Archives For Karl Barth

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:

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.