Archives For Reading Barth with Me

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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

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

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

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

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

It’s about relationship not religion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barth begins this section in the affirmative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation is God’s pursuit of humanity.

Religion is humanity’s pursuit of God.

As Barth says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question asked by Barth in §16.1 is this:

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

How is it that some hear God speak?

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

Why is it that others do not hear God speak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s God.

He chose you for damnation.

Before the foundation of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re not all born free, theologically speaking.

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

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

The answer, as it should, is more mysterious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incarnation is itself revelatory.

And maybe even salvific.


barth_tagungIn §1.15 of the Church Dogmatics, Barth riffs on his distinctive emphasis on the unique, particular revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

All Christian speech about God must begin and end with Christ, Barth insists. Not, it should be added, with us. Not with the human experience. Not with natural law. Not with universal reason.

The latter alternative options only lead to us making Jesus into a savior after our own image.

§1.15 also shows Barth arguing for the absolute necessity of the Son’s participation in our sinful humanity.

Jesus’ flesh was sarx, says Barth, participating in all the world in its sinful rebellion against God.

To confess as the creed does that Jesus was “very man” is to profess his participation in the world’s rebellion–even while we also confess that Jesus is “very God” which is but to profess that Christ is without sin.

Indeed many of the church fathers would continue by insisting that Christ was without the possibility of sin.

But I wonder.

If by ‘very God’ we mean that the Son is fully, completely, without deficit God, that everything God is so is Jesus, then should not ‘very Man’ imply that everything we are, fully and completely, Jesus is?

Can Jesus be said to be ‘very Man’ if what is an everyday, all the time experience for us, namely sin, is an impossibility for him?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Barth alongside the Gospel of Mark, a Gospel that almost willfully resists accommodation to our theological categories, but I wonder if the creedal notion of a sinless/unable-to-sin Jesus jumps the Gospel shark.

Mark consistently makes it clear that Jesus sins, at least how ‘sin’ was conceived in Jesus’ first century context. He violates the word of God by touching a leper. He violates the word by usurping Temple authority for himself. He uses words I wouldn’t let my boys use about the Syro-Phoenician woman.

As the eldest son of a widowed mother, Jesus breaks the ‘honor thy’ commandment by leaving home and trading his family for his ministry.

All of which leads me to go back for a second thought:

to what extent does Jesus need to be sinless/incapable of sin to be our savior?

It’s true that a ‘lamb without blemish’ is a necessary component for a particular interpretation of the atonement, but that’s only one interpretation of many and it’s an interpretation not without problems of its own.

What about rival atonement theories?

Is it possible, I wonder, that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, nevertheless his obedience unto the cross defeated the power of Sin and Death?

Is it possible that Jesus did sin in his life, was capable of sin, yet the sum total of his life unwound the story of Sin and recapitulated God’s new creation.

Is it possible that the virgin birth has less to do with the transmittal of original sin and more to do with Jesus being the start of a new creation?

Is it possible that, like a vaccine requires your body to take in germs for you to be immunized, the healing of our human nature required the incarnate one’s body to know sin as well as holiness?



“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

– Lori Grimes to Rick Grimes, Walking Dead: Season 3

“There is no way from us to God — not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way — even of this way — would not be God.”

– Karl Barth

I’ve been on both a Karl Barth and a The Walking Dead binge the past couple of nights. One might imagine that the drudgery of the former would militate against the insomnia provoked by the latter but I’m here to report that this has not been the case.

No, the past few nights I’ve dipped back into §1.14 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and then, very much awake, have turned to Netflix to watch the most recent season of The The Walking Dead.

Today, bleary-eyed with only a few hours of sleep, I’m nearly caught up in both my Barth and my Grimes.

Happy accidents happen when Barth’s ‘strange new world of the bible’ elides into the wasteland of the zombie apocalypse.

Just last night, I was underlining phrases and sentences concerning Barth’s understanding of revelation, in which Barth refuses to countenance any culturally palatable ‘low’ Christology; that is, for Barth Jesus is no mere human teacher of (humanly-deduced) divine wisdom.

No, Barth insists that, in Jesus Christ, God entered history.

The infinite entered the finite.

For Barth, ‘revelation’ names the once for all, decisive interruption of time by God. Better yet:

Revelation = Jesus Christ = The Eruption within Time of God. Barth Homeboy

The incarnation, Barth argues, is the first dawn of New Creation, the light, as John says, shining in the darkness.

The cross, meanwhile, is the perfect sacrifice for sin.

The world changed on Good Friday, 33 AD.

For all time.

Redemption, we profess, has been accomplished by God. In Christ. At Golgotha.

And we know that for certain, we confess.

Through the empty tomb.

And we are to live now as though that were true.

Or, as the Barthian Stanley Hauerwas writes, we are to live in such a way that makes no sense if Christ has not been raised from the dead.

Or, as Barth’s student and Hauerwas’ mentor writes, we are to live in the confidence that people who bear crosses for mercy’s sake work with the grain of the universe.

Now, I admit the above can sound like so much abstract theologizing- just one more example of an esoteric, impracticable intellectual.

Except when you follow your Barth with a zombie chaser.

Because when applied to the deracinated world of Rick Grimes, it suddenly becomes clear just how radically cruciform is Barth’s insistence on living as though the New Age has dawned.

In its macabre exaggeration, the world of The Walking Dead brings to the fore the paradox of faith that is only latent in our ‘civilized’ world:

“…the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished…”

Unlike our present world perhaps, a world crawling-swarming- with walkers/biters/zombies is pretty obviously an unredeemed one. And it’s “unredemption” both necessitates and justifies actions that are rarely redemptive.

The unredeemed world of The Walking Dead excuses any action necessary to insure the survival of its characters.

In Season 3 of the Walking Dead the primary cast seek refuge in a state prison where only a few convicts survive.

Lori, the unfaithful wife of the hero Rick, tells her husband:

“Look, I know that I’m a shitty wife and I’m not winning any Mother of the Year awards, but I you to know that not for one second do I think there is malice in your heart. You’re not a killer, and I know that. I know that, so – so do whatever you have to do to keep this group safe. And do it with a quick conscience.”

Pep talk finished, Rick goes into the bowels of the prison and offs not just zombies but the members of the ‘other’ group, the ‘unredeemed’ world driving him to do what he never would’ve done before.

There’s an unmistakable sense in which the title of the graphic novel and the show refer not to the zombies but to the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

Rick, for one, is walking dead in the sense that with each action justified and taken by the world’s unredemption he becomes less and less human.

The impractical challenge of the Barthian insistence that we live as though the cross has initiated the New Creation in which Christ is King is further demonstrated in how the WD’s characters refuse to see the zombie ‘other’ as people. Or former people, which is to say victims.

The a-Barthian way Rich Grimes et al treat the ‘walkers’ is an unmistakable echo of the a-Christ-like way we treat those so neatly categorized as ‘collateral damage.’

How the danger posed to us determines and declares just what we do to others.

Indeed, for someone who enjoyed irony and paradox, I suspect Barth would revel in how the only character in The Walking Dead who persists in seeing zombies as people is “The Governor,” the villain of the storyline, who surreptitiously locks his ‘biter’ daughter in his apartment because he can’t bring himself to dispose of her.

No matter how ‘other’ she appears, he can’t treat her as though she were anything but human. Anything but redeemed.

Read in isolation, sometimes Barth can seem abstract. Irrelevant even.

Read in tandem with Rick Grimes, however, it becomes obvious how the world of The Walking Dead is but a raggedy approximation of our own- a world where abandoning the way of Jesus for necessity’s sake makes a hero like Rich less and less human and where clinging to the way of Jesus makes the Governor a barbarian.



§1.14 Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics concerns Revelation.

Not the last book of the bible (which is NOT called Revelations in the plural, one of my pet peeves) but revelation in the sense of God revealing God’s self to humanity.

How is it, in other words, that the Eternal, Unknowable, Wholly Transcendent God can be known in space and time?

Predictably- or I should say reliably- Barth has one simple answer to that question: Jesus Christ.

Jesus, as the one Word of God, is the revelation by which we know God.

The only revelation.

This is one of Barth’s constant themes in all his work not just the CD. For example, its’ the motivating assertion in the Barmen Declaration, the confession of faith Barth wrote in opposition to the Nazi’s nationalizing of the German Church.

Barth insists: We do not have abstract, universal ideas of “god” which we can deduct from logic or the natural world and which then correlate to the true God.

Abstract, universal concepts of god only lead an abstract, universalizing deity ready-made for idolatry, Barth believes.

They do not, could not, lead you to the very particular God of Jesus and Israel.

As is often the case, it’s theological liberalism that provokes Barth’s arguments.

Barth is wary of the tendency in theological liberalism to see the particularity of Jesus Christ as merely a cipher for more universal principles which we can adhere to apart from Jesus Christ. That is, Barth wants to avoid liberalism’s tendency to say ‘once we get past the particular forms and practices of our religions, we all really believe the same thing.’

While I concur with Barth’s concerns and while I normally enjoy his ballsy rhetoric and sweeping generalizations, in this instance I part ways with Karl.

On the most elementary and obvious level, the assertion that God cannot be known apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ is demonstrably false.

People knew God prior to Jesus Christ, and people do know God today apart from Jesus Christ. A whole lot of people, actually. I’m friends with some of them.

One could argue, I suppose, that such people worship this God wrongly if they do worship in the name of Christ, but if there is only one God then its logically impossible that they do ‘know’ him.

On another, more problematic level for me is that by suggesting the revelation of God happens only through Jesus Christ, Barth disconnects creation itself from God.

Creation for Barth isn’t really any different than how the Deist understands creation:

something which God made at some discrete point in the past and which God now stands distantly apart from or above.

And for Barth, you get the impression that God’s been so long away from his handiwork it no longer bears his fingerprints.

As Barth puts it in this section, Jesus Christ is the ‘light that shines in the darkness’ and the darkness is not revelation the light is revelation.

This world = darkness.

This is where Barth diverges from the ancient tradition and I don’t think I can go with him.

For the ancient Christians, creation itself, including us in it, are expressions of God’s revelation (or contained within it, so to speak).

All the universe, as Isaiah says, is full of the glory of God. Present tense.

Accordingly, said the ancient Christians, to know anything-

1+1 = 2

the wing speed of a hummingbird

hitting a ball on the sweet spot of a bat

the feel of my son’s hand in my own

the scent of my wife’s hair-

is already to know, however partially, God.

Barth’s understandable emphasis on the particular revelation of Christ unfortunately comes at the expense of transcendent reality.

Rather than saying, as Barth does, that Jesus Christ is the only revelation by which we know God, I think it better to say that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation by which we know God.

Christ is not so much the singular revelation of God but he is the summary of the fullness of God.

That in him is the totality of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.




zealot_reza_aslanAs I posted earlier, during our September sermon series, Zealot or Savior, we’re reflecting on the questions raised by Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot.

I’m also trying to catch up on my Barth reading. With tones of a mother-in-law, some of you have noted I’m behind.

Foregoing 1.1 §12.1-2 (Holy Spirit), which I think is Barth at worst, forcing theological dogma upon scriptural texts (the HS is the love exchanged between the Father and the Son) at the expense of the clear intention of the authors.

Instead I decided to press ahead into 1.2 §13.1-2.

Happily, Barth and Aslan intersect in a revealing and possibly fruitful way.

Like other popular ‘Real Jesus’ fare and the more scholarly historical-critiques works they simplify and rehash for a buck, Aslan’s attempts to get at the Jesus behind the canon begin with what becomes a determinative premise: the Resurrection as an historical impossibility.

If only Aslan brought the same degree of critical rigor to examining his own presuppositions as he does to the received canon and the Jesus within it.

Aslan et al take it as self-evident that Jesus was an impressive, inspiring existential teacher of compassion (Bultmann), an apocalyptic sage (Borg) or a violent revolutionary (Aslan) whose death on the cross was either the result of a tragic misunderstanding or signaled the failure of Jesus’ intentions.

Bound by their own Enlightenment presuppositions, such critics then uncritically deduce that, with their leader fallen, the first followers of Jesus either had an inner, spiritual experience of Jesus a la Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (if we remember him it’s like he’s still with us) or the disciples simply invented out of hand the resurrection story and started to worship Jesus as the divine Messiah.

Sounds plausible, right? Unknown

Actually, not at all.

And if such scholars weren’t so wedded to their modernistic world view, they would know better.

But scholars like Borg and Aslan never mention how the existential ‘experience’ they attribute to the post-cross disciples is an incredibly modern projection on to a culture, period and religion that new no such rubric.

Jews- and Gentiles- didn’t experience reality that way nor did they narrate their reality that way.

What’s more, and more important, is the FACT that 1st century Jews did not expect a resurrection- anyone’s resurrection- until the general resurrection at the End.

Not only did they not have a belief structure in place to posit something like one man’s (a failed Messiah no less) resurrection from the dead, that they would in their lifetimes start to worship this Jesus as God (with sophisticated, high theology) violates the most basic foundation of their faith:

the first commandment.

Whether you believe or not is one thing. But to dismiss, as Aslan and others do, from the outset that there must be a real story behind the story is to not take seriously enough the serious questions:

How is it the first disciples claimed to have been encountered by something (the resurrection of a crucified Jew) they had no contextual reason to expect or invent?

What seized these observant, faithful Jews that was so compelling it prompted them (allowed them) to violate what was otherwise the most sacrosanct of laws?

After all, if the first commandment was that malleable to these Jews they would’ve saved themselves much suffering and persecution by violating in Caesar’s favor rather than Christ’s.

In 1.2 of the Dogmatics, Barth begins by wondering what it means for God to reveal and speak and we, as humans, can even know that God has/does reveal(ed).

Barth is frank where Aslan and others obfuscate.

Barth admits that when it comes to our knowing and God’s revelation, there are only two possible options.

We can begin with our own experience and understanding of the world (Aslan) which eventually brings us to the impossibility of God’s revelation.

Or, we can start with and accept in faith the “actuality” of God’s revelation of himself to us in Christ.

There’s only two choices Barth makes plain, but, Barth insists, they are choices. We’re not bound to the first option.

So, rather than trying to get at the Jesus behind the text, which always prove an elusive golden calf, Barth begins with the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

We can trust what the Bible says, in other words, because we already know what God has said/says in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word made flesh, corroborates the words of scripture. Not the other way around.

And if this sounds like a semantic shell-game, Barth insisting we can know because ‘the bible tells us so,’ then I think Barth would point you back, as he does here in the CD, to what a counter-intuitive surprise it is that the first confession (historically attested outside scripture) was:

“Jesus is Lord”

Aslan, Borg et al would have the first Christians, wholesale, committing idolatry rather than surrender their own modernist assumptions.

But where Aslan, Borg et al think Christianity was originally a set of teachings or a this-worldly political agenda, Barth won’t let us forget the one indisputable fact of Christian history:

The first Christian believed SOMETHING HAPPENED.

Something happened that caused them to rethink all their religious assumptions, forsake all their categories of shame and power, reread their sacred texts, commit what would otherwise be the worst of sins (idolatry) and ultimately sacrifice their lives on crosses of their own.

You can believe or not believe Resurrection.

You can dismiss it as an historical possibility out of hand.

But you can’t dismiss that the first followers of Jesus were so compelled as to reorient their entire minds and lives that SOMETHING HAD HAPPENED.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Door #1: 453703048

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

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

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

Door #2: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

As Barth writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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







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

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

Head-scratchingly impenetrable you could say.

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

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

Paul speaks of “God and his son Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite line in this section:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

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

Two Types of Doubt

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

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

Three Sources

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

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

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

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

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

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

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


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

Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

Derek continues:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be exercised anew continuously.

From faith to faith as Paul says in Rom 1.17.

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

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


14luhrmann-art-articleLargeKarl Barth believed all of Christian belief is premised on three little words at the Bible’s beginning: ‘…and God said.’ 

Ours, Will Willimon likes to say, is a loquacious God.

He calls Abraham. He puts words on the lips of prophets. It’s his word, scripture says, that was with God in the very beginning and it’s the Word that kicks in Mary’s pregnant belly.

We can only speak of God because God has spoken.

If God had not spoken, then we could say nothing about God- even if God still existed, we should remain silent.

Our words could never hope to capture even a hint of truth about God had God not spoken.

But because God has spoken our speech about God does correspond to something real and objective.

Our knowledge of God is knowledge of God, and not of ourselves, because God acts, God speaks, and God enables us to hear and to receive.

This is the lynchpin of Christianity for Barth, not the resurrection or the incarnation or the atonement. It’s whether or not ‘…and God said…’ is true. If God didn’t speak, then everything else collapses like a house of cards.

‘…and God said…’ is the lynchpin of contemporary skepticism too. 

Consider this excerpt from T.M. Luhrmann’s editorial in the NY Times about evangelicals’ experience of God in prayer. She’s an anthropologist, who recently released a book, When God Talks Back, on the same subject.

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

Granted she’s an anthropologist so this is the angle you’d expect her to take (and I share her assessment of The Purpose Driven Life), but notice: her initial presumptions are:

A) God doesn’t actually speak and

B) Religious experience originates not in God but in us. 

This is exactly what Barth is trying to say no to in his heavy-footed, dense, wordy way.

Barth would say no to T.M. Luhrmann who can’t imagine that ‘and God said…’ could true.

Myers Karl Barth painting 1But Barth would also say no to Rick Warren et al who imagine God can be reliably/predictably called upon and experienced.

For Barth, just as the words of scripture aren’t the word of God until God chooses, in freedom, to make them so, our experience of God is also dependent on God’s freedom to act or not act upon us.

Sometimes, you go to God in prayer and God is silent.

Not there.

Dark nights of the soul happen.

This has to be the case for Barth because God is never under our control, not in the pages of scripture and certainly not in our religious experience.

And, Barth would caution, just as in scripture we enter ‘a strange new world’ not like our own, when God enters our experience and self-knowledge- through prayer- it’s equally strange.

Back to Luhrmann:

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.

Barth would respond to this by opening up a great, big can of NEIN.

Nein: prayer isn’t a back-and-forth conversation with a therapist who’s always in his office, waiting for you.

For Barth, God is more like Jacob on Lost, sometimes he’s there.

And sometimes he’s elsewhere.

But he’s always worth searching after.

Barth would say, nein: if the God you experience in prayer is like the one above, a benign therapist, it’s a god you’ve created in your image- it’s not the God who created you in his image.

Only the God who sometimes doesn’t speak back to you in prayer is the real God. Only the God who sometimes scares, startles, upsets and judges you with what you hear is the God of the Bible.

Barth for Dummies Summary:

The Bible is not a magic genie lamp. 

Prayer is not a magic genie lamp. 

God is free to act- or not- as God wills. 

Were it not so, prayer would cease to be an act of faith on our part.

And it would cease to be grace, an unmerited gift, on God’s part. 

And when God does act in our lives, just like in the bible, what God wills seldom corresponds to what we want. 




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

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

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

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

And the jury’s still out on that one.

But we can prove ‘Sin.’ 

Sin is real. 

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

One such motif is Barth’s ‘Objectivism.’ 

The question behind Objectivism is:

‘Who sets the terms for what is real?’ 

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

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

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

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

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

Christ changes our relationship in and with God. Objectively.

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

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

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

It happened on 33 AD. On the cross.

In Christ, ALL died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We tend to think of it the other way around.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And yet our world doesn’t know it.

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

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

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


It’s finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For others. 




barth_1_3Okay, so my blogging worlds collided this week as my ‘Surrendering My Wedding Credentials’ post provoked questions from people about how I understand scripture and homosexuality.

Meanwhile, my posts about ‘Barth, Piper and the Word of God’ prompted questions about whether Barth’s construal of scripture’s authority allows room for an acceptance of committed homosexual relationships.

At least those aren’t, like, loaded, controversial questions. Psyche.

Barth’s understanding of the word of God functions not only as a program of rethinking  what the word of God itself might be, but also of deconstructing common ways of conceiving the word that allow us to presume that we have mastered it–rather than always being in a position for it instead to master us:

‘Is it clear to our generation in life as well as thought that the serious element in serious theological work is grounded in the fact that its object is never in any circumstances at our command…?’ 

Behind the curtain of the Church Dogmatics, I think, is Barth attempting to assert a Doctrine of the Word of God (as living and authoritative) after the advent of modern, critical study of the Bible.

Over and against modern, critical scholarship which approaches deconstructs scriptural texts as dead, historical documents, Barth paves a middle way, acknowledging the human element in scripture’s authorship- and thus its imperfect nature- that is central to modern, critical scholarship, yet all the while stressing the freedom and power of God to incarnate afresh today the fallible human words of texts and people.

Here’s the crux of the matter as I see it:

If Barth’s understanding of the “word of God” is on target, it frees room for God to speak differently at different times through the same human words.

If scripture is human testimony to the One Word of God, which God can put to use in different times and different places, then there is no reason why God cannot speak a different word using the very same words of scripture.

Indeed did God not do this in the first century as the first disciple communities went back to their old familiar Hebrew Bible and discovered that God was using them to speak a much different and surprising word of a crucified Messiah?

For Barth then, there is both the binding of God to the story of Scripture but also the freedom of God in its use and reception in the church. 

Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God contains resonance with how my teacher, Brian Blount, advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective. Blount1

In his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for such ethical re-evaluation.

Blount points out that the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce. Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce. 

But in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery. Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ tradition in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to such discernment today.

Or, as Barth might say: God didn’t speak once for all in scripture. God spoke definitively in Jesus Christ, the One Word of God, but God still speaks today. 

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

What’s important in Barth’s and Blount’s views is that the Church’s discernment on the topic of homosexuality cannot be a one-dimensional ‘the Bible says X,Y or Z’ assessment. What Barth and Blount would caution, I suspect, is that in the name of fidelity to the word of God (scripture) Christians inadvertently shackle the freedom of the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.