Archives For Creeds

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.

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As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?

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What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation’; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

Does Being ‘Biblical’= Being Pauline?

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In some ways it’s a continuation of his work in Simply Jesus. 

Wright’s overarching premise is how Christianity in the West has largely forgotten what the Gospels are about. Christians of all traditions and across the theological spectrum tend to read the Gospels episodically or we read them to buttress theological perspectives we bring to the texts. We do not- and haven’t since the ancient church, Wright contends- read the Gospels, asking the question: ‘What overall story does this Gospel think its telling?’

Wright argues that Christians, especially since the Reformation, have construed the ‘gospel’ in terms of atonement and justification; meanwhile, the story the Gospels attempt to tell is how God in Christ is King of the Earth as in Heaven. The extent to which Jesus’ ascension has become a neglected text and holy day supports Wright’s assertions, and just on a literary level it’s a good charge to level. There are no other narratives we could read where how the authors constructed the beginning, middle and end are incidental to the authorial ‘point.’ It’s not a trivial detail that the Gospels conclude with Jesus’ enthronement nor is it of little consequence that Luke ends the Gospel with Jesus’ ascension and then Luke’s Acts picks up with the disciples living in the form of this new Kingdom, on earth as in heaven.

Whatever one’s theology, Wright thinks it problematic that most Christians can articulate a definition of the gospel that need not make any reference to the actual Gospels. Our definitions of the Gospel center on terms like atonement and justification, terms that feature prominently in Paul but are not in the Gospels themselves and are certainly not their main theme. In the same way, Wright notes a commonly observed problem with the creeds; namely, that they skip from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection and leave out the bulk of the Gospel story.

Instead of shaping our definition of ‘gospel’ by asking what story the Gospels are attempting to tell, we use the Gospels, Wright says, to illustrate arguments derived from Paul. By doing so, Christians have lost the plot…of the Gospels. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Wright doesn’t ask the question but it’s there in his argument: Shouldn’t our reading of Paul be in submission to and in service of the Gospels rather than vice versa?

Is it the case, Wright wonders, that when we claim to be biblical we’re really being Pauline instead? And by neglecting the narrative arc of the Gospels are we actually being something profoundly less than biblical?