Archives For Church Dogmatics

barth_in_pop_art_5This weekend I’ll continue the Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways Jesus Saves Us, with a brief homily on anger.

Wrath.

In the tradition, each of the capital vices is thought to have a correlative virtue: humility to sin’s pride.

But what about anger? Wrath?

And how is it that a word that counts as a deadly sin (wrath) when applied to humanity can simultaneously count as a divine attribute when applied to God?

Is our wrath part of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God?

Or is God, in God’s wrath, less human than us?

Wrath is perhaps the easiest of the deadly sins to put into the context of the atonement- how Jesus saves us- for the most pervasive understanding of the Cross in the modern West is that of penal substitution, the idea that on the Cross Jesus suffers the full wrath of God otherwise directed against sinners like us.

While the language of substitution is certainly biblical, I’ve commented here before that I think the suggestion that Jesus suffers the Father’s wrath raises a number of moral and theological problems:

How is one Person of the Trinity directed against another Person?

How is it that the God who in the Son spoke of peace and putting away the sword and dies without resorting to violence uses violence to redeem?

And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?

How is God, who is not a Being in the Universe, affected by my or your sin?

How is it that God, who is immutable and impassible, has God’s disposition towards us changed by the Cross?

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002Above all, though, the death of Fred Phelps has me wondering if Christians make an idol out of God’s wrath, defending its scriptural warrant and theo-logic in order to justify our own prejudices.

In this suspicion I have an ally in Karl Barth, who famously reworked penal substitution in his Church Dogmatics. Elsewhere, Barth recognized how dangerous a doctrine like ‘God’s Wrath’ could be in the hands of sinners.

We are exhorted in the Epistle to the Romans to a particular line of conduct, not in order that we may adopt the point of view of God, but that we might bear it in mind, consider it from all sides, and then live within its gravity.

To judge involves the capacity to assign guilt and to envelop an action in wrath. God has this capacity and exercises it continuously. But, as the capacity of God, it is invisibly one with His forgiveness and with the manifestation of His righteousness.

Our action in judging possesses, however, nothing of this double-sidedness. We do not possess the divine freedom of rejecting AND electing.

When we permit ourselves to judge others, we are caught up in condemnation: the result is that we merely succeed in erecting the wrath of God as an idol. . . .

When God rejects and hardens there is hope and promise. . . .

How different it is when men, putting themselves in God’s place, put stumblingblocks in the way of other men. They seek only to harden, and not to liberate; only to bind, and not to loose; only to kill, and not to make alive. . . . Here once again the supreme right is the supreme wrong, if we suppose that right is OUR right.

Epistle to the Romans, 516 

barth_in_pop_art_5There’s something fragile, foolhardy and yet frighteningly beautiful about the vantage point that ministry offers upon the faith of ordinary believers and their extra ordinary, in the pejorative sense, priests and pastors.

On more than a one occasion, I’ve sat through a pointless church meeting or an inane clergy gathering and been struck by this realization: the very testimony to which we respond every Sunday ‘The Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God’ was written by believers who, in all likelihood, were every bit as sinful, ignorant, and only partially faithful as the people gathered around me right now.

Prefixing the author of Luke with ‘Saint’ lends him beatific hues. Thinking of the author of Luke as the chair of your Church Council, however, might give you pause before you chime in ‘Thanks be to God’ next Sabbath.

And yet ministry also offers a glimpse into the mysterious depth of an ostensibly ‘simple’ faith. Alongside the regular dosage of bitter reality, ministry also provides concrete confirmation that, in spite of ourselves, the living God can be known and, even more remarkably, the unknowable God can be witnessed to by people like us who don’t know nearly as much as we pretend.

Now, there are Christians for whom those initial sentences constitute not just a couple of paragraphs but heresy.

For them, scripture is a miracle on par with the incarnation itself. Some many Christians would describe the miracle of scripture as ‘inerrancy;’ that is, God has miraculously kept the Bible free from any error. The Bible’s power and authority then derive from its being devoid of any historical mistakes (worldwide census in Luke 2), theological inconsistencies (Mark’s Gospel vs John’s), or scientific problems (Genesis). Indeed many Christians treat the ‘Word’ as though it fell from heaven, printed and bound and translated in to the King James; therefore, it must be without error.

Such a ‘high’ view of scripture, however, comes with much risk, for if scripture’s power and authority derives from its inerrancy then even the most inconsequential of historical, scientific, or theological errors threaten to undermine the whole.

When the authority of scripture is based not on God but on a particular doctrine about scripture, confidence in God can easily unravel.

The recent debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and that idiot creationist from Kentucky is but one obvious example. At stake in that particular debate was neither science nor faith in God but in one particular doctrine of scripture.

The same is true of the debates around same-sex marriage. At their most base, in both senses of the word, their debates about scripture’s authority.

One of features that first drew me to Karl Barth was how he charts a fresh, vigorous way forward through the stale liberal-conservative divide over scripture.

According to Barth in §19.2, the “miracle of scripture” is not its inerrancy- the groundless supposition that God kept the Bible free from humanness, especially human fallibility and sin.

No, the miracle of scripture is indeed a subset of the miracle of incarnation:

God makes himself known through what is human, always limited and partial, and frequently mistaken:

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

Around Christmastime, Christians make a lot of hay out of the fact that in Christ God takes flesh- and not any pristine, idealized flesh but the very ordinary stuff of our lives. As the ancients believed: ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ In other words, for our entire fleshly selves to be redeemed our entire fleshly selves are somehow mysteriously present in the Incarnate One.

Seldom however do we make the same hay out of scripture’s incarnational nature, yet the miracle is the same. God can use the most human of mediums for revelation and grace. In a certain sense, for Barth, to wish the Bible were something other than what it is (a fallible, human witness) is akin to wishing the Incarnation were less human and more spiritually sanitized than it was:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

That is, to ground the Bible’s authority and power in something other than God is to unwittingly long for a God other than the God we have: the God who reveals himself through corrupt, finite, sinful things.

For Barth, biblical inerrancy is a rejection of grace: it rejects the gift God has given us (an unmerited, incarnational text) in favor of something we deem, through our doctrine, to be better.

But ‘better’ is not an appropriate category when speaking of grace.

barth_in_pop_art_5Karl Barth began his Church Dogmatics as the historical-critical method of interpreting scripture waned and fundamentalism waxed.

To this day both liberals and fundamentalists have problems with Karl Barth.

Exhibit A~ this choice quote from the beginning of §19.1:

‘Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.’

Why do liberals hate on Barth?

Wanting to be counted as a ‘legitimate’ discipline by the social sciences, liberals lauding the historical-critical method approached scripture with the pretensions of neutral objectivity, treating the formerly revealed text as any other time-bound, humanly-authored text. Not surprisingly, the historical-critical method only proved about the scriptural text what we now know about any text: they’re ripe fruit for our manipulation. Supposed neutral, objective scholarship of Barth’s day rendered a scriptural text and a Christ therein perfectly fashioned in the image of turn of the century German prejudices.

Barth skewers it better than me:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees a complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost canonical status in Protestant theology. But now we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”

In the CD, Barth distances liberates the practice of theology from the presumptuous strictures of the historical-critical method. Scripture, Barth reiterates throughout §19.1, is  self-attesting and self-verifying.

The bible cannot confirm claims made from outside and brought to it. The Word instead claims to witness to God’s revelation in Christ, the One Word of God, and when one enters the Word one discovers- is encountered- by the truth of its witness. Admittedly, the circularity of Barth’s argument is not without its problems, but I think Barth would argue (and I would concur) that those problems pale in comparison to the ones provoked by the sinful pretension to a neutral, objective appraisal of the text.

On the other hand, Barth also wants to distance dogmatics from the heresy of biblical literalism.

Scripture witnesses to the One Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not itself the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not the image of the invisible God, Jesus is.

Perhaps most importantly, the Son is eternal and was present at creation, scripture was not present at creation:

“…by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.”

Barth’s straddling both sides of the modern liberal-fundamentalist divide here. Barth wants to acknowledge the insight of historical-criticism (scripture is incarnational, every bit as flesh and divine as Jesus was) without abandoning the authority and truth of scripture’s witness to revelation. At the same time, Barth wants to stress the uniqueness and reliability of scripture’s witness without going down the rabbit hole of demanding that every jot and tittle come straight out of a burning bush.

In one sense, you could accuse Barth of cherry picking the most palatable of what the two sides serve, but by doing so I think Barth stumbles upon a very unique and powerful observation:

Scripture is authoritative in that it witnesses reliably to Christ as the revelation of God, but scripture became authoritative.

And scripture’s ongoing authority is always a becoming.

There is no ‘isness’ to scripture.

To put it a bit clearer, Barth creates the space for a progressive revelation in scripture without jettisoning the authority of scripture. As with any courtroom witness, the witness of scripture is sometimes clearer than it is at other points but this fact does not undermine the overall veracity of the testimony. That to which the witnesses points remains.

The problem with biblical literalism, which Barth aims to correct here, is that it conceives of the bible as eternal, outside of and unconditioned by time. While Barth stresses how there is no ‘isness’ to scripture, literalism speaks as though there’s nothing but a ‘wasness’ to scripture.

Literalism’s effect is to strip the biblical narrative of any meaningful chronology.

If scripture is all the inerrant Word of God, timeless (and thus contextless) then there is no sense in which scripture reflects ongoing development of thought or faith.

And if there is no development- no ‘progressive revelation’- then it’s hard to see how there’s any genuine relationship between God and humanity.

No where is Barth’s point more obvious than with how scripture reflects upon the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Often Christians and non assume the meaning of Jesus’ death is obvious or self-evident within the canon. Not so.

Within the New Testament, believers find how the meaning of the cross is the subject of ongoing, developing reflection.

The meaning Jesus himself ascribes to his impending death is not the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in Romans which is not exactly the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in 2 Corinthians or Ephesians, which is not the same meaning John ascribes to it in Revelation. Nor are any of those meanings necessarily exactly how the early Church understood Jesus’ death.

Where Jesus speaks of his death’s meaning in terms of the liberation of Passover (…‘Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many…’), Paul speaks of Jesus’ death with metaphors of substitution, exchange and recapitulation. In Colossians Paul sounds a note not unlike the one John attempts in Revelation: the slain lamb having disarmed the powers of this world.

What’s powerful about Barth’s ‘becoming by the Spirit’ take on scripture is how it recognizes and allows for- even celebrates- this give and take reflection and wrestling within the canon itself.

How remarkable is it that Paul and the other apostles felt the freedom to expand upon the meaning of Christ’s death beyond what Christ himself gave? How counterintuitive is it that the early Church did not feel the compulsion to canonize and harmonize these disparate perspectives into a single view?

In other words, it’s clear from reading scripture itself that scripture is always a ‘becoming.’

And what else could it be, really, if wrestling with scripture is a fundamental act of faith?

 

Barth_Writing

If he could ignore the fact that Barth was not a literalist, John Piper would love §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics.

Karl Barth made his theological debut with his blistering commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. ‘Commentary’ is in some ways a misnomer for what Barth was really commenting upon was the ossified failures of modern western liberalism. Barth channeled Paul’s rhetoric more so than commented upon it, like any good preacher, doing what Paul did rather than simply explaining what Paul said.

Where Paul fixed his ire against the moral corruption of a fallen 1st century world, Barth’s barely veiled enemy is the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ ethos that began the 21st century. In Barth’s (correct) estimation, the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ too easily slipped into the godhead of Man.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach had accused Christians of simply speaking of themselves in a loud voice when they spoke of God, and Barth, surveying the Christianity late 19th century modernity had bequeathed him, concluded: ‘Jah, pretty much.’

Knowing Barth’s predilection for rhetorical bullying when it comes to modernist liberalism, one should approach §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics with trepidation because it’s in this section that Barth applies the theme ‘Praise of God’ to the Jesus Creed from Mark 12:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Expecting Barth to offer an accurate, dispassionate interpretation of Mark is like asking the Capulet’s and Montague’s to provide fair and balanced coverage of one another.

The liberalism, which Barth is so much against, had esteemed the latter clause of Jesus’ command to the point that it eclipsed the former.

So it’s not surprising that §18.3 reveals Barth resisting a plain reading of the text.

Barth begins strong, claiming that the love of neighbor is but another way of saying ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.’ 

But then Barth proceeds to scratch his head like Columbo and suggest that it’s not so clear as first glance.

Barth sees 3 possibilities- he doesn’t really, but he wants us to play along:

  1. Love of Neighbor is another, second absolute command. If that is the case, then everything scripture says about love of God can and should be applied to God.

  2. There aren’t really two commands at all but one single, absolute demand. Love to God and love for neighbor are identical, the one must be understood as the other. If so, then we must show how God is to be loved in the neighbor and vice versa.

  3. Or the commandment to love God is first and absolute and absolutely distinct from all other commands while love of neighbor is first among all other subsidiary commands.

Against #1 Barth notes that the weight of scripture, which overwhelmingly echoes the first commandment, contradicts any reading that yields two rival commands and thus, Barth says, two gods. We can’t simply take everything scripture says about loving God and truck it into a definition for love of neighbor. The love of God is exclusive and cannot be given likewise to our neighbor.

Against #2 Barth plays the exegete noting that the text itself does not allow for us to view love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same. After all, Barth cleverly points out, Jesus does not say we should love our neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Clearly the two commands belong together but they do not cease to be two commands.

To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:

‘…God is the neighbor and the neighbor God.’

To my mind, this is where it becomes clear that Barth is more concerned with his own modernist context than the text itself for Jesus himself resolves the matter in Mark 12:

‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Not one to worry about muddying the waters or inconveniencing us, Jesus makes the plural singular.

As §18.3 continues Barth takes a look at the Good Samaritan story. Given what he does to the Jesus Creed you can imagine how this goes.

Basically, Barth seems terrified by the prospect that Jesus would suggest  that in order to inherit eternal life love of God alone won’t cut it. You also have to love your neighbor in full, equal measure.

It’s always a pain in the ass when Jesus refuses to fit our preconceived theological and political categories, and here in §18.3 Barth wrestles with the fact that Jesus very obviously was not a Reformed Calvinist.

We are not saved by grace alone.

Apologies to Paul.

And this where I sometimes wish theology had the same disciplinary willingness to self-correct as science when it’s clear from the evidence that one’s presumptions were off the mark.

Instead, reacting in a ‘that can’t be’ way, Barth engages in some exegetical creativity.

It’s not that our love of neighbor is necessary ground for salvation (nevermind Matthew 25 also).

It remains the case that we’re saved by grace alone made manifest in our love of God.

What Jesus means by love of neighbor, therefore, is not our giving love to our neighbor (as the Good Samaritan parable clearly illustrates).

Rather love of neighbor refers to our receiving love and charity from our  neighbor as sign of God’s care for us.

Receiving our neighbor’s love is but another way we respond to God’s grace.

Barth thus secures the Reformed doctrine of ‘salvation by grace alone.’

At the expense- as often happens with Reformed doctrine- of scripture.

In another context, I would applaud Barth’s ability to show the relationship between our ability to receive a gift from our neighbor and our ability to receive the gift from God. I’m a terrible receiver of gifts and I’ve no doubt it’s due to a deficiency in my faith.

In §18.3, however, as clever as he is in his interpretation- because of his cleverness- I walk away thinking Barth sounds an awful lot like the hyper-parsing, ever-qualifying scribes and Pharisees:

‘Well, when you say ‘neighbor,’ who exactly is my neighbor?’

Barth_WritingI can’t retrieve enough high school German from the cobwebs of my memory to know if it’s a matter of translation or not, but sometimes reading Karl Barth can feel like the theological equivalent of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I imagine someone as self-effacing as Barth would take a dim view of someone as self-serious as Tom Wolfe; nevertheless, reading Barth can frequently feel… trippy.

Barth’s playfully meandering rhetoric, his flights of exegetical fancy, his abiding abstraction (an elusive God should lead to abstraction)- it can all quickly feel as intangible as a puff of smoke. Unmoored from the ordinary everydayness of life.

Barth is clear, for example, when breaking down the doctrine of the 3-Fold Word of God. It’s sometimes less clear though what Barth thinks the actual Christian life looks like.

In §18 of the Church Dogmatics Barth turns precisely to this question when he considers how, as redeemed children of God, the Christian life is a life of love and praise.

The topic of love is a dangerous one for Christians, I think. hauerwas

The gravest temptation for the Church in America, at least, is neither fundamentalism nor liberalism but sentimentality.

As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, most sermons in most churches tell us how Christianity is really just about how we’re to be loving to one another and ‘that’s just bullshit…there’s no reality behind that.’

It’s clear in §18.2 that Hauerwas gets his stubborn realism from Barth, for in §18 Barth insists that we refuse to let our own vague and sentimental ideas of love to be our definition for the love to which God calls us.

Rather- and this is exactly what lies behind Hauerwas calling bullshit on so much of Christian piety- we take our definition of love from the drama of salvation. And it’s in the drama of Christ’s Passion that we discover the necessarily cruciform shape of love.

Saying we love we ought to love one another sounds nice but it’s only truthful if the practice of such love might get you or your children killed.

Both Barth and Hauerwas reject platitudes about ‘the loving Jesus’ that seem to exhibit amnesia about Jesus’ love getting him strung up on a cross.

Any definition of ‘love’ has to make it obvious why people would want to kill Jesus.

Barth goes in §18 to show what many skeptics and liberals forget: that a rigorous commitment to the moral and ethical life (ie modeling Jesus’ life) goes hand-in- hand with a high Christology (a high view of Jesus as the 2nd Person of the Trinity, 100% God and 100% Man). The love revealed to us as ‘for us’ in Christ’s Cross is a love that precedes the Cross. It’s a love that is eternal in that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; therefore, God is love before the first day of creation.

Because the love revealed to us on the Cross is a love that is eternal and constitutive of God’s very identity, what it means for Christians to love is more than simply to receive the grace offered through the cross.

It means more than personally, passively, individually ‘accepting Jesus into your heart.’ It means to embody and enact the cruciform story of Christ in community, for the love we find in the cross is a love that first comes from the community that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

To be ‘loving’ then can never be anything but cruciform. Suffering love isn’t for Jesus only because the love we see revealed by the cross is the Love in whose image we’ve been made.

 

UnknownThe guys at Homebrewed Christianity better watch out. We’re going to start doing a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

To kick things off, we snagged Will Willimon.

Jesus must have a sense of humor, and I love the irony.

A year ago I got in trouble with my bishop for posting about farts on this blog.

Last week I found myself on the phone with Methodism’s most famous and important voice, Bishop Will Willmon, making jokes about sex and mas%$#$@#$%^ (‘it’s sex with someone I love).

All sprinkled with a generous helping of curse words.

We edited some- but not all- of it.

The rest is vintage Willimon: pithy, deeply theological and as arresting as a slap across the face.

Which, by the way, is how he describes Karl Barth’s effect on him.

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.0

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon will be our guest preacher on Sunday, March 30 and will host a ‘Lunch with the Bishop’ Forum that same day.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Kendall Soulen, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Lynch and others in the queue.

You can listen to the Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

barth_tagungOn the fashionably skeptical (ie, intellectually lazy) side these days are the ‘Nones,’ represented by that most tedious of cliches “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I second Lillian Daniel who writes — in response to the dumb flight companion who condescends “I’m spiritual but not religious” — “Please stop boring me.”

Not to mention that it’s hardly self-evident what ‘spirituality’ has to do with nitty-gritty particularity like Jesus. Regardless, it’s assumed that ‘religion’ is a lesser, less enlightened endeavor than spirituality. In ‘religion’ you have tradition and hierarchy and commands and God telling you how to live your life. Whereas with ‘spirituality’ you have…no one telling you how to live your life.

Even on the religious side ‘religion’ is treated in pejorative tones. Peter Rollins’ ‘God is dead’ theology is the rage among Emergent and Progressive Christians. Diana Butler Bass’ recent book, Christianity After Religion, documents the rise of the ‘Nones’ and charts a religionless way forward for communities of faith; meanwhile Evangelicals persist in hijacking Bonhoeffer for themselves with choice quotes like his pondering the ideal of a ‘religionless Christianity.’

Religionless Christianity = Christianity without church, worship services, prayer, doctrine, sacraments, and sermons.

It’s about relationship not religion!

Which of course is the perfect recipe to yield a Christianity without Jesus.

A ‘Jesus-inspired’ spirituality let’s say.

Neo-Calvinists like Tim Keller, who otherwise have nothing in common with the likes of Peter Rollins or Diana Butler Bass, nevertheless distinguish between ‘religion’ and the ‘Gospel.’

Religion, Keller likes to say, tells you what YOU have to do to earn God’s favor. The Gospel is the declaration is that there’s nothing YOU have to do to earn God’s favor. Christ has died for your sin, in your place, so that the prodigal Father can welcome you home.

Nevermind that this Calvinist definition of the Gospel in no way matches how Peter and the Apostles defined it: Christ whom you crucified has been raised from the dead and has given dominion over the Earth.

I don’t really know what the big deal is about ‘religion.’ You’d think it would be fairly obvious that when people gather together to worship God by means of ancient, communally-constructed practices meant to bind them both to God and one another they’re engaged in what Emile Durkheim labeled ‘religion.’

This looking down the nose at ‘religion’ is nothing new. The title for the next section in Barth’s Church Dogmatics is “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.”

Barth begins this section in the affirmative.

What we do as Christians is comparable with other religions. Yes, Christianity begins with God’s initiative, God’s revelation, God’s speech. But we are the indirect objects of God’s speech and, as such, we as receivers of God’s revelation participate in a human phenomenon known as ‘religion.’

Barth’s up to more here than just treating religion as the polluted byproduct of humanity’s messing with the ‘spiritual.’

For Barth, ‘religion’ isn’t the opposite of spirituality; it’s the other side of ‘revelation.’

Revelation reminds us of how Christianity remains distinct from everything else that falls under the label ‘religion,’ for revelation insures that Christianity will never end up being what every other religion was after all along.

‘Religion’ is not a more general term for traditions that all mean, intend and pursue the same things once you brush aside their cultural particularity. Christianity is not one spoke among many leading to a common central hub.

We’re not all alike, Barth insists, which is the foundation for Barth’s resistance to apologetics- rationally explaining Christian belief by means of other, generally-accepted terms and premises.

Revelation is God’s pursuit of humanity.

Religion is humanity’s pursuit of God.

As Barth says:

Revelation singles out the Church as the locus of true religion. But this does not mean that the Christian religion as such is the fulfilled nature of human religion. It does not mean that the Christian religion is the true religion, fundamentally superior to all other religions. We can never stress too much the connection between the truth of the Christian religion and the grace of revelation. We have to give particular emphasis to the fact that the Church lives by grace, and to that extent it is the locus of true religion. 

Living by grace will mean living by the grace of God in Christ. There is a particular identity to the church as the grace people–an identity tied to the name Jesus Christ and the story of his life, death, and resurrection.

For Barth, ‘religion’ isn’t a category we need condescend; it’s not the opposite of enlightened spirituality shorn of all manmade traditions.

For Barth, the term ‘religion’ simply reminds us that all attempts to know God rely upon the grace manifest in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Religion has to be a man-made phenomena because the only way to God is God’s revealing of himself in Christ.

So it’s not that you can be spiritual without being religious; it’s that you can’t really be either apart from God’s grace.

Barth_WritingIn §16.1 Barth pointed out relentlessly that Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

The question asked by Barth in §16.1 is this:

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

In §16.2 Barth turns to the question begged by those former questions:

Why is it that others do not hear God speak?

If the whole ball of wax- our fulfillment as creatures of God, our salvation and our being caught up in the redemptive story- hinges on our hearing the Word of God then how come some hear but some do not?

Is it their fault for not hearing? Their hardness of heart, to use scripture’s language?

Or is their not hearing God’s choice? Does/did God harden their heart, to use scripture’s language?

In my own Anglican/Wesleyan tradition, the salvation made possible through Christ’s atoning work is freely available to all. We’re all able, to use Barth’s terms, to hear God speak.

In the Calvinist tradition, towards which Wesley felt little sympathy, this question is answered by the ‘L’ of TULIP: Limited Atonement. That is, Christ died for some, not all. And thus with floral imagery, Calvinists skirt the logical problem of why some do not believe, do not hear God speak: Christ didn’t die for them. They do not belong to the eternal elect.

And if God didn’t choose you for salvation- the pretty flower imagery runs out of gas right about here- God chose you for damnation.

Don’t believe? Scratch your head when your religious friends share how God spoke to them in prayer last night? Wonder what the catch is when everyone responds ‘Thanks be’ to the churchy cue: ‘The Word of God for the People of God?’

Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s God.

He chose you for damnation.

Before the foundation of the world.

A Swiss Reformed pastor, Barth’s tradition was steeped in Calvinism, but in §16.2 Barth again charts new ground.

As he did in §16.1 Barth responds by way of the Holy Spirit.

Too often the question is posed rigidly (and simplistically) by both Wesleyans and Calvinists, as though it’s an either/or dichotomy of ‘free will’ versus ‘predestination.’ Either we’re free to choose or not choose God or God chose for all of us before all time.

Barth pushes back by arguing that any freedom we have to hear or be for God is a freedom that God gives to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We’re free says Barth only because God the Holy Spirit makes us free, which is Barth’s way of channeling Luther who himself channeled Paul: it’s only in slavery to God that we’re ever really free.

It’s what Paul means when he speaks of Christ transferring us from one kingdom to another Kingdom.

It’s what Paul intends by marrying language of our submission to Christ as a consequence of Christ having set us free from the powers of Sin and Death.

What the typical ‘free will vs predestination’ debate misses is the New Testament belief that we are free only to the extent that we participate in the freeing work of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. Too often Wesleyans overestimate human freedom while just as often Calvinists do away with it altogether, as though all of life were an episode of Lost.

Those who follow Wesley need to hear Barth’s reminder that the freedom that comes to us through the Spirit is a freedom that comes to us from outside ourselves.

It’s not something which we’re naturally imbued.

We’re not all born free, theologically speaking.

Those who follow Calvin, on the other hand, need reminding that this freedom from outside ourselves does actually to us.

In the end, Barth doesn’t really answer the question (Why Do Some Not Hear God Speak?) so much as he muddles it. With Barth, human freedom (or lack thereof) is such that you can’t easily accuse someone of being hardhearted. Then again, with Barth, the Spirit does give freedom to hear so it’s not simply that God has hardened every unbeliever’s heart.

The answer, as it should, is more mysterious.

Barth_Writing

‘The Word of God for the People of God’

‘Thanks be to God.’

That’s the usual response after the reading of scripture in my church’s worship as it is most congregations.

And whenever I read scripture during the liturgy, I preface the reading with the invitation ‘Listen for the Word of the Lord’ rather than the imperative, common in many churches: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord.’

I prefer the invitation over the imperative because, as we all know, not everyone within hearing of the scripture reading has actually heard the Word of God.

To hear the Bible read is not to have heard the Living God speak.

It’s not so simple or so easy. I like to invite people to listen for God’s Word in much the same manner as I’ll shush my boys while we’re hiking in the mountains. Be quiet, still yourselves, the scripture reader is telling the congregation. Listen for God’s Word because it might just pass you by.

When it comes to God’s Word, active discernment not passive reception is required.

One of the old confessions of the Church acknowledges as much by professing:

‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’

That is, the word of God (scripture) is not a living, active witness to the one Word of God (Christ) until it’s been faithfully read, faithfully proclaimed and faithfully received by its hearers.

(That’s how you can disqualify preachers who use the Bible for other ends, i.e. Joel Osteen)

The scripture reading then is as mysterious as any other part of the liturgy, eucharist included, because to hear the Word of God is not merely to hear God’s previous revelation read it’s to participate in God’s ongoing revelation in the present.

This the mystery Barth tackles in §16.1 of the Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s already wrapped together as diverse topics as Christology, Pneumatology and the Trinity under his Volume 1 heading ‘The Word of God.’ Now Barth applies the doctrine of revelation to God’s revealing of himself to humanity.

As Barth points out relentlessly, Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

Which begs another question: Why is it that others do not?

To answer the former question, Barth turns to the Holy Spirit. Barth is often accused of being so radically Christo-centric that he has no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology, but here in §16.1 Barth points to the Holy Spirit as the agent through whom God reveals today.

Not only is it a deep mystery that God speaks; it’s as deep a mystery that we hear.

For Barth the human response ignited by the Holy Spirit is part of the same “revelation” as Christ himself. Every worship service in a sense is still a part of the very first Christmas Eve. It’s part of the same unfolding of God’s Word taking flesh.

This is not unlike what Paul tells the Corinthians: that God was in Christ reconciling the world and now this ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We’re the extension of Christ, God’s revelation, to the world.

Anyone who accepts the invitation to listen for the Word of God is accepting a summons.

 

Barth_WritingThe first week of the Advent season is as good a chunk of the calendar as any to turn over into §15 of Barth’s more than chunky (girthy?) Church Dogmatics.

We’re just now beginning to anticipate the birth of Christ, and Barth concludes part 2 of the Church Dogmatics with an unpacking of the incarnational mystery: Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.

Karl Barth’s high Christology, his primary way of identifying Jesus Christ as the ‘God-Man’ according to the Chalcedon definition, leads Barth to put more emphasis on the virgin birth than you might expect from a Protestant.

Whereas most Protestants reduce the incarnation to its utility- Jesus is born to die, for us- Barth sees the very becoming human of the eternal, preexistent Word is itself God’s revelation.

Therefore, says Barth, the incarnation is “the prime mystery” and “our reconciliation” (§15.3).

Indeed Barth’s marveling over the incarnation leads him in a direction that seems more Patristic than Protestant, nearly implying that the incarnation itself is salvific.

Throughout §15 Barth argues that the virgin birth is the bible’s way of pointing to the mystery and revelation that Jesus is the incarnate God-Man.

In other words, the virgin birth is so important to Barth because if the Son (as in, not Mary’s son but the 2nd Person of the Trinity) is the Father’s preexistent, eternal  decision to be ‘God-for-us’ in which heaven and earth, finite and infinite, are united then the incarnation is more than just the curtain rising on a drama where all the importance stuff happens in Act 3 or 4.

The incarnation is itself revelatory.

And maybe even salvific.