Karl Barth on the Old Testament

I am reading through what is so far an extremely interesting book in the Ashgate “Barth Studies” Series entitled, Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah (by Mark S. Gignilliat). (I will be reviewing it for International Journal of Systematic Theology.) I’m only just beginning it, but already Gignilliat alerted me to this wonderful little passage in vol I.2 of the Barth’s Church Dogmatics where Barth speaks formally about his view of the importance of the Old Testament as part of the Christian canon: 

Neither in the New Testament nor in the documents of the 2nd-century post-apostolic period do we find the slightest trace of anyone seriously and responsibly trying to replace the Holy Scriptures of Israel by other traditions of other nations, all those nations within which the first Churches sprang up, or to proclaim those traditions as prophecies of Christ and therefore as a more suitable introduction to the New Testament Bible. Yet this would have meant a great easing of the missionary task, and apologetics often tended in this direction, although hardly ever with reference to the problem of the Canon. Even Marcion never plunged in this direction, although he was near enough to it. We cannot plunge in this direction, we cannot even try to do what Marcion and after him the Socinians and Schleiermacher and Ritschl and Harnack tried to do, without substituting another foundation for the foundation on which the Christian Church is built. The Old Testament is not an introduction to the real New Testament Bible, which we can dispense with or replace. We cannot eliminate the Old Testament or substitute for it the records of the early religious history of other peoples, as R. Wilhelm has suggested in the case of China, B. Gutmann in some sense in that of Africa, and many recent fools in the case of Germany. If we do, we are not merely opposing a questionable accessory, but the very institution and existence of the Christian Church. We are founding a new Church, which is not a Christian Church. . . . Whether we like it or not, the Christ of the New Testament is the Christ of the Old Testament, the Christ of Israel. The man who will not accept this merely shows that in fact he has already substituted another Christ for the Christ of the New Testament. It was not to dissolve the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them that the real Christ of the New Testament came (Mt. 5:17; cf. Jn. 10:35).

–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2,  488. (underlines my emphasis!)
As Gignilliat puts it, “For Karl Barth, the Old Testament is more than a red carpet rolled out to introduce the New Testament, that is, a corpus easily dispensed with once the New Testament has arrived.” (25)
At a personal level, I more and more lament just how woefully inadequate I am in reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In this regard, I’m tempted to do a graduate degree in OT under the supervision of my friend and colleague Eric Ortlund  in whom I see an example of someone who knows the historical-critical world of Old Testament studies well, but who preaches from OT books (like Ecclesiastes!) in ways I’ve rarely heard in the evangelical world. (In fact, go over to Eric’s blog and pressure him to post his notes from his last seminary sermon delivered on Ecclesiastes…)
Disclaimer: At this point it is only a temptation for me to do another degree…I’m sure Maureen would have some things to say that! 🙂

The best a man can be…

I swallowed hard when I read this passage this afternoon.

No man can be anything other or better than this–one who is loved by God. This is what God wills with him–to love him. And this is what He wills from him–to allow himself to be loved by Him. It is for this purpose that he elects him.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, 411.

The term Barth uses here is Kein which means, “no one” and is not meant to single out “males” per se. Yet it struck me that we men especially (but women, too) would do well to remind ourselves daily that the best a man can be is to be loved by God. We Christian men are so prone to think of the significance of our lives in terms of accomplishments, by our service, or our vocation, or even as fathers and husbands.   But as important as all of these may be, they pale in significance to the fact that we cannot be better than this–to be loved by God. If we realized that daily, I suspect our lives would radiate gratitude and grace to those around us.

I just read a few nights ago one of the great short stories by Flannery O’Connor called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  That is so very true, isn’t it? But taking a cue from Barth, a good man, indeed, the best man one can find is one who allows himself to be loved by God. That is why Jesus is the best a man can be…For he knows and understands fully what it means to be loved by God.

Updike and the “Funny Theologian”

John Updike, the American novelist, died last week. I haven’t read much of Updike, though I did read one of his novels while I was studying at McGill. (I actually managed to read a lot of novels while commuting when I lived in Montreal, including The Hobbit, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco), all while riding trains and buses!) 

Lots of commentators have spoken of Updike’s affinity for Barth. But I found a 1992 article by John McTavish (who, at the time of writing, was a Canadian United Church minister) in Theology Today entitled, “John Updike and the Funny Theologian.” As the McTavish puts it, “Barth, said Updike once, is ‘a funny theologian,’ adding wryly, ‘They’re not all funny.'” The article explores Barth’s doctrine of the covenant of grace as seen through three of Updike’s novels: Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963), and Of the Farm (1965). Worth the read when you have a few minutes.

 I know personally that Roger’s Version (the one Updike novel I’ve read) comes at you from left field, especially the descriptions of the wild (wild at so many levels) dream sequences of the divinity professor turned agnostic. At the time, I wasn’t tuned into the “Barthian” influences in Updike so it would be interesting to read some of the above mentioned novels through those lenses. Anyone here read any of these three novels? Comments on what you saw in his work?

Lacking the Theological Giants?

In his discussion of Hegel in Nineteenth Century Protestant Theology, Karl Barth commented on why philosophers seemed unable to go beyond the philosophy of Hegel in the latter half of the nineteenth century and opted instead to choose completely different paths of thinking. To answer those who felt that perhaps the age of the great thinkers had now passed away such that there were no longer any “great men” who could accomplish anything close to what Hegel did, Barth says, 

“It is always a bad sign when people can find nothing to say but that unfortunately the right people were lacking. This should be said either always or never. Every age, perhaps, has the great men it deserves, and does not have those it does not deserve. The only question remains whether it has a hidden flaw in the will of the age itself . . .”

Barth, Karl. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. London: SCM Press, 2001, p. 374.

I have often wondered whether and when the next Karl Barth will show up. Oh, yes, there are a good number of very good theologians doing very good work these days, but I would be hard pressed to identify a living analogue to Karl Barth today.

So is it simply that “great men” or “great women” are now lacking? That the age of the possibility of a “modern church father” has now passed? Barth doesn’t seem to think that we should think this way. But perhaps he has put his finger on something terribly troubling: Perhaps there is in our age a hidden flaw in our collective ecclesial will in which we collectively and systematically ensure that no one thinker or theologian attains to the stature that a Barth or a Hegel or a Calvin or an Augustine once enjoyed. Is it just that the shadow of a man like Karl Barth is just so long that we are too close to him in history that it is simply just too early for another great to rise in his place?

Or is it a flaw at all? Perhaps we have “arrived” to a point where no age before has gone.  In our utter commitment to “univeral rights of equality,” is it possible that we simply cannot and will not allow any theologian to rise up and to teach us and challenge a generation or two of lesser teachers and theologians in the way that Karl Barth does now? Perhaps the achievement of our age is a correcting of the flaw of previous ages where one voice was so often privileged over others. Maybe we have finally overcome that “flaw of the theological cult figure” and have finally managed to flatten out all the theological voices into a cacophony of differentiated voices, none of which has dominance but are leveled to become a sea of democratic equals? In other words, maybe the “achievement” of our age is that we have finally gotten to the place where we have convinced ourselves that it is better to have a lot more smaller voices speaking out than one louder, more dominant voice to which other lesser voices respond and interact?

I don’t know for sure, but there is something that bothers me about the latter vision over against the former. I have a gut feeling that the flaw has not yet been removed. Not that the former vision is necessarily better than or superior to the latter, but that perhaps the latter may end up impoverishing us even more than the former age did.

Losing our Conscience in “The New Moral Order”

In his excellent article just released in Catholic Insight on November 10, 2008, Dr. Douglas Farrow of McGill University exposes what he calls the “The New Moral Order” being developed in Canada today. In this new order, Farrow argues, the older categories of:

1) natural law [the universal aspect common to all],
2) religion  [the covenantal aspect under which all are created], and,
3) conscience  [the personal aspect of moral response] 

are steadily being replaced respectively with the new categories of:

1) pluralism [i.e., the only thing universal is that we are all different);
2) secularism [i.e., rather than life under and before God, it is life without God]; and,
3) autonomy or individualism [rather than a personal adherence to a norm, it is personal adherence to oneself].

Now my own Barthian/Reformed sensitivities still prevents me from buying into my Doktorvater’s commitment to a notion “universal natural law” as is predominantly taught in Roman Catholicism. [The Cathecism of the Catholic Church says that “natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history” and is “a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.” (Catechism, art. 1979)]. I still prefer to think along the more Reformed (especially Calvin’s) notion of “common grace.” Yet even if you replace “natural law” with the idea of “common grace” which understands that the world “is not only created by God but upheld in its created existence and nature by his grace” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, 117), I think that Farrow has rightly identified the three purely secularized replacements vying for recognition.

But beyond the way in which Farrow brought these three fundamental ideas together (along with their parodies) in such a precise fashion, I  found it especially illuminating how Farrow notes that conscience, traditionally understood, is the discipline of the self subjecting itself to a higher order. Conscience was, in other words, the testing of oneself–of “me”–to see if I was living in alignment with that which Iknew and believed to have binding authority upon me. To live and act according to conscience was in effect to say, “I will do what I know to be right and good on the basis of my acknowledgement that something or someone is higher than me.” Indeed, conscience, when it is working properly, is precisely defined (imagine that!) by Barth as “the place where man becomes one with God’s will” (CD I/1, 202).

But now, with autonomy and individual rights increasingly reigning the day, it has come to the place where even conscience must be obliterated, lest we find ourselves testifying even in a small way that we are subject to something outside of ourselves. To speak of conscience, in other words, is to admit that something (or heaven forbid, someone) is judging me. So, the last triumph of “human rights” talk will be when the conscience is completely redefined from “a moral agent’s internal compulsion to act in accordance to external authority” to mean “submission to one’s self, and to one’s self alone”–without the hassle of having to conform oneself in any way to something external or higher or larger or, to be sure, divine. As Luther, in his own characteristic fashion, once put it, “Conscience is an evil beast which makes a man take a stand against himself.” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 7:331).

Though I encourage you to read the article in its totality on your own, I thought that Farrow’s penultimate paragraph was worth reproducing here:

What then shall we call this new morality, if not the morality of despair?  And with what shall we confront it, even and especially where it is most menacing, if not with the gospel of hope?  For despair, as Kierkegaard argued in Sickness unto Death, is the refusal to be oneself before God, and Christian hope is the right antidote to that.  Christian hope is grounded in the knowledge that God himself is for us in Christ, not against us, so that in Christ we may indeed be ourselves, and be ourselves before God. This, I think, is what Pope Leo XIII also had in mind when he said in Jesus Christ the Redeemer:  “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

[You may also want to read Farrow’ previous article (also in Catholic Insight) where he comments on how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is attacking the freedom of conscience of individual physicians to not perform procedures such as abortions.]

The Dangers of Theological Prognostication

I just finished reading John Bowden’s 1971 book entitled, Karl Barth. All in all, it’s a pretty good little book that can be read comfortably in an evening. Bowden gives a short “profile” of Barth, followed by assessing Barth as prophet, professor, politician, and patriarch. Bowden ends with a “problem” chapter in which he provides his own critical, yet respectful, assessment of Barth overall. The work is dated in its scholarship, of course, but can still be profitably read by those looking for an short secondary introduction.

However, I had to chuckle a bit at the end. Bowden suggests that there were those in his day who were saying that it was too early critically to assess Barth fairly or to predict what his future reception would be, and that it would take a generation or even a century before such assessment could really be made. Undaunted by this, Bowden goes ahead and predicts anyways:

It seems probable that those who see the Dogmatics as a work that will come into its own in future years are over-optimistic. It is not the kind of book for that. Nor is Barth the prophet likely to have the same impact in the years to come that he had in the 1920s. Both Barth the patriarch and Barth the prophet will pass into history as Barth the problem. (117)

I’m not trying to make light of Bowden, who actually appears to have a pretty good grasp of many of Barth’s ideas. In the day and age in which he wrote, what he was saying was pretty reasonable and plausible. Even by the end of Barth’s life, it looked like Barth’s thought was already being passed over in favour of the Pannenbergs and Moltmanns, for example. 

Nevertheless, there is probably an important little lesson: If the ascendency of Barth in the early 21st century could not have been predicted shortly after his death, it is also likely that we should be wary of making too many theological predictions ourselves about what will and what will not be a theological issue in the next generation. The thing that may seem the most irrelevant and absurd thing today could very well be the thing that will last longer and have greater theological significance than one might expect. And vice versa: the things that seems to be so vitally important today could very well turn out to be nothing than a fad here today and gone tomorrow. 

I suppose this leads me to wonder how we as students (and teachers) of theology are best able to ensure (and I mean ensure, not in the sense of “guarantee” but in the sense of “being confident”) that the time and effort we spend on theological research and writing will be on issues of greatest significance, while not getting sidetracked on issues that will be short-lived and short-sighted. Any suggestions?

Adapting to the Transcendent

In my reading this morning, I came across this passage (written sometime in 1947 or 1948) in Barth which reveals, more than is often the case, a glimpse into the historical mood of his day. 

Millions of our contemporaries have been constantly plunged from one frontier situation (in the most intense sense) to another. But what has it all meant to them in practice? Has any one encountered the wholly other, and been changed by this encounter, as a result of taking part in the fighting in Russia or Africa or Normandy, of suffering the Hitler terror, of enduring aerial bombardment, hunger and imprisonment, of losing loved ones, of being in extreme danger of death dozens of times, and of having some sense of personal implication in the common guilt? Humanity is tough. It seems to have been largely capable of dealing with the confrontation of transcendence supposedly implied in these negations of its existence. Surely Jaspers himself noticed that it passed largely unscathed through the first world war, in retrospect of which he wrote his Philosophie. And if appearances do not deceive, we have also passed through the second unscathed. If any one has been changed in these years, it is certainly not in virtue of the extraordinary situations into which they have led him. According to the present trend, we may suppose that even on the morning after the Day of Judgment—if such a thing were possible—every cabaret, every night club, every newspaper firm eager for advertisements and subscribers, every nest of political fanatics, every pagan discussion group, indeed, every Christian tea-party and Church synod would resume business to the best of its ability, and with a new sense of opportunity, completely unmoved, quite uninstructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before. Fire, drought, earthquake, war, pestilence, the darkening of the sun and similar phenomena are not the things to plunge us into real anguish, and therefore to give us real peace. The Lord was not in the storm, the earthquake or the fire (1 Kg. 19:11f.). He really was not.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics,  III.2, 114-5. 

(Thank goodness for the copy and paste function in my copy of the Church Dogmatics on CD-Rom!)

Despite the clear historical references here, there is a timelessness to Barth’s observation as well. While it might be scary to think about what could happen if the economy to our neighbors to the south collapses and causes a world-wide economic depression, it is likely that we will somehow adapt.

We may suppose that God uses “crisis points” in our history as primarily a way of getting our attention. This was certainly in the forefront of many minds during 9/11 and the Tsunami. While many people in fact are drawn to God during such times, Barth points out in this passage that because humans have an amazing ability to adapt to historical crisis, it also means that such flash points rarely have a sustaining effect on the attention and true worship we give to the truly transcendent God who has come close to us in Jesus Christ. This may explain more fully why Barth was hesitant to mention these incidents in his dogmatic work. But the more important point, I think, is the even scarier thought that not only can we domesticate these cataclysmic historical events, we are so easily able to domesticate the transcendent God (with due acknowledgement to William Placher’s excellent book of a similar title). Woe to theologians, theology students and pastors when the truly transcendent God deserving of our worship becomes “normal”!

Psalm 106:2 Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD, or declare all his praise? (NRSV)


“On Barth, the Bible and Newspapers”

Barth is regularly quoted as saying that pastors and theologians need to read the Bible on one knee and the newspaper on the other. I’ve often wondered about the source of that quotation. While not the final word on the matter, it is worth a quick visit over to the Princeton Barth Center pages where this very issue is dealt with. The short answer is, No, Barth probably never said this is so few words (did he ever say anything in so few words?), though the spirit of the saying is close to something Barth would say. You can read about it here.

Exploring “positive secularity” (?)

Rather than burying this in a comment to a previous post, I’ll just start a new post…

First off, I probably should have dug a bit deeper on the concept of “positive secularity.” Sarcozy was hardly the first to suggest this idea, but was suggested already in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI himself.

I don’t think we know nearly enough about the concept of “positive secularity” (see earlier post) to engage in a fair critique, or even to speculate if this idea has parallels to Canadian ideas. My intent in citing Sarcozy was not to critique him (even though I gave an initial, perhaps unfair, jab myself) but to explore whether the very idea of “positive secularity” could be a fruitful way to help us to begin to clarify why allowing religion into the mix in public dialogue has been so problematic. (Whatever Sarcozy meant or means by the phrase, while not unimportant, it is somewhat beside the point here.) That is, the reason I can’t critique “positive secularity” here is precisely because it is an idea waiting to be filled out–something I want to do here. The idea may not prove ultimately to be fruitful, but it is far too early in the conversation to conclude that. Thus the deliberate question mark in the original title of the post.

Before filling the concept out, though, we do need to be clear that I (and many others) see an important difference between “secularism” and “secularity”–terms which have often been thrown about as synonyms, when in fact they are not. While probably an oversimplification, the main difference is that “secularism” is an ideological stance, while “secular” or “secularity” is meant to describe an “actuality” or “state of being.” That is, the reality is that the Canadian system of governance is “secular”–it is a system of governance which at a practical level operates in such a way that no one religious position is privileged in the day-to-day governance. The question is whether that secular reality in governance has led to a view of the State that is ideologically committed to “secularism,” where not only is no religion privileged (“secular”), but religion is, a priori, barred wholesale from participation (i.e., “secularism”). Further, I want to point out that it is still unclear (at least to me) where the Canadian state stands between being “secular,” on one hand, and being being ideologically “secularist,” on the other. But it DOES seem clear to me that the population of Canada is far from being “secular”–Canadians are still very religious in outlook, even if we grant that there are many who see themselves as completely secular or non-religious. And herein is the dilemma we face: Is it possible to live in a “religiously diverse” context which is governed by a “secular state” and yet allow religious people (with religious ideas, no less!) to engage in the public debate (i.e., “positive secularity”)? Or does a secular state necessitate that religion be barred a priori from public debate (i.e., “negative secularity”, or indeed, ‘secularism’)? 

A question of the how “tolerance” is used these days was mentioned by Barry and Bill. While there are many problems with the way “tolerance” is thrown around these days as a watchword, I don’t think having a commit to tolerance per se is necessarily the problem. There is a positive and negative sense of tolerance as well. And just because we may think that the form of tolerance often appealed to in Canadian society is in fact condescending and negative, (and frankly, intolerant of those with religious views!), this does not mean that there is not a good (dare I say, biblical) view of tolerance that could be translated into a politically usable concept. Can we conceive of a country where the state allows for freedom for religious claims to be included in debates concerning the public good without necessarily saying that we have thereby now committed to allowing one religion to be privileged? Again, the contrast between “negative” and “positive secularity” might be helpful to show that a “secular” country need not necessarily be ideologically secularist, even if that seems to be the path we have been on.  

I think Sarcozy’s phrase “positive secularity” might be useful in helping us to ask this: Since our society consists of religious and non-religious alike, why is it that the “late modern liberal democracy” can only be understood to work best by shutting out all religious opinion in public dialogue and debate in favour of purely non-religious opinions and options? (This is what I am calling “negative secularity”, or perhaps more accurately, just plain old “secularism”).  Is it not possible to conceive of a country operating under a principle of “positive secularity” in which no one religion is de facto favoured in reference to goverance, but which nevertheless does not see its role as suppressing the reality of religious plurality in favour of a “non-religious” position as the only legitimate point of public debate? Is there not a way to allow Christians to speak AS Christians, and Muslims to speak as Muslims, and atheists to speak as atheists in public debate about public policy without necessarily privileging, before the debate begins, the non-religious position?

It is this sense of “freedom” that I think O’Donovan (as noted in my previous post) is trying to get us to think about. It is a freedom that we as Christians believe is enabled by what God has done in Christ–even a freedom that allows non-Christians freedom not to be Christian, even while Christians are free to be and to speak as–Christians. We are free to speak as Christians, and we are free to allow others to speak as non-Christians, precisely because under Christ’s authority, there is no human authority that is ultimately binding to conscience and conviction?

I like the way Karl Barth poignantly puts it, “[Christ’s] kingdom is neither a barracks nor a prison, but the home of those who in, with, and by Him are free.” (Church Dogmatics, II/2, 311).

Karl Barth: The Work of the Theologian

“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk—taedium [loathing]—in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, p. 656.