Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!

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And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.

 

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The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

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We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

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

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

Dr. Nimi Wariboko, Princeton Seminary, 2016
 
Dr. Wariboko delivered a rich paper in which he sought to bring Barth into conversation with Pentecostals (i.e., the theological barbarians outside the Reformed theologian’s gate!) and their theology of tongues (glossalalia). Throughout, Wariboko noted that the attempt is not so much to show that Pentecostals and Barth would agreed on the topic of speaking in tongues as much as he is seeking points of commonality upon which further conversation and dialogue could occur. In this regard, speaking as one from within the Pentecostal movement, Wariboko noted, 

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

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

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

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

Barth, the Spirit and Ethics

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

barth desk Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cheesewearing Theologian on Barth

This is the third in my series of guest post, commemorating 10 years of my Karl Barth Reading Group here in Caronport. This week, I’m pleased to have Amanda MacInnis-Hackney provide her perspective. Amanda is a gifted writer and blogs occasionally over at her blog called “Cheesewearing Theology.”  (I’ve noticed she doesn’t post as often since being a PhD student…I wonder why? [Grad students: Insert knowing smile here.]) Be sure to check some of her posts out.

1)      Who are you? When did you attend the Barth group? And what are you doing right now in terms of vocation, family, church, etc.?

My name is Amanda MacInnis-Hackney. I moved to Caronport, SK on January 1, 2010. It was cold! Very, very cold! Thankfully, the people in Caronport work hard to take the edge off of the cold by being a warm and welcoming community and the first example of this was Dr. Guretzki inviting me to the Barth Reading Group that met weekly at the local coffee shop. That little group was my introduction to life in Caronport. I attended faithfully for a year, and then sporadically for the next couple of years (chalk that up to having three kids in four years). It was because of the Barth group that I signed up to take Dr. Guretzki’s graduate seminar on Barth’s theology the next year, and from there I ended up doing my M.A. thesis on Barth’s exegesis of John 1:14.

This introduction to Barth, through that weekly study group, continues to impact my life, as I have just completed my first year of PhD studies at the University of Toronto (Wycliffe College), where I am preparing to write my dissertation on Barth’s lectures on the Gospel of John under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Mangina.

2)      So far, do you have a favourite section of the Church Dogmatics? Why?

My favourite section of the Dogmatics is anything in IV. I spent this last semester in IV for two different classes: a class on atonement, and a class on Barth’s doctrine of the Church. In the opening paragraphs of IV/1 he writes, “To say atonement is to say Jesus Christ.” It is a short but powerful sentence that he then proceeds to unpack in a beautiful and rich way.  A brief example of one of the ways he unpacks the atonement: “The very heart of the atonement is the overcoming of sin: sin in its character as the rebellion of man against God, and in its character as the ground of man’s hopeless destiny in death. It was to fulfil this judgment on sin that the Son of God as man took our place as sinners. He fulfils it-as man in our place-by completing our work in the omnipotence of the divine Son, by treading the way of sinners to its bitter end in death, in destruction, in the limitless anguish of separation from God, by delivering up sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which is properly theirs, the nonbeing, the nothingness to which man has fallen victim as a sinner and towards which he relentlessly hastens. We can say indeed that He fulfils this judgment by suffering the punishment which we have all brought on ourselves.” (IV/1, 253).

3)      What are one or two things that have been impressed upon you—theologically, spiritually, pastorally, literarily, vocationally, whatever—in your reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics?

I’ve been a pastor. I’m a mom. I’ve taught college freshmen. In all of these situations, I have had to find a way to present the Good News of the Gospel in way that captures the imagination and can be understood clearly. Reading Barth has helped me with this. Whether I am writing a sermon, or helping my six year old work through her Bible memory verses, or teaching eighteen year olds about spiritual formation, I have regularly benefited from Barth’s work. I think this is largely due to his emphasis on exegesis. All of his theology flows first and foremost from a close reading of the biblical text. Sometimes it feels like modern/contemporary theologians do theology and then, to make it Christian, seek out scriptural support. Barth does not do this. He starts with Scripture first. This rootedness in the written Word is what makes Barth’s work (including not just the Dogmatics, but also his sermons and essays) relevant, useful and edifying.

4)      If you wanted to convince someone with why they might benefit from also reading Barth, what would you say?

When people ask me where they should start if they want to jump into Barth, I point them to the little collection of essays in the book “God Here and Now.” It is in this volume that the reader gets a clear sense not only of Barth’s theology, but also of Barth’s deep love for the Church, and a feel for his pastoral drive to do theology. Reading Barth answers the practical question: why theology? In Barth’s work the reader quickly sees that theology is not an abstraction of the Gospel, nor is it a specialized “add-on.” It is not just for academics in their “ivory towers.” Instead, theology is an integral task of the Christian community. Theology is totally dependent on God’s living Word and teaches the Church how to respond to the work and event of the Divine Word: Jesus Christ.

5)      Anything else you want to say?

Let’s have Barth have the last word: “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.” (Evangelical Theology, 73).

Lingering in the Presence of God’s Beauty

This is the second in my series of posts reflecting on 10 years of our little Barth group held in Caronport, Saskatchewan! This one is compliments of Allen Doerksen.

Doerksen-head-and-shoulders


1)      Who are you? When did you attend the Barth group? And what are you doing right now in terms of vocation, family, church, etc.?

My name is Allen Doerksen. My involvement in the Barth reading group began in the second year (2006?) of its existence and ended, best I can remember sometime in 2010.  I was, at the time co-Rector of St. Aidan Anglican Church, Moose Jaw with the Rev. Denise Doerksen, my wife and co-laborer in the gospel.  Presently I’m the Priest-in-Charge (Vicar) of a mission parish (supported by diocesan funds), St. Matthew Anglican, Abbotsford (Diocese of New Westminster).  Denise and I have three grown sons, one married and one engaged, but, sadly, still no grandchildren!  By the time I had joined the group I’d been reading Barth for years but it was an enriching experience to read him with “newbies” and “steady hands,” insights came from all angles!

2)      What would you entitle your blog post?

Lingering in the Presence of God’s Beauty

 

3)      So far, do you have a favorite section of the Church Dogmatics? Why? Share one or two sentences from that section.

The Anglican imaginery is cut from both pre and post-reformation structures and thinking.  The section that is my favorite thus falls in Church Dogmatics II/1 650ff., Barth’s discussion of “beauty,” something Barth notes is not discussed in any satisfactory way in the post-reformation traditions. Barth thus reaches back to Augustine’s famous “late have I love you, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new,” as a touchstone.  More shockingly, Barth works with Pseudo-Dionysius (as always Barth is not about to allow previous disagreements to get in the way of an important dialogue!).  Barth is seeking to answer the questions, “Why is the thing revealed in the divine revelation and what is the form and nature of its revealing?”  His answer: “If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how He enlightens and convinces and persuades us.”

Concomitantly, this means that “theology as a whole, in its parts and in their interconnexion, in its content and method….is the most beautiful of all the sciences.” This sentence finds itself in a section that both reflects on the beauty of God and is itself a beautiful piece of writing, a telling piece of “scientific” evidence in support of his method.

Beauty is not itself beautiful unless defined in terms of Triune God’s self-emptying in the Incarnation, “this work of the Son as such reveals the beauty of God in a special way and in some sense to a supreme degree.”  The climax comes in one of his classic examples of dialectical theology, his commentary on Isaiah 52:2-3 which reads, “in him, there was no beauty that we should desire him!”  When God reveals to us the risen Christ we are able to see the beauty of God shining out of horror!  “It is the beauty which Solomon did not have but which with all his equipment he could only prophesy.  It is the beauty of which we must also say that Athens with all its beautiful humanity did not have and could not prophesy it, because unlike Jerusalem it thought it had it….And can it be known except in the face of Him who Himself gives us power to know it?  There is no other face of this kind….No other speaks at the same time of the human suffering of the true God and the divine glory of the true man.”

4)      What are one or two things that have been impressed upon you—theologically, spiritually, pastorally, literarily, vocationally, whatever—in your reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics?

This passage is a great example of what Barth does for me; he helps me slow down and linger in the vicinity of what I might have easily missed if I was “merely” reading my Bible, or, on the other hand, more popular theology or spirituality books.  Barth’s attention to the “trees” and to “forest” means that individual texts are engaged with seriously but never woodenly in a way that satisfies biblical scholars who only wield the tool of historical-critical interpretation.  Barth is equally frustrating for many theologians who find him muddling around in the minutiae of scripture when they want him to be dealing with the “big issues” of the day!  But I find that it is precisely this combination that helps arrests my impatient need to “get things done” e.g. a sermon or presentation.  Barth is not an obfuscator, he does not dilly dally where direct statements might be more helpful, rather the “lingering in the face of God’s beauty,” serves the very purpose of theology which might be put plainly: to turn reading into prayerful reading or  even discursive meditation, the kind of reading that I find bears fruit in my relationship with God and in my pastoral conversations.  Lingering in the face of Beauty turns out to be an end in itself and deeply practical!


Follow Allen’s Twitter feed: @frallend

 

 

 

Waking up with Barth

Karl Barth by Ross Melanson 2009Just this past week, I completed the 10th year of my Karl Barth Reading Group. Since beginning in the fall of 2006, we have slowly but intentionally worked through a chunk of the Church Dogmatics. In years 1-3, we worked through CD II/2 (Election). In years 4-6 we worked through CD IV/3.2 (Vocation). Volume III/1 (Creation) was next during years 7-9. This past year we started “at the beginning” and are approximately half-way through CD I/1 (Word of God).

To commemorate the completion of our tenth year, I asked a couple of former Barth group participants to provide a guest post on their experience of being in a Barth reading group. This week we will hear from Dr. Jon Coutts. Jon was one of my thesis students and completed his PhD on Barth’s doctrine of forgiveness under Dr. John Webster. Check out his blog as well!

I asked Jon a series of questions, and his responses are below.


1)      What would you entitle your blog post?

Waking up with Barth

2)      Who are you? When did you attend the Barth group? And what are you doing right now in terms of vocation, family, church, etc.?

My name is Jon Coutts, formerly an evangelical pastor in Canada, now Tutor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity College Bristol in England. I am married to Angie and we have four boys between the ages of 7 and 12. We attend St Mary Magdalene Bristol, in the Church of England, where my wife is the Church Manager.

I attended the Barth reading group from 2006-2008 when we were reading from Church Dogmatics II/2 on the doctrine of election. At the time I was working on an MA in theology and, despite earning a BTh in the 90s, had yet to read any Karl Barth whatsoever. Those who are familiar with Barth’s doctrine of election will know this is quite a way to get introduced!

This ended up being a transformative event in my life for a number of reasons: It changed the tenor of my Master’s studies (which had originally been in apologetics), and it led me to the topic I would study for my PhD (forgiveness in Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation).

On top of that, while I won’t say the reading group settled my anxieties about predestination, after wrestling with Barth for several months (I really did not like him at first), this reading group opened windows of thought for me and gave me a new lease on life as it related to those anxieties.

3)      So far, do you have a favourite section of the Church Dogmatics? Why? Share one or two sentences from that section.

Having done my doctoral studies on volume four of the Dogmatics, there is hardly one of its 2700+ pages which doesn’t have something underlined. It would be hard to choose a favourite section! If I was to choose from elsewhere it would probably be §28, ‘The Being of God as the One who Loves in Freedom’, or some of the fragments posthumously published as The Christian Life.

But if I must choose one section (rather than all of) CD IV it would have to be §62.2, ‘The Being of the Community’. Perhaps because I am a church-minister at heart, and perhaps because it comes first in the thrice-spiraled rhetoric of the volume, it was this ecclesiology section of CD IV/1 where Barth’s theology really took hold for me. Here are a couple exemplary quotes:

‘Jesus Christ is not the Holy One for Himself, but for the world and in the first instance for His community in the world. He is not the Holy One in some height or distance above its earthly and historical existence but in it and to it (as His own earthly-historical form of existence). It is not for nothing, therefore, that it is in His hand and even in its this-sidedness, but in its very this-sidedness, in its human doing and non-doing, in its common action and the life of all its members it is continually confronted with His presence as the Holy One, it is continually exposed to His activity, it is continually jolted by Him, it is continually asked whether and to what extent it corresponds in its visible existence to the fact that it is His body, His earthly-historical form of existence. How can it believe and know and confess itself as His holy community … without continually looking to Him? … No, it cannot create and assure its own holiness. It can only trust His holiness and therefore its own’ (700-701).

‘Where and when does it not hang by a knife’s edge whether or not there is this remembrance in the community?… Luther knew what he was talking about when he dared to say … Non est tam magna peccatrix ut christiana ecclesia [There is no sinner so great as the Christian church]. It is the Church which prays, “Forgive us our trespasses,” which therefore knows and confesses that it needs the forgiveness of sins’ (658).

One can pretty easily see in those words the impulse for my PhD thesis on forgiveness in the church, to be published in 2016 by IVP Academic under the title A Shared Mercy.

4)      What are one or two things that have been impressed upon you—theologically, spiritually, pastorally, literarily, vocationally, whatever—in your reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics? 

When I began reading Barth’s Dogmatics I was carrying a fair amount of anxiety as it related to some of the rather core doctrines of the church, not to mention questions of the church itself (and my place within it). Although it took awhile for Barth to break through the ice of my evidentialist, perfectionist cynicism, when he did it was as if I became a Christian all over again. This happened repeatedly as I was reading for my PhD. Having grown weary of altar-calls in my youth, I do not consider myself an easy convert. But quite often as I was reading volume four I would have to put down the book and confess Christ as Lord of my life and church again. What did it for me particularly was this break through the gridlock of faith and reason which viewed (and practiced) theology in terms of faith seeking understanding. Add to that the view of church as an event within Christ’s accomplished and ongoing work of reconciliation (seen in the quotes above), and what you get is a repeatedly disillusioned (and self-loathing) pastor/teacher who can feel at home in his vocation (not to mention his own skin) again.

5)      If you wanted to convince someone with why they might benefit from also reading Barth, what would you say?

I would talk about those things mentioned above. The problem is that it is just so hard to get people to start reading the Church Dogmatics. They are just so big and seemingly inaccessible. That’s why a reading group is so important. I remember times I’d feel like I was adrift in the ebb and flow of Barth’s rhetoric until the shared insights of the group would give me a life line. After awhile you get better at reading him, and sometimes it is your comments which are the life line for others.

Apart from telling people just to pick up a volume and start anywhere(!), I have been thinking about where to tell people to look if they do not want to start in the Dogmatics. This term at college I wanted to revisit some things and so our postgraduate research seminar read The Humanity of God. This was an excellent and succinct introduction to the key moves in Barth’s theology.

6)      Anything else you want to say?

Just thanks again, David, for leading that reading group for us years ago. Although it was hard to roll out of bed and brave the snowdrifts to get there sometimes, as it turns out there are few things which have been as impactful on my life as those Friday mornings in the corner of that Saskatchewan coffee shop.