The 2014 Karl Barth Conference: Barth, Jews, & Judaism

barth conference facebook cover photo

Princeton Theological Seminary is hosting their annual Karl Barth Conference on June 15–18. This year’s theme is ‘Karl Barth, Jews, & Judaism’, and the plenary speakers are:

  • Victoria Barnett (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
  • Eberhard Busch (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
  • Ellen Charry  (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary)
  • Mark Lindsay (MCD University of Divinity)
  • David Novak (University of Toronto)
  • Peter Ochs (University of Virginia)

For the first time, there’s also a call for papers on the theme. Further details on that here.

You can also follow related news and theo-gossip via twitter.

Bruce McCormack on ‘God’s Gracious Election in the Theology of Karl Barth’

Whether on the subject of beer or theology, Bruce McCormack is always worth listening to (he’s considerably less reliable on the subject of sports), and that not least when it comes to the subject of Karl Barth and the doctrines of election. Here is Bruce’s lecture titled ‘God’s Gracious Election in the Theology of Karl Barth: Musings on a Possible Way to Move Beyond the Calvinist/Arminian Divide’ given last year at the Rethinking Arminius Conference held at Point Loma Nazarene University.

A review of ‘Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth’

Barth's Interpretation of the Virgin BirthBarth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery, by Dustin Resch. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. ix + 218pp; ISBN 978 1 4094 4117.

In Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth, Dustin Resch (Assistant Professor of Theology and Dean of the Seminary at Briercrest College and Seminary) offers us a clearly written introductory survey to Barth’s presentation of the doctrine of the virgin birth, unencumbered with detail and critical interaction.

With a view to setting Barth’s contribution in its theological context, the study begins, appropriately, with a brief overview of the doctrine in the Western tradition. Here, particular attention is given to treatments by Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Strauss and Brunner, and to the ways that the pre-Reformation articulations of the tradition tended to evaluate the doctrine in terms of its ‘fittingness’ with the broader themes of christology, pneumatology and original sin. This emphasis, Resch argues, ‘slipped into the background during the Reformation, which aimed to chasten what the Reformers took to be undue speculation, particularly about Mary’ (p. 36), only to emerge again during the modern period, albeit in ways that argued for its fundamental un-fitness in the courtroom of critical biblical scholarship and modern biology, and therefore without any significant theological value. Resch proceeds to argue that Barth takes up the Augustinian heritage of the virgin birth, but revises it such that Barth believes he escapes the criticisms of its modern despisers. The success or otherwise of Barth’s efforts here are left largely untested by Resch.

In the second chapter, Resch offers an exposition of the methodological and exegetical features of Barth’s development of the doctrine from his early work at Göttingen and Münster up to the introductory volume of Die Kirkliche Dogmatik. Locating Barth’s unembarrassed claims on the virgin conception vis-à-vis the Augustinian, Schleiermacherian, Harnackian and modern Roman Catholic traditions, and as a dogmatic bookend to Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, Resch convincingly rehearses throughout the ways in which, for Barth (post-Münster), the virgin birth functions as a fitting theological ‘sign’ (Zeichen) of the mystery of the incarnation – rather than making any claims about the constitutive significance of Jesus’ person as the Logos incarnate or about biology and the wonders of parthenogenesis – which directs the church to a number of its basic dogmatic claims. As P.T. Forsyth – the so-called ‘Barthian before Barth’ (a great compliment to Barth!) – had earlier shown, the virgin birth is really a theological rather than a critical question. It is not a necessity created by the integrity and authority of Scripture per se but a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the gospel, and by the requirements of grace. In terms of epistemology, for example, it recalls that ‘the beginning of our knowledge of God … is not a beginning which we can make with God. It can be only the beginning which God has made with us’ (CD II/1, 190). For Barth, the Bible’s presentation of the miracle of the virgin birth has ‘no ontic but [only] noetic significance’ (Credo, p. 69), its concern being the mystery of God’s free grace. Hence the Bible evidences a complete lack of concern with scientific explanation and is wholly concerned with the question of the sheer mystery and grace of revelation, a mystery and grace which announce, among other things, the foundationless nature of all our presuppositions about, and our semi-Pelagian gropings for, God. It is, literally, to begin again at the beginning; i.e., with God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. Ontology, in other words, for Barth, must always precede epistemology.

Notwithstanding the comments made above vis-à-vis Scripture, Resch suitably notes, however, that Barth’s treatment of the virgin birth as a sign relating to the mystery of the incarnation rather than as a constitutive element of Christ’s person was one that was ‘derived exegetically and was not a theological decision made simply to avoid the criticism of modern theology’ (p. 62). So Resch:

For Barth, the criteria by which the church should make its decision to adopt the biblical attestation of the virgin birth into its understanding of the biblical message should be the same as the criteria by which the New Testament authors themselves decided to incorporate the virgin birth into their witness. In both cases, questions of the age and source value of the tradition were not conclusive. Instead, the doctrine was accepted because of its ‘fit’ with the central elements of Christian faith. (pp. 73–74)

The Great PromiseThis theological reading of the Gospel texts, as Resch notes in a number of places, enabled Barth to avoid many of the charges often laid at Augustinian interpretations of the doctrine, and that while guarding the mystery of Christ’s person from being collapsed into a general truth or principal. That said, Resch is also concerned to map how, for Barth, the virgin birth functions as a ‘paradigm’ through which to understand not only the shape of God’s work upon human beings but also something about the corresponding posture of faith’s being-before-God, features borne out well by Resch not only in terms of Barth’s treatment of Mary but also, and perhaps especially, through his attendance to the largely ignored figure of Joseph who ‘clearly has no capacity for God, but rather is elected to serve Christ in the world as his guardian. Understood this way’, Resch notes in a later chapter, ‘Joseph becomes an excellent metaphor for Barth’s view of the church’ (p. 175). In Barth’s own words:

Though I am very averse to the development of ‘Mariology’, I am very inclined to ‘Josephology’, because in my eyes Joseph has played a role with respect to Christ which the church should adopt. I know that the Roman Church prefers to compare its role with the glorious role of Mary. It brings the Christian message to the world in the same way in which Mary has given us Christ. But the comparison deceives. The church cannot give birth to the Redeemer; but it can and must serve him with humble and discrete enthusiasm. And that was exactly the role that Joseph played, who always held himself in the background and left all fame to Jesus. Exactly that should be the role of the church, if we want the world to rediscover the glory of the Word of God. (‘Über die Annäherung der Kirchen: Ein Gesprach zwischen Karl Barth und Tanneguy de Quénétain’, Junge Kirche: protestantische Monatshefte 24 (1963): 309)

Chapter Three is concerned to examine Barth’s doctrine of the virgin birth in relation to his presentation of Christ’s sinless humanity and original sin in the Church Dogmatics. In particular, Resch maps the ways that, for Barth, Christ’s birth through the virgin Mary attests to both the ‘Yes’ of God’s grace to humanity and, because of the absence of a human father, to God’s ‘No’ of judgment against sinful human beings: ‘The natus ex Maria virgine unambiguously negates the possibility of viewing revelation and reconciliation as a possibility latent within human beings by describing the mystery of the sovereign act of God in the incarnation. It does this “by an express and extremely concrete negative”. This negative – symbolized by the removal of the man – indicates the limitation of human participation in the incarnation’ (p. 85).

In Chapter Four, Resch brings Jesus’ conception into conversation with Barth’s pneumatology, noting how the former, which remains sui generis, functions, for Barth, as a pattern for, and a heuristic tool – ‘a distinctive mark’ – to interpret, the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who ‘perceive and accept and receive [Jesus Christ] as the Reconciler of the world and therefore as their Reconciler’ (CD IV/1, 148). It is argued that, just as Mary was enabled by the Spirit to conceive Christ within her womb, so too are Christians enabled by the same Spirit to receive the revelation and reconciliation of God.

Mary’s role in Barth’s theology is given fuller attention in the final chapter where Resch helpfully outlines how Barth’s treatment of Mary’s ‘readiness’ (Bereitschaft) before God informs both his understanding of the relationship between divine grace and human agency, and his evaluation of Roman Catholic Mariology, noting the ways that Barth’s acceptance of the virgin birth happens by the same criteria by which he rejects Mariology; namely, with its fit with the mystery of the incarnation. ‘Barth’s main problem with Mariology’, Resch avers, ‘is simply that in it Mary is treated in relative independence from Christ. While never completely severed from Christ, Mary has come to have her own special dignity, merit and ministry. In contrast with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and particularly the New Testament, according to Barth, Roman Catholic Mariology fails to use the term Theotokos as an exclusively Christological title … The Catholic Mary is, for Barth, the symbolic portrayal of the philosophical concept of the analogia entis’ (pp. 168–69, 177). Conversely, Barth will insist that human readiness for God – and God’s readiness for humanity – is found in, and is synonymous with, Christ alone.

Throughout the essay, Resch successfully illustrates ways that Barth’s thinking on the virgin birth remains both broadly Augustinian insofar as the doctrine relates to that of original sin, and radically revisionist insofar as Barth departs from Augustine’s interpretation of the virgin birth as that which mysteriously preserves Christ from the tainting effects of concupiscence and original sin and conceives it instead as a symbol of the dialectic that the incarnation itself announces – the futility of all human willing, acting and striving for the grace of God, and the divine determination and gracious freedom to call into existence things that do not exist (Rom 4.17).

Readers (and I suspect Resch himself too) may well be left asking, however, whether Resch has bought too uncritically into Barth’s Protestant critique of Mariology, and whether his heavy reliance on a somewhat limited scope of Barth’s work (mainly The Great Promise and CD I/2) leaves his presentation less satisfying than it might be. More frustrating, however, is the exhausting repetition throughout the book. Where the reader may be hoping to find a new vista around the next corner, or an idea further developed in conversation with other themes pertaining to the subject (e.g., the doctrines of election and creation, the relationship between ‘sign’ and ‘ontology’ and between this particular ‘sign’ and other ‘signs’, the relationship between the objective basis and subjective experience of faith’s participation in the faithfulness of Christ as the vicarious human given by God, discipleship and prayer, how Mary’s and Joseph’s fittingness relates to that of other characters throughout the Bible, etc. are all left too uncooked) or with at least some significant secondary literature, the reader discovers instead that he is simply back where he has been numerous times before, and little the wiser for the effort. I suspect, nonetheless, that we are not here dealing with a case of an author who does not know where the real questions lie – indeed, he identifies some very worthwhile trajectories for further thought in his conclusion; Barth’s rather one-dimensional presentation of Mary divorced from her existential situation, for example – but perhaps with a matter of confidence and/or energy to traverse there within the bounds of this project. One hopes that in future work, he builds on the reliable foundation laid here.

[In due course, a version of this review will appear in The Journal of Theological Studies]


Words to sink your ears into

Missing your lectures? Eyes need a break? Need to kill some time over the Christmas period? Want to impress your friends (and enemies) with your learnedness? Check out some of the following links (which are mostly from our friends at Holden Village):

H. George Anderson

Karl Barth

  • “Was ist für Sie Mozart?”. Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach (Text Schweizerdeutsch Text Standarddeutsch). Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Weihnachtsgruss 1960 (siehe auch Letter Nr. 12) [mp3]
  • Institutio-Jubiläum 1959 (siehe Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nr. 158, vom 11./12. Juli 2009, S. B 3) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit den Tübinger Stiftlern vom 2. März 1964 über die Entstehung der Barmer Theologischen Erklärung (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 19641968, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 1997, S. 111–114; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 221–223) [mp3]
  • Aus dem Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft Württemberg vom 15. Juli 1963 über die Bedeutung von Barmen (siehe K. Barth, Gespräche 1963, hrsg. von E. Busch [Gesamtausgabe, Abt. IV], Zürich 2005, S. 54; auch in: K. Barth, Texte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklärung, hrsg. von M. Rohkrämer, Zürich 20042, S. 191) [mp3]
  • Aus “Die Liebe”, Abschiedsvorlesung Karl Barths vom 1. März 1962 an der Universität Basel (siehe K. Barth, Einführung in die evangelische Theologie, Zürich 20045, S. 220) [mp3]
  • Aus “The Community”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 26. April 1962 in Chicago und 2. Mai 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 41) [mp3]
  • Aus “Commentary”, Vorlesung Karl Barths vom 23. April 1962 in Chicago und 29. April 1962 in Princeton (siehe K. Barth, Evangelical Theology. An Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI 1979, S. 9–12) [mp3]
  • Tondokumente aus Letter Nr. 6.
  • Gespräch mit R. Schmalenbach. Aus “Musik für einen Gast” (Radio Interview vom 17.9.1968, geführt von R. Schmalenbach). [mp3]
  • Gespräch mit der Kirchlichen Bruderschaft in Württemberg. Aus dem Gespräch am 15.7.1963 im Restaurant Bruderholz in Basel. [mp3]
  • Gespräch in Bièvres. Aus der Diskusion am 20.10.1963 über Fragen im Zusammenhang seines Buches «Einführung in die evangelische Theologie». [mp3]
  • Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago. Aus dem Schlusswort bei der Podiumsdiskusion in Chicago 26.4.1962. [mp3]

Carl Braaten

Walter Brueggemann

Nancy Eiesland

Terry Fretheim

Martin Marty

Bonnie Miller-McLemore

Jürgen Moltmann

Ched Myers

Lesslie Newbigin

John Polkinghorne

Dorothee Sölle

William Stringfellow

  • Civil rights movement – an interview with Robert Penn Warren: Part I, Part II (1964)

Helmut Thielicke

Vitor Westhelle

Rowan Williams

Umhau Wolf

John Howard Yoder

Barth on Barth (and on Barthians)

Speaking at a Ministers’ Meeting in Schulpforta in July 1922, Barth offered the following remarks:

‘With theology proper I have hardly made a start. Whether I shall ever get on with it or whether I shall even wish to get on with it, I do not know. I really do not presume to place beside the work that has been done and is being done by the great and venerable creators of theological systems anything equal or commensurable. Do not think that I make my contribution to theological discussion, today or any day, in rivalry with the fundamentalist, liberal, Ritschlian, or history-of-religion type of theology. Take it rather as a kind of marginal note, a gloss which in its way agrees and yet does not agree with all these types – and which, I am convinced, loses its meaning the moment it becomes more than a note and takes up space as a new theology next to the others. So far as Thurneysen, Gogarten, and I really may be said to form a “school” in the familiar sense of the word, our work is superfluous. I think that every one, however important may be the contents of his marginal note, may well remain in his own school and with his own masters, if only as a corrective, as the “pinch of spice (biszchen Zimt) in the food,” as Kierkegaard says. “My theology” is related to the theologies proper somewhat as the Community of Moravian Brethren is related to the communions and churches proper: it has no wish whatever to form a new type of its own’. – Karl Barth, ‘The Need and Promise of Christian Preaching’ in The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), 98.

Barth on the making and is-ness of the Christian

Recent weeks have seen me, from time to time, dipping into CD IV/4, and that for no other reason than for the sheer joy of reading Barth. Here’s one passage that I meditated on for some time:

‘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. It is the divine change which has been made for every man and which is valid for every man, but which is thankfully acknowledged, recognised and confessed by Christians. It is so as Jesus Christ is the One elected from eternity to be the Head and Saviour of all men, who in time responded to God’s faithfulness with human faithfulness as the Representative of all men. As and because He was this, as and because, in the name and stead of all, He was born and suffered and died as the Man of God, as and because He was manifested for all in His resurrection as the One who did this for all, the change which took place in His history took place for all. In it the turning of all from unfaithfulness to faithfulness took place. In this history of His the Christian life became an event as the life of all. A Christian, however, is a man from whom it is not hidden that his own history took place along with the history of Jesus Christ. As a word spoken to him and received by him in the living power of the Holy Spirit, this has been disclosed to him as the decisive event which establishes his existence as a Christian. He himself in the midst of all other men can see himself as one of those for whom and in whose place Jesus Christ did what He did. 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’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4 (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 13­–14.

Karl Barth: Prayer 18

‘Lord our God, we praise you and thank you that you, in your dear Son, in mercy beyond understanding, would humble yourself so much for our sakes, in order that in him we may be so highly exalted for your sake. We praise you and thank you for his mighty decision regarding your people Israel and the pagan nations from which you called our ancestors. We praise you and thank you for all of your gracious election and calling, that you are also the God of the rejected and the uncalled, and that you never cease to deal with each one of us in a fatherly and righteous manner. Let us never tire of recognizing you and praying to you in all of these mysteries, that we may in faith lay hold of your Word, through which you magnify your honor and give us, with eternal blessing, peace and joy, even in this life. We pray for your church here and in all nations, for the sleeping church, that it may awaken; for the persecuted church, that it may continually rejoice and be assured of what it has in you; and for the confessing church, that it may live not for its own sake, but for your glory.

We pray for the rulers and the authorities all over the world: for the good ones, that you may preserve them; and for the bad ones, that you may either turn their hearts or put an end to their power, all according to your will; and for everyone, that you may advise them that they are and must remain your servants.

We pray that all tyranny and disorder may be fended off, and that all oppressed nations and people may be granted justice.

We pray for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the helpless, and the troubled, for all who suffer – perhaps from something only you know – that you yourself may comfort them with the hope of your kingdom. Amen’.

– Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (trans. David Carl Stassen; London/Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 20–1.

BTW: The latest edition of IJST includes an article by A.J. Cocksworth titled ‘Attending to the Sabbath: An Alternative Direction in Karl Barth’s Theology of Prayer’ (13/3, July 2011, 251–271).

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

Barth on marriage (some notes from CD III/4)

Over the past few weeks, I have been teaching on a diverse range of subjects – childhood, worship, disability, religious pluralism, and marriage. On each occasion, Uncle Karl has never been too far away. I found his section on marriage in CD III/4 (pp. 225–29) to be a particularly fruitful launching pad. For those who may be interested, here’s a wee summary of that section:

  1. Marriage is treated by Barth under the rubric of the divine command. This implies that marriage’s eventuality ‘must have the character of a responsible act outwards in relation to those around’.
  2. The material significance of the institutional and formal side of marriage ‘is an event and its substance a reality in virtue of which the two partners thus joined together enter and come to stand in a new and different relationship to those around them, and the latter in turn must adopt a new relationship to them. In relationship to others they are no longer these two individuals. They are now a married couple’.
  3. This transition of the couple ‘from affection to love and marriage’ means a change in their place in the ‘framework of the civil and ecclesiastical society to which they belong’. Married, they are now ‘a new life-cell’ in a wider societal structure, a ‘distinct and special circle, a family, a new sociological unity which can be broadened by the addition of children’.
  4. Those who enter and live in marriage make a ‘decision’ which has necessary social consequences, effects and implications: ‘Marriage cannot and will not be carried through as a purely private undertaking. Even the smallest cottage of the happiest of lovers cannot be habitable inside unless it has at least a door and a few windows opening outwards. At some point it finds itself implicated in affinities and friendships as part of the Christian and civil community … Marriage would not be marriage were it not for the willingness and readiness to undertake such active participation in the nearer, the more distant and the most distant events of the surrounding contemporary world’.
  5. Marriage is not a license or ‘permission to establish an egoistic partnership of two persons, but a new and special commitment to such active participation, in which it may and must be significant and fruitful, an outward witness and help, as the inner fellowship of these two persons, and in which it may in its own place and manner be a factor in human history’.
  6. Those who decide to be married may ‘not shrink from this responsibility. And those who wish to live and not languish in marriage will have to take this responsibility in all seriousness’.
  7. ‘This outward responsibility of marriage is symbolised in its external form, and from this standpoint it includes the institutional act and status of marriage’.
  8. But a wedding does not make or constitute a marriage: ‘the equation of marriage with the wedding ceremony is a dreadful and deep-rooted error. Two people may be formally married and fail to live a life which can seriously be regarded as married life. And it may happen that two people are not married and yet in their precarious way live under the law of marriage. A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute marriage’. Barth considers such confusion as ‘the fundamental mistake in the traditional doctrine of marriage’: ‘It despises love, with all the inevitable consequences, because in relation to the genesis of marriage it looks only outwards to the institutional character of marriage, to the actual ceremony, to the formal decision bound up with marriage. From this standpoint it necessarily regards, love as an alien, easily painful, imponderable and probably rather dangerous element. But from this standpoint it cannot without legalism and artificiality vindicate its true and justifiable concern with regard to marriage. From institutional marriage as such there is naturally no way to love, nor to full, exclusive, lasting fellowship in marriage. Above all, the institution in itself offers not the smallest guarantee that a marriage is concluded in responsibility before God. But now that we have dissociated ourselves from this doctrine of marriage which is essentially a doctrine of the wedding ceremony, it is time to give it its due’.
  9. This does not mean, however, the privitisation of marriage. Indeed, founding of a new sociological unit in the human demands ‘public advertisement and recognition, and a definite form’: ‘How can two persons try to achieve this transition without confessing themselves to the world around as two who have become one, acknowledging their obligation towards it? And how can they try to be a couple without coming forward and acting in society as such, and without being addressed and treated as such from without?’
  10.  It is proper therefore that the wider society recognises the creation of a ‘new sociological unit’ and ‘makes possible their special life’. Those who would be married ought to be prepared to make a ‘public confession of their marriage and desire public confirmation of it’.
  11. Such public confession takes three forms – domestic, legal and ecclesiastical – none of which is able to underlie or guarantee the inner reality of marriage as a mutual understanding of the two partners, nor can they secure the essential reality of the couple’s outward relationship, their responsibility before society and active share in its life. ‘The institution in all its forms is only the means of this understanding – an instrument subject to historical variation in its forms, limited in its externality, and unable to bring about the actual approval of a marriage by all the members of the surrounding society. Nevertheless, in spite of its limitations, it is an unambiguous and indeed the only unambiguous means of achieving this understanding. That is the reason why those who desire marriage must be prepared to respect this institution and to desire its order and protection, i.e., not the constitution but the declaration of marriage by the wedding ceremony’.
  12. The domestic aspect of marriage normally signifies (for young couples, in particular) a broadening of the relationship in which they stand to their parents as children. ‘It is this which justifies parents in having a part in this act, or the way to it, and obliges children to consult their parents in the matter … Marriage without an understanding with the parents is always an audacious undertaking, and without their consent, or at least an attempt to secure it, will usually be unsuccessful. But in this matter the understanding can only have the character of an intensive – and, if the parents are shrewd, not too intensive– counselling, not of command, prohibition or obligatory obedience. The “Honour thy father and mother” is defined and limited by the fact that the parents are now confronted by respectful and teachable but adult and free [persons], and that even the most well meaning of parents can neither give nor take away from their children what constitutes marriage as marriage – the gift and task of married life-fellowship and the love which lies at the basis of marriage together with its responsibility before God’.
  13. The legal side of marriage. True to the Reformed tradition, Barth believes that the state’s demands of notification, ratification and official proclamation of ‘a real marriage’ are legitimate and that the state’s authority ought to be respected by the contracting parties in this matter marriage. But ‘even the declaration of the state cannot constitute marriage. According to the valid and effective formula, it can only declare it to be concluded. It is concluded in heaven by God and on earth by the married couple’. Those, therefore, who seek to be married ‘must’, in Barth’s words, ‘also desire its legal conditions and consequences and therefore its official enactment’. Then in the fine print, which is often the locus of Barth’s hidden gems, Barth states: ‘It should be urged on state officials that they ought to confine themselves to the legal aspect and not invest it with a pseudo-religious character’.
  14. The ecclesiastical side. Here Barth insists not only that ‘the conclusion of a Christian marriage has the character of an event in the Christian community’, even though church weddings are  not ‘unconditionally demanded either by a biblical direction or by the nature of the case’, but also that ‘the so-called marriage altar is a free invention of the flowery speech of modern religion. In its present-day form this ecclesiastical action is a survival from the time when the Church and its law took the place of the law of the state and therefore – to the great detriment of its own task – equated its law, i.e., its understanding of what is right before God, with the law of the state, the independence of which was at that time not realised. In obscure vacillation between an act of law and one of pastoral care it is thus widely enacted on and even beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community. In its presentday form and constitution, it is no less questionable, both from the Christian and the general standpoint, than other occasional offices such as confirmation and burial’. Barth’s logic here is precisely why I – as a minister – no longer agree to be party to the so-called ‘signing of the register’ in weddings. Not only do I reject the notion of the church functioning in a reduced ministry as the state’s (unpaid) chaplain, but also, and more importantly, as Barth rightly points out, the distinction between law and pastoral care, and, we might add, between law and prophecy, is blurred ‘beyond the border line of what is justifiable in the Christian community’.
  15. The Church can only say that ‘it is of importance to make clear in some special formal way the responsibility of a marriage concluded in the sight of God as a responsibility before the Christian community’. While Barth concedes that ‘the right form in which to do this has still to be found’, he is unyielding that regardless of form, ‘it must be completely divested of the character of a religious doublet to the civil ceremony. It should honestly assume the character of a pastoral exhortation – not the first, but the final and public one – concerning the conclusion of marriage, of a declaration of the union of these two members, to which the community must respond with a reminder of God’s promise and command and a proclamation of the divine blessing. Such an exhortation needs to be freed from all ambiguous connexion with the social festivity of the marriage celebrations and integrated with or plainly annexed to the regular worship of the community’.
  16. There remains ‘the decisive fact, with or without the emphasis of a special sacramental action, that the contracting of a marriage has a spiritual implication and obligation’, and this not only in relation to God, but also in relation of people, and therefore to the Christian community.
  17. ‘The conclusion and existence of a marriage honours or dishonours, promotes or disturbs, edifies or scandalises the whole community. It requires the faith, the preaching, the intercession, the understanding and loving interest of the latter. It is an affair of the community and not merely of the married couple. If the declaration of this commitment and obligation cannot be a legal action like the corresponding declaration in the case of the state, it must yet be considered that if the latter is to be seriously effective and powerful it presupposes the existence of this spiritual and ecclesiastical tie and obligation. And although this spiritual tie and obligation cannot be created or guaranteed by any declaration – and the marriage itself certainly cannot be constituted by what takes place between the married couple and the community – the credal declaration of a marriage to the community and the responsive declaration of the latter cannot be evaded in some form, perhaps extremely unpretentious. The event of a marriage in its full bearing on the mutual relationship between the community and the couple must be presented in some way no less to the former than to the latter’.

Karl Barth in North America

Like a foretaste of heaven, the last few weeks has been a time of meeting new friends, of enjoying some of the greatest pieces of art ever produced, of drowning in Californian zinfandels, Spanish whites and Kentucky bourbons, of watching the Boston Red Sox (a team I have followed since primary school) enjoy a winning streak and the Bruins claim victory in the Stanley Cup, and of basking in the writings of Karl Barth.

As well as visiting the The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and The Clark in the Berkshires, I participated in the 27th Summer Karl Barth Session for Pastors, a gathering of the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers (formed in 1692) at the First Church and Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts (a faith community which itself has a very fascinating history). Our subject was ‘Barth’s Elusive Universalism’, and we were led by Dr. William Klempa, Principal Emeritus of the Presbyterian College in Montreal who in the summer of 1960 was in Basel, studying Calvin, KD II/2 and baptism with Uncle Karl himself.

A week or so later it was down to Princeton (my first time in this most picturesque of headquarters of American Presbyterianism) for Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue where participants were served a feast of wonderful papers by John Bowlin, Holy Taylor Coolman, Robert Jenson, Keith Johnson, Guy Mansini, Amy Marga, Bruce McCormack, Richard Schenk, Joseph Wawrykow and Thomas Joseph White.

With characteristic clarity, Professor Jenson began by noting that there is a divine essence to be known, and that in Christ God reveals himself as God. That said, the God who ‘self-introduces himself’ is ‘hidden … not by some metaphysical reality but by being absolutely in our face’. Moreover, it is precisely as Lord that God reveals himself, i.e., as one who stands as Object over us, and over against us. God persists in intruding on us: the God who is antecedently Object in the context of the divine relations, who, as Triune, makes himself our Object. Jenson insisted, with some force, that ‘God’s being is event. For God to be is to happen. Full stop! … We are not to ask how this happens; it just is … God behappens himself!’ God, said Jenson, is event in his revelation because he is event in himself as Father, Son and Spirit, i.e., in ‘the name by which God names himself’. And just as quickly: The event of God must be free, i.e., act, personal. For God to be is to be a first person person. God is a sheer decision of person; i.e., a decision eternally occurs who is God. Following Barth, Jenson noted that Jesus Christ himself, as God and Man, is the covenant between God and humanity, and that God is ‘constituted in his decision to reconcile creation to himself’, a subject picked up, unsurprisingly, later in the afternoon by Bruce McCormack in a fantastic and clear paper on the processions and missions in Aquinas and Barth. Jenson finished by noting that the whole of Barth’s Dogmatics is concerned with divine being; that the triune name names God’s one simple essence and describes his own history with us; that God’s being is an explosion of love in freedom, and that what joins love and freedom together is God’s election; that God’s being cannot finally be separated from his decision to be for us; and that systematic theologians are cannibals who dismember their predecessors and serve up the pieces that we want.

Richard Schenk’s address was entitled ‘Theology, Metaphysics and Discipleship’, and began by recalling Luther’s famous words ‘Ergo in Christo crucixo est vera Theologia et cognito Dei’. Schenk reminded us, via the work of Robert Jenson, of the ecumenical context in which all theology takes place, noting also the work of Remi Brague (whose thought he would draw upon at greater length later in his paper) and his notion of ‘non-digestive inclusion’ (like much of the church’s attitude to Israel) and Paul Ricœur’s ‘three models of successful – because intentionally partial – integration’: exchange of memories, forgiveness and translation. The stated goal of Schenk’s paper was to identify within Thomas’ writings the dimension of a theodicy-capable theology of the cross. Schenk leaned heavily on Gerhard Ebeling’s work on Thomas, and argued that theodicy is also always anthropodicy. He noted how Thomas defends the fool who says ‘There is no God’ because God’s being/existence is not self-evident. Indeed, it is precisely finitude as finitude which leads us to ask, ‘There must be more out there’. Schenk concluded by citing a lengthy section by Jenson on petitionary prayer, and by noting Jüngel’s observation that the real difference between Rome and the Reformed is over the question of eschatology (and that for the former there is a greater emphasis on delayed eschatology). The passage from Jenson, taken from his essay ‘Ipse Pater Non Est Impassibilis’, and published in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, reads:

‘ As the general assignment of our conference supposes, our attempts to construe the fact of providence are indeed a chief place where difficulties with God’s impassibility/passibility impede our efforts. According to Thomas – whom I should doubtless forebear to cite in this company – God’s universal knowledge and universal will are in such a sort one that God’s foreseeing determines what is seen. He is the cause of all things per suum intellectum, and in this context that holds precisely with respect of their ordering to their good. The Pre/provision, moreover, extends to every item and single event of creation. It is apparent that this doctrine must provoke some questions. One is the so-called problem of theodicy. In my judgment this problem is in this life insoluble: faith in God’s universal ordering of creation to the good – i.e., to himself – will remain a great “Nevertheless …” until the final vision … In my view, however, the really difficult question concerns the meaningfulness of petitionary prayer – which is, after all, the kind most recommended and practiced in Scripture. Suppose I pray for someone’s recovery. If the Lord foresees from all eternity that my friend will/not recover, and if that foreseeing determines the event, and if he thus already knows what he ordains and ordains what he knows, what role does my petition have? It is a question every pastor regularly encounters. And the answered offered are in large part evasions. Prayer undoubtedly “opens” the soul to God, but is the content of the utterance irrelevant to its benefit? Praying is undoubtedly salutary obedience to the Lord’s command, but why this particular command in the first place? Petition is undoubtedly – and this has been my own mantra – the appropriate utterance of a creature to the Creator, but is we remain with this formalism how does that construe the Creator/creature relation? Not, I fear, conformably to Thomas’s resolution of determinism … Prayer is involvement in Providence. If prayer is anything less, it is simply a pitiful delusion. Perhaps if we were more straightforwardly to consider the biblical necessity of the two sentences previous to this one [the basic implication of which is that we ought to regard prayer as "mattering to" and "affecting" God], discussion of God’s relation to our time, and so of his passibility/impassibility, would make more progress. (pp. 125–26) .

In another real outstanding paper of the conference, John Bowlin talked about Thomas and Barth on friendship, outlining the covenantal backbone to friendship, a covenant that comes with human obligations that are features of the graced nature of the friendship itself. Drawing upon CD II/2 §§ 32–38, Bowlin noted that Barth understands the logic of friendship in terms of the doctrine of election, the Act which creates a relationship which while created against a background which is ‘wrong’, is entirely grace from first to last. The aim of election, Bowlin averred, is friendship, ‘or at least the potential of friendship’. And like every offer of friendship, this friendship too ‘comes with requirements’. Rejecting both Kant’s and Nietzsche’s understanding of friendship, the principle obligation of friendship, Bowlin argued, is to be a friend.

Great fun all round. It was wonderful to share a pint with some friends like Alfonse Borysewicz and Bruce McCormack, to finally meet in the flesh some theo-bloggers whose blogs I have long followed (Chris TerryNelson, David W. Congdon, and W. Travis McMaken among them), to meet some impressive young pastors like Andy Nagel and Rali Weaver, and teachers like Max Stackhouse and Richard and Martha Burnett, and to eat the biggest steak I’ve ever seen in my life; and pure joy to spend considerable time with two amazing people – Rick and Martha Floyd – in the Berkshires. And as for the Karl Barth Research Collection at Princeton – wow! In Arnie’s words, ‘I’ll be back’.

Eberhard Busch, Barth: A Review

Eberhard Busch, Barth (trans. Richard Burnett and Martha Burnett; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008). viii+95pp. ISBN 9780687492466.

Those who help us read and understand the great theologians of the church are themselves a great gift to the church. In this volume, an eminent doyen of contemporary Barth scholarship, Eberhard Busch, with striking clarity and warmth, and with unequalled familiarity (at least in print) with his subject, introduces neophytes and those long-familiar with Karl Barth to the Reformed theologian’s life, location and work.

Busch, who is Professor Emeritus for systematic theology at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, provides readers with a map which, if followed carefully, will assist them to more accurately locate Barth’s contribution within a wider landscape of theological conversation and, more particularly, to navigate their way into Barth’s magnum opus, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, highlighting key markers apart from which Barth’s readers easily wander off course, and steering readers clear of the slippery climbs of the secondary literature. Busch is an outstanding guide.

The book begins with an entrée into Barth’s early period as an assistant pastor in Geneva from 1909 to 1911 (a period in which he was fundamentally shaped by the theological liberalism associated with Schleiermacher), his ministry at Safenwil, and his move by 1916 into the strange new world of the bible wherein he discovered the Godness of God, the grace of revelation which ‘hits us’ like an ‘arrow from the other side of the shore’ (p. 5). In Chapter Two, ‘The Rise of the Confessing Church’, Busch traces the way that Barth pressed his theological knowledge into the service of the church, championing the reality that the one binding Word of God is Jesus Christ. Here, Busch introduces readers to the Barmen Declaration, noting that ‘wherever the church looses herself from any bond which is to God’s Word and at the same time to worldly power, wherever she listens solely to God’s Word, she will not cease to speak out politically, but she will do so from a different position’ (p. 12). In Chapter Three, Busch lays out the ecclesial, political and historical context in which Barth penned his thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, attending to the part that reason, natural theology, freedom and church played in Barth’s thought, and sketching Barth’s involvement, after the Second World War, in ecumenical efforts, in post-Vatican II discussions as well as discussions with American theologians from 1962 onwards.

Having so set the scene, the remainder of the book, pages 23–83, are given to summarising Barth’s Dogmatics. Beginning with an explanation of Barth’s understanding of the graced nature of theology, of the fact that divine speech ‘is not and can never be a presupposition that falls into our hands’ (p. 26), Busch attends to Barth on religion, faith, knowledge, the trinity, divine freedom, the relationship between Israel and Church in the one covenant of grace – the reconciliation which is ‘so essential that the covenant would risk falling “in the void” … were it not fulfilled’ (p. 43) in Jesus Christ – God’s calling and bringing of creation into correspondence with his covenant, God’s triumph in the creation of faithful servants in their own free decision (what Barth in CD II/2 calls the ‘autonomy of the creature’), the relationship between Gospel and Law, prayer, the sin which is nothing, real and misunderstood, the relationship between sanctification and justification, theodicy, and Christian community in relation to Christ, the world and the vocation ‘to be God’s witness within her own times’ (p. 76). Busch concludes by outlining how Barth understands Christ’s resurrection and its relationship to ‘historical facts’ (p. 80), to history itself as past, present and future are bound together in Christ, and to Christian hope. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for further reflection.

A junior cousin to Busch’s earlier book The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology (Eerdmans, 2004), significantly briefer than Bromiley’s Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, and more lightweight than Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth, Busch’s Barth is a genuine introduction which impressively fulfils the brief of the ‘Abingdon Pillars of Theology’ series (of which it is a part) – of assisting college and seminary students to ‘grasp the basic and necessary facts, influence, and significance of major theologians’.

Uncle Karl’s 125th birthday

Just because today is Uncle Karl’s birthday, I thought it might be worth recalling some passages from the Church Dogmatics on how he thought about such days. Basically, apart from the three occasions where he refers to a particular birthday to mark some other event (see CD IV.2, 667; IV.3.1, xiii; IV.4.viii), Barth refers to birthdays in two ways.

First, he was grateful for the way that birthdays birthed words of ‘understanding and confidence, comfort and encouragement, friendship and co-operation, from so many people … both near and in many distant places’ (CD III.4, xiii). And all of that without any mediation from an ISP!

Second – and there are no surprises here – Barth thought of birthdays christologically. Two passages will suffice here:

‘Jesus of Nazareth—among the many who in Jordan received the baptism of John for the future forgiveness of sins—was the One in whom God was well pleased as His beloved Son, the One upon whom John saw the Spirit descend from heaven, Himself the One who, proclaimed by John, was to come as the bringer of forgiveness. In this way, in the free penitence of Jesus of Nazareth which began in Jordan when He entered on His way as Judge and was completed on the cross of Golgotha when He was judged—there took place the positive act concealed in His passion as the negative form of the divine action of reconciliation. In this penitence of His He “fulfilled all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). It made His day—the day of the divine judgment—the great day of atonement, the day of the dawn of a new heaven and a new earth, the birthday of a new man’. (CD IV.1, 259)

‘The ἐξουσία with which men become the children of God does not fall on them from heaven, nor can it be mediated through other men, and they certainly cannot fashion it for themselves. It is given them by Him to whom John the Baptist could only bear witness, by Him who came into the world and to His own as the true light, by Him who was not received by His own. He gives it them as the freedom to believe on Him, on His name. Thus these men were born of God (Jn. 1:9–13). The completely unexpected christological turn of the conversation with Nicodemus points in this direction. In interpretation of ἄνωθεν (Jn. 3:3) this points first to birth ἐκ πνεύματος. But then quite suddenly (v. 13) the coming down of the Son of Man from heaven, and on earth His exaltation on the cross (compared to the lifting up of the brazen serpent), are described as the event, incomprehensible to Nicodemus, in virtue of which those who believe in Him will have eternal life in Him. Thus, as the first Adam became ψυχὴ ζῶρα, so the second and last Adam became πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν (1 Cor. 15:45). Through His resurrection Christians were begotten again to a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3). The decisive statement of Paul in the account of his conversion in Gal. 1 is that it pleased God to reveal His Son in him (ἐν ἐμοί, v. 16). Conversely, but to the same effect, if a man is in Christ he is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). Through Him God has poured out the Spirit on us as “the bath of regeneration and renewal” (Tit. 3:5f.). Nor is the meaning any different in other passages which speak of the new begetting and birth of man from God. It is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian man; Christmas Day is the birthday of every Christian’. (CD IV.4, 14–5)

Such an account of human being as defined by Jesus Christ led Barth to come down hard on kill joys. Anyone even semi-familiar with Barth’s writing could be left with no illusions that he would have loved a good birthday bash. Barth was no misanthrope, Cassandra or wet blanket. Indeed, we might best think of him as the twentieth century’s theologian of joy. He warned:

‘We can close ourselves to joy. We can harden ourselves against it. We can be caught in the rut of life in movement. We can try to be merely busy and therefore slothful in the expectation of fulfilments. We can regard life as such a solemn matter that there is no desire for celebration. We can look upon an icy seriousness as the highest duty and virtue. On the basis of experienced disappointments we can try to establish that our only right is to bitterness. Is it not obvious that we can never really have joy? Does not joy really consist only in the joy of anticipation? But the fact that we actually become joyless is only a symptom that in self-embitterment we do violence to life and to God as its Creator. And this is the very thing which must not happen at this point’. (CD III.4, 378)

Finally, whatever one makes of the value of birthday parties, Barth was sure to see even joy in its proper light, for joy too, – or, rather, the quest for joy – may quickly become an idol, even an end in itself fuelled by an entire industry of saturnalia. I recall his sober warning in CD III.2:

‘According to the present trend, we may suppose that even on the morning after the Day of Judgment—if such a thing were possible—every cabaret, every night club, every newspaper firm eager for advertisements and subscribers, every nest of political fanatics, every pagan discussion group, indeed, every Christian tea-party and Church synod would resume business to the best of its ability, and with a new sense of opportunity, completely unmoved, quite uninstructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before’. (CD III.2, 115)

So, in the spirit of Hebrews 11, let’s raise a glass or two, and light a pipe or two, to Uncle Karl, give thanks for his life and faithfully-fulfilled vocation, and turn our gaze to worship the One to whom he so faithfully bore witness.

BTW: Deutschlandfunk commemorated Barth’s birthday with this short programme. Rick Floyd, too, has written a wee post about the birthday boy.

Around the traps: under grey skies repatriated

Barth on Mozart

‘… Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshhold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could’.

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.

Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue

The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Thomistic Institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, in cooperation with the Karl Barth Society of North America are organising what promises to be a wonderfully stimulating conference, to be held at Princeton. More information is available here.

Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.



Jack Clemo, ‘On the Death of Karl Barth’

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk –
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat:
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.

Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter-need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who ploughed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallows, all projections of the divine.

– Jack Clemo, ‘On the Death of Karl Barth’ in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (ed. Donald Davie; Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 291–2.