Archives For Karl Barth

lightstock_35237_small_user_274151710. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

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?

barth-1

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 this precis.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

 

1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

7. Can I Interpret the Bible by Myself at Home?

Don’t be silly.

You quite literally cannot read the bible by yourself.

Scripture, what we call the word of God, is the testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and it is the corporate testimony of Israel and the Church.

Just as scripture is the witness of those who’ve come before us, it must be read in light of and in submission to the interpretation of those who’ve come before us, the saints and doctors of the Church.

If one is repelled by the rigidity of biblicism, then reading the bible for how it can enliven and enlighten your own personal faith is an understandable alternative. If one shares the modern presumptions of historicism and thinks things like virgin births just can’t happen, then reading the bible for individual devotional purposes is again an understandable alternative.

Yet reading the bible for ‘what it speaks to me’ is fraught with its dangers.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is mediated to us through the testimony of a People.

Scripture is a communal witness and its primary intent is to incorporate us into that Body of witnesses.

So then the sermon on the mount is not first about you as an individual being merciful, it’s about the Church, the community of disciples, being merciful, which only secondarily entails you being merciful.

1 Corinthians 13, where Paul rhapsodizes about love being patient and kind, is not about an individual’s love and the love of a married couple. It’s about the character of the believing community, which secondarily entails your own character.

The Reformation’s notions about the private individual are very modern and very Western assumptions that are by and large alien to the world of the bible. Reading the bible from or for a personal perspective can be appropriate so long as you come to the bible with that understanding.

But stripping scripture away from its communal identity, risks turning it into a talisman we turn to for answers rather than transformation.

What’s more, reading the bible only from the lens of our private devotion also risks spiritualizing or simply missing the essentially political character of much of scripture.

The Hebrew Bible, after all, is the testimony about a God who rescued Israel from oppression and the New Testament is how that God took peasant flesh and ended up executed at the hands of an occupying military power. Those are unavoidably political stories that have implications well beyond the personal life of faith.

“Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  

– John 18.21

 

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

3. (How) Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Bible is the Word of God in that scripture- when proclaimed rightly and received faithfully- is the reliable testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the logic of God made flesh.

So when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ they’re actually referring to multiple forms whose authority and ‘infallibility’ varies by degrees.

Imagine, for instance, the image of three concentric circles.

At the center, in the inner, centermost circle, is the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Christ is the only capital ‘W’ word of God in which Christians believe and after which Christians conform their lives.

Next in the trio is the testimony to the Word of God given to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church. This testimony to the Word of God is the word we call scripture.

In the final, outermost, circle is the word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church to which Christians will often reply: ‘This is the word of the God for the people of God/Thanks be to God.’

The only true, literal, infallible, eternal Word of God then is Jesus Christ, the Logos of God.

The bible is the word of God in that it points us to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Our reading and preaching of scripture is- or perhaps more apt, becomes- the word of God for us only when it faithfully proclaims and embodies the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” - John 20.30-31

4. Should We Interpret the Bible Literally?

The form of the scripture text should determine how you interpret scripture.

If the scripture text is poetic, then you should it interpret it poetically. Metaphorically.

If the scripture text is exhortative, then you better go and do whatever it says. Whatever is the best modern-day equivalent of what it says.

If the scripture text is parabolic, then you should scratch your head and look for the scandal of the Gospel. Or whatever would be likewise scandalous in our day.

If the scripture text is fabulous, then you should dig for the deeper meaning, the text’s artist seeks to show rather than simply tell. e.g., Garden of Eden.

But when Christians refer to the bible as the word of God, don’t forget that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation. The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God. They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies. Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

None of this threatening should be threatening, however, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is a mediated revelation.

Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, the bible does not (always) need to be interpreted literally because we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

And, it should be pointed out, Jesus himself did not interpret scripture literally:

I say “You are gods,

sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals

and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82 vv. 6-7)

 

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.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

Lingering barely behind these quotes is a critique of the Christianity that liberal Protestantism inherited from Paul Tillich, which seeks to make the faith ‘relevant’ to modernity by translating it into generalized principles of human experience. It’s this sort of Christianity that turns the resurrection into a metaphor for ‘life after death.’

DBH’s other sparring partner here is post liberalism (perhaps best represented by Stanley Hauerwas) which tends to conceive of Christianity as a particular cultural-linguistic expression as a way of avoiding the sort of all-encompassing metaphysical claims ancient Christianity made. In other words, you don’t know what ‘resurrection’ means until you’ve been part of the community of faith and learned the language we call Christian. Such a move, DBH argues, fails to account for the deep, universal claim about all of creation that resurrection makes.  rp_faith4.jpg

 

Anyway, as always, DBH says it better than me:

 

“The starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing [biblical] literalism looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least have some feel for the difference between a story as openly fabulous as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as that of Christ’s Resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality, with repercussions that can be described in terms of places and times.”

 

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus tell us nothing in the abstract about human dereliction or human hope- they are not motifs of a tragic wisdom or goads to an existential resolve- but concern first what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, to whose particular truth and radiance all the general ‘truths’ of human experience must defer.”

 

“I dislike the tendency [postliberals] have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an antifoundationalist shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address.”

 

Ontological…epistemological…silly words, I know. But they set up this money quote:

“I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are actually oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and ‘experience’ of those who are not Christian.

 

And, I confess, I believe there is indeed the possibility of a consummation of all reason in a vision and a wisdom that cannot be reached without language.”

 

“Whereas the story of violence [being intrinsic to the universe] simply excludes the Christian story of [ontological] peace, the Christian story can encompass, and indeed heal, the story that rejects it; because that story too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite, and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgTo kick off our September sermon series, I spun the wheel and tackled people’s questions about the Holy Spirit at random as well as fielding some questions from the congregation too. It’s something a bit more interactive than traditional preaching that I try to do on a fairly regular basis.

I call it ‘Midrash (the Hebrew word for commentary on scripture) in the Moment.’ photo-1

Thanks for everyone who submitted questions from all over the world! The ‘best’ question came from someone named Jason Campbell and it was a long thoughtful reflection that used Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Mozart to ask if the reason why I don’t talk about the Spirit much is because I prefer to live in my head instead of in the moment/heart. If Jason will be so bold as to send me his address, I will- as promised- send him a free copy of Scot McKnight’s new book, The Kingdom Conspiracy.

Alright, so here’s the audio from Sunday’s sermon. It’s not great- I apologize. You can download it in iTunes as well here. You can also listen to it and old sermons in the sidebar to the right.

 

Untitled1011I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 22-24

I. The Father

 

22. If God is All-powerful can God do whatever God wants?

No.

 

The categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things with no reality beyond this world.

Instead they derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature. 

“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

– 1 John 4.8

23. If God is all-knowing, does God have a plan the world?

Yes.

God’s will, revealed through Abraham, Christ and the Spirit’s sending of the Church, is that all of creation be renewed, redeemed and resurrection; so that what was originally ‘very good’ will be so eternally with Heaven joining Earth, God dwelling with his creatures and mourning, pain and crying no more.

“Look at the stars in the sky. Count them if you are able. So shall your future be…” – Genesis 22.17

 

24. If God is all-knowing, does God have a plan for my life?

No.

God has a desire for your life: that you become as fully human as Jesus, and like Jesus, become friends with God.

How you fulfill that desire, with the gifts and freedom God has given you, is the adventure you call your life.

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” – Romans 8.29

 

 

 

rp_rainbow-cross_april2.jpgEarlier this week I posted a reflection regarding my frustration that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, is so reticent to ameliorate its stated position on homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgAs my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

For, as James KA Smith says,

‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’

Perhaps this sounds sweet to you, but the early Church took it quite literally, raising children in their parents’ stead if those birth parents failed to live a faithful Christian life. Even today, if taken seriously by Christians it would bear difficult ethical implications. I’ve written elsewhere how baptism, not questions of individual rights and choices, is the proper lens through which Christians should confront an issue like abortion as Christians. If more Christians took seriously the baptismal stipulation that we are now members of one another, then there might be fewer women left vulnerable and alone in a situation where abortion seemed a necessary choice.

I remember when Ali, my wife, and I began the adoption process for the first time. In an initial interview, the social worker asked us why, when we had no known biological need to do so, we were choosing to adopt.

Our answer was quite sincere and it’s one I recall every time I preside at the font: that, as Christians, we believe in baptism and baptism suggests that adoption is just as ‘normal’ a way as biology to constitute a family.

Because of baptism, so to speak, water is thicker than blood.

1000_1This marks my 1000th post on the Tamed Cynic blog.

I’d guess that the usual post is 500-600 words or so, which means that in the last two years I’ve committed half a million words to this site.

Other guys golf, I suppose.

UnknownI started the blog almost 2 years today exactly, beginning at Tony Jones’ encouragement and prodding.

What began on little more than a lark has taken on a life of its own, with thousands of readers a day from all over the world (73% from US), a global ranking among websites that isn’t half-bad and an above average rate of engagement.

Thanks to the blog my preaching is better and so are my questions, more aware now of your own questions. I’ve made ‘friends’ I’ve never met and discovered books I would not otherwise have read. Adding podcasts and guest authors this year has exposed me to leaders in the Church at large and given exposure to the gifts of my friends.

There’s absolutely no reason you have to spend time here. That you do, I just want to say thank you.

In case you’re curious or started reading the blog only of late, here are, in descending order, the most popular posts of all time these past two years.

You can click on them below in case you missed one of them:

What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

A Pastor’s Wife Responds to Mark Driscoll

Surrendering My Wedding Credentials

Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church

Why Rapture Believing Christians are Really Liberals

Women Can Write Sermons, They Just Can’t Preach Them

Chuck Knows Church, But I Wish He Knew Jesus

Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross

Mark Driscoll in the Hands of An Angry Pastor

Stop Baptizing Homosexuals

Shoulder to Shoulder: Reflections on Marriage

FYI: If You’re a Teenage Boy (a letter to my kids)

 

Does God Exist? No.

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2014 — 6 Comments

Untitled10Lately I’ve been working to write a catechism of the faith for our students, one that incorporates both the particular confessions of Christian belief as well as the philosophical commitments that make such beliefs intelligible.

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing number of young people who go off to college and subsequently ‘reject’ Christianity especially and even belief in God generally. Such rejections are often voiced in the name of science and reason. Frequently it’s not God so much as the behavior and closed-off worldview of other Christians with which they wish to part ways.

I’ve discovered too how all too often the Christianity which gets rejected is not

the actual Christian tradition as such.

It’s not the ancient Christian tradition and its conception of God, Christ and scripture.

Rather the faith an increasing number of the ‘nones’ reject is the sort of pop caricature of Christianity that our connected culture allows to metastasize until the god rendered therein is either unbelievable or repugnant and sometimes both.

So over the past couple of years I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures. The Q/A’s of a catechism are, really, the pretense for a longer dialogue.

Given the post-Christian world in which we will live, I think it’s important to outline the faith such that people can see- and learn- the philosophical foundation beneath it.

It’s important for (young) people to see that ours is a faith which isn’t afraid of doubt even as it takes the reasons for doubt with moral seriousness.

Ours is a faith that has ancient answers for ‘modern’ questions, a faith that will always rely upon God’s self-revelation but it is not irrational for all truth is God’s truth.

In other words, ours is a faith with the resources to tame the cynicism of a post-Christian culture.

I’ve used the catechism of the Catholic Church as a basic skeleton of categories. I’ve phrased the questions in the approximate wording of the questions I’ve received from doubters and believers over the past couple years while the answers are an incestuous amalgamation of Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, Stanley Hauerwas and all my other theological crushes.

Here are the first 3 (of a couple hundred) Questions:

Part I ~ The Father

      1. Does God exist?

No.

To say something exists is to suggest that it had a beginning in time, that it is an object in the universe, but God is without beginning or end, is outside time and is not an object within the universe.

God just is; therefore, the subject and the predicate of the statement ‘God exists’ are identical.

So God does not ‘exist’ in our sense of the term, rather God is the Source of existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God.

God said to Moses: “I Am He Who Is.”’ – Exodus 3.14

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” – Hebrews 11.3

 

2. Do human beings exist?

No.

A ‘being’ is someone who is still, someone who doesn’t change, someone constant, someone who’s always true.

Human life isn’t really being in that sense. Only God is a true being. The only being who can act without changing identity is God.

Everything else in creation is a “becoming,” a creature or thing that’s in constant process of changing. Everything else acts in such a way that it closes off some of the possible options and thus reduces the potential of their existence. God alone acts in such a way that there is no loss, just being.

So, no, human ‘beings’ do not exist. Human ‘becomings‘ exist. To speak of human ‘beings’ is only possibly by our incorporation into God’s Triune Being through the incarnation of the Son.

“For you [God] created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” – Revelation 4.11

“For in God we live and move and have our being.” – Acts 17.28

 

3. Is God knowable? 

In a certain sense.

As Being that supplies existence to all created things in the universe, God is knowable for God is literally closer to us than we are to ourselves.

However, as Creator, God is necessarily greater than his creatures‘ apprehension of him. Our knowledge of God is never full or perfect. We can know that God is but never know what God is.

Therefore we know God only analogically; that is, we can know what God is ‘like’ but we do not know God in his essence.

“I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.” – 2 Maccabees 7.28

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” – Psalm 139.6

 

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here are some  links and posts I came across this week that might be worth your while:

Why Christians Might Want to Abstain from the Pledge:

Now, many Christians may read this and say “I don’t have a problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but I agree– if I have to choose to be loyal to God or country, I’ll always choose God”. If this is the case, the third problem that arises is that such an individual, when making the Pledge of Allegiance, is actually being dishonest. You can read the rest here.

10310117_10152423618803879_7313295905510655067_nI Will Not Leave You As Orphans:

My friend and now colleague, Taylor Mertins, included a reflection about my two sons in his recent blog post. Made me cry. You can read it here.

Karl Barth’s Failure:

This essay from First Things, a conservative Catholic journal, nails it on Barth, I think, and articulates better than me my current feeling that our secular age requires a retrieval of Christian metaphysics.

Perhaps the best way to understand the spirit of modern philosophy is to see it as a dismantling of the classical understanding of God and the ordered cosmos it sustained. Classical theism names not only a way of thinking about God but a way of understanding the nature of the world and our place in it. Developed through common effort over centuries, it came to endorse a number of interlocking theses: that God’s essence is identical with his existence, that nature is governed by an act of divine intelligence and love, that rational beings find fulfillment in learning the truth about God, and that all knowledge is grounded in God’s self-understanding. You can read the rest here.

Water to Wine (Some of My Story)

My theo-friend Brian Zahnd tells a powerful story about his mid-life faith crisis:

Like Bilbo Baggins I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I’d reached the point where something had to be done. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of pop-culture America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it. Guided by little more than instinct I began reading the Early Church Fathers. You can read the rest here.

 The System vs. The Kingdom

“I believe Jesus is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion. What produced that peculiar speech-act?”

Here’s a reflection perfect thinking about Memorial Day from my muse Stanley Hauerwas:

No Easter, No Eschaton

Jason Micheli —  April 23, 2014 — 4 Comments

In terms of preaching experience, I’ve got a baker’s dozen.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the REZ is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder’s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality.

lightstock_63141_small_user_2741517

Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Christian faith is expectant faith.

Christian faith expects for God to undo what Sin has done. Christian faith awaits and longs for God to complete the creative aim begun in the Garden. It anticipates God to consumate the redemptive work begun in Jesus Christ.

Christian faith is expectant faith. Just think of what little would be left of Jesus’ preaching if you excised those passages that look forward to the Kingdom of God. Consider how the prayer he taught us to pray is rooted in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.

Dusty yet impressive word to wow your friends and family: ‘eschatology.’

Literally, it means ‘talk of the last things.’

Eschaton means ‘End.’

It’s the basis for our hope, and even though we’re examining it last we could have just as easily begun our sessions with eschatology because it’s our vision of the End that orients our understanding of the remainder of our beliefs. Not just Christian service but our worship and devotional life become masquerades if they’re not rooted in what is going to do.

As Jurgen Moltmann says, tweaking a famous line from St Anselm, Christian faith is ‘hope seeking understanding.’ We have a hope of what God will do; we struggle to understand how our other beliefs relate to our hope.

Hope is a word that perhaps has too many miles on it in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the bible is from beginning to end a testament of hope. If the bible were a novel then the dust jacket would summarize it as a book about how God gets what God wants, how God gets what God wanted in the very beginning, how God restores his creation to fellowship. It’s this hope that is the unifying thread throughout the disparate books and genres of the bible. The bible is a book of hope because, as Robert Jenson says, the God of the bible is essentially a promise-making God. The characters in the bible are people who place their trust and hope in the promises of God.

The concluding line of the bible, after all, is ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22.20). To speak of scripture or Christian faith in the absence of hope is to make both unintelligible.

Of course, that’s exactly what has happened.

As the letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation make clear, the early Christians were a community who anticipated Christ’s return and the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Their present was lived in light of the imminent future.

As the Church expanded, however, and adapted to its cultural environment, eventually becoming the state religion of Rome, the biblical hope in the coming of Christ and the transformation of the world by his Kingdom became marginalized. As the faith of the majority, no longer did Christians long for a Kingdom that would transcend, defeat or replace the Roman kingdom- which Christians now enjoyed, thank you very much. Who needs a New Earth when the one you have is treating you rather well?

With this transition, the Church became the dispenser of individual salvation (through the sacraments) rather than a community whose very life was a sign of their anticipation of the End.

Christian HOPE, as articulated by Isaiah, Jesus, Paul and John, increasingly became a hope for one’s personal survival beyond death. No longer- or not nearly as much- did Christians hope for the transformation of all creation.

Throughout history pockets of apocalypticism (belief in the end-times) have crept up within Christianity, usually in dark or trying times. The plagues of the Middle Ages, Millenial anxiety, the peasant wars in the 16th century, the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the Nuclear Age have all fertilized the apocalyptic imagination. Nonetheless in mainstream Christianity biblical hope has been either neglected or altogether forgotten.

When you marginalize the authentic biblical hope, you also unintentionally render Jesus an incoherent teacher.

As Karl Barth said: ‘If Christianity is not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatsoever with Christ.”

That is, Christianity doesn’t make any compelling sense if it’s not rooted in the conviction that the words, way and witness of Jesus about the Kingdom were exactly what God raised from the grave.

The majority of Jesus‘ preaching and teaching is apocalyptic, geared towards God’s End. The Kingdom dominates Jesus‘ concerns. The community of disciples lived Jesus‘ teachings not because it made ‘sense‘ or because it promised to make the world a better place. They lived Jesus‘ teachings to be a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.

What do you do with Jesus‘ teachings once they’re divorced from Kingdom hope?

Beginning in the Enlightenment and running up to the present day, many Christians and critics alike saw the New Testament’s apocalyptic language as archaic. As a result it  was deemphasized and in its place Jesus’ teachings were construed in such a way so that any enlightened, rational modern person could applaud them.

The Gospel’s teachings, however, were unmoored from a community’s anticipation of the End. Instead they were treated as principles, encouragements, for an individual’s life or, at the other end of the spectrum, they were seen as descriptors for our future life in heaven: impossible to live now (because who wants to suffer for their beliefs?) but possible in the future.

Jesus’ teachings then do not require a correlative hope for a future Kingdom nor do they require a community in the present living towards that future.

And this how Christian service becomes unintelligible to someone like Bob. Divorced from our future hope, we have no other grounds on which to judge our acts of mercy beyond the criteria the world gives us: realism or idealism.

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

Wrath.

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

But what about anger? Wrath?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epistle to the Romans, 516 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do liberals hate on Barth?

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

Barth skewers it better than me:

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

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

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

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

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

Scripture is not itself the Second Person of the Trinity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And scripture’s ongoing authority is always a becoming.

There is no ‘isness’ to scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Barth_Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:

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

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

‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’

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

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

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

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

We are not saved by grace alone.

Apologies to Paul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

To kick things off, we snagged Will Willimon.

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

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

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

All sprinkled with a generous helping of curse words.

We edited some- but not all- of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Barth_WritingIn his crackling defense of how Christianity makes sense of this ‘cruel world,’ Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes that what Christians name by that stodgy old world ‘sin’ can be abbreviated- ‘HPtFtU.’

‘The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up.’

Unbelievers of the most sneering variety often preen about with the suggestion that their believing counterparts prefer to live in a fantasy world rather than the world that is. Those who’ve bravely shorn themselves of the dross of myth and faerie are the only ones sufficiently sturdy to take measure of the world- the not so subtle implication goes.

But knowing how many billions of years old is the world is hardly the same thing as knowing how the world is.

Knowing that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ does not necessarily acquaint one with any personal knowledge of where the wounded world bleeds red.

Or who is doing the bleeding.

Though atheists often surmise that theirs is the most ‘realistic’ take on the world, Spufford argues that the opposite is most often the case.

Whereas atheists lack anything that narrates the human experience as reliably as HPtFtU so too do they fail to contend with the cruelty on our little piece of the universe.

Far from being fantastical or unrealistic, Christians are those people who’ve heard the bad news about themselves and thus are free to frankly assess the truth all around them.

Where atheists too often treat ‘god’ as a piece of outdated mental furniture, it’s most often believers who wrestle again and again with the question of what sort of God is conjured by the innumerable suffering in the world (see: Job). Just as often it turns out that such wrestling compels one to take some small measure against it (witness the fact those serving in the most wounded places in the world are overwhelmingly believers).

6a00d834515f9b69e2019b00771a43970b-800wiAs Spufford puts it:

“Some people ask nowadays what kind of religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement…

The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.”

In §17.3 of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth assesses the human dimension to religion quite seriously.To take a look at life in this world is to confront the sinfulness of humanity seriously, our HPtFtU as Spufford calls it- and I think Barth would approve.

Given the (bad) truth about ourselves, Barth says that the only way for us stand before God is to do so justified, forgiven, and en route to sanctification in Christ.

Christianity is ‘true’ not only in the sense that it truthfully narrates the world in all its cruelty and beauty, ditto us; Christianity is true, says Barth, because God adopts it, sanctifies it and speaks thru it.

Christianity is true because it’s been graced by God and is thus a vessel of God’s grace.

But when Barth speaks of Christianity as being ‘true’ don’t mistakenly think Barth excludes Christianity from the world under judgment.

Hardly. It’s the nature of HPtFtU that we’re all equally culpable. Far from being prized, saved or excluded, Christians might better refer to themselves as ‘the international league of the guilty’ (Spufford again…and again I think Karl would tip his cigar).

Christianity then is not a source of confidence, Barth argues, so much as it’s a source of honesty. And thus hope. This is but another reason why Barth is so allergic to apologetics, the rationally ‘proving’ Christian belief.

To suggest by way of argument that Christianity is somehow ‘the best’ religion or worldview is to grab hold of a tree at the expense of the forest, for Christianity is the announcement of grace in the face of the bad news about ourselves.

To apply a category like ‘best’ to such a declaration is to make a tonal error.

Nonetheless, permit me such an error. Consider these two catchphrases and tell me which is the most honest, realistic summary of life in our world. The first is the popular atheist bus advertisement and the second is Martin Luther’s Gospel in condensed form:

“There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

(Enjoy?)

simil justus et peccator” 

Which means (roughly):

We are always at one and the same time and never cease to be hobbled by HPtFtU but we are also always at one and the same time and never cease to be loved.