circles: that the object of inquiry demands its own methodology, and that the seeking of a universal scientific methodology which the Gifford lectures seemed to presuppose is no longer tenable even within the sciences themselves. Consequently, theology no longer needs to apologize for its own distinctive methods.
Bender’s book is, admittedly, not aimed at the beginning theological student and those without some training will likely get lost all too easily. That is too bad, because at another level, I think that Bender is doing something exemplary for us all: He is showing us how historical theology cannot be an end to itself, but serves systematic and confessional theology, and of course, the Church.
Bender teaches us that we read Barth and Schleiermacher and Calvin and Wesley and Augustine and Irenaeus and others not for their own sake, but because through them we have hope of seeing what they themselves saw or missed. In that regard, I would commend Bender’s essays as exemplary for theological students and scholars alike who want to know just what a theological essay in service to the Church looks like. May his lot increase!