For Barth, the Christian life is all grace from beginning to end, so the Christian is always a “beginner,” leaning upon God’s grace in all things.
[T]hose who through grace (because Jesus Christ became and is their Brother) have the freedom to call upon God as their Father will never once, when they make use of this freedom, encounter God except as those who are inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature, as children in this sense too – little children who are totally unprepared for it. The invocation “Our Father,” and all the Christian life and ethos implicit in this invocation, can never at any stage or in any form be anything but the work of beginners. Even at the most advanced stage and in the ripest form it can never be anything better, for in this field what is supposedly better can only be worse, indeed, it can only be evil. What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children. As masters and virtuosos they would not live by God’s grace. … In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in the littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 79-80).
Being in the midst of the election primaries in America, this prayer came to mind from the Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Some of us are more jaded than others about the political process, which always makes his optimism more than a little jarring to me (maybe I need to be jarred a bit). Even so, his prayer for those who govern is as fitting today as it was in 1910.
God, thou great governor of all the world, we pray thee for all who hold public office and power, for the life, the welfare, and the virtue of the people are in their hands to make or to mar. We remember with shame that in the past the mighty have preyed on the labors of the poor; that they have laid nations to dust by their oppression, and have thwarted the love and the prayers of thy servants. We bless thee that the new spirit of democracy has touched even the kings of the earth. We rejoice that by the free institutions of our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed and turned to the patient service of the commonwealth.
Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state may feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning. Breathe a new spirit into all our nation. Lift us from the dust and mire of the past that we may gird ourselves for a new day’s work. Give our leaders a new vision of the possible future of our country and set their hearts on fire with large resolves. Raise up a new generation of public men [and women] who will have the faith and daring of the Kingdom of God in their hearts, and who will enlist for life in a holy warfare for the freedom and rights of the people (Prayers of the Social Awakening, pp. 75-6)
It reminds me of another prayer. When Karl Barth prayed, he would often intercede for political leaders and those with influence over the political process and public opinion. Though the second world war had largely squashed the political optimism one hears in Rauschenbusch’s prayer, Barth’s prayer shares his request for God’s intervention. Here is one:
Let dawn continue to break a little in our hearts, in [our university], at home with those who are dear to us, in this city, in our nation, and throughout the whole earth. You know the errors and misdeeds of that make our current situation once again so dark and dangerous on all sides. Let a fresh wind blow through it, that might at least scatter the thickest fog from the heads of those who rule this world, but also from the heads of the peoples who permit themselves to be ruled, and above all from the heads of those who make public opinion (50 Prayers: Karl Barth, p. 2).
Let me know if other prayers from theologians come to mind during this election year. We can make it a running series.
Karl Barth, “John 1:1-5 (December 22, 1918)”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“The Life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness….” We live from this truth. This shining light is like the air we breathe; we live from it without thinking about it. All that we know and have that is joyful, beautiful, and beloved comes from this shining light. But, like children who reject their parents, we can be ungrateful and forget the source from which we receive the best we have. Yet the source never ceases to flow, and we never cease to drink from it. We can indeed sit in a corner with the minuscule light of our own wisdom and righteousness, and act as if this little light were the only right one in the world, the one that should illuminate God and all other human beings. Even such minuscule lights would have no brightness at all, if it were not for that great shining light; without knowing it, we have kindled our little lights from that light….This shining light is given, and we live from it.
The light shines. We may hear this as a message of joy, good news, gospel for us and the whole world. We may proclaim it courageously and defiantly against all the darkness of our time; against the darkness in our own hearts, in our community, in our hospitals, mental institutions, and prisons; against the darkness in our conversations with one another and in the newspapers that we read; against all the darkness that darkens so many sickbeds and the beds of the dying; and against the pernicious darkness of our social conditions. Without hesitation we may proclaim against all darkness: the light shines. It remains true to itself; it remains what it is even in the deepest darkness, and that is why it shines. Because it is true, we may be courageous and defiant. There is no reason to doubt and despair, to give up, to think only somber and hopeless thoughts about ourselves, our community, and today’s world…..The light shines. This is what must be and remain most important, over against all that is otherwise true, all that otherwise occupies and fills our minds and hearts and causes us to be burdened with care. Continue reading
In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:
When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).
A number of the essays brought together in B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture contain meticulous analyses of different items pertinent to the Bible’s take on the Bible (in one of them he spends a fair amount of time on what to make of verbs without a named subject [e.g. legei] in the New Testament introducing a reference to the Old Testament, for example). In ‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, he canvasses some of the Old Testament texts which were not records of divine speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1:16; Heb. 3:7) introduced with a ‘God says’ or the like as well as some of the Old Testament texts which were records of divine speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8) introduced with a ‘Scripture says’ or the like. He comments,
They indicate a certain confusion in current speech between ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’, the outgrowth of a deep-seated conviction that the word of Scripture is the word of God. It was not ‘Scripture’ that spoke to Pharaoh or gave this promise to Abraham, but God. But ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’ lay so close together in the minds of the writers of the New Testament that they could naturally speak of ‘Scripture’ doing what Scripture records God as doing. It was, however, even more natural to them to speak casually of God saying what the Scriptures say….The words put into God’s mouth in each case are not words of God recorded in the Scriptures, but just the Scripture words themselves. When we take the two classes of passages together…we may perceive how close the identification of the two was in the minds of the writers of the New Testament (‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 148).
If Warfield is in the right, then it seems certain accusations of bibliolatry should give way to affirmations of the presence of biblical theology vis-a-vis the Bible itself. Is this argument too simplistic post-Barth? Does the bibliology of Barth and staunch Barthians in hesitating straightforwardly to identify Scripture as the word of God run aground on the Bible’s (explicit and implicit) testimony concerning itself? Thoughts?