Archives For Church Dogmatics

imagesLike the Almighty Narnian lion that bears his name, the arrival Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has been felt across the cultural landscape.

Thanks to (possibly in reaction against?) a prejudice-confirming, cringe-inducing interview on Fox News Aslan’s book has ascended to the top of bestseller lists, which are usually less interested in Jesus than they are in life lessons gleaned from dogs.

If not for the viral Fox News interview and the author’s own Muslim biography, Aslan’s book might have disappeared with nary a notice like the many that have come and gone before it.

I think this most certainly would’ve been its fate. I say this because, unlike the Fox ‘journalist’ who interviewed Reza Aslan, I’ve actually read his book.

And while his arguments may be challenging for Christians and the questions raised by them good ones,

Aslan essentially regurgitates 19th century German historical-biblical criticism that first posited and then went down the rabbit-hole searching for the ‘real’ Jesus of history behind the propagandized Jesus of faith put forward by the authors of the New Testament.

It’s a happy coincidence that Karl Barth can enter this conversation through 2 different doorways- 3 if you want to talk about how Barth, author or the Barmen Declaration, would feel about the jingoism frequently on display on Fox News.

Door #1: 453703048

Karl Barth’s theological program, first in his commentary on Romans and later in the CD, was an explicit attempt to disavow the 19th century German theological and biblical scholarship mentioned above, which Barth had inherited as a student near the turn of the century.

Barth had seen firsthand, in the capitulation of the Church to the Kaiser in WWI and in the horrors committed by German ‘Christians’ in WWII, the devastating effects of searching for a Jesus of history rather than submitting to the Jesus of faith. If the root sin beneath all sins is idolatry- our wishing to fashion a god in our image- then Barth believed constructing a portrait of the ‘historical Jesus’ had proved a fatal temptation.

Before anyone gets too excited about Zealot, I think Barth would caution that historical Jesus conjectures made possible the Nazis’ de-judaizing Jesus which made possible their dehumanizing of Jews.

Door #2: 

One of arguments- asides really- in Aslan’s book is that the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as possessing the power to perform miracles is hardly a novel conceit. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not the only miracle worker in 1st century Palestine, Aslan argues. Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, he says, does not prove or even imply his divinity, a status later believers attributed to Jesus.

Aslan is correct in his assessment that Jesus was only one among many miracle-workers in Palestine.

In his suggestion that the New Testament does not present Jesus as uniquely singular miracle worker, Aslan is not only wrong he proves to be a shabby read of scripture.

Illustrating the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, Karl Barth in §11.1 serves up a solid rejoinder to arguments like Aslan’s.

Just think, Barth writes, that the oldest Christian confession- older even than any part of the NT- is ‘Jesus is Kyrios.’


Consider that Jews, for whom the first commandment was sacrosanct and the reason behind centuries of suffering, would, within the first generation of disciples, call anyone but God ‘Lord.’

Jews had routinely irked Caesar’s ire for refusing to call him ‘lord.’

But quickly after Good Friday many took to calling Jesus ‘Lord.’

As Barth writes:

‘…it cannot possibly have happened unawares and unintentionally that this word (kyrios) used to translate the name of God Yahweh-Adonai was then applied to Jesus.’

Aslan notes that later believers attributed to Jesus claims Jesus himself did not make for himself; however, Aslan fails to mention that those believers would’ve been breaking the first and overarching commandment by doing so…unless something (like a Resurrection) had convinced them that this Jesus and Yahweh were one and the same.

Barth then turns to a miracle stories to illustrate this point.

The Gospels’ miracles stories do not suggest Jesus’ divinity by pointing to his ability to perform miracles. They do so by what is said in the miracles stories.

Take the healing of the paralytic in Mark. The story turns not on Jesus’ wonder-working but on a dispute about who has the power (ie, authority) to forgive sins.

To the Pharisees’ consternation, Jesus claims authority that belongs to God alone. The Pharisees, it should be pointed out to Aslan, accuse Jesus of what?


Ignoring their outrage, Jesus forgives the paralytic and heals him. The actual miracle here, Barth notes, is a secondary feature to the story.

The act of the miracle, Barth writes, is meant by the author as a visible confirmation that ‘the word spoken is God’s Word’ and, I would continue the logic, that the one who spoke that word is God.


“This is the meaning of the miracles ascribed to Jesus (and expressly to his apostles too…) and it marks off these miracles, however we assess them materially, as at any rate something very distinct amid the plethora miracle stories in that whole period.”







3r7yrkMuch like a Promise Keeper,  I’m renewing my commitment to what was probably a poorly conceived and hastily made and errantly kept vow: to read and blog my way through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

But I suppose even my lackluster but stubborn fidelity to this promise in it’s own way services Barth’s theology, for, as Barth frequently pointed out:

a promise (from God) by definition cannot be broken.

I last left off complaining about Barth’s turgid treatment of the Trinity in §1.1.8-9. In hindsight I confess that I was a little brash and not very charitable in my reading.

In §1.1.10 Barth turns to addressing the God of the scriptural narrative under the header ‘God the Father.’ Barth’s thinking is always sexiest when, as he does in §1.1.10, he probes the paradoxical nature of the God of the Bible.

On the one hand, Barth acknowledges, God is absolutely Other- absolutely and by necessity NOT a creature like other creatures which we could in time fully know and understand. On the other hand, this absolutely Other God isn’t only (or absolutely) Other if by ‘Other’ we mean God remains set apart from creatures and the created order.

For Barth, our getting God right has everything to do with getting the question right: ‘Who is the God of the Bible?’

That is, Barth begins with the ‘who-ness’ of God. The God of the Bible is a ‘Who’ not a ‘What’ and we know that from the scriptural story. Contrary to much philosophic tradition, Barth does not begin with logical propositions and attributes of the divine (God as first cause, God as unmoved mover) that have no continuity with the biblical narrative.

For Barth, whatever we say about God must emerge, whether we like it or not, from what scripture says about God.

And for Barth, this is the first step towards insuring that whatever we say about God emerges, whether we like or not, from what scripture says about Jesus.

453703048For example, in §1.1.10 Barth reflects on God as Lord, kurios. Barth points out that when the New Testament talks about the Lord and God, it is talking about ‘One who is quite other than Jesus.’

When the New Testament makes the Gospel announcement that Jesus is Lord, Barth says, it sees Jesus’ Lordship in subordination to God, θεός.

In other words, Barth recognizes that the New Testament does not speak (as we so often do) about Jesus as θεός in the same way it speaks about the Father as θεός.

The Gospel proclamation that Jesus is Lord is possible because Jesus’ obedient, faithful ministry manifests the Lordship of God the Father.

To get into the jargon, Barth would say Jesus’ Lordship is functional and not (as we so often suggest) ontological. That means, Jesus’ Lordship isn’t rooted in Jesus’ very being but is a result of  his faithful witness. As we say- as Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament: ‘The Son of Man has been given authority.’

Some of you will be irritated I’ve gotten this far into the post without making mention of Barth’s masculine language for God.

In this section, Barth appropriately eschews the notion that our finite, earthly understanding of fatherhood is the lens through which we view God the Father in the Trinity.

Barth issues caution about ‘fatherhood’ language for God NOT because it’s gender exclusive and perpetuates patterns of patriarchy.

For Barth, the problem with ‘fatherhood’ language isn’t that it’s too masculine; the problem is that it’s too human.

Barth is always vigilant to steer our Christian speech away from natural theology, which would have us reflect on our own human experience and then extrapolate it to God. As Barth famously said, when liberal Christians speak of ‘God’ they’re really just speaking of themselves in a loud voice.

This vigilance applies to the ‘fatherhood’ of God too. Barth argues that God the Father is not identical, similar or even congruent with the familial frame of reference we have in our own lives.

We don’t best know God by reference to our families; we best know God by reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Otherwise ‘God the Father’ becomes but another philosophic supposition, a logical attribute, based on our experience, that need not make any reference to the scriptural narrative.

‘God the Father’ isn’t then substantively different than ‘God the First Cause’ or ‘God the Unmoved Mover.’

Jesus’ resurrection, says Barth, is what most constitutes him as ‘son of God,’ and it’s by our participating in the resurrection work of God that God the Lord becomes our Father:

God the Father wills neither our life in itself nor our death in itself. He wills our life in order to lead it through death to eternal life. He wills death in order to lead our life through it to eternal life. He wills this transition of our life through death to eternal life. His kingdom is this new birth.


Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English§1.8.3, §1.9.1-2

Okay, for all you Barth-haters out there I’ve got to admit that this section Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the Triunity of God, is- ahem- boring.

Head-scratchingly impenetrable you could say.

But what’s interesting to me is why Barth gets so unclear precisely as he attempts to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. I think the confusion is the result of Barth’s very Western attempt to stress how the Three (Father, Son and Spirit) are of one being, substance.

Scripture clearly gives us the grounds to speak of God as Trinity.

Paul speaks of “God and his son Jesus.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke affirm that as the Son was baptized by John, God the Father spoke and the Spirit descended upon the Son.

Christians were baptizing in the name of the Trinity long before the New Testament was formed or before the doctrine of the Trinity was fleshed out formally.

Trinity, as I’ve posted before, is the Church’s way of holding the revelation of the Old and New Testaments together as one continuous witness.

It’s the Church’s grammar, securing the most fundamental of Christian convictions: God is at least as nice as Jesus.

The trouble comes when the Church attempts to go beyond the mystery of the biblical revelation and explain how the Father, Son and Spirit are one. karl-barth-with-iPod

In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Church historically has been more comfortable speaking of the Three not so much in their (singular) unity but in their diversity or, better put, as community. In the West, where Christianity so often manifests itself as individual, private piety, I’ve always found the Eastern perspective on the Trinity a helpful corrective.

After all, if God is fundamentally a community of 3 persons and we’re made in this God’s image, then we’re most fully alive, most fully human, most who God intended us to be when we are in community with others.

karl-barth-with-iPodThe question is not ‘is there a God?’ but ‘who is God?’

So says Karl Barth in 1.1 §8.1-8.2 of the CD.

I’ve been negligent in my posting of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Life got in the way, but the great thing about Barth is that he’s always there.

Having begun laying out his understanding of revelation, Barth tackles the doctrine of the Trinity.

Favorite line in this section:

Any child knows that [the church’s doctrine of the Trinity] uses some of the philosophoumena of declining pagan antiquity.

I asked my boys, 7 and 10, and they report that in fact they do not know that much about declining pagan antiquity.

Apparently Barth’s children were a bit more advanced than my own.

Maybe this sentence is a bit more subtle in German. Actually the whole chapter here is about as dense and elusive as that line about philosophoumena. Perhaps there’s no other way around it because Barth’s attempting to do away with abstract categories of God’s identity and philosophical speculations about the necessity of God’s existence.

You can reason your way to God a la Anselm or Spinoza, Barth is saying, but the God at the end of that chain of reasoning will not be the God revealed to us in scripture.

The philosophers’ unmoved mover is not the One who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. As with his opening chapters on revelation, Barth insists that everything we say about God’s identity must begin in the particular story of the Bible.

It’s this insistence on particularity that leads to Barth’s rejection of liberalism’s reduction of Christianity to universal truths about general human experience.

Where I can see readers rightly pushing back on Barth is on his claim that the Trinity is central any understanding of God’s identity.

While Barth wants to make sure that the “who God is of whom we speak” is “the God who has revealed God’s self in this particular story,” the move away from the scripture narrative itself to the later reflection on it by the church undermines Barth’s point I think.

You don’t need to be preacher very long to know that A) the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t self-evident in the pages of scripture and B) it’s surely not self-evident to most lay people.

Barth cites scripture of the Trinity revealed in scripture (Peter’s confession, the baptismal formula in Matthew 28) but none of them are offered by the texts as what we’d recognize as the Trinity. The greatest difficulty is that Barth is in danger of imposing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity upon the Hebrew Bible.

Barth seems to forget that the Trinity isn’t a self-evident concept of God rather Trinity is the only way to speak of the God revealed to us in scripture for scripture speaks of Father, Son and Spirit.

Trinity then was the Church’s way of remembering that the revelation given to us in the New Testament was consistent with the revelation given to us in the Old. Trinity is less about philosophy and more a stopgap against Marcionism, the heresy which found the God of the OT to be different from the  God of the New.

I left this chapter feeling as though Barth fell into the very trap his liberal opponents get ensnared. Just as liberals freight their preconceptions into the scripture text, making it say things other than what it intended to speak, Barth’s affinity for the particularity of the Triune God leads him to run roughshod over the scripture text.

imagesIf you’re a theology nerd like me, trolling Christian blogs into the wee hours, you notice how many Christians are obsessed over the homosexuality issue. Perhaps rightly so.

Either way, the arguments tend to run one of two ways.

One line of argument is suggest that the progressive perspective runs counter to what Christians have believed over two millennia.

Another line of argument harvests writing from Paul and Acts to hold that current cultural shifts are the ongoing work of God.

Karl Barth might respond to both these arguments by asking: “Who cares?”

In concluding he prolegomena (§1.7.2-3) of his Church Dogmatics, Barth takes a last stab at keeping theology thoroughly biblical in a way that contrast with both Catholic and Modernist theology.

While Barth is aware of how theology is a deeply contextualized endeavor, he’s equally sensitive to how this fact is subject to losing the plot in one of two ways.

In one way, there is the (Catholic, Fundamentalist) danger of turning theology into a repetition of the past. Good theology becomes merely repeating what Thomas Aquinas said, say. Our understanding of what scripture is shackled to what John Calvin believed scripture said. Historical Christianity becomes tantamount to what the church today- and always- should believe and preach.

In another, equally fraught way, theology is always done within a particular culture, which can lead to us simply listening to culture as our defining standard.

This is the mistake of liberal modernism, of unreflectively assuming that what is happening in the world or in culture is equivalent to what God is doing in the world. Eventually, the danger is real that we end up with something that is no longer recognizably Christian.

The work of theology, as Barth understands it, is never simply or uncritically to affirm either what the Church once said and believed or what the world presently says and believes.

Because Christianity is always embodied by sinful people in particular locations, the faith of the past and the present must always be open to correction and criticism.

The Christianity of the past can never become what scripture is, our canon. Rather scripture must always bring the Christianity of the past and the present into critical, revealing light.

I think this is the refreshing both/and manner of Barth’s theology: a recognition that we must never be content with the faith as its been passed down to us because the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places.

As you may know from this blog, I spent the Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That place is just one example of how the Christianity of the past got ample wrong and should not be accepted or rotely repeated without examining it in light of the converting, living Word.

We’re done with chapter 1 of the Dogmatics…on to chapter 2 and Barth’s treatment of ‘revelation.’

karl_barth_1167312313122810A while back someone asked me for some reasons why they should not leave the United Methodist Church. I didn’t have time to respond and, frankly, I couldn’t come up with any answers that wouldn’t sound cliche or, worse, prejudicial.

The truth is the issues that once ruptured the Body of Christ are now largely resolved.

How justification is understood in the Catholic Church now resembles how justification is understood in most Protestant churches and that, of course, was the primary dispute.

So I didn’t come up with any real, urgent reasons. People should go to the church where their faith is most alive and activated. That said, Karl Barth gives his reasoning in this section of the Dogmatics.

Again and again in 1.1 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth comes back to the question ‘what is the word of God?’

What does the Bible have to do with the word of God?

And how does Bible direct what the Church says about the faith?

In §1.7 Barth locates what he’s said thus far within the rubric of Dogmatics. In doing so, Barth distinguishes what he takes to be Protestant Dogmatics from both the dogma of modernism and dogma of Roman Catholicism. By contrast, in Barth’s view at least, Protestant Dogmatics is unique in the role the Bible exerts as a word that can always stand as a witness over and against the finite words of people. In a nutshell, this is Barth’s assertion:

In fact Church proclamation is not an undertaking which can come under other criteria than God’s Word in respect of its content. Other criteria cede ground, building the identity of the church on something other than that which truly defines it.

Barth thus aims his polemical ire at Roman Catholicism.

*It should be noted, however, that Barth respected Roman Catholicism; he was invited as one of the lone Protestants at Vatican II and he counted Hans Urs Von Balthasar as one of the best theologians of the 20th century. 

For Barth the difference between Protestant and Catholic dogmatics comes down to whether or not the church has been entrusted with dogmas that must be believed- apart from the word.

Barth argues that to place our belief in ecclesial dogmas is to place our belief in the words of men rather than the Word of God.

Barth goes so far as to assert that their very character as dogmas, which are often logically derived, differentiates them from the dogmatics that emerges out of strict obedience to the Word. 

For an example of the kind dogma Barth might have in mind, consider the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception. Protestants (and Catholics for that matter) often erroneously assume the immaculate conception refers to Christ’s conception by the Spirit. Not so.

It actually refers to Mary’s sinless conception, which is a logical necessity- so goes the doctrine- if Jesus is without sin and sin- so goes the antiquated doctrine- is passed down to us biologically.

The immaculate conception is entirely logical when considered in its own and perhaps it’s defensible theologically for what it tries to convey.

Nonetheless, Barth would insist the Church should not be given dogmas which it must believe which themselves do not come to us by way of the word.

Before you think Barth’s just jumping on Roman Catholicism, note how his critique could just as easily be leveled at certain strands of Protestantism today. Within the so-called neo-Calvinist movement, fidelity to the Reformers’ (mis)interpretation of justification transcends an honest reading of justification as its given to us in scripture. Many neo-Calvinists do not do what their predecessors did, always reforming and reexamining assumptions, but instead reify doctrine in the precise way Barth insists we should not do.

Or consider how many evangelical fundamentalists hold to a doctrine of scriptural infallibility- and require others hold to it to be considered legitimate Christians- that scripture itself does not give us and which is itself a relatively recent product of anti-modernism.

Barth’s other target in this section is modernism, which is the air most Christians in the West breathe. Modernism refers to theologies that begin with ‘secular’ knowledge and then proceed to the Bible, often forcing scripture to fit into a-scriptural categories and jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit: ‘We know resurrection can’t happen so this must be a story of the disciples’ own interior experience of Jesus being with them still, in their hearts.’  

This type of theology, with its feigned sophistication, is everywhere in and out of the Church. The world becomes the measure of what we say when we speak of God. No doubt, this is a necessary to an extent.

We can’t just assume a 1st century worldview, but neither can we afford to lose the Bible’s freedom to stand against us in judgment.


Chagall-1I’d been a candidate in the United Methodist ordination process for a year and a half. I’d been a seminary student for two semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months when a member of my tiny little congregation at Linvale United Methodist Church outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.

It had been seven years since I’d given my life to Christ. I had ten ‘Master of Divinity’ courses notched on my transcript. I’d been a minister for a dozen or so Sundays. And, suddenly, one of my first tasks in that role was to minister to the family of a church member who had taken his own life.

The man was elderly, and he was terminally ill with cancer, painfully so. This was my second direct experience with suicide.

The first came had come at the church at which I’d interned just a few months previous.

A friend recently lost a good friend the same way and asked me the question that always comes up in those situations:

What does the Church believe about suicide?

 Is suicide really an unforgivable sin?

Before anyone goes about answering such a question to distinguish suicide as a rational choice and suicide as the result of mental or emotional illness.15-Javert-commits-suicide-because-he-has-lost-his-hat

There is a deep difference between, say, Inspector Javert and Rick Warren’s who tragically suffered mental illness and recently sucumbed to it.

With the former example in mind, the Christian tradition has historically held suicide to be morally wrong because the act of suicide represents a refusal to live moment-by-moment. In this sense, in suicide, the creature seeks to exercise the autonomy of the creator. Thus suicide marks a rejection of our status as finite creatures made by God. Because it’s not solely “my” life that I’m taking, suicide can, theologically speaking, be understood as an assault or affront to God, the One to whom “my” life belongs. For Christians, this kind of suicide is an attack on someone else’s property.

Suicide is an issue around which many painful myths cohere so it’s important to point out that, from a Christian viewpoint, suicide does not necessarily condemn one to irretrievable punishment.

God no more judges a person on the single sinful act of suicide than God judges any one else solely on a single sinful act.

Rather the Christian understanding that even with those commit suicide God takes the measure of a whole life and judges based on the sum of that life.

When it comes to the first sort of suicide, the sort I encountered in my first parish difficult though it was, what is important for a Christian ethical perspective is that Christians refuse to speak the culturally dominant language of independence. This is hard.

The language of individual autonomy, though common, is deceptive. It may sound true that my life is my life, yet a family’s experience of suicide proves just how false a claim that really is. The language of individual autonomy is limiting because the fact is our lives are bound together with family and friends in a number of ways.

My life is not just my own because it’s a life that exists in relationship with scores of others: many who love me, many who depend upon me, many who understand their life in relationship to my own.

I learned this fact firsthand while ministering to the church member’s family I mentioned above. His suicide was hardly a solitary act with limited consequences. On the contrary it caused pain to all those others to whom his life belonged.

Christian tradition, then, defines suicide as a moral wrong first because it’s a rejection of our created-ness and hence an assault on God and, secondly, Christian tradition defines it as a moral wrong because, whether it’s intended or not, it’s an assault on others too.

Having said all that, it’s critical to stress that most of us have more experience with examples like the heartache Rick Warren and his family are presently enduring.

To listen to a very good and pastoral conversation about this topic, I’d encourage you to take a listen to the recent podcast at Homebrewed Christianity.

logoTo take a step back, I think what’s critical to remember in all cases is that suicide isn’t so much a question what a person will suffer in God’s eternity rather suicide is but one example of how God’s creation continues to suffer- groan, Paul says- under the power of Sin and Death.

The saving power of the cross is both perfect and yet mysteriously it’s still most definitely NOT YET.

karl_barth_1167312313122810As in most things, I think Karl Barth puts it well.

This is from Church Dogmatics 3.4:

“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created. Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real, effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…

“The realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when they will to maintain or regain their health.”

“When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be isolation but only fellowship.”


Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

Myers Karl Barth painting 1Derek Rishmawy who follows this blog has post on his blog, outlining Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt as found in Barth’s little book, Evangelical Theology.

Two Types of Doubt

Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.

There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”

Three Sources

Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?

The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.

Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith.  Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.

The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life  is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience.  Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.

The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:


  1. No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
  2. He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihilthe power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely  ashamed of it.
  3. But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!

Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

Derek continues:

As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.

The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.


Myers Karl Barth painting 1 In 1.1 §6.4 of the Dogmatics, Barth lines up nicely with our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

As I’ve posted about previously, Protestant thought sometimes so prioritizes ‘faith’ that Christianity becomes a religion solely about a human disposition rather than about the Word of God, Christ, to whom our faith is directed.

In fact, this is an issue behind disputes between present-day interpreters of Paul like NT Wright, on the one hand, and John Piper on the other. In question:

How does faith as the disposition of my heart relate the Christ event (‘the Righteousness of God’ Rom 1.17) as as the means of salvation?

Whereas Protestantism since Luther has tended to assume Paul’s primary theme in Romans is our faith- as in, our faith in Christ- NT Wright has insisted that, read within the context of 2nd Temple Judaism, Paul’s chief subject is the faith of Jesus Christ, or Jesus, the faithful one.

In Church Dogmatics 1.6.4, Karl Barth hashes out the relationship of faith to the word of God. And when “word of God” means, Christ the word of God. So for Barth it’s a question of the relationship between Christ as the object of our faith and our own faithful response to that Word.

Just as he does in his reflecting of the meaning of “word” and our “experience,” when it comes to ‘faith’ Barth wants to insist that what is true about how God is at work in the world is never true in and of itself, but only as a ongoing act of God.

Barth begins with one of his terrific small-print excursions, this one on faith, pistis, as firstly the faithfulness of God (Rom 3) and then through Christ’s work, the human response, our faith.

When talking about faith as the our response to the gospel, Barth draws us to a reality that faith is not ‘natural’ or inherent in us automatically.

It is not, despite what liberal theology holds, a dimension of our createdness.

True faith is defined and determined by its object, God, not by an inherent human disposition.

For the Christian, faith is not merely a one-time experience.

It must be exercised anew continuously.

From faith to faith as Paul says in Rom 1.17.

Faith is real, Barth says, because God, who is real. God has disclosed to us his Word, Jesus Christ, and we have seen and heard him. And faith is real for it is lived and experienced anew by the Spirit’s work.

Now that he’s established the knowability of God’s word, Barth is ready ready to move on to the project of his Dogmatics itself.


family-vacations-boston-marathonLike you, the news from Boston- especially the images and the ‘gruesome’ descriptions of the carnage- brought me once again face-to-face with the sin of the world.

All you need is a headline like ‘3 Dead, Including a Child’ to conclude that, of all the Christian doctrines we espouse, Original Sin is a doctrine whose existence we can objectively demonstrate.

We can’t prove that God took flesh in Mary’s womb, and neither can we prove if or how  ‘God’ created ‘flesh’ in the first place.

We have no empirical evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead, which isn’t as big a deal as it sounds when you stop to consider that before we can prove Easter we first have to prove God’s own existence.

And the jury’s still out on that one.

But we can prove ‘Sin.’ 

Sin is real. 

Sin is an actual, objective, demonstrable fact of life. 

Or is it?

As you may know, I’ve begun reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics along with a group readers like you.

A number of motifs (theological dispositions) run throughout Barth’s CD like a nervous system that together give his project life and movement. Knowing these motifs can clarify your understanding of Barth.

More than that, after yesterday, I believe knowing these motifs can help Christians think through events like the Boston Marathon Bombing.

One such motif is Barth’s ‘Objectivism.’ 

The question behind Objectivism is:

‘Who sets the terms for what is real?’ 

Who’s to say the ‘real world’ is really the ‘real world?’

For Barth, Jesus Christ is the definitive, final, binding act of God’s revelation; that is, in Christ, we see all of God there is to see. There’s no other mystery behind the curtain.

God was fully in Christ, reconciling the world to himself says scripture.

If Christians believe that God was fully present in Christ, says Barth, then, because of Christ’s atoning victory, humanity is fully present in God too.

Right now. Yesterday. Today. And we’ll be there tomorrow too.

Christ changes our relationship in and with God. Objectively.

Our in-Godness, therefore, is our true reality- whether we believe in God or not.

This leads Barth to a different use of the word ‘faith.’

For Barth, faith doesn’t incorporate us into God, as we so often think. Faith is the acknowledgment that we have been incorporated into God already.

It happened on 33 AD. On the cross.

In Christ, ALL died.

We’re all of us in God because God was in Christ.

That, says Barth, is the hidden truth of our world. Our true humanity lies not in us but in him:

“never at all apart from him, never at all independently of him, never at all in and for itself”

Faith then isn’t a sort of mechanism that gains us access to God. 

Faith is more like Neo going down the rabbit hole and discovering his real world a complete fiction that hides the truth of the ‘Matrix.’  

Faith is our being awakened, having our eyes opened, to what was there all along.

We tend to think of it the other way around.

We believe more in the reality of sin than we believe in the reality of our in-Godness.

Headlines like ‘3 Dead, Including a Child’ constitute what we think is the cold, hard reality of our world.

Barth would counter us by suggesting that there would be far fewer headlines like that one if more people believed that the more realistic headline is:

‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’

You see, for Barth, what we take as the givenness of our sinful ‘reality’ is instead a kind no-reality. To Barth, even believing in sin constitutes a kind of unbelief.Myers Karl Barth painting 1

Because as soon as you start believing in sin as an unavoidable, inevitable given in our world, you stop trying to offer the world the more ‘realistic’ Christ. 


Looking through Barth’s eyes then, the true tragedy of events like the Boston Marathon Bombing isn’t that ours is a sinful, fallen world in need of God’s redemptive activity. 

The true tragedy is that ours is a world that has been redeemed. 

 Ours is a world where Sin has already been defeated. Ours is a world that’s loved by and is this very second- just as it was yesterday afternoon- in God. 

And yet our world doesn’t know it.

That’s what makes the victims in yesterday’s bombing just that: needless victims. 

Needless, because Sin is like the White Witch in Narnia, not realizing that Aslan (God-in-Christ) has landed and the snow (the Power of Sing) has already begun melting.

As Paul says, Christ has brought down the Principalities and the Powers.


It’s finished.

Now before you start thinking that Barth is hopelessly naive, just remember: it was Barth’s ‘Objectivism’ about Christ that enabled him to oppose Nazism.

How you define ‘reality’ in the world determines what you judge to be a ‘realistic’ response to the sin and pain in the world.

That is, if you think the way of Christ is the ‘unrealistic’ choice in this world then you’ll quickly stop bothering to abide by it.

If ‘reality’ is what you find on the front page of the NY Times then your engagement with the world will never veer too far from the ways of the world. Love, mercy and peace will always seem like hopeless ideals.

I think this morning’s headlines ably demonstrate that what our world needs is not more people who believe in the cold, hard reality of sin and death.

I think the morning headlines show just how badly our world needs more people who define ‘what’s real’ in terms of Jesus Christ.

Our world needs more people who practice mercy, show compassion, and offer peace. 

Our world needs more people to tell the world that it’s the world: that its loved, that it’s redeemed, that it’s in-God. 

And because we exist in him, we’re most ourselves when we exist like him. 

For others. 





“The equation of God’s Word and God’s Son makes it radically impossible to say anything doctrinaire in understanding the Word of God…[Scripture is not] a fixed sum of revealed propositions which can be systematized like sections of a corpus of law” (CD, 135).

Monday I posted a Barthian response to what I considered John Piper’s inane and antiquated exegesis of 1 Timothy 2’s stipulation against Christian women teaching Christian men. You can read that post here.

Judging from my Inbox, John Piper has fans out there and across everywhere.

Lots of fans, judging from the emails in my inbox, all of which subjected me to a rhetorical spanking.

That’s fine. I dish out. I can take it too.

One email, after taking me to task for being ‘offensive and crude,’ ‘insulting,’ ‘disrespectful to a fellow Christian’ and ‘irresponsible’ for thinking the word ‘johnson’ is appropriate vocabulary for a pastor. 

The email concluded by asking:

‘I thought Karl Barth had a high view of scripture?’

For starters, I don’t accept the premise that Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God constitutes a ‘low view’ of scripture. The doctrine of a literal, infallible Bible is a modern, 19th century doctrine- only a generation older than Barth himself. Biblical infallibility, therefore, should neither be allowed to drive the bus of biblical interpretation nor should it be permitted to stake out what we mean by ‘high view of scripture.’

While refusing to accept the premise, I think a better way to respond to the question is to say that Barth’s (high) view of scripture is predicated upon his still higher view of Jesus Christ as the One Word of God. 

For Barth, the manner in which God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ is the pattern by which God reveals God’s self in the Word written (scripture) and proclaimed (preaching). And that manner of revelation, according to Barth, is characterized primarily by paradox; that is, God reveals God’s self in such a way that even in this revealedness God remains hidden in weakness.

This ‘paradox’ Barth hints at is what we call Christmas.

The incarnation.

God’s absolute, perfect, for all time revelation of himself happens in, with and under the ‘veil’ of imperfect, finite human nature.

So then, if this is how God reveals the One Word of God, Jesus Christ, to us then it follows for Barth that the other two forms of the Word of God adhere to this paradoxical pattern. 1101620420_400

God’s Word in scripture and proclamation comes to us by way of imperfect, finite, sometimes inadequate human words and testimony.

For Barth, this is the true ‘miracle’ of the Word of God. It requires the grace of God ‘to take flesh’ each and every time scripture is read or proclaimed. Each and every time, says Barth, the miracle of the incarnation gets repeated anew.

And, Barth’s view, this is precisely the flaw in the sort of lawbook literalism exercised by folks like John Piper.

Literalism denies this miracle of the Word of God, this paradox of God being revealed in the flesh.

It denies that God, in the present, uses weak and errant human words to become God’s Word.

Instead, argues Barth, biblical literalists shift the miracle elsewhere, positing “a sinless, flawless text.”

Barth scholar, Trevor Hart, suggests this mistaken shift in miracles is akin to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary whereby the Word of God (Christ) can’t possibly be revealed to us through sinful humanity.

His mother, Mary, so goes the doctrine, must have been herself free of sin. She must have been ‘immaculately conceived.’

Analogously, literalists can’t possibly believe that God can use flawed, partial human testimony to speak his Word. God’s Word, so goes the doctrine, must be free of sin.

Meaning, us.

The scandal of Jesus Christ, however, is the selfsame scandal of the Word of God.

God comes to us, veiled in the weakness of humanity.

And the Word of God comes to us veiled by human words.

It only becomes revelation by God’s making it so.

For Barth, the Bible, then, is not a little like the bread we break in the Eucharist.

No one would argue that the bread is already in and of itself a sharing in Christ’s Body. And only Roman Catholics would argue that our ministrations can make it so- there’s no reliable, magical formula.

No, the real presence of the Word in bread or in human words cannot be guaranteed or coerced.

It can only be prayed for and received in faith. 

Back to Piper.

It’s not that I advocate picking and choosing which scriptures we’ll deem authoritative and which we’ll toss in the garbage.

Rather, if Barth’s right and the BIble is less like a lawbook and more like the elements in the Eucharist, then what God said (to Timothy) need not necessarily be what God says today to us.

The God who spoke, Barth believes, has the power to speak, using the very same words of scripture, a different Word today.

And that, I admit, is an answer that only begets more questions.

Questions whose responses will have to wait another day.


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.

2007_resurrection_icon Scot McKnight has this sermon of mine posted today over at his Jesus Creed blog.
Eastertide is often a season in which the lectionary guides us through texts in Revelation and on reflecting upon how the Cross and Empty Tomb really has once and for all settled what separates us from God. Here’s a reflection from a few years ago on those very themes.

Going to Hell on an Airplane with Sam Harris: Revelation 22.14-20

It was my fault. I knew I should’ve carried on something by John Grisham or David Baldacci or maybe, like everyone else on the plane, The Kite Runner. Instead I’d fallen asleep with the evidence right there on my lap: a theology book, thick and unambiguous, with an unexciting orange cover that plainly, if obscurely, said Church Dogmatics II.1 by Karl Barth.

I’d just woken up after almost an hour not sure if we’d landed already or if we’d not yet taken off. I was out of sorts, my clothes were disheveled and drool was running in a thin, clear line from the corner of my mouth. The motionless plane was as hot and still as a subway car and damp from the rain that was still pelting down on the wings and the runway outside. I was hot and thirsty and stressed, knowing that I would now definitely be late, and, on top of all that, there was this question: ‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’

It was my fault. I’d initiated conversation. I was the one who made first contact. ‘When she comes by again can you ask her for some water?’ I’d said. And the man in aisle seat said‘Sure’ and then pointed with his eyes at the boring-looking book that had slid off my lap into the buffer seat between us and with a raised brow he asked: ‘So, are you a priest…?’

I was not long into my ministry when I first discovered that there were simply some occasions in life that my job changed irrevocably for the worse, certain occasions when the disclosure ‘I’m a Methodist minister’ either stops conversation cold or else starts other unwanted conversations.

At parties, for instance, no one wants to find out you’re a minister. People don’t know how to talk to a minister or what to talk about and everyone looks painfully awkward when the minister sees them with a drink in their hands.

And when you’re a minister getting a haircut can be more time-consuming and far less predictable than it is for the rest of you. It’s not uncommon that before my sideburns are trimmed or neck shaven, I’m hearing a confession or offering consolation or sinking into the quicksand of some philosophical bull session.

One such haircut at my last church ended up with me sitting there in the barber’s chair with the apron around my neck and little clipped hairs stuck to my nose and forehead and eyebrows and with the barber sitting in the chair next to me, leaning over with his hand on my knee while crying and telling me about the wife who’d left him years ago.

It happens all the time.

On such occasions I’ve considered that it would be easier if, when asked what it is that I do, I instead, like George Costanza, simply made things up: ‘I’m an architect’ I could say. ‘I’m a marine biologist’ I could tell the woman at the Hair Cuttery. And that would be that. To this list of awkward occasions, I can now add Riding on Planes.

‘So, are you a priest…or a professor?’ It was my fault. I was flying Southwest so I’d chosen my seat. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d chosen to sit next to him: a business-looking type, someone with lots of files and a laptop and blackberry, someone who wouldn’t want to pass the time making conversation with a stranger.

On that weekday flight he looked like half of all the other passengers: forty-fifty, graying neatly-parted hair, blue suit and red tie loosened around his white collar. It was last October and I was flying from Baltimore to Ohio for a conference that concerned Aldersgate’s ministry in Cambodia.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said, kicking myself for not buying a copy of the The Kite Runner. ‘Really,’ he said in a less than impressed tone, ‘my sister-in-law’s still a Christian.’Thus implying that he’d been inoculated against whatever superstition still infected his sister-in-law.

From there the conversation began as these conversations always do: ‘You look so young to be a minister’; ‘How did you decide to do that with your life?’; ‘Did you always know or did you have an experience?’

And after these questions were answered, those parts of my story vaguely answered, he asked me if I read the recently released book Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. I said that I had not but that I knew of it. I’d read a review or heard some NPR chat about it. With sudden vigor, he told me what a ‘powerful’ book it was.

Then, in the urgent rhythms of a beat poet, he told me how effectively Sam Harris’ book documented:

· all the abuses committed in the name of religion

· how it catalogued the many sins of the Church

· skewered Christianity’s historic fear of science

· revealed the inconsistencies in scripture and the often violent portrayals of God.

For what seemed like forever and with judgment in his voice, he shared these ‘insights’ with me. At some during his diatribe I realized that he was actually angry at me- that I was to him not a person but a symbol, a reminder of something he’d closed the door on long ago.

When he finished his book review, he took a breath and cast a glance down at my book,Church Dogmatics, and he said in a woebegone way ‘But you probably wouldn’t like it. My sister-in-law didn’t.’

‘Actually, I’m an architect’ I thought about telling him.

‘It’s not that I’m an atheist’ he said almost like a peace offering, ‘I just couldn’t believe in a god who sends all but a few of his creatures to Hell.’

‘Neither could I’ I said.

The captain’s voice crackled over the speaker, informing us that our delay would last a bit longer. ‘Do you though…believe in hell?’ he asked. And what I thought was: ‘Yes, I do. Hell is being asked questions like these while sitting captive on a hot, motionless plane.’

But I said was: ‘I don’t preach much about it or the devil either. They always end up sounding more interesting than God. And that can’t be true.’

He looked at me skeptically. ‘At my parent’s church, growing up, that’s all I ever heard,’he sighed, ‘fire and brimstone, judgment and hell, that sort of thing.’

To be honest, I didn’t really believe me at first. It sounded too cliché.

‘When I was finally done with all that,’ he said, ‘we had a youth rally at the church one night. We were supposed to invite all our non-church friends. The pastor came and he told them that if they were all to die that night all of them would be going to hell forever. The pastor said the ultimate question was whether you would spend eternity in heaven or in hell. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I just decided then that I couldn’t believe in a god who would do that.’

‘When I was in college I was rejected as a Young Life leader,’ I told him, ‘the director made that same sort of comment in my interview, and I questioned him on it.’

The man in the aisle seat looked at me, like I had surprised him. It was quiet for a few moments. ‘We’re not all like that you know, fire and brimstone’ I offered.

‘But it is part of your bible’ he hit back, waiting for a response.

‘Well, if the universe is moral, if God is just, then it makes sense that God punishes sin’ I argued, proud of my fortress-like logic. ‘But eternal punishment seems excessive don’t you think? Even for the worst of sins.’

‘Christians have different understandings’ I said. ‘Some think hell is a finite time of punishment or refining. Others think of it as annihilation- you just cease to exist.’

‘But what I’ve never understood… if God is all-loving and all-powerful why would things turn out differently than he wanted?’

That’s when I began to suspect he was a lawyer and not a businessman.

I didn’t answer him. I was too tired.

Tired of being put on the defensive

Tired of having to represent all of Christianity-good and bad

Tired of fielding arguments he’d obviously decided before he ever sat down on the plane

And I was tired of trying to wrap my mind around what the bible says about judgment and what it says about the love and mercy of Christ.

He just shifted his legs and took a breath, and I could tell he wasn’t finished yet.

One of the other things I learned early in my ministry is that the fastest way to shut down these sorts of conversations is for me to start talking like a pastor, in a probing, overly empathic way. ‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘what does give your life meaning? Are you satisfied? Is your life worthwhile? Or is just for you?’

And all of a sudden he look frightened- like I was about to proselytize him.

And that could’ve been the end of our conversation.

But instead I sat up in my too-small seat and picked up my orange theology book, and I explained to him that the mistake preachers and others make is thinking hell is God’s last word on sin. ‘The Cross is God’s last word’ I said, ‘the Cross really does reconcile everything that’s wrong between God and each of us.’

He was about to argue with me, I could tell. But I didn’t let him. I went on and told him:

• that whatever distance there is between God and us that it’s distance we put there ourselves

• that ‘Hell’ is the Church’s name for that distance and that you can suffer that in this life as easily as in any other

• that ‘Hell’ is not so much God’s unchanging decision about us as much as it is our self-imposed exile from the life that God makes possible.

And he looked at me as you all do when I’m preaching: a bit dazed and not quite tracking.

So I told him:

That when Jesus talks about hell, he does so by comparing heaven to a wedding feast to which everyone is invited. The problem isn’t with the party or the party-giver or the number of invitations sent. It’s with our unwillingness to come.

And even at the very end of the bible, in the very last chapter, after the Last Judgment has already happened and all the wicked and sinners and unrighteous and unbelievers have all supposedly perished in the Lake of Fire, even after all that- the bible gives us this last picture of the saints of God staring through heaven’s open gates at those still on the outside and along with the Holy Spirit they sing: “Come.”

Hell’s not so much a place we’re sent; so much as it is a place we refuse to leave when we’ve been invited to something more beautiful.

He smiled slightly, and I knew he thought that I was soft-selling the whole fire and brimstone thing. ‘My parents’ preacher would say the ultimate question is whether you’ll spend eternity in heaven or hell’ he countered.

I told him that actually I tend to think the ultimate question is: ‘Are you thirsty? Or, are you hungry? Are you lost? Or, are you empty? Because God doesn’t just offer eternal life, he invites us to live this life abundantly.’

I thought that was that, that he was done, that I’d left him tired or confused or disappointed.

He turned to face forward and he looked up at the air vent and the seatbelt sign above him.

And after a few moments he told me that he was divorced. That at first he was just trying to build a career but that his work had killed his marriage and that now he let it keep him from his children too.

He told me that he traveled all the time but that his life had no direction, that it was true that he no longer believed in his parent’s faith, but that he hadn’t found anything else in its place either.

‘I guess you’d say I’m lost’ he said.

He then looked over at me as if for a response. ‘Maybe, but if Jesus really is the beginning and end of everything, then his mercy is everlasting and he’ll never stop looking for you.’

‘Thus endeth the sermon’ I said and closed my eyes.

And he didn’t say anything for a long while.

And somewhere, the Spirit and the bride said: ‘Come.’

1101620420_400Favorite Quotes from §1.4.2 Barth’s CD:

‘…in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips.’ (pg 99)

     In other words:

Barth contradicts those who treat the biblical texts themselves as the infallible, literal Word of God. They are instead the ‘deposit’ of the prophets and saints. I love Barth’s use of the word ‘deposit.’ It connotes well the notion of something precious worth saving.

‘Exegesis (interpretation of scripture) is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis…entails the danger that the bible will be taken prisoner by the Church.

All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself.’ (pg 103) 

In other words:

It’s called ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ It’s biblical studies jargon implying that interpreters must always be wary of the assumptions, values, expectations, perspectives that they bring to the biblical text and often impose upon the text.

For example, even if you believe the bible is the infallible, literal word of God, you’re still a sinner and can’t possibly presume to appropriate scripture’s meaning free of error or ego.

Barth’s humility of interpretation no doubt owed much to his experience of watching German Christians unquestioningly underwriting a nationalism that was idolatrous.

But think even today of the debate around marriage and homosexuality. Just from reading Facebook posts of friends on both sides of that question, it’s clear that all of us are guilty from time to time of reading our own inclinations into scripture and reading out of scripture what we want to read. One side of the debate cites Leviticus holiness codes or Romans 1 while another side cites the boundary-breaking, outcast-embracing ministry of Christ or the Genesis 1 stipulation that we’re made in God’s image.

It’s when we forget or refuse to admit to ourselves that we’re constantly reading in and reading out that the bible becomes a prisoner to the whims of the Church.

‘The exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible…the defense against possible violence to the bible must be left to the bible itself.’ (pg 104)

In other words:

Stop worrying about protecting God, protecting the bible, protecting ‘Christian’ values. Let God worry about God. You just worry about you.

‘The Church’s recollection of God’s past revelation has the Bible specifically as its object because in fact this object and no other is the promise of future divine revelation…’ (pg 104). 

In other words:

Here Barth skillfully navigates a middle way through thinking about scripture and revelation.

Against liberals, who affirm the presence of revelation apart from the Word of God, Christ, as testified to in scripture, Barth reasserts the bible as the sole, specific object of our thinking about God’s revelation.

Against conservatives, who often treat God’s revelation as closed and confined to the pages of scripture, Barth argues that one of the primary reasons scripture is important is that its our only reliable clue as to what God is doing in the world today and will do in the future. That is, it’s only by knowing what God has done that we can faithfully know what God will do.

‘Holy Scripture is the the word of men who yearned, waited, and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it.’ (pg 105) 

In other words:

I think this is a great summary statement for the Old and New Testaments, as longing for Immanuel (Old) and testimony of Immanuel (New).

‘The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of faith which hears God himself speak through the biblical word of man.’ (pg 107)

In other words:

Quoting bible verses at a non-Christian or making appeals to God’s eternal decrees to persuade an unbeliever are ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s not God’s word until it is received as such.

The Wesleyan in me (Barth would roll his eyes now) would argue that Barth’s point gets at the need for Christians to embody the Gospel in our lives before we can ever persuade someone to hear the Gospel as the Word of God.

And again, thinking that ‘the Bible is God’s Word’ is confession of faith (which, of course, semantics aside we all know is true…it is a faith statement) begs the question: To what extent can Christians impose their biblical values, through legislation, upon a culture which shares not their beliefs about the bible.


barthIn §1.3.2-1.4.1 Barth distinguishes the relationship between preaching and dogmatics.

Where Barth uses the word ‘preaching’ I’d substitute worship and/or the life of faith. 

Where Barth uses the word ‘dogmatics’ I’d substitute Christian doctrine or beliefs.

For Barth, the purpose of doctrine is descriptive not pre or proscriptive.

Our beliefs follow after our worship and life of faith.

Doctrine is reflecting on what we do as Christians. Doctrine attempts to articulate what is often ineffable about Christian faith- what do we mean by ‘This is my body, broken for you…’ or what are we doing when we serve the poor. Doctrine reflects on the practices that make up our life of faith in the light of scripture.

This is a very different starting point an understanding of theology that simply parrots doctrinal assertions- fundamentals- irrespective of the history, texts, practices and lives of the Christians living out those beliefs.

Because doctrine is descriptive not pre or proscriptive, Christian doctrine is not immutable.

Our beliefs change.

That’s not to say, for instance, that we can turn around and no longer believe in the resurrection. It is to suggest, however, that how Christians understand and articulate the resurrection changes from period to period and culture to culture.

Any honest reading of Christian history bears out the truth of this point.

The doctrine of the atonement is a prime example of a Christian belief that has gotten incarnated in distinct ways throughout Christian history.

The most common atonement theory, penal substitution, owes its origin to and would not be comprehensible apart from the Lord-Vassal relationship of Medieval Feudalism. 

Doctrine is not immutable. Beliefs- or the way they’re understood and applied- change.

Therefore, the task of theology, of reflecting on our faith, never ends. It’s always a process, which is another reason Barth never finished his CD.

Without jettisoning the ways and wisdom of the past, the Church, must always strive to express its faith to the people of its own time and culture and time.

At the same time, however, Barth argues that Christian belief not be made answerable to the demands, values or standards of a given culture.

This is the balance Barth wants the Church to walk.

While the Church cannot express its beliefs according to the cultural demands of science, philosophy and art, the Church, in attempting to articulate its beliefs for its time and place, must respect its culture enough be able to communicate across disciplines.

Contextualizing our faith to speak to and reflect our cultural location is inevitable. It’s hubris to think otherwise.

Here are some slides I showed a few weeks ago to our church-planting group, illustrating how historically the Church’s cultural situation has influenced how it understood and expressed it’s faith:

Satellite Session 4

barthWelcome to week 3 of Reading Barth with Me (CD §1.3.1).

I’m enjoying wading into Barth’s CD again after a long sojourn. Meanwhile, some of you…have compared it to reading Finnegan’s Wake, suffering a root canal or trying to make sense of Ikea directions while hungover.

Well then.

It gets better. It really does.

Trying to stretch your mind around Barth’s understanding of the word of God is an important challenge here in §1.3.1.

If for no other reason, it’s important because this is the point at which Barth has so often been dismissed by conservative evangelicals.

Evangelicals jettison Barth because he refuses to simply say the words on the page of the Bible are the word of God.

What’s that about? How is scripture not the Word of God?

Barth bases his view in the distinction between the secular and sacred. The distinction for Barth has nothing to do with the subject matter itself- the secular speaks of humanity and the sacred speaks of God, for example. Instead, Barth believes what makes the sacred distinct from the secular is event:

“The ongoing event of the final distinction, the event in which God Himself acts…” (p. 48)

This event includes the creation of the church, which is the body of Christ. God has elected Christ’s body as his own sacred space. But for Barth this isn’t a past tense event, and that’s the key behind his distinction.

The church is ‘sacred space’ in that it’s involved in the on-going act of God’s holy-action. For Barth this ongoing ‘event’ of God occurs in the church’s proclamation. Preaching. God makes human words holy, sacred, that would be secular (human) without God (p. 49).

This sounds pretty evangelical, no? The Confession says, after all, that:

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

Preaching is where God the king speaks through the mouth of God’s herald, and as such is God’s speech, to be acted on by God’s people.

As a preacher, I like that esteemed role of preaching. As a former pew sitter, however, I know that Barth’s theological ideal rarely matches reality. 

Some sermons are just plain boring and bad. 

Other preachers aren’t simply bad; they preach bad news. Their preaching undermines the Kingdom rather than builds it up. 

To this point, Barth adds:

Since preaching requires the action of God to be the word of God, and since God is wholly free to act or not act, then it’s the case that:

  1. God is free to speak in unexpected places, to use shocking words and means to speak to people, like Balaam’s Ass or even, like, Joel Osteen (if he actually preached scripture), and 

  2. God is free NOT to show up in the preaching event. 

Which, lamentably, happens more than we’d like it. Still though, it’s a good reminder for us.

Neither preaching nor any other ministry of the church or practice in a Christian’s life conveys grace simply by doing it.

The practices of the faith are only means by which God may choose to extend grace.

This, let us not forget, is what makes it ‘grace,’ an expected, unmerited gift.

Another point on the ‘event’ character of the word of God.

Barth’s distinction points out the deficiency in purely secular reflections on religion and the divine. Such reflections depend entirely, in Barth’s view, on our own experience. There is no voice outside themselves to whom they’re listening.

For Barth, this is where liberal/secular religion nearly always falls prey to Ludwig Feurbach’s critique that God is just a projection of our own best self-image, values and aspirations and culture.  

Barth argues that scripture cannot be the word of God in and of itself- not until the ‘event’ of the Holy Spirit makes it so; otherwise, scripture would too easily become an idol graven in our image.

And since Barth wrote much of his dogmatics in Germany between the wars, his point is an auspicious one, and it’s one that any Christian living in the most powerful nation on Earth should take seriously. 


barthYesterday I posted a reflection on Karl Barth’s disavowal of apologetics, the rational attempt to demonstrate and prove Christianity’s faith claims.

I made the point that for Barth faith is revelation and is always gift. Our own personal faith, therefore, is always gift too. Under those terms then an endeavor like apologetics will always be just that, an endeavor. A work.

Barth argues against doing apologetics on another level in §1.2.

Barth says plainly that Christians should never take ‘unbelief’ too seriously and apologetics does just that in an attempt to convince an unbeliever to faith.

To the extent they take unbelief seriously, Christians fail to take their faith with ‘full seriousness,’ Barth says. In other words, Christians are often guilty of seeming more confident in someone’s lack of belief than they are in the robustness of their own faith. Perhaps subconsciously, the volume and urgency of Christian apologetics reveals our own panic that maybe Christ isn’t Lord after all.

All this for Barth is premised on a simple clause from the Apostles’ Creed:

‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins.’ 

Barth believes the remission of sins by the work of Christ on the Cross:

‘forbids any discussion in which the unbelief of the partner is taken seriously’ (30). 

Lurking behind this bold and seemingly nonsensical assertion is Barth’s understanding of the Cross- an understanding that diverges from popular Catholic and Evangelical views.

For Barth, the Cross was a once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for Sin.

For Barth, Jesus really DID die for the Sin of the world. For you and me and everyone who came before us and everyone after we’ve long since returned to dust.

When it comes to the Cross, there’s no need for a do-over.

You can see already here a view of the Cross that logically leads to the conclusion that all will be saved in the end; in fact, many have accused Barth of ‘soft universalism.’

Before getting hung up on universalism, I think it’s helpful (and refreshing) to focus on how Barth’s notion of the Cross is distinct from rival interpretations.

If you’re Catholic, for example, the Cross wasn’t a once-for-all sacrifice for sin. Instead Christ’s sacrifice must be repeated continually in the Eucharist. Hence, the logical need for the elements to be the actual, physical presence of Christ’s body and blood.

Or, if you’re an evangelical, the logic is still functionally the same even without the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Instead of wafers and wine, you have an altar call or a special prayer in which you invite Jesus into your heart.

In both cases, in both traditions, you need to do something ‘extra’ for the work of Cross to be efficacious.

In both cases, in both traditions, the Cross then is not ‘perfect’ in and of itself.

Barth’s someone who’d read the Greek in Galatians- which can go either way- as saying that we’re justified before God by the faith OF Jesus Christ.

Not our faith in Jesus Christ.

Before you wig out about Barth and call him a heretic or worse, just stop to appreciate what’s he trying to point out:

The world really did change on Good Friday. 

Sin- yours and mine and the power of Sin with a capital S- really was defeated on the Cross. 

No more crosses, his or ours, are necessary. 

And let God in his freedom work out the rest. 

And maybe ultimately that’s what’s scary about Barth.

He actually wants to dare us to love God not out of fear of Hell or hope of Reward but just because he’s…God.

barthWell, if you read into Church Dogmatics §1.2, you’ll notice that Karl Barth thinks so.

For the uninitiated, ‘apologetics’ is the fancy word that describes the attempt to rationally account for- and prove- the faith claims of Christianity. Better put, apologists are those who try to convince skeptics and nonbelievers that Christianity is ‘true.’

Think: CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity

What’s the requisite ingredient for good apologetics?

Surprisingly, it’s not God.

It’s ‘common ground.’ 

My friend Jesse rightly noted in § 1.1 that it seemed Barth would disavow any sort of rational justification of the faith. Despite being a Baptist, Jesse is evidently a good, perceptive reader.

In §1.2 Barth is convinced that there is no “being” that is a larger category within which to make sense of God. That is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to quip:

if there’s a larger, universal category of Truth with which everyone can appeal to and agree upon…then you should worship that Category, don’t worship the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. 

Put another way, we can’t step outside of the category ‘God’ and rationally evaluate it because ‘God’ is the infinite, overarching category in which we live our incredibly finite lives.

Barth insists, therefore, that we take our own Christian faith as our starting point any time we give an account of our faith. We best explain our Christian language by speaking Christian. The Christian language can only be learned by immersion.

We must never pretend, Barth confesses, that our faith can be cast aside in the effort to find ‘common ground’ with the unbeliever and thereby reason our way to God.

Just as an aside, anyone who’s actually spent time with people of other religious traditions- talking about their religion- will know how elusive is this notion of ‘common perspective’ and thus how naive and dismissive it is to presume such a thing exists.

Maybe Sherlock Holmes could reason his way to the hounds of the Baskervilles but we can never hope to reason our way to cross and resurrection.

No, Barth insists that whenever we slide into apologetics and accept the existence of ‘common ground’ in articulating our faith, we deny that one crucial article of our confession that makes us distinctly who we are:

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. 

Barth will not have us engaging the world if it means accepting the terms of a world that doesn’t believe sins have been/can be forgiven.

This is where Barth parts ways with all you Catholics (and Baptists). Barth will have nothing to do with natural theology.

For Barth, Jesus is absolutely singular. Looking to the natural world around us for insights or a path to God is not even a beginning point because its a beginning point that will never end up at Easter.

For Barth, God’s freedom will not allow the event of revelation and of faith to become captive to an institution or rationality.

We believe that God has revealed. That means revelation is the only grounds upon which we think through our faith–either of the church or of the mind.

Sorry, Jesse, but what Barth is doing here is what first made him appealing to me.

Much like how Joel Osteen makes me want to vomit in my mouth, I’ve always believed I’d rather have no answer to a faith question than a shallow, contrived, BS answer in the name of Jesus.

And, let’s admit it, that’s exactly what a lot of apologetics amounts to: backing up the bible by pimping out partial scientific assertions and Natural Philosophy for Dummies.

It’s not just academic for me. 

I came to faith against my will at a time when I thought I was the smartest person in the room- okay, I still think I’m the smartest person in the room.

My point is that I should’ve been ripe for an intellectual demonstration of the faith. But it never interested me. I came to faith by….what?….the Holy Spirit?

Whatever you might call it, it left me convinced that when it comes to God, just like any other love, reason is not the road to the heart.

Or to faith.

Stay Tuned Barth Fans: I’ll post more reflections on section 2 later this week.


Reading Barth with Me: §1.1

Jason Micheli —  February 28, 2013 — 5 Comments

barthBarth liked to listen to Mozart while he wrote- and smoke and drink.

I’m listening to Explosions in the Sky instead but I am drinking.


Here goes.

Throughout §1.1 Barth is attempting to identity the proper sphere in which theology is undertaken. Specifically, Barth believes theology is primarily the speech of the Church and that Christian faith is a given- it must be assumed- whenever and wherever God is spoken of.

§1.1is what theologians call ‘prolegomena.’ It’s a fancy Greek word for ‘preliminary things.’ Frankly, it’s usually the most boring part of any work of theology. Prolegomena is where theologians assert the rational, universal presuppositions by which the rest of their theology is possible.

In a sense its where theologians lay out the road map by which the reader can find their way to article of the faith apart from the faith. 

Frequently prolegomena is where one would find rational proofs of God’s existence: ‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ (Anselm). Having proven that any rational person can believe in a concept called ‘God’ such theology moves on to the particulars of incarnation, resurrection etc.

One example of how this method plays out is in Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth. Tillich tried to articulate the Christian by finding ‘correlative’ terms in the surrounding culture and using those common terms to translate what Christians mean by their various confessions. So for Tillich the doctrine of justification gets translated to a nonbeliever as ‘you are accepted.’

Another example of this method is many contemporary evangelical sermons in which the sermon begins with a rational assertion everyone, believer or not, can agree is ‘true.’ After establishing the proposition the preacher will then go to the text of scripture to validate it.

Both those examples would- did- make Barth throw up in his mouth. Barth in §1.1 is turning Anselm (‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ on his head). Instead, says, Barth, theology is always and necessarily so ‘faith seeking understanding…’

Even here in something as boring as prolegomena, Barth begins by playfully knocking s%$# around and turning convention on its head.

His prolegomena is the opposite of prolegomena. Barth’s essentially arguing that you’ll never get to Jesus Christ if you first must establish a common language for your listeners (4). Plus, we have no basis for or access to a common language apart from Christ because we can only know God because God spoke/speaks.

This is why Barth identifies his writing as dogmatics and not theology. Dogmatics is reflection on the dogma or beliefs of the Church not simply a generalized concept of God. Dogmatics is confession; it’s done in the Church. In addition, every believer, however haltingly, speaks of God; therefore, every believer is rightly considered a ‘theologian.’

Identifying Christ as the speech of God also leads Barth to assert that the Church’s “action” is not deeds of service etc but its speech. Because the Word is how God is made known to us, it’s through words we know and convey God (which has the practical admonition that how we speak to others can be a means of grace or a means of destruction). 

Around page 6, Barth asserts that theology is a science like other sciences. It’s a point Barth is ultimately ambivalent on but the rhetoric behind the assertion is attention-getting. Essentially, Barth is suggesting that like other sciences theology:

  1. is a human concern with a definite object of knowledge

  2. like other sciences, theology treads a definite, self-consistent path of knowledge, ie, theology as a discipline is internally consistent

  3. like other sciences, it must give an account of this path to itself and all others

While I don’t think theology is the same thing as, say, biology I do like how in #1 Barth has the stones simply to call people out, essentially:

‘Do you believe theology has an actual, living, existing object? Do you believe God is real or not? If not, why bother talking about God?’

#2 and #3 are less bluster and are more or less true in that theology is a discipline like history or philosophy with rules, tradition and accepted methods.

Having asserted why theology could be considered science, Barth goes on to disavow it for two reasons. First, the memory of WW1 makes Barth wary of Christians negotiating their faith on secular terms because it will always lead to dangerous accomodation to the State and Culture. Second, Barth thinks that considering theology a science is to make our knowledge of God a necessary part of our existence and for Barth anything we know about God is always a gift. It’s always revealed not discovered.

Because our knowledge of God is always gift, the best definition of faith/theology for Barth is: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’

Two last reflections:

For Barth, because God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ (not in scripture…which we’ll get to later) our vocation as Christians and theologians is not to proclaim ‘what the apostles said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (15). That is, scripture is testimony and reflection on what God has spoken in Christ. Just as the apostles testified about Christ so too do we, using their testimony as a guide. In this sense, scripture is a springboard not a closed book.

Lastly, Barth makes the all-or-nothing claim that because God reveals himself in Christ, dogmatics is necessarily an act of faith.

There is, Barth argues, no possibility for reflection about God outside the Church. Any such reflection done outside the Church or faith will be ‘irrelevant and meaningless.’

For Barth, this means non-believers really have nothing to offer biblical and theological reflection (which, in fact, wasn’t borne out by the relationships Barth had in his life).

It would also mean- contra Emergence Christianity- that the world, culture etc are not places where the Spirit is at work and thus places where wisdom is to be found. Such an assertion, however, seems to leave out the entire Book of Acts where the Spirit is frequently working in unbelievers well-ahead of and apart from the work of the Church.

Not to mention the simple fact that I know plenty of people in the Church with ‘faith’ who don’t get Jesus at all. And I know plenty of people outside the Church who’d shirk at the word ‘faith’ being applied to them who get Jesus, down in their marrow.








“I like Barth. He’s not afraid to throw the furniture around.”

– Flannery O’Connor

“The presumption of many scholars at the time was that the task of theology was to make the language of the faith amenable to standards set by the world. This could be done by subtraction:  ‘Of course you do not have to believe X or Y’; or, by translation, ‘When we say X or Y we really mean…’  I thought the crucial question was not whether Christianity could be made amenable to the world, but could the world be made amenable to what Christians believe?

I am not sure why I thought like this, but I suspect it had something to do with being a bricklayer. I simply did not believe in ‘cutting corners.’ I was attracted to Barth because he never cut any of the corners. He never tried to ‘explain.’ Rather, he tried to show how the language works by showing how the language works. There is a ‘no bullshit’ quality to Barth’s thought that appealed to a bricklayer from Texas and that seemed to me the kind of straightforwardness Christian claims require.”

– Stanley Hauerwas

Roughly 30 of you have responded positively to my invitation to read Karl Barth with me over the next two years. You live in different countries and evidently come from many different walks of life, faith and tradition. One of you is in seminary at Duke, reading Barth for a class. Another of you is at Wesley Seminary and thus learning everything Barth was against 🙂 Another of you is an Orthodox priest and still someone else actually got to hear Barth lecture during his one lone visit to the States before his death.

Tomorrow, I will post some reflections from Section 1 of CD 1.1.

Today, I thought it might be helpful to offer a little background on Barth and some tips for how to read him.


Barth grew up during the height of the modern period, thus receiving a ‘liberal’ university education. The term ‘liberal’ can have a variety of meanings in different contexts.

Understood religiously and theologically, ‘liberal’ refers to the Church’s attempt to make Christianity amenable and translatable to the standards of secular, social science disciplines.

In other words, ‘liberal’ names the Church’s effort to justify the Christian faith on the basis of rational, universally accepted premises. Not surprisingly, this is the same time period, then, when ‘supernatural’ doctrines such as the virgin birth are disavowed and downplayed in favor of readings that emphasize Jesus as a sage of universal teachings. This is also the period when the historical-critical method is brought to bear upon scripture like it would be upon any other ancient document in an a history or anthropology department. No longer is scripture a revealed text; it’s one that bears all the markings of human editorship and error.

For an explanation of how ‘liberal’ names traditions we think of as both liberal and conservative in this country, click here.

Barth was schooled in liberalism and then went to pastor a small church in Switzerland in the early 20th century. Two developments completely changed his worldview and led to the CD.

One, Barth discovered the liberal Christianity he’d learned in school simply wouldn’t ‘preach’ in his parish. His hearers didn’t care for historical-critical insights or scripture-informed social action. They did respond to scripture proclaimed as scripture, straight up.

Two, at the advent of World War 1 all of Barth’s former university teachers signed a petition supporting the Kaiser’s war effort. To Barth, that all his mentors would uncritically support the unjustified violence of the State was more than bad politics. To Barth this was an indictment of the entire liberal method in which he’d been schooled. The capitulation of the liberal academy to the State showed Barth that secular, social science- despite its presumptions to the contrary- is never impartial. Every discipline and every point of view involves issues of power; supposedly ‘objective’ human reason is always in danger of falling into the service of power (for obvious examples, think: the eugenics movement or the development of the atomic bomb).

WW 1 demonstrated to Barth that, in trying to make itself amenable and translatable to the modern, secular world, Christianity had given away the farm. Or, if not the farm, God.

By translating the faith according to the terms of modern secularism Christianity had forgotten that God is fundamentally mysterious and unknowable.

This rejection of liberalism is what lies behind Barth’s work.

Accordingly, a prominent feature of Barth’s early writing is the dialectical method.

That is, Barth frequently speaks paradoxically: As creatures, we must speak of God. As creatures, we cannot speak of God. This dialectical tension is Barth’s way of holding firm to God’s mysteriousness and thus giving God glory. It’s also Barth’s way of reminding us that faith is always grace. Anything we say about God- ironically, whether its right or wrong- is given to us as gift. 

This mysteriousness and absolutely other quality to God is what lies behind Barth’s essay ‘The Strange New World of the Bible.’ The Bible isn’t a book like other books, containing obvious principles and teachings, because God is completely alien to our concepts: Strange+New+World

So then, against liberalism (which tries to use human disciplines to arrive at a concept of god) Barth argued that only God can speak about God, and God has spoken/speaks definitively in Jesus Christ. This is why all 9K+ pages of the CD are so radically Christo-centric.

Only God can reveal God. We can only know God because God has revealed God’s self to us. We can’t think our way to God, reason our way to God, study our way to God, or have an emotional experience that leads us to God. 

God alone reveals God and God has done so in Jesus. Everything we do and say as Christians therefore coheres around Jesus. Appropriately, it was this insistence on Jesus that enabled Barth to articulate his defiance of Nazism in the next war.

Tips for Reading:

1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in a given week.

2. Barth uses the term ‘being’ a lot. It’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as ‘character.’

3. Whenever Barth speaks of the ‘Word of God’ he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.

4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.