Three Reasons to Give Bultmann Another Chance

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When Stanley Hauerwas was informed that he had been named by Time magazine as one of America’s “best” theologians, he responded as he ought to have responded:  “best is not a theological category.”

Similarly, the word “successful” is not a theological category. So when I say that David Congdon’s little book on Bultmann is successful, I hope I’m not making a categorical mistake.

Nevertheless, I will persist.

There are at least three reasons why Congdon’s book, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade, 2015) should be rightly designated a “successful” theological book–successful because it gives good reason for those who have either given up, or never even looked at him in the first place, to give Bultmann a(nother) chance.

9781625647481

THREE REASONS TO READ CONGDON’S BOOK, or, THREE REASONS TO GIVE BULTMANN ANOTHER CHANCE

1. Congdon successfully casts into serious doubt, if not demolishes, many of the (mis)perceptions that many have held and taught about Bultmann’s thought. 

I don’t know which friend it was that Congdon is speaking about who “upon finishing the famous programmatic essay on demythologizing for the first time, told me he kept waiting for the sinister demythologizing he had heard so much about but which never arrived” (xv), but I, too, had a similar experience a year or two ago after reading Jesus Christ and Mythology. Clearly, not everything I had been taught or read about Bultmann is true.


That said, let me also say that Congdon’s book will not necessarily transform readers into devoted Bultmannians.That is because defending Bultmann isn’t so much what this eminently readable book is all about–even if Congdon is clearly sympathetic to much of what Bultmann was saying. Rather, the success of Congdon’s book is that he portrays, with great clarity and with excellent primary evidence, a portrait of Bultmann not as one who was seeking to destroy faith–as some conservative critics are still apt to assume–as much as he was seeking to preserve faith in God in the increasingly secularized and scientifically-oriented modern world. Congdon helped me to realize that I need to be much more cautious in teaching others what Bultmann’s program represents.

Most important in re-orienting me to Bultmann were the three chapters respectively entitled “Eschatology” (chapter 1), “Dialectic” (chapter 2), and “Self-Understanding” (chapter 4, which in my opinion, was one of the most clarifying chapters of the whole book). For it was in these three chapters that I discovered how Bultmann was locating himself in the 20th century debate about the nature of the kingdom of God (ch. 1); was seeing himself as a faithful participant, together with the early Karl Barth, in the project of dialectical theology (ch. 2); and was seeking to show that “faith understands God only by simultaneously understanding oneself, because the God [we] encounter in revelation is the God who justifies [us]”(60 – ch. 4).

Here I have to ask: Does this latter statement not sound a whole lot like Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Calvin, Institutes, I.1)

2. Congdon successfully makes the case that Bultmann should not be interpreted only through the lens of his associations and disagreements with Karl Barth.

One of the most clarifying moments I had in reading Congdon’s account was in his chapter on “dialectic” where he highlights, in line with Bruce McCormack, that it is Bultmann, not Barth, who most consistently works out the existential theology first discovered in Barth’s commentary on Romans. In other words, the true “heir” of the early dialectical theological programme inaugurated by Barth is none other than Rudolf Bultmann! As Congdon explains,

Barth would eventually change his mind [after his Romans commentary] about . . . eschatology. In his later dogmatic writings, he grounds the eschaton, and so theology, in the historical person of Jesus, and thus replaces existential theology with a certain kind of christocentric theology. Bultmann, however, consistently develops the theology of Barth’s Romans. . . . If Bultmann remains faithful to the theological position of the early Barth, then it follows that he remains a dialectical theologian, even in his later work.

In other words, in as much as the roots of dialectical theology  can be traced to Barth, Bultmann is more properly the one who seeks to “conserve” these roots. Thus, when Barth later broke publicly and adamantly with Bultmann, it wasn’t because Bultmann had changed, but because Barth had changed! (If you want to get a sense of my own interpretation of Barth’s mature understanding of dialectic, take a look here.)

Of course, the question remains whether one is persuaded to follow Barth’s christocentric vs. Bultmann’s existential theological center. But after this, I will follow Congdon in pointing out that Bultmann is actually more consistent in carrying out Barth’s earliest form of dialectical theology than Barth himself. It also illustrates yet another place where there was more change in Barth than he often was willing to admit.

3.  Congdon successfully demonstrates that Bultmann, whether one agrees with his approach or not, was not trying to destroy faith, but to understand faith under the conditions of modernity.

It is the case that to this day, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is still commonly understood as simply seeking to” de-supernaturalize” the teaching of the Bible. Take Bultmann’s following oft-quoted statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (quoted in Congdon, p. 105)

This statement has been regularly used as a key piece of evidence that Bultmann didn’t believe in miracles or that he somehow thought that everything in the Bible needed to be explained in naturalistic terms. However, as Congdon argues,

Bultmann does not think that belief in the wonder world of the NT can be isolated from the cultural context in which that belief comes to express, just as the use of the radio and modern medicine presupposes a distinct cultural context, as missionaries to remote tribes today understand well. Indeed, he would say this spirit and wonder world is not even an element of the NT kerygma, since it was a world-picture shared by everyone in that cultural context. It was as natural to them as our belief today in the capacity of scientists to discover the biological cause of a person’s illness. The early Christian apostles necessarily made use of their world-picture in bearing witness to what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth, but that can be no more essential to the kerygma than the use of Greek or Aramaic. (105-6)

So what, then, is Bultmann trying to do? Congdon convincingly argues that Bultmann was trying to take seriously the fact that we live in a “radically different–even incommensurable–cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since . . . we are not reducible to our cultural situation” (107)

Once again, we may or may not agree with how Bultmann sought to carry out what is essentially the missionary task of translating the Gospel into various 21st century contexts and cultures, but few would disagree that the task nevertheless needs to be done. Few, if any, believe that we can simply read the pages of the Bible in original Greek or Hebrew to a modern audience and expect them to hear and respond to the Gospel. Yet this is what Bultmann, Congdon argues, was simply trying to find a way of doing. In other words, Bultmann wasn’t trying to desacralize an “other-worldly” Bible into a “worldly” Bible, but was actually trying to highlight the dangers of pretending that we can bring the “other-worldliness” of the Bible into our world without risking the loss of its essential other-wordliness altogether! 

Let me conclude simply by commending Congdon’s “little book on Bultmann” to you, especially if you aren’t quite ready to delve into his “big book on Bultmann” quite yet. That is my next task…!
 

Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. Michael Welker – The Spirit and Creation (June 19 PM)

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I’m happy to be joining the Karl Barth Conference again this year at Princeton Theological Seminary. I will do my best to summarize in very brief form the plenary sessions this year. The overarching theme of the conference is Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement.

Sunday evening, June 19, began with an evening lecture from Dr. Michael Welker, who is professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University. His topic was the Spirit and Creation.

  

Introduction

Welker began by reviewing what he believed was Barth’s, and his own, commitment to critical realism in theology. Theology is realistic in that it believes that God has independent reality to which theology seeks to speak. Theology is critical in that it must always be subject to correction and clarification.

1) Unfruitful and fruitful orientations in the doctrine of Creation.

Today, when the doctrine of creation is spoken of, there is a too-common assumption that creation speaks of the totality of nature. In this regard, “creation” is nearly equated with that which can be examined through the disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Welker called this a “naturalist” orientation. Furthermore, he noted that even up until the middle of the twentieth century, creation was more closely associated with “mentalism” whereby the human in his or her “self-consciousness” and “consciousness of the world” constituted the prime focus of the doctrine of creation, i.e., creation as “spirit” or “spiritual.” This “mentalist” notion Welker connected with Descartes and Fichte.

Karl Barth, Welker argued, sought to give both nature and spirit their due, even if Barth “leaned slightly” toward the spirit end of the doctrine of creation. This is consistent with Barth’s emphasis on both the Word and Spirit. Furthermore, when Barth speaks of the “Spirit” of God, he also does so in a trinitarian framework. There is, in other words, no “non-trinitarian spirit” to speak of in respect of God. This admittedly may be of less interest to those who are seeking pneumatologies that are not so tied to the Christian conception of God. Barth’s form of pneumatology is thus problematic for those seeking a more “philosophically” oriented form of theism that is not necessarily tied to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. For this, Welker made no apology: The doctrine of Creation, if it is to be Christian, relies on a trinitarian formulation. To speak of the Spirit of God is already to speak of the Trinity.

Barth refused to see creation only as natural or spiritual, but rather spoke of creation as the whole cosmos in relationship to full nexus of human culture and history. Creation cannot be “everything except humans and their culture and concepts.” The Christian doctrine of Creation includes the historical human culture as well as everything beyond it. More to the point,  the Spirit of God, Barth insisted, is to be sought only in connection with the incarnation of the Word in human history. Thus, Welker argued, Barth resisted any notions of the Spirit in a doctrine of creation that “floats above” human history and bodily existence, and especially those notions of the Spirit that overlook or ignore the incarnation of the Word. Notions of spirit as “mind”, “pure transcendence” etc. are useless to Barth for a doctrine of creation.

2) God’s Power and Creation’s Autonomous Power

Welker pointed out that far too often in the history of theology, God’s power (omnipotence) has been portrayed–weakly–as the idea that “God has created everything.” This, he argued, runs roughshod over the biblical accounts of creation in which God is not portrayed as creating “everything,” but of creating heavens which have some independences, the plant and animal worlds which have their own manner of existing, and of course, human history and culture, including all the artifacts which humans have made. Barth also emphasized that creation itself is given “powers” which are able to come into direct conflict with God. Thus, whether these powers are political, religious, legal, social or moral, they are autonomous powers given to humans to exercise–powers which in the Gospels and Epistles are all portrayed as ironically coming into conflict  with Jesus Christ. The main point, Welker noted, is that God’s omnipotence does not mean that God has effected by his power all that his power could enact, but that his power has given real autonomy to humanity in creation–autonomous power which can be used to serve or to rebel against God’s good creation.

3) Barth distinguishes between God’s Spirit and human & created spirits.

Welker suggested that ever since Aristotle, the human spirit has been closely associated with and unified with rationality. More specifically, this yields a God who is by definition one whose knowledge of the world is unified with the world itself. 

Barth, Welker notes, strictly resisted the conflation of the divine and human spirits. Indeed, for Barth, though the Spirit of God gives freedom, he nevertheless is a Spirit who “commands” and “rules” the human spirit.

In this regard, Welker noted that despite Barth’s insistence of the distinction between the divine and human spirits, he was nevertheless still too influenced by the binary polarity that inheres in the Aristotelian notion transmitted through the history of philosophy and theology. Welker thinks this shows up in Barth by his continuing to posit the tension between body and spirit–an inherent dualism which Welker admits also appears even in the Apostle Paul’s “flesh/spirit” distinction. However, in light of more recent scholarly (e.g., Gerd Thiessen) work on Paul which sees the spiritual, rational, social, etc. dimensions inhering more inherently in the Pauline concept of “body” or “flesh”, Welker argued for the need to be prepared to explore, intellectually and conceptually, at the level of a “poly-polarities” which shows up in the multiplicity of ways the Spirit of God is joined to and gifts  humanity. There are many bodies in multilayered manners of relational joining. In this regard, Welker went on to suggest that Barth already had a concept at hand which could have helped him break out of the bipolarity which still marked his own penumatology and anthropology. This concept is the biblical idea of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which, of course, Barth explored extensively in CD IV.

4) God’s Creative Action in Creation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

In order to move beyond bipolar ways of thinking about the Spirit, Welker advocated the notion of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which can be most clearly discerned in the book of Act–and which, of course, Barth explores extensively in CD IV. It is in Acts that we see the outpouring of the Spirit not simply in the union of the body and soul, as it were, but in a multitude of ways which was manifest in the community. These include works of service (diaconate), prophecy, and priestly ministries, which concretely include word manifesations (including preaching and the Pentecostal phenomena of prophecy and tongues), freeing from spiritual and physical oppression (demonic, illnesses), and through caring for one another’s needs–all done in recognition that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Although there is a biblical concept of “inpouring of the Spirit,” the church–widely–has still focused more on the indwelling of the Spirit in the individual soteriology, and often to the exclusion fo the “outpouring” o fthe Spirit on the community and its multiple forms of ministry.

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

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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!

Lingering in the Presence of God’s Beauty

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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.

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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

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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.

Why Karl Barth is ultimately Free Church in his Ecclesiology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year 10 of the Karl Barth Reading Group!

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This fall marks the beginning of the 10th straight year that I have run a Karl Barth Reading Group here in Caronport. Each week from September to April or May, a group of students, staff, and pastors get together once  a week to discuss a small portion of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. On average, it’s taken us three years to complete a single volume. I’m convinced of the value of “slow reading” of Barth. You can only process the material from 5-10 pages at a time, and we’ve rarely (though occasionally!) found it difficult to get a discussion going from these few pages.

In 2005, we began with the famous Doctrine of Election (II.2), in 2008 proceeded to the Doctrine of Vocation (IV.3.2), and we just finished the first part of the Doctrine of Creation (III.1) this past spring. At that point, we decided together as a group to “begin again at the beginning” so this year we will be reading the first volume of the Church Dogmatics, the Doctrine of the Word of God (I.1).

Our format is simple: We open with a reading from Scripture (I usually work our way through a biblical book throughout the year). We then spend just a few minutes sharing prayer requests and we pray together. Then we launch into the discussion of the week’s assigned reading, usually about 6-10 pages. When we are done (about 75 minutes later), we close in prayer, go our separate ways and begin our day.

From the start, I’ve loved the Barth group. It is a bit of a respite from the busyness of the week. For me, it is a kind of a middle ground between work and rest. It isn’t quite work because of how enjoyable it is, and it isn’t quite rest because it takes a degree of dedication to arrive at a 7 am meeting in the dead of winter in Saskatchewan!

But I suppose the surprising thing is this: 10 years of reading Barth together hasn’t yet brought me to the point where I wanted to quit or do something new. Barth has a way of getting us thinking, getting us back into Scripture, and keeping us growing in our intellectual and spiritual lives.

Now here’s my question for the day: How does one properly celebrate 10 years of a Barth reading group? (I’ve dreamed of having a little reunion of all the past and present members of the group, though I suspect we are all a little too far flung to make that happen). Any suggestions?

P.S. If you are local and want to join the group, we begin September 11, 7:00 am, in Seminary S104! Bring a copy of CD I.1 and have the preface (xi to xvii) and pages 3 to the top of page 10 read.

P.S.S. You can still get a great deal on a complete set of the Church Dogmatics from Christian Book Distributors here.