§1.4.3- Women Can Write Sermons; They Just Can’t Preach Them: Karl Barth vs John Piper

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

1101620420_400One of the problems I had with the Bible before I became a Christian and one of the problems I’ve continued to have since I became a Christian are those nooks and crannies of the Bible (which usually don’t come with red letters) that seem to have nothing to do with who God has shown God to be in Jesus Christ.

You know those passages I mean.

You can usually find them on bumper stickers or in the comments to blog posts. They’re the parts of the Bible most often used in ways that only by willing cognitive dissonance can one imagine Jesus using those passages in the selfsame way.

You know what I mean.

Think of the picket signs: ‘God hates fags’ -Romans 1.26-27

Here’s another of those Bible turds:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

It’s from 1 Timothy 2.

Admittedly, my religious and professional life is lived in the left-of-center world of MainSideline Christianity yet I’m still amused- shocked, my wife would prefer me to say- that there are Christians in 21st America who still labor over how to apply such a passage literally to their life.

John-Piper2Here’s a recent example of “renown” Calvinist Baptist (there’s an unexplored oxymoron) pastor, John Piper, doing just that, picking apart the implications of 1 Timothy 2 with the deprecision of a Pharisee.

Have a listen. Then after you’ve picked your jaw off the floor, you can continue reading.

      1. John Piper's an Idiot

In case you didn’t actually listen: John Piper’s radio show received a breathlessly sincere question about whether 1 Timothy 2’s admonition forbids Christian men from reading biblical commentaries written by women. In response, Piper didn’t come down with a hard yes but that it even took him several minutes to answer should tell you that he’s fielding questions way, way out in right field.

The logic of Piper’s conclusion nets this nifty corollary:

Women can write sermons. They just can’t preach them.

Unless, of course, no one in the congregation has a johnson.

Seriously, Piper- just as many other Christians do- approaches scripture like strict constructionists do the Constitution, as an absolute, unchanging law book.

But here’s my question:

How does Piper’s use of the word of God in this particular case in any way glorify or point to the One Word of God, Jesus Christ?

You see that’s the problem with treating the Bible the way Antonin Scalia treats the Bill of Rights.

It flattens scripture. If it’s all the literal, infallible word of God then every part of the Bible is equally authoritative.

The holiness codes in Leviticus telling us about fabrics, shellfish and homosexuality are as authoritative as the Sermon on the Mount telling us about forgiveness, enemies and turning the other cheek.

In other words, understanding the Bible as the literal, infallible word of God relativizes the Word of God.

Jesus Christ.

I bring this up not just because I think John Piper is a morally repugnant cretin.

I bring it up because this exactly what Karl Barth is after in the Church Dogmatics 1.4.3 when he writes that:

“The Bible is God’s Word as it really bears witness to revelation (Christ)…the Bible is not in itself and as such God’s past revelation” (108).

The Bible, says Barth, is only God’s Word when the Holy Spirit commissions it to witness to the revelation of Christ.

“Witnessing meaning pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another” (109).

crucifixionBarth makes the analogy to the famous Grunewald painting wherein John points with his finger at the Crucified Christ.

Like John, scripture “becomes” the Word of God only as it points to the Crucified and Risen Messiah.

If it doesn’t do that, its not the Word of God. It’s words on a page or empty syllables on a preacher’s lips.

Barth’s doctrine of scripture creates the freedom for me to say (faithfully) that John Piper’s explication of 1 Timothy 2 is not the Word of God.

It’s crap.

But Barth didn’t have John Piper in mind when he wrote CD 1.4.3

No, what’s going on here with Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God is a motif my teacher (in both theology and beard growing), George Hunsinger, called ‘Actualism.’ That is, for Barth, God’s being is defined in terms of Event and Relationship. hunsinger-george-(200x220)

This is contrary to the ancient philosophers who conceived of God’s being as ‘substance’ and contrary to modernist liberals who thought of God in terms of ideas or universal principles.

For Barth, God’s Being is Event and Relationship.

The Trinity, for example, shows that God, at the core, is an ongoing friendship of Father, Son and Spirit.

As Trinity, God is both Event and Relationship.

I know that sounds abstract so I’ll land the plane.

For Barth, scripture is never the Word of God in itself.

It can only become (Event) the Word of God when graced by the activity of the Holy Spirit in our midst (Relationship). 

Scripture as the Word of God must always be a happening because God, as Father, Son and Spirit, is eternally a happening. 

So stick it John Piper.

Jason Micheli

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11 responses to §1.4.3- Women Can Write Sermons; They Just Can’t Preach Them: Karl Barth vs John Piper

  1. Morgan Guyton April 8, 2013 at 7:49 PM

    Well played.

  2. I found your blog via Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed site. Very interesting arguments you present, but weakened, I think, by the name-calling. I wholeheartedly disagree with Piper on most points, but calling him a “cretin” and an “idiot” calls to mind Jesus’s warning about being liable to judgement for calling another “raca.”. Thanks for the otherwise very thoughtful piece. (Also recoiled at referencing the I Timothy verse a “turd” but take your point that its misconstrual has caused a lot of injustice and unnecessary pain.)

    • Jason Micheli April 8, 2013 at 9:28 PM

      Fair point on the judgmental tone! It’s both a reflection of my own unfiltered inner monologue and the reality that it engages more readers.

      • So, you can’t imagine that Paul’s instruction fits with the Word of God–Christ. I get it. But, how does your unfiltered inner monologue for the purpose of a few more hits on your page–how does this fit the Christ? I thought your post on Scot’s site was intriguing, that’s why I came here. But, I doubt I will be coming back. This kind of vitriol is what turned me away from the Calvinists.

        • Jason Micheli April 9, 2013 at 4:19 PM

          Well, on the one hand I understand the pushback completely. My parishioners would tell you, however, the unfiltered inner monologue isn’t so much my inner monologue as it’s who I am, warts and all. But yes, mockery isn’t authentically Christlike. On the other hand, I wonder if my response should’ve been stronger. I have enough female friends, clergy colleagues (to say nothing of gay friends and friends who’ve had tragedy in their lives), who’ve been victimized by Piper’s way of using the bible that I think righteous anger (which for me includes mockery) is an appropriate response.

  3. WOW, a surprisingly well written theological article in TIME. Here is my favourite line:
    “How does Piper’s use of the word of God in this particular case in any way glorify or point to the One Word of God, Jesus Christ?
    You see that’s the problem with treating the Bible the way Antonin Scalia treats the Bill of Rights. It flattens scripture. If it’s all the literal, infallible word of God then every part of the Bible is equally authoritative. The holiness codes in Leviticus telling us about fabrics, shellfish and homosexuality are as authoritative as the Sermon on the Mount telling us about forgiveness, enemies and turning the other cheek.
    In other words, understanding the Bible as the literal, infallible word of God relativizes the Word of God: Jesus Christ. (Weird and bad use of font and I had to clean up his grammar, but otherwise a VERY IMPORTANT POINT !!!) Bravo Mr. Micheli.

  4. My questions are related to your description of Karl Barth’s theology of the Word of God.
    I write these questions not as attacks but honest questions. I am a former evangelical Christian who is wrestling with my own understanding of the authority of Scripture and who has only recently begun to explore the work of Barth.

    1. Who, then, if your view of Scripture is taken, decides what is truly the Word of God in the Bible? If we don’t like something in Scripture are we free to throw it out or dismiss it and say that it is obviously not the Word of God? This seems extremely dangerous to me. I certainly do not trust myself or my fellow human beings to see things clearly or judge without prejudice (nor, apparently, does Scripture–we see through a glass darkly, heart is desperately wicked, etc., etc.) If we take your/Barth’s? view of the Bible are we doomed to only accept as the Word of God that which we have been culturally conditioned to find personally moral and good? What happens to sitting under Scripture, submitting to it and allowing it to change our hearts and minds?

    2. Are you sure that your blog post accurately describes Barth’s view of Scripture? In my admittedly limited reading of Barth, my impression has been that he had a very high view of Scripture. He believed that Scripture was authoritative in some sense. John Webster, in a section on the Word of God in Karl Barth says, “the Word of God in its pure form…is surrounded by and only approachable through the human speech-acts of Scripture and proclamation which are appointed by God to be its bearers and witnesses, so becoming themselves God’s Word by derivation.” Webster goes on to say: “The Word of God is the Word written: that is, the canon of Holy Scripture is God’s Word. In the same way that proclamation is the herald of divine speech, so also Scripture is an instrument of divine communication, attesting to and recollecting the fact that the Word has already been spoken by God.”

    • Jason Micheli April 9, 2013 at 4:15 PM

      Thanks for the questions, Ron. There’s a lot here so I think I will delay the answers and try to incorporate your questions into the next posts on Barth’s section on the WoG in the CD, if that’s okay. Then, you can let me know how or if at all I’ve sufficiently addressed them.

  5. I needed this today. I have been wrestling with my experience in the LGBTQ community and my passion for Barth’s theology. Well played, indeed.

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