The Bible’s Ideal Reader

The literary theorist Umberto Eco has a theory about readers. Every text calls for an ideal reader. The ideal reader of any given text is the person receptive of its content and formed to follow its patterns (see, The Role of the Reader, 1979). In other words, the person who is willing to “see” as the text sees (this is how the world is) and then live accordingly is the ideal reader.

Consider the following picture:


That guy is NOT the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda. He refuses to buy into the Nazi’s picture of the world – choosing not to “see” as they see. And he won’t live accordingly by offering his salute to Hitler and all that his regime stands for, despite the very obvious social pressure. “Nope,” you can hear him saying to himself.

Today, in a class that surveys the entire Bible in one semester (crazy, I know), I challenged my students: “Be that guy.” Refuse to become the ideal reader of Nazi propaganda, and if you find that easy enough then go ahead and refuse to become ideal readers of all the other counterfeit stories on offer today: consumerism’s story (you are what you buy), nationalism’s story (our nation is the best nation), humanism’s story (you have all that you need to become your true self), naturalism’s story (all that matters is matter). Instead, become the Bible’s ideal reader. Read this book and accept its invitation to see as it sees, and then live accordingly. Sure, its a strange world we find in the Bible (to borrow Barth’s phrase). Who can deny that? But in light of Jesus we Christians believe it tells the true story about God, us, and the world.

“Be that guy,” I challenged. With your arms resolutely crossed, say “Nope” to all the counterfeit stories, and read the Bible as an invitation to see the world truthfully and to live accordingly.



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).

Continue reading

Barth in my mailbox

The new edition of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Having spent time looking over the set, T&T Clark should be congratulated for putting together a fine new edition of Barth’s classic!

cd1As presentation goes, unlike the previous paperback edition whose covers had a circus feel about them, the tones of the new set were tastefully chosen. The paper is high quality, a nice heavy-weight stock that seems comparable to the prior hardback versions. The type-setting is also pleasing to the eye which is a vast improvement – more than once I worried I might go blind reading large swaths from the earlier paperbacks! The page numbers from the last edition are in the margins (see middle right), and the editors recommend annotations be made according to them since scholarly use has drawn from the previous edition for so long. cd31The same holds true for the volume markers which are listed on the back of each new volume (e.g. CD II.2 p. 157).

The untranslated Greek, Latin and French from the last edition of CD has been rendered unobtrusively in the footnotes (see bottom right). This, together with the division of the previous 14 volumes into 31, makes the set significantly more suitable for classroom use. One could now imagine designating a sub-volume as an assigned text, whereas the price alone made this difficult before.

I have heard others say how nice it was to receive the set in its little burgundy cd21slipcases, but I would have preferred T&T Clark have skipped this little nicety. For one (note to the publisher), the burgundy dye of the slipcase bled onto the pages of the set, and the cardboard cases  were broken anyway. While I received this set as a graduation gift via the drastic prepublication markdown at Eisenbrauns (no longer available), a sweet deal can still be had at Or you can take out a second mortgage and buy them from Amazon (I won’t bother with a link).

From the pen of Karl Barth, “Insights”

Westminster John Knox just released a great collection of 119 short passages from Barth’s writings,Karl Barth by Oliver Crisp Insights: Karl Barth’s Reflections on the Life of Faith (translated from Eberhard Busch’s Augenblick [2001]).

This little book would make a nice gift for someone you want to give a winsome and easily accessible taste of Barth’s thought.  The excerpts are drawn from across Barth’s corpus including his sermons, ethical writings and, of course, the Church Dogmatics and are organized under broad headings like ‘Confident Courage’, ‘The Christian Life’, and ‘We Will See’. A nice feature of the collection is that each one-page selection is related to a scripture verse, making the book an ideal way to invite Barth into your devotional life. Reader beware: Doing so will surely leave you different than when you began.

One of my favorite selections is on the church entitled “The Upper Hand” and is taken from Barth’s Gespräche 1959-1962. The Scripture verse is Matthew 16:18 – ‘The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’

In all the world, there is only one possibility fro the church: simply be the church! The church means those who are around Jesus and whom he sees all around him. The church is Jesus’ “circle”: the group around him that in a totalitarian world is nourished solely by word of God. And the more totalitarian the behavior of the world, the freer they are to believe and obey, Continue reading

Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 320 pp; £15.00/ $32.00 [Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

It is easy to forget just how good a reader of nineteenth-century theology orthodox-and-modernBruce McCormack really is. Given the stature and boldness of his proposal regarding Jesus Christ as the subject of election (and the many implications that follow from it), the other many facets of his work have, of late, tended to be darkened by its shadow. Interestingly, McCormack’s renown has come about, chiefly, by his identification as the reader primarius of Karl Barth’s theological development, particularly as this development is situated within its surrounding historical context. In fact, without indulging too much in haliolatry, I think it would be safe to say, that if you want to get to grips with Barth, that is, if you want answers to the kinds of questions Barth was preoccupied with, one of the voices you should be listening to is that of Bruce McCormack.

While the entire collection of essays brims over with the kind of meticulous research and able marshalling of the sources one has come to expect from McCormack, it is in the first of the four sections that the reader is given a clear and firm reminder of why reading McCormack so compelling and, indeed, necessary. The motivation for some readers to get to the juicy material (and by juicy, I mean the material found under the title ‘Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology’) is naturally understandable but in so doing one bypasses over 100 pages of important stuff. Because a substantial part of McCormack’s project is devoted to offering an ‘orthodox’ profile of Barth, time has to be given to an analysis of those factors that facilitate such a position. As McCormack explains, ‘…what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity‘ (17). Continue reading

Praying with Karl Barth – “Fifty Prayers”

Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers. Translated by David Carl Stassen (London/Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 63 pp.+xii, $10.36.

Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers…But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other…but also in that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ (p. 1).

So begins the first of fifty prayers by Karl Barth in this delightful little collection by Westminster John Knox. With the exception of a few unprinted prayers, those here are taken from Karl Barth, Predigten 1954-1967, third edition (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2003) which reissued them from two earlier volumes long out of print, Fürchte dich nicht and Dem Defangenen Befreiung. Although I did not cross check all of them, at least one of the Pentecost prayers was previously translated and published with twelve others in Prayer:50th Anniversary Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2002).

From his 1962 forward to Fürchte dich nicht, Barth describes his longstanding dislike for liturgy and all manner of worship formalities. The formalism and distance in language between the liturgy and the modern worshipper both chaffed and prompted him to begin replacing the prayers of the liturgy with those of his own crafting. Continue reading