Prayer for Holy Week (Karl Barth)

ImageLord our God, we are gathered here on this day to consider how you have carried out your good, firm will for the world and for all of us, by allowing our Lord Jesus Christ, your dear Son, to be captured that we might be free; to be found guilty that we might be found innocent; to suffer that we might rejoice; and to be given over to death that we might live forever.

Under our own power, we could only be lost. And we have not deserved such a rescue – no, not one of us. But in the inconceivable greatness of your mercy, you have shared in our sin and our poverty, in order to do such a great thing for us. How else could we thank you but to grasp, take up, and acknowledge this great thing? How else should this happen, but that the same living Savior who suffered for us, was crucified, died, and buried, and was also raised up, should now come into our midst, speak to our hearts and minds, open us to your love, and guide us to trust in it completely and to live by it and by it alone.

So we ask in all humility, but also in all confidence, that this happen in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (2008), 23-4.)

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Karl Barth)

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 light shiningshining 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

Barth on the Christian Life

The freedom of God in which is grounded man’s becoming free to be faithful to God as God is faithful to him, the freedom in which the Christian life thus has its absolutely unique origin, is the freedom of which He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has made use in supreme majesty and condescension in the history of Jesus Christ. This history is the change, impossible with men but possible with God, and indeed possible only by God’s actual judgment, in which a man becomes God’s friend instead of his enemy, a man who lives for Him instead of being dead for Him. [...] The Christian is a man whose life Jesus Christ has entered as the subject of that history of His. He is a man whose acknowledged, recognised, and confessed Lord He has become. He is a man to whom Jesus Christ has given not just a potential but an actual share in that history of His. Thus Jesus Christ, His history, became and is the foundation of Christian existence; this and this alone. The Christian comes from Him, from His history, from knowledge of it; he also looks back thereto. This is the ground on which he stands and walks. This is the air which he breathes. This is the word which he has in his ears before, above, and after all other words. This is the light, the one light, the incomparably bright light, which illumines him (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 11).

What is a theology exam for, anyway?

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).

Bibliolatry or Biblical Theology?

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?

The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve  found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of  divine omnipresence.  The discussion of omnipresence in Church  Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with  Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned,  Barth often operates.  However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of  Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church  and its mission that has caught my eye.

In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.

But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour.  This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle.  Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man.  And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).

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Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

My last post on reading Barth received so much traffic that I thought I would post another section from the little “primer” I put together for students in senior seminar. These four are meant to give readers of Barth useful  “handles” on his thought, like tips for catching the musical tendencies of a great composer:

1.  Music – The flow of Barth’s theology is often likened to music, “the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say” (J. Webster, Barth, 13).

George Hunsinger expands on the point: “What first appears like repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is [Barth’s] method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. . . . The more one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole” (G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 28).

The first section of CD IV.1 (pp. 1-19) is a great example. Barth begins by describing the center of the Christian gospel as “God with us” (pp. 1-4), then builds, expands, develops this throughout the next 19 pages. It culminates on p. 14 with Barth’s assertion that “God with us” concretely means “Jesus Christ.”

2.  Orbit – It has been my sense that, similar to the musical metaphor, following Barth’s thought is often like tracking something that orbits around a center. Whatever the “center” might be for Barth at the moment of reading, his thought will orbit that center. The result, for the reader, is that the center can be viewed from a great many different angles or perspectives, but they must always be attentive and aware of the center around which the orbit is set.

3.  DialecticContinue reading

Reading Karl Barth: Hallmarks

I am leading a seminar this semester on Karl Barth, and we are reading the first part volume of Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV.1).  Reading Barth can be a disorienting experience at first, so I put together a little  “primer” for my students. I thought back to what I found helpful when first encountering Barth, and I remembered Busch’s introduction The Great Passion. This is a fantastic read on many levels, but it was his manner of describing Barth’s theology in terms of characteristics or hallmarks that served me well at the beginning. Much like Hunsinger’s approach in How to Read Karl Barth (although the formats differ),  Busch gives the reader a sense for how Barth’s theology operates, its flavor and feeling, and how one might orient themselves within it.

So I went back over several years of reading journals and cobbled together a series of my own “hallmarks” of Barth’s theology, many of which I am sure you will find said differently in other introductions:

  • Theology points always toward God and not humanity, an idea, or program (I can’t help but think of Grünewald’s painting, “Crucifixion” (right) which hung next to Barth’s desk).
  • Theology, in light of the greatness of God, is best characterized as human “sighing” and “stammering” —regardless of its sophistication, expansiveness, or insight: “Now we have only a dim perception of him, the living God. There can be no talk of knowing him, of ‘having’ him. What awkward sighing and stammering there is, when we try to say something about him” (Insights, 17; Barth describes prayer the same, CD III.4, 89).
  • Theology is carried out before God; God stands before the theologian and makes possible the theologian’s work.
  • Theology enters into God’s self-mediation to us; it is not humanity’s attempt to mediate God to us; theology is, then, a response not an initiative.
  • Theology’s task is the same as preaching’ task: it stands in the service of God’s ongoing work to sanctify (judging and comforting) the church. Continue reading

Anhypostatic Ecclesiology and the Christian Religion in Barth

Barth has several ways of declaring that divine revelation is the decisive criticism of religion.  One of the most poignant is the statement that revelation is ‘the real crisis of religion’ (CD, I/2, 325, 331).  As he expounds the manner in which revelation confronts human religion, Barth includes the Christian religion as it stands in itself, or ‘abstractly in its human existence’ (ibid., 328): ‘this religion, too, stands under the judgment that religion is unbelief’ (ibid., 327); ‘the judgment of revelation upon religion as such does actually fall upon the religion of revelation’ (ibid., 329).  In light of this, Barth develops an analogy between the doctrine of the anhypostasis of Christ’s human nature (the belief that Christ’s human nature had no personal existence of its own but has personal existence only in the person of God the Son) and the life of the church:

The human nature of Jesus Christ has no hypostasis of its own, we are told.  It has it only in the Logos.  The same is true, therefore, of the earthly-historical life of the Church and the children of God, and therefore of the Christian religion….[The earthly body of Christ and His members] live in him, or they do not live at all (ibid., 348).

The historical existence of the church in the form of the Christian religion, for Barth, has no immanent legitimacy of its own but has its being and validation in its connection with the person of Christ.  Barth reasons also that revelation must justify, sanctify, and adopt Christianity if it is to be the true religion (ibid., 326, 338, 339).

Yet, in spite of its precarious condition in se, Barth still calls the Christian religion the true religion:

There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners.  If we abide strictly by that analogy – and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself – we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion (ibid., 326).

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Reading the Decree

I am going to be taking a look at the doctrine of election through a couple of recent releases – the first, by David Gibson, is Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (T&T Clark, 2009). This book has been out for a little while now, but I am also going to be looking at Suzanne McDonald’s new book Re-Imaging Election (Eerdmans, 2010). Here, I will focus my attention on Gibson’s read of Calvin and Barth on election. I think that this volume is particularly interesting because of the exegetical emphasis – putting Calvin and Barth’s exegetical considerations in parallel with their doctrinal development. Or, better, that for both thinkers, doctrine and exegesis are not two discrete tasks, but are united around, in one way or another, their “christocentrism.”

Utilizing Muller’s distinction between “soteriological christocentrism” and “principial christocentrism” Gibson invokes a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – extensive and intensive. A hermeneutic is christologically extensive when the center of christology “points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other” (15). Christology does not “dictate” or “control” but “shapes” and “influences” them. Likewise, a hermeneutic is christologically intensive when the center of christology “defines all else within its circumference” (15). This christology draws everything to itself, so that all other doctrinal material is read with an explicit reference to christology. Calvin and Barth represent these two facets respectively. Continue reading

Barth’s “nevertheless” of God’s faithfulness

Last week my students and I were reading the sections on Jesus Christ in Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline. Until rereading it, I had completely forgotten the vividness of this little paragraph on divine faithfulness in chapter 11, “The Saviour and Servant of God” (regarding the picture, I simply prefer the older, grandpa Barth to his younger self):

There is a grace of God in the midst of judgment. And of this the Old Testament also speaks, not as a continuity of Israelite man, but as a ‘nevertheless’ of God. Nevertheless, there are in the history of this nation recurrent testimonies which begin with the words, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” They sound out as the answer of such hearers, as the echo therefore of the ‘nevertheless’ of God’s faithfulness. [. . .]

Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead. By his appearing, over against the verdict that man pronounced on himself God’s verdict comes into view, to remove all human self-condemnation. God’s faithfulness triumphs in this sea of sin and misery (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 80. Emphasis mine).

Theological Anthropology: Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies

I am continuing our look at recent theological anthropolog texts with another post on Marc Cortez. We addressed his intro text to theological anthropology in the “Guide for the Perplexed” series, and now turn to his dissertation turned monograph, Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate. This volume appears in the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series, which has continued to pump out really well-crafted dissertation/monographs.

After addressing some introductory matters, Cortez jumps into Barth’s exposition of a Christological anthropology with specific focus on CD III/2. Cortez offers six criteria which, for Barth, are necessary conditions for true humanity:

(1) being constituted by the ontological priority of Jesus in his relationship with God; (2) being conditioned by the salvation enacted by Jesus; (3) having its ‘true determination’ in the glory of God; (4) existing under the Lordship of God; (5) freely corresponding in its proper action to the divine deliverance; and (6) freely rendering service to God as a being who is for God” (38).

Furthermore, these six criteria are the standard by which Barth engages and criticises other approaches to anthropology – three are highlighted: the biological, ethical and existential. Continue reading

Scooping Out the Moon

It’s difficult to plod through Barth’s Church Dogmatics without being tempted to post something on one of the lines he takes or even simply the adventurous and often moving quality of his prose.  The section in CD handling “the knowability of the Word of God” is a fascinating one and, though I would parse the concept of the word of God differently than Barth does, it is one that I find instructive in several ways for contemporary evangelicals.

Barth repeatedly voices his skepticism about the event of the coming of the Word of God to human persons engendering a knowledge of the Word such that the knowability of the Word begins properly to belong to its human addressees.  He mentions the possibility that the event of the Word of God is helped along in its epistemic work by the human addressee’s “potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection.”  However, Barth is quick to add another possibility:

It might be also that this event did not so much presuppose the corresponding possibility on man’s part as bring it with it and confer it on man by being event, so that it is man’s possibility without ceasing (as such) to be wholly and utterly the possibility proper to the Word of God and to it alone.  We might also be dealing with a possibility of knowledge which can be made intelligible as a possibility of man, but in contrast to all others, only in terms of the object of knowledge or the reality of knowledge and not at all in terms of the subject of knowledge, i.e., man as such (CD, I/1, p. 194).

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Barth on Anthropology: look no further than Christ

Barth.CrispThe ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. So long as we select any other starting point for our study, we shall reach only the phenomena of the human. We are condemned to abstractions so long as our attention is riveted as it were on other men, or rather on man in general, as if we could learn about real man from a study of man in general, and in abstraction from the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. In this case we miss the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity, and therefore the one possibility of discovering the ontological determination of man. Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter. It is not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to answer the question of the true being of man from any other angle (Church Dogmatics, III/2, 132-33).

Barth is such a great example of the twentieth century shift in theological anthropology from the doctrine of creation to Christology. Later Pannenberg would propose an eschatological orientation, then Zizioulous and others would retrieve from the church fathers a home in the doctrine of the Trinity. Honestly, when I read Barth I find him so incredibly persuasive (darn him), but I still have misgivings about this move. Anyone want to comment on Barth’s move to dogmatically order anthropology in the doctrine of Christ?