Tag Archives: #barthtogether

Authority, Scripture, Creed

Blogsphere confessional: I realize that I am often not at my best when I am trying to work out the relationships among bible, theology, and church authority. I do too much “not this but that” rather than “this and also that.” The whole project of reading through the Church Dogmatics was meant, in part, to keep me wrestling with and appreciating good theology.

In §20, Barth is wrestling with the very issues that have been driving me insane for the past decade or so: where does church authority come from? What does it mean and look like to have scripture as ultimate authority? What does this mean for our confessions about the canon as it stands? And what does it mean for the creeds that speak to us of what the church has said defines it and its beliefs?

This section is beautiful, because Barth the dogmatician (i.e., the one who seeks to say within the church what the church is truly saying about God) demands that we not surrender for one minute the Reformation principle that the Bible as the word of God is the church’s authority. This means that the authority will not be shared or usurped by church or creed.

And, it is only within the church that we meet this Bible as a Bible, as holy scripture; and before we could even say anything good or ill about a creed it must come to us as the church’s proclamation that this is what it believes.

Barth manages to advocate a hermeneutical spiral that deals with the reality of the church as the primary locus of God’s speech and as the primary mediators of the word, that deals with the reality of the Bible as something that is only the book it is because of the church, while demanding that we never lose our evangelical and Protestant moorings by allowing the church to have either a final word over the scriptures, or even a co-equal word alongside it.

Let me try that again: the canon (!), church, and creeds are important, but are always subject to correction and stand under the authority of scripture as the word of God.

But this authority of scripture is a derivative authority. It is only because Jesus is Lord that the Christian Bible has authority (§20.1). For there even to be a church is not to have a bunch of people sitting around reading the Bible. The Society of Biblical Literature is not the church. Where the church really is the church it is a people living in obedient relationship to Jesus Christ.

One reason I trust Barth is that he keeps demanding that people be actively responding to the story of Jesus if they are going to claim for themselves the prerogative of bearing the name of the church. Where the more recent conservative move has been to say that we have the word in the Bible itself, and therefore as the possessors and readers and expositors of the word we are the emissaries of God, Barth suggests the reverse.

To be the people of God is not to posses and master the Word, but to be possessed and mastered by it.

To be in the presence of scripture is not to have laid hold of what is pristine and to derive one’s validity from that possession. It is to be in the presence of something human in every sense that the word “human” conveys in a fallen world: limited, fragile, sinful. And yet, it is also be in the presence of something that, though very human, is the instrument that God in God’s grace chooses in order to speak and draw and otherwise mediate the authority of the resurrected Lord Jesus.

Christ sits enthroned above all, and God speaks this Word through the word that is scripture. The word has authority because of this dynamic use to which God puts it, to which we believe he puts it, as God calls us to obey. And the church’s own authority rests under both of these: the written word which mediates and the God who speaks through it.

More needs to be said about how this relates to church authority and creeds in particular. But the focus on word, and obeying the word, rather than believing a creed or submitting to a church, enables Barth to cultivate a vision for what the church is, what Christianity is, that has an inherent ethic.

This has the power to overcome the failure that has beset the church in general and Protestantism in particular for most of its history.

“The existence of the church of Jesus Christ stands or falls with the fact that it obeys as the apostles and prophets obeyed their Lord. It stands or falls with the known and actual antithesis of man and revelation, which cannot be reversed, in which man receives, learns, submits, and is controlled, in which he has a Lord and belongs to Him wholly and utterly.”

Yes. That.

Now, how do we define Church and Christian such that this kind of obedience lies at the core of its identity?

The Miracle of Scripture

What is so special about the Bible? Why do we keep talking about it? Why must Christians continually point to it as the way we know what is true about God?

Is there something miraculous about scripture? If so, what?

The answer that many of us encounter, and many of us cling to, is that the miracle is the perfection of scripture itself. Some might express this in terms of “inerrancy”: we believe the Bible, at least in part, because God has kept it perfectly free from error for us. Others might more generally refer to the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, majesty of style, and consent of all the parts.

No really. Some people do. I swear.

Such lofty exaltation of scripture can come at a price, however. For example, if someone holds scripture in high esteem based on a valuation of its inerrancy and then discovers that there are historical mistakes (e.g., Luke 2), unfulfilled prophecies (Haggai, Revelation), theological disagreements (Gen 1 & 2; Mark & John), or scientific problems (all the animals in the whole world on that Ark?), this can come with a loss of confidence in God, Christianity, the church, and one’s personal faith.

Might there be another way forward?

Karl Barth argues quite strongly that, yes, there is another way forward (Dogmatics §19).

The miracle of scripture does not consist in the fact that God kept the Bible free from taint of humanness, and especially of human limitation or sin.

Instead, the miracle of scripture consists, as in the salvation of humanity more generally, in the fact that God makes himself known through what is all too human, all too limited, all too often 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.

And finally, this, which probably ends up going further than I’m entirely comfortable with, but by and large sums up some things I’ve been dancing around for years:

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.

In other words, this is the Bible we actually have. To demand another, an inerrant one for example, is to demand of God what God has not seen fit to give. It is to spurn the gift given and demand something better.

If God is not ashamed of an all-too-human Bible, we should not be either. This human collection of documents is the actual Bible that is the Word of God.

Absence of Exegetical Prejudice?

From Church Dogmatics 1.2, §19:

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.

I laughed. I cried. That was brilliant, brother Karl!

Of course, Barth also maintains that biblical hermeneutics set the stage for all human communication. I wonder if he’d be willing to say that “objectivity” is a false goal when speaking and listening to our fellow non-scripture-writing humans as well?

On Avoiding Loving Neighbor

I have a love/hate relationship with Barth, it seems. I’m plowing through the Dogmatics with all due diligence. §17 was outstanding. I love Barth’s stated theological method. He always begins with what God has done for us, and never acts as though he’s dealing with abstract or philosophical necessities.

But there are times, like §18 where Barth’s theological agenda seems to run roughshod over his stated method and also the scripture he purports to be engaging.

In §18.3 brother Karl alleges that he is discussing the second great commandment–love your neighbor as yourself. The section title is “The Praise of God.”

At the halfway point in the section, Barth has explored the extent to which this is similar to or different from the first great command, and how the two can be related. He has given an interesting, albeit idiosyncratic and highly tendentious reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

In all, it seems that Barth is petrified that Jesus might have said that in order to inherit eternal life we have to not only love God but also engage in acts of love toward neighbor. So there is this complicated reworking of the idea such that neighbor love becomes receiving charity as a sign of God’s gracious provision.

And so salvation by grace alone is preserved. But at the cost of simply and clearly stating that love of God is deficient without love of neighbor.

§18. Not a keeper.

From Love to Love

If people are found by God, if God reveals Godself to them and draws people into relationship, then we can embark along the road of asking what life in such a relationship might look like. Karl Barth, true to form, begins with the given, with the confession that God has revealed, that God by the Spirit has drawn people into God’s family, that God has first loved us.

And from here, he invites us to consider what the life of the children of God is to be like–a life of love, and a life of praise (Church Dogmatics §18).

In wrestling with the topic of love, Barth gets off to a promising start (§18.2). He insists that we not allow our own vague notions of love to be our standard for the love that God demands of us. Instead, we come to the drama of salvation and learn from this what the love of God is. And then we know what this love is that we are called to emulate.

We know love, Barth insists, only in light of the “outwardness” of God’s love to us–the occurrence of love in revelation (which would mean, in Jesus Christ). This is exactly right.

Then things go downhill.

What we learn from this love toward us, Barth asserts, is “the inwardness of God,” that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and therefore God is love in himself before people ever come on the scene.

But when Barth turns to establish these points, the texts all point in the same direction: not toward love as some transhistorical, Trinitarian reality, but as the reality we know–and that IS–simply as the work of God in Jesus Christ to rescue humanity.

The great claim, “God is love,” is substantiated by saying that love is not our love for God, but God’s love in giving his son as a sacrifice for our sins; it is backed up by saying that love is God’s sending of the Son so that we can live through him.

God’s love is known in the giving of Jesus on the cross.

Barth’s eagerness to transpose this into Trinitarian eternal realities bodes ill for the remaining part of the chapter, also. The whole of this section wanders from Barth’s own stated premise: that God’s love for us first shows what our love in turn is to be.

Where this should have taken Barth was in realizing that God’s love in the giving of the Son is the Son’s love in giving of himself that we are called to execute in our love for one another. It should have led him to work out a paradigm of loving God that entails participating in the mission of God by giving ourselves so that others might live in this new human family that God is creating.

Instead, Barth gets mired in a debilitating theological program of saying that love to God is merely recognizing again and again that we seek God as those who know we will be found by grace. The notion that we are always sinners, always received only by grace, creates a vision of Christian love that is thin, at best: always attempting to relive the reality of being found afresh by God as a sinner saved by grace.

This is not the picture of love that the saving cross of Christ generates. We love not merely as recipients of grace, but as those who enact the saving story of Jesus in communities that bear Jesus’ name.

There is a certain genius to Barth’s system: with a definition of love that simply means coming to be received by God’s grace, he cuts off the possibility that we have to confess that someone outside of Christ is, in fact, loving God or loving neighbor better than we who confess Christ’s name.

To my mind, Barth’s solution is too easy.

I think it is important to say, instead, that to love God and love neighbor looks like living the self-sacrificial life of the cross, and that, therefore, Christians will always be confronted with those who are not “in Christ” who appear to be living the story better than ourselves. And, these should be the impetus for us to renew our repentance and renew our love rather than redefining love such that we can privately seek God’s face without allow any conviction to develop in the face of our failure to love.

True Religion

For a chapter whose overall title is “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion,” there sure is a lot Karl Barth managed to sneak in that sounds rather in favor of said institution. For example: a whole subsection entitled, “True Religion” (§17.3).

Barth takes the human dimension of our religious expression quite seriously. For life this world as it is, to take the human dimension seriously is to take the sinful human dimension seriously. And so, for religion in general as for persons in particular, the only way to stand approved before God is to be justified, forgiven, and so wrapped up into a process of putting on display the story of Christ in sanctification.

Christian religion becomes true, not simply because it “is,” but because God adopts it and sanctifies it and speaks to it and through it–because, that is, Christian religion receives God’s grace. When KB was talking about religion as unbelief, Christianity was not excluded, in principle, from that word of judgment. “Christian religion is the true one only as we listen to the divine revelation” (326).

Barth suggests that in striving to hold up Christian religion itself as the source of our confidence, we lose out on the very confidence we seek to take hold of. In a manner analogous to the weakness of looking to ourselves as proof positive of God at work in the world, taking hold of Christian religion will prove vacuous. Instead of taking hold of the religion, we take hold of the revelation of God in Christ–this turning from the religion to the thing revealed is the way in which to hold to a proper confidence that the religion itself is faithfully participating in the work of God.

In this section, Barth gives a magnificent account of the history of Christianity as it has positioned itself over against other religions. To claim it is better on the same basis by which all religions are judged is to sell the farm. Apologetics of superiority belie the Christian confession that “grace is the truth of Christianity” (333); i.e., the self-giving grace of God in Christ.

In the end, the reality of simil justus et peccator applies to the church as well: not as a cop-out and a means to escape the pursuit of holiness, but as a confession that the church as such will never show by its history that it is, as a religious institution, superior to the world around it. The church is continually judged by its willingness to accept that its whole existence is a continuing work of grace. In light of this revelation it is judged for its failure and called afresh to live in a manner pleasing to God.

Christianity Against Religion?

I was ready to rage. I was ready to rebel. I had my black highlighter at hand.

“The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion,” the chapter title proclaimed.

All I could hear in my head was “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship!” And I was not ready to hear this line endorsed by Karl Barth. I was thinking immediately of what the college religion professor would say: “Um, no, really: when people get together to worship God they are engaging in religious activity, participating in a religion, by definition.”

I was scared.

And then came one of the greatest chapters of theology I’ve read in years.

Barth begins by saying, Yes, of course. To affirm that God has spoken and acted within the sphere of humankind is to affirm that what we do as Christians is measurable and comparable with other religions. Because humans are involved, we as recipients of God’s revelation participate in a human phenomenon and this phenomenon has numerous parallels and analogies.

And yet, as always, Barth is keen to keep the revelation horse ahead of the religious cart. For Christians, the revelation of God must always indicate what sort of religion is faithful to God–distillation of religions in general will never point the way to what is holy and righteous and good about Christian faith.

And, importantly, the Christian religion will never be something that shows itself to be the epitome of what everyone else was always actually striving for all along. There is a resistance to apologetic here that keeps Barth’s discussion well grounded.

Having gotten through §17.1, I was about to let down my guard entirely when I read the title for §17.2: “Religion as Unbelief.” Uh oh, is the shoe going to drop now?

No so much.

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. (298)

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, it seems, religion is unbelief, the reality of life in this world that can only be something other than unbelief when it fixes on the revelation of God. It sits under the judgment of God because all of our attempts to know God, even our attempts to rest in God’s grace, are shown to be inadequate in light of the fact that God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ.

Freedom for a Real God

Two points in Karl Barth’s articulation of the Spirit’s revelation of the Word of God to humanity deserve fresh hearing in a world that tends to go a very different direction.

One of these is the issue of freedom. I find that human freedom is one of the bedrock assumptions that most of my students bring to the text of scripture with them. Sometimes this is couched in terms of “free will” as over against a “predestinarian” understanding of how we come to be in relationship with God. But often it is not so specifically developed.

What my students assume, by and large, is that we are free, as humans, to choose for God or to choose against God as God is offered to us in Christ.

Barth Experiences God Via His Pipe

Barth challenges this assumption on any number of levels. The idea that humanity is capable due to its own ontology to respond to God is an idea he confronts, insisting that the freedom we have to be for God is the freedom which God Himself gives us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think Barth is picking up on a crucial thread of biblical teaching.

These days we are increasingly happy with the “atonement model” of Christus Victor. At the root of this vision of salvation is a recognition that the world is enslaved to hostile powers. Paul talks about the world being subjected to the powers of sin and death.

Christ comes to redeem.

Look at the language. Enslavement. Subjection. Redemption.

The assumption in each of these is that we are not free except insofar as we participate in the freeing act of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. I don’t think that a classic Calvinist articulation is necessarily the way to go, but it is on to something.

The other place where Barth has something to remind us of is that this God for whom we are freed by the power of the Spirit is a true God who is outside ourselves.

I had a conversation once that went something like this:

  • “I spend time reading the Bible and praying in the morning.”
  • “That’s great that you clear out time for yourself. I wish I did that more.”

Without bringing too much theological critique to bear on this normal conversation, it was reflective of two very different views of the world.

I believe that when I pray and read scripture I am actually spending time with a true God and subjecting my life to, or summoning the aid of, the true Lord who reigns over the earth.

Barth reminds us that Christian celebration of the experience of the Spirit is not a celebration of our own spirits, or of finding a lost place inside of ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit of God uniting us to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

Good words of challenge from Church Dogmatics §16.2.

Christmas Mystery

Barth wraps up part II of the Church Dogmatics with an exposition of the Christmas mystery: Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.

The last two sections of §15 had me scratching my head, saying, “hmmm…”, and generally reflecting on how theological categories control our reading and create rabbit trails that never quite seem to be the rabbit holes their creators promise.

The Christian confession that Jesus the Christ is also the God-Man causes Barth to put too much into the event of the virgin birth–which, for KB, is tantamount to incarnation.

Bart says that this becoming human of the word is God’s revelation and is therefore “the prime mystery” and “our reconciliation” (§15.3; pp. 172, 173).

Barth Experiences God by Listening to Mozart on His iPod

But for all Barth’s insistence that we follow the Biblical testimony, he neglects to see that in the biblical testimony incarnation is neither “the prime mystery” of our faith nor “our reconciliation.” Incarnation is not salvific, not the act of reconciliation.

It is not Jesus’ ontology but the works that Jesus does upon the earth that reconcile God with the rebellious creature. Throughout, Barth insists that the virgin birth is but the sign pointing to the true mystery behind it of Jesus as incarnate God Man. What I think he misses is that Jesus as incarnate God man is but a sign to the true mystery of reconciliation accomplished.

What is “the mystery” in the NT? In the Gospels, the only mention of it is when the disciples are told the mystery of the Kingdom concealed in Jesus’ parables–which parables have nothing to do with Jesus as incarnate God Man. In 1 Cor it has to do with the foolishness of the cross as God’s saving wisdom and our coming participation in the resurrection. In Ephesians it primarily refers to Jews and Gentiles as one people, then also the union of male and female in marriage. In Colossians it’s “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 1 Tim 3:16 is a holistic confession of Jesus’ life, resurrection, and subsequent proclamation.

Not even the one book that makes much ado about Jesus as God incarnate, John, indicates that the revelation of God in Christ is, itself, humanity’s reconciliation.

I find that all of the focus on Jesus as God-Man ends up detracting, in Barth’s theology thus far, from the significance of Jesus’ life as man on earth. And that can create huge problems down the line.

Here’s an example.

Barth keeps comparing the virgin birth to the resurrection, as though both are revelatory signs of Jesus as God Man.

But if the resurrection means that Jesus is God Man, the rest of us have no hope. The reason why we as humans have hope of resurrection life is because the resurrection of Jesus means that, though human, he has entered bodily into the eternal presence of God. If resurrection reveals that Jesus is actually God Man, then it simultaneously reveals that those who are not God Man have no hope of sharing in such newness of life unless, of course, God chooses to make us gods as well.

No, the resurrection, at least in so far as it is a source of Christian hope, is all about Jesus as human.

Similarly, Barth fails to see where his exegesis points when he associates Jesus as son because of the Spirit with the baptism in Mark 1 and resurrection in Romans 1. Those latter scenes indicate that to be a person to whom the Spirit has come, a person empowered by the Spirit, is to be God’s representative human upon the earth.

Saul receives the Spirit so he can be king. It passes from Saul to David so that David can rule the people in wisdom and power. And the Davidic psalm prays for the Holy Spirit not to be taken away–as it was taken away from Saul when Saul was faithless!

I know that I cause my readers angst at times due to my insistence that no all the Christology in the NT is high Christology. This is not because I don’t believe in high Christology (i.e., that Jesus is truly God incarnate). I do believe in that.

It’s because I don’t think the doctrine of Jesus as God is the presupposition or argument for most of the NT–and that it therefore has the power to make us bad readers of the NT when we bring it with us to every NT text, or when we use it to develop every Christian doctrine.

Barth in this section of CD manifests the problems I’m concerned with.

The heart of the NT is not that Jesus is God. The heart of the NT is that in the man Jesus God was reconciling the world to Himself. When we get the accent wrong, we not only create innumerable unanswerable theological conundrums for ourselves, we also misassign the place of salvation to an ontology that does not, in and of itself, reconcile.