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.

An Invitation to Christian Analytic Theology: A Guest Review

This is a guest review from Ben Nasmith, an excellent young theologian and current student at Briercrest Seminary. Be sure to check out Ben’s own blog, Meta-Theology Quarterly, as well. Disclaimer: I received this book as a free review copy from IVP which I’ve asked Ben to review.


As an interdisciplinary field, analytic theology faces trouble from the start. Few people posses both the needed theological erudition and general competence in analytic philosophy. Those with one often mistrust those with the other. As such, most philosophers and theologians are non-specialists when it comes to analytic theology. Thomas McCall aims to bring us up to speed with his new book: An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP, 2015).

 McCall defines analytic theology as theology “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy” (21). Analytic theologians do theology in the style of analytic philosophy. This style values conceptual clarity, precise argument, and logical coherence. Analytic writers use metaphor and antitheses with caution. Paradox and mystery are permitted, but never to conceal logical incoherence. 

Some theologians associate analytic theology with Christian analytic philosophy. That field tends to major on prolegomenon, like the existence of God or the rationality of theism. By association, analytic theology seems inseparable from conservative apologetics, natural theology, and a general naiveté of the history of doctrine.

 McCall assures us that this is not the case. The analytic method could just as easily serve liberation theology, Barthian theology, or an analysis of the patristics. The analytic method must be distinguished from the content of typical Christian philosophical work.

McCall practices some analytic theology in his book. He address a variety of theological topics, including perfect being theology, scripture as “revelational control” for theology, D.A. Carson’s compatibilism, the metaphysics ofincarnation Christology, the historical Adam, and evolution vs. creationism. McCall also discusses various challenges facing analytic theologians. These include the broad competencies required to practice analytic theology and the ever present danger of intellectual pride.

All told, this book offers an informative introduction in the analytic style to a variety of questions. I for one value analytic theology. I am thankful for this book and excited to see the field grow. However, I have some concerns that McCall does not address to my satisfaction. I’ll outline these below, along with a way forward based on my reading of Christian analytic philosopher Paul K. Moser.

First, McCall is quick to praise the virtues of the analytic method and slow to warn of its vices. He likens analytic theology to scholasticism without addressing scholasticism’s shortcomings. The analytic method is a worthy servant but a poor master. If analytic theology is “attuned to and committed to the ‘goals and ambitions’ of analytic philosophy,” it would be prudent to question whether those goals and ambitions serve theology well.

Theology as mere truth-seeking about God would face no conflict in a marriage to analytic philosophy. But theology cannot be so reduced. Theology seeks todiscern the word of God and articulate it. This word, and its existential freight, is impatient toward mere inquiry for inquiry’s sake. The analytic theologian must remember that their method is a tool and not a telos. The goal of theology is personal and corporate knowledge of God rather than systematic knowledge about God.

Second, McCall only briefly addresses concerns about metaphysics in theology. He notes that analytic theologians are unmoved by Kant’s critique. Paul K. Moser offers a stark contrast in his book Philosophy After Objectivity.Moser warns against waging “losing battles against ontological agnostics” (58). We face an “inescapable human cognitive predicament,” namely, we cannot confirm that our cognitive processes reliably grant us access to conceiving-independent reality without begging the question of their reliability (43). They may in fact deliver knowledge of conceiving-independent reality, but we cannot confirm this. “What is intelligible for us can . . . outstrip what is effectively answerable or testable by us” (57).

Christianity depends on de re encounter with God rather than mere de dicto assertions about God. If metaphysics is beyond our grasp as an experimentalsubject, what do we gain from it? Although we cannot escape from usingmetaphysics, we also cannot discern whether we posses the correctmetaphysics with certainty. Analytic theologians ought to take this predicament, and the agnostics who raise it, seriously.

Third, McCall very briefly addresses a concern raised by Stephen R. Holmes, who writes, “analytic discussions . . . seem generally to proceed with a remarkable confidence about the success of language in referring to the divine” (32). This concern relates to Moser’s objection to metaphysics. Our theological notions may successfully refer to the realities they address, but we cannot know for certain that they do.

Theology is therefore irreducibly perspectival — namely, from a human perspective. We cannot silence the ontological agnostic until we grant their point. Analytic theology should acknowledge this and proceed with appropriate humility. It should do so without sacrificing its other virtues, such as clarity and coherence.

How do we proceed? Moser warns against the “myth of the definite article” (8). Namely, we must not confuse our preferred notion of X (divinity, for example) with the objective notion of X. We employ our theological notions with various purposes in mind. Having granted to the ontological agnostic that we cannot discern whether our notions are the objective ones, we are free to proceed with a perspectival analytic theology. Our notions serve our purposes, not the purposes of the ontological agnostic.

This approach should allay the concerns of those who fear that analytic theology cannot do justice to the subject matter of theology — the transcendent God. A humble analytic theology, I think, could do theology a great service. It could treat the analytic method as a means rather than an end. It could acknowledge that theology is irreducibly perspectival (at least from the human perspective). Finally, it could admit that our theological notions are relative to our purposes as theologians. As we seek to discern God’s purposes for our theology, and adopt them as our own, we can adapt our notions and systems accordingly. Like the “hermeneutical circle,” analytic theologians may discern God’s purposes with greater clarity as they allow those purposes to govern their inquiry.

No, you aren’t the only Jesus some people will see…

jesus_in_mirrorYou’ve probably heard it one time or another. Someone, well meaning, says, “You know, lots of people will never darken the doors of a church or go to an evangelistic meeting. So if you are working with someone, or going through the line at the grocery story, remember, You might be the only Jesus some people will see.”

There’s even songs written to this effect. Like the old Imperials song, “You’re the Only Jesus.”

But is that true?

Karl Barth, in a remarkably short sentence (for Barth), puts it this way (with light edits for quotability):

“Jesus is immanent in the Church only as He is transcendent to it.” (CD 1/1, 100-1)

Barth’s big point, I think, is to remind us that while indeed Jesus is the one who is present to and in his people, the Church, he is always and only the transcendent Lord of the Church.

I happen to think Barth has it right here. There is an asymmetrical relationship between Jesus, the Head, and the Church, the Body of Christ. We can’t put a big equal sign between “Head” and “Body.” They are vitally (literally vitally!) connected, but they are far from being the same thing.

So if Barth is right, that means:

  • Jesus is a self-giving Gift to the Church, but he is never a “Given.” Just because the Church is Christ’s chosen covenant partner doesn’t mean that the Church can presume that Jesus is present in all of the church’s witness and actions. Indeed, there may well be times when the Body acts independently (and rebelliously) against the Head. In those instances, we should be thankful that we aren’t the only Jesus people can see.
  • Jesus works and acts in the Church, but is not constrained only to work and act in the Church. It is true again that Christ has chosen the Church to be his primary covenant partner by which he carries out his Father’s mission in the world. But we should be under no delusion that somehow Jesus is restricted to working only in the church and no where else. If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak his word then, he can surely use some other ass to speak his word today.
  • The Church can point others to Jesus in their midst, but they can only point to the Jesus who is in their midst. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that by introducing people to ourselves as Christians that we have somehow automatically introduced these people to Jesus. Just because he’s in the room doesn’t mean people know him just because we are there. You might see something of me in my children, but there is no way you would make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve met my children that you’ve met me. Now if you’ve met Jesus, on the other hand, then you have met his Father (John 14:9)…but that’s a little bit different story!
  • No, you and I aren’t the only Jesus some people will see. Actually, if Barth is right, people may very well  see Jesus in our midst. But it is nearly blasphemous, or at least we are putting a little too much faith in ourselves and a little bit too much pressure on ourselves, to think that somehow we “need to be Jesus” to others.

Let’s make it simple this Christmas Season. If we want people to know Jesus, let’s be sure to do our utmost actually to introduce them to Him. In the words of the Samaritan woman,

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29)


Ten Commandments for Theological Students, Redux and Etcetera

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: http://commons.ptsem.edu.


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.