An interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the recently-published Silence: A Christian History, was in Australia a few months ago as a guest of The Adelaide Writers’ Week. While visiting that ‘distant and barbarous’ outpost of the Empire where the colonists ‘grow indifferent [and] go on from bad to worse until they have shaken off all moral restraint’ (as Mansfield Silverthorpe once described those blessed enough to be given free passage to Terra Australis Incognita), he was snatched up by the ABC for an interview with Barney Zwartz on Radio National’s ‘Big Ideas’ program. In this lively discussion, they discuss silence, Christianity’s intolerant nature, Apophatic theology, Nicodemites old and new, child abuse in the church, and Anglicanism … and some other stuff too. It’s well worth a listen.

Resuscitating James Begg: a review of Kate Malcolm’s Pastorale

PastoraleKate Malcolm, Pastorale: being part of the life of James Begg as reconstructed by Kate Malcolm: A Novel (Wellington: Kate Malcolm, 2011). 369pp. ISBN: 9780473189969.

A guest review by John Stenhouse

Kate Malcolm has written a superb historical novel about one of her Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, the Revd. James Begg. The author trained in history at the University of Otago; it showed. One of the book’s many strengths is how well the author placed it in the historical contexts necessary to understand the life and times of James Begg and his family, church and nation. Historians are trained to avoid anachronism – language, ideas, objects and practices chronologically out of place in the period about which the author is writing. It is a tribute to Kate Malcolm that she avoided anachronism almost entirely.

Chapter one depicts young James Begg growing up the son of a Church of Scotland minister in New Monkland. The author’s account of a Scottish communion gathering conveyed a sense of the drama and excitement of occasions that caught up entire communities. Here, as elsewhere, Malcolm combined impeccable historical research with a novelist’s eye for her subjects’ inner worlds of thought and feeling.

After making a name for himself as a powerful preacher, James Begg joined the Free Church exodus out of the Church of Scotland during the Disruption. Here the author nicely captured the volatile mix of social, intellectual, political and theological tensions between the Moderate party and the Evangelicals, led by Thomas Chalmers, who reluctantly led the latter out of the established church in 1843. Academic historians who have difficulty understanding how deeply past generations felt about theology, politics and their interconnections have sometimes written accounts of such controversies that are too dry, dispassionate and cerebral. In Malcolm’s telling, by contrast, we can feel the anger of the Begg family when well-heeled Moderates and their supporters imposed a minister on an unwilling congregation. The author brings to life the Disruption – probably the most important event in nineteenth-century Scottish history – by refusing to confine theology to the private sphere of heart, home and house of worship. Weaving together theology with politics, law and social history, Malcolm brings our Presbyterian past to life just a few years before Free Church folk founded the Otago settlement. It is worth remembering that the Evangelical party left the Church of Scotland because they did not believe that the dominant Moderate party was keeping the church in vital contact with the mass of the Scottish people. Free Church visions of society as a godly commonwealth did not suddenly disappear; this tradition significantly shaped Otago, Southland and New Zealand history well into the twentieth century.

While the author writes about her subjects with empathy and understanding, she avoids hagiography. She depicts James Begg as a gifted and passionate preacher and dedicated pastor but not as a plaster saint. I found myself cringing at how harshly this Presbyterian patriarch sometimes treated his eldest son, Jamie. Sensitive and uncertain, Jamie responded to his father’s disapproval by withdrawing. It is a painful story that illuminates a shadow side of Scottish Presbyterian culture.

One of James Begg’s sons, Alexander Campbell, emigrated to Dunedin, where he played a lively and sometimes controversial role in Presbyterian church life as a staunch defender of tradition. Strongly attached to the Westminster Confession, A. C. Begg encouraged southern Presbyterians to try the Revd. Professor William Salmond and the Revd. James Gibb for heresy in 1888 and 1890 respectively. Begg’s support for prohibition, Bible-in-Schools and strict Sabbath observance annoyed working class radicals such as Sam Lister, whose Otago Workman newspaper regularly attacked ‘Ace’ Begg as a domineering old bigot.

Modern New Zealand historians have tended to side with Lister. In a famous article appearing in Landfall in 1953, Auckland poet-historian Robert M. Chapman, who later became professor of political science at the University of Auckland, identified Scottish Presbyterians and English Evangelicals as the main carriers of ‘puritanism’ to New Zealand. And puritanism, claimed Chapman, was the root of almost evil, plaguing society with interpersonal violence, marital discord, family dysfunction, female frigidity, latent homosexuality, patriarchy, self-hatred, and the ‘dominant mother.’ During the 1950s, with his friend and fellow poet-historian Keith Sinclair, Chapman translated into history and the social sciences the anti-puritanism burgeoning in literary circles since the 1930s. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the universities expanded, antipuritanism grew into a powerful new orthodoxy. Many of our writers, artists, historians and social scientists sought to save us from puritanism (or Calvinism, as they sometimes called it) and the churches that brought it here. Just how far this antipuritan crusade transformed attitudes to our Scottish Presbyterian forebears may be illustrated simply. In The Land of the Long White Cloud (1898), William Pember Reeves, our most influential nineteenth-century historian, praised the Revd. Thomas Burns, spiritual leader of Otago’s Free Church pioneers, as ‘a minister of sterling worth.’ In 1959, by contrast, Keith Sinclair’s Pelican History of New Zealand described Burns as a ‘censorious old bigot.’ Had Burns changed so much in sixty years?

‘Amor ipse intellectus est,’ wrote Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a saying we might translate into English as ‘love itself is the knowing faculty.’ In a labour of love, Kate Malcolm has rescued one of her Scottish Presbyterian forebears – and ours – from the condescension of posterity. This beautifully written book deserves a wide readership.

Pentecost, hypostasis, and apocalypsis

Bryan Reyna - Apokalupsis Eschaton

With my New Testament open, and with Pentecost just around the corner, I’ve been thinking again about the difference that Christ and the Spirit make to our cultural-ethnic boundaries, and it seems to me that what is being championed in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and elsewhere is not that humanity has been liberated from religious boundaries in order to take up residence as a citizen of a secular, desacralized world, but rather that those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ as both the boundary and centre of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in our cultural/ethnic/gendered/social/historical particularities. Christ’s kenotic community therefore must not violate the divine-human solidarity announced and secured in the hypostatic union by placing boundaries between itself and the world. But this is not all, for the radical solidarity created in the incarnation also creates a dissonance between that which depends upon arrangements which are passing away and those which depend upon and point to the coming reign of God. Put otherwise, and to borrow language from Ray Anderson, the incarnation and Pentecost announce that ‘historical precedence must give way to eschatological preference’. John Zizioulas makes this point even more radically explicit when he insists that even Jesus must be liberated from his past history in order to bring to the present history of the church his eschatological presence and power:

Now if becoming history is the particularity of the Son in the economy, what is the contribution of the Spirit? Well, precisely the opposite: it is to liberate the Son and the economy from the bondage of history. If the Son dies on the cross, thus succumbing to the bondage of historical existence, it is the Spirit that raises him from the dead. The Spirit is the beyond history, and when he acts in history he does so in order to bring into history the last days, the eschaton.

[Image: Bryan Reyna, 'Apokalupsis Eschaton']

‘Enemy of Apathy’: a song for Pentecost, and beyond


She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day;
she sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.

She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
she nestsin the womb, welcoming each wonder,
nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
and she is the key opening the scriptures,
enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

– John L. Bell & Graham Maule, ‘Enemy of Apathy’, in The Iona Abbey Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2003), 193. (The hymn also appears in Church Hymnary 4, #593, and in some other places too)

Christian Perspectives on Marriage

Christian Perspectives on MarriageLast year, the Council of Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The discussion paper is now available for download here. It is offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in New Zealand church and society.

The risky business of being ‘reformed’

end of the lineIn her book Moving Forward, Looking Back: Trains, Literature, and the Arts in the River Plate, Sarah Misemer describes the trains of Argentina as symbolising ‘the dialectical influences of the forward trajectory (progress/future), while at the same time embodying the backward glance (regression/past)’. When travelling on an old train in particular, despite being aware of the technology that makes such eccentric carriage possible, one can have a sense that even though one is moving forward, there is also the sense that one ‘travels into a quaint and less mechanized’ world, escaping backwards in time.

The same theme is picked up by artist Michael Flanagan in his brief essay ‘The Backward Glance’. He explores the intersection between time and memory, suggesting that our vision of the past operates akin to the view of a disappearing landscape glimpsed from within a moving train: ‘How can the Past ever be anything but a mystery … We see life as if from the end car of a speeding train, watching through the rear window as the tracks slip away beneath us … everything passing, receding, disappearing into a point on the horizon’.

Insofar as this is true of our experience of train travel, the same might be said of our thinking about Christian community – we can lament that our past ebbs too quickly. Such lament can encourage the creation of romanticised images, like those of nineteenth-century artists George Angas and Gottfried Lindauer who Europenised the New Zealand landscape. Flanagan calls this the ‘nostalgia problem’.

At the other end of the train are those who seek to drive on, aware only of what lies in front. Like perpetual teenagers, they are those for whom the past is forgotten and irrelevant; indeed, it is not even part of their being today.

But here the analogy breaks down, particularly for those of us who profess to be concerned with the project called ‘reformed’: we have no tracks upon which to travel, and even the existence of the train itself is not a sure thing. Entirely bereft of the familiar and the certain, the reformed – i.e., that churchly tribe of which Presbyterians form the largest part – are concerned to live entirely dependent upon God’s speech, upheld solely by the Word who continuously calls us into being. To be reformed is to be always open to the risky possibility that what one hears from God tomorrow might be entirely at odds with what one heard yesterday.

Such a situation poses a real challenge – and opportunity! – for a tradition concerned to confess the faith by way of formal statements. One of the hazards of writing confessions, for example, is that institutions are then tempted to build upon them, to trust in them, to look to them to do the work of safeguarding whatever it is that the institution most values – to turn the living Word of God into a ‘thing’. Even the desire to confess and embody our unity in Christ can mask efforts which are at core idolatrous: namely, to locate the unity of the Body of Christ in something – in a ‘thing’ – rather than in the person of Christ himself and his claims upon us, claims which precede and bring under judgement all our efforts.

The Christian community is called to be at once more free and more bound than a train. It is called to be entirely unburdened from all efforts to keep it from falling off the rails, and it is called to be entirely bound to him who alone brings it into love’s true freedom.


This piece first appeared in ‘Theology Matters’, Spanz 58 (Winter 2014), 16. A pdf version is available here.

‘Sentenced to Life’, by Clive James

Clive James

As his ‘lungs of dust’ preclude his being able to travel any more, essayist and poet Clive James has in recent years turned his pen to themes of mortality and memory and place, lamenting, among other things, the impossibility of a return from the UK to his native Australia. And so his latest rich offering:

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done

Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.

My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.

Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.

Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will and testament –

As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left behind.

Clive James, ‘Sentenced to Life’, in The Times Literary Supplement, 2 May 2014, 8.

A review of Tikkun Olam

Tikkun Olam CoverThe Englewood Review of Books has published a friendly two-part review, written by Rachelle Eaton, on my edited volume Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts. Rachelle has picked up on the story told in Mark 14.39 and referred to a number of times in the book, of the woman who anoints Jesus (i.e., prepares his body for its forthcoming burial) with ‘very costly ointment’, as a way into reflecting on one of the recurring themes to surface in the book. You can read her review here and here.

For those interested, you can also read earlier reviews by Geoffrey ColmerPeter LeithartJeff Johnson, Lynne Baab, and Alistair McBride.


T. F. Torrance on getting one’s ordos and analogias around the right way

Torrance 5‘There can be no true ordo cognoscendi (order of knowing) which is not based upon an ordo essendi (order of being) conceived entirely as grace, and the ordo essendi reaches its true destiny in the ordo cognoscendi. This is the problem of analogy as Reformed theology sees it today. The analogia entis is entirely grounded upon the analogia gratiae, and only in an analogia fidei corresponding to the analogia gratiae does the analogia entis have any truth or reality. Outside of that, the truth of God is inevitably turned into a lie’.

– Thomas F. Torrance, ‘The Word of God and the Nature of Man’, in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM, 1965), 116.

After Crucifixion: A Symposium on the Theology of Craig Keen

After CrucifixionUnited Theological College and the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (PaCT) are hosting a symposium on the patient and provocative work of Craig Keen. Keen’s work is described by Bruce McCormack as “animated by a deep personal desire for an authentically kenotic existence, and a longing for the coming of a community of women and men who understand that they cannot live until they die.” Keen’s sensitivity to issues of embodiment, existence, and faith marry with the constellation of thinkers that he has lived with since his youth to produce his subtle, surprising, and prayerful writings. This symposium will focus on his latest book, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology, and the questions about faith and life that it impels the reader to consider.

Date: 2728 June, 2014.

Venue: United Theological College, Sydney.

Speakers: Craig Keen, Anita Monro, Benjamin Myers, Janice Rees, Peter Kline, and others.

You can download the Registration Form here, and queries can be directed to here.

‘Judas in Modern Dress’, by Judith Wright

A Human PatternNot like those men they tell of, who just as suddenly
walk out of life, from wife and fire and cooking-pot
and the whole confusion, to sit alone and naked
and move past motion; gaze through dark and day
with eyes that answer neither. Having completed their journey
they are free to travel past the end of journeys.
But I stepped out alone.
“I reject the journey; it was not I who chose it.
I worked for one end only,
to find the key that lets me through the door
marked Exit. I have found it and I use it.”

There is a tale I heard a wise man tell,
how, tattered with age, beneath a fruiting tree
a seeker sat, and heard in God’s great silence
another traveller, caught in the nets of self,
weeping between anguish and ecstasy,
and over a thousand miles stretched out one hand
to pluck him back again into the Way.

But I was one the saints knew not at all.
A mocking man, a sad man-animal
rejecting world and sense
not for God’s love, but man’s intelligence;
as though a hog looked through a human eye
and saw the human world as dunged as its own sty,
foul ante-room to death. Like that I saw
the abattoir ahead, and smelt the soil
soaked under me with blood. No place for me.

And wise in my own way I worked to find
the weak place in the palings of the Real—
the gap between the Word
and its Creation, the act and the conception—
and forced my way between those married two,
set time against eternity, struggled through,
slipped through annihilation, still being I.

What violence those great powers did to me
as I escaped between, I have forgotten.
But swinging clear I saw the world spin by
and leave me, empty as an insect-shell,
beyond the chance of death, and outside time.

I had the choice. Once I had infinite choices—
all the variety of light and shadow
that sprang to being when Choice first was made.
Now I have knowledge only. Knowledge, and eyes
to watch the worlds cross their eternities.

Times after times the saving word is spoken.
Times after times I feel it wither me.
The fools of time live on and never hear,
and I who hear have chosen not to answer.
It beats against me till my ears are broken.
Times after times I see my death go by
and cannot reach it even with a prayer.
Indeed, since I am neither Here nor There
I cannot live, and therefore cannot die.

Times after times my lips begin to form
the word that I renounced, and close again.
The worlds pass jostling, and their makers dream
immortal life betrayed to daily pain—
the pain that I denied.

I still deny it.

O sweet, sweet, sweet the love in human eyes—
the tree of blossom dressed to meet the bee,
all white, all radiant, golden at the heart.
Halt there, at your Creation! And it dies,
dies into rotting fruit, and tyrannous seed.
If it spring up again, so much the worse.
That was the curse on Eden, Adam’s curse.
The curse by which my heart will not abide.

If I am Judas, still my cause is good.
I will not move my lips to answer God.

– Judith Wright, ‘Judas in Modern Dress’, in A Human Pattern: Selected Poems (North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1990), 115–17.

Two conferences Down Under

In addition to the conference on sovereignty mentioned in my previous post, Antipodeans are organising two further gigs:

anzats 20141. The annual ANZATS Conference, on the theme The Eclipse of God: Theology after Christendom.

Dates: 29 June to 2 July 2014
Where: University of Notre Dame, Fremantle WA
Keynote speaker: Graham Ward
Short papers: submissions have now closed. This is probably just as well for there is already a massive line up of papers on a diverse range of topics.


Nietzsche religion2. The Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ), the Religious History Association of Australia (THERHA), and the Christian Research Association of Aotearoa New Zealand are conspiring to organise a conference on Religion in Conflict and Collaboration with the Modern World.

Dates: 2628 November 2014
Where: Albany Campus, Massey University, Auckland
Keynote speaker: Brad Gregory
Short papers: Abstracts for short paper proposals (due on 31 July 2014) should be emailed to the Registrar, Professor Peter Lineham.
Proposed panels for whole sessions (three papers or the equivalent) are also welcome.

Claiming Sovereignty: Theological Perspectives

Claiming Sovereignty

The University of Divinity, Whitley College, the Centre for Theology and Ministry, and the Commission for Mission of the UCA are organising what sounds like a wonderful conference ‘to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context’:

In a context where Indigenous claims remain unresolved, the rights of asylum seekers are contested, and global economic forces are making new demands on nation states, the theme of sovereignty demands closer examination. Beginning with discussion of settler colonialism, this conference brings together people from a range of disciplines to reflect on discourses of sovereignty in the Australian context.

Speakers include R. S. SugirtharajahDjiniyini GondarraRobyn Sampson, and Joanna Cruickshank, and a call for papers (proposals due by 15 June) has also been issued.

Further details are available here, or contact Mark Brett or Monica Melanchthon.

Two Presbyterian seminaries showing some leadership

pcusa‘Where there is forbearance, there is a table set around which we can pray, study, listen, share, debate, and mutually form one another, subjecting ourselves to the work of the Spirit as we pass the common loaf … Perhaps the one thing worse than those in disagreement sitting on the same pew is those in disagreement NOT sitting on the same pew’.

Deeply concerned about the ‘polarities’, ‘deeply divided positions’, ‘growing sadness’, and ‘widespread pain and anxiety’ that is said to be characterizing the PC(USA), and in light of next month’s General Assembly in Detroit, the faculty at both Columbia Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary have both issued unanimous public statements calling upon the church to take seriously its first mark – unity; and they have identified some of the concrete characteristics of such action as mutual forbearance, forgiveness, and hope.

The statements can be read here and here.

Tragically, they speak not only to the challenges facing the PC(USA), but also to those threatening to put asunder those whom God has joined together in other parts of the Presbyterian family, including that part here in New Zealand. Gratefully, they speak a word of humility and of hope.

My books are available from Logos

The folk at Logos contacted me today. They are interested in selling my books, and have posted information about them here, here and here.

While browsing the site, I was surprised to learn that I had written another book, In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective.  I don’t remember writing this one, so I’m guessing that a mistake has been made. There might be other explanations, of course, but a simple mistake seems to be the most likely one. I’ve let the folk at Logos know.

[An update: apparently, I'm no longer the author of the above-mentioned book. Now I can just return to my normal level of confusion. Thank you team Logos.]

Christian Wiman on belief, faith, poetry, experience, and the unreligious artist

IAM (International Arts Movement) recently posted Makoto Fujimura’s 4-part interview with Christian Wiman. I thought it was worth sharing:

1. On belief and faith

2. On poetry and faith

3. On experience and self-expression

4. The unreligious artist

Whenever I read Wiman, or read about Wiman, I am reminded of the Church’s long history of mistreatment and silencing of the doubters and sceptics in its midst, of my own disquiet about the idolatry of certainty, and of my own hunger for honest conversation about the mysteries that lie most deeply in the centre of existence. I am also reminded that scepticism as well as faith ‘seeking understanding’ (after Anselm) involves not only some continuity with the past but also the constructive work of doing what Hans-Georg Gadamer famously refers to as opening ‘horizons’ of meaning where one learns ‘to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it, but to see it better within a larger whole and in truer proportion’. Theologians, it seems to me, ought to champion the opening up of such ‘hermeneutic space’ for all those – whether so-called believers or sceptics – who simply cannot imag­ine any other way of the world being. This is one place where the work of artists like Wiman take on an almost indispensable role for the church, and perhaps especially in those parts of it which tend to be more than a little wordy (and a little nerdy!) – where, despite all claims to the contrary, what is communicated is that ultimate truths really can be captured by human constructs – not only in liturgical contexts but also in our other theological musings.

My friend Cynthia Rigby recently identified Wiman as an example of one for whom the search for meaning constitutes ‘a kind of belief that … would not run nearly as deep were it void of skepticism’. Clearly, doubt and scepticism may be expressions of faith. Equally, belief may be an expression of a lack of faith, a mistrust and/or fear – the fear of not believing. All this is part of the complexity and ambiguity of scepticism. What sceptics and doubters need, Paul Tillich said, is not repression but courage which ‘does not deny that there is doubt, but … takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern’. This is the kind of scepticism which is essential for the kind of theology that grown-ups do!

St Ambrose once said that ‘it did not suit God to save his people by arguments’. Of course, arguments have their uses – encouraging the gift of clarification, for example – but they are no substitute for imagination, vision, and hope, truths not lost on the biblical writers. It is not insignificant that the Bible has no arguments for the existence of God. It is not insignificant that the Bible offers little reason to think that faith should be facile and unambiguous. Indeed, the Bible is unfilled by comfortable and reassuring words about the life of belief and trust. It is unfilled by presentations of a God who expects or demands doubtless faith. If Abraham and Moses and Hannah and Job and Mary and Jesus and Paul suggest any pattern, then our knowledge of God and of God’s ways is learnt not, in the first instance, by clinical enquiry and epistemological certainty but by being found caught up in a reality planned and constrained only by mysterious love, love which appears to have little difficulty in making space for angst and struggle and disbelief. Indeed, in a sense these are a kind of argument for God.

Die Taufe ist kein Sakrament. Einsichten aus Karl Barths Sakramentsverständnis

WeinrichIt is a most humanising thing, gratitude. For it is not only the confession of our being-in-dependence, but it is also an expression of our remarkable freedom. We, in the Reformed tradition, do not talk nearly enough about freedom. And perhaps no one has brought this truth home to me more than my friend Michael Weinrich, to whom I am most grateful. I was delighted to learn that Michael recently gave a lecture on Karl Barth (a subject with which he is most familiar) and the sacraments, a lecture in which the promise and gift of freedom featured greatly. The lecture will, in due course, be published by Theologischen Verlag Zürich, but a summary/report is already available. It reads:

„Jesus Christus ist das eine Sakrament“. So versteht Karl Barth das Sakrament in der Kirchlichen Dogmatik (KD). Wie kommt Barth zu diesem Verständnis? Was sagt es über menschliche Freiheit und Gottes souveränes Gott-Sein? Seine Antworten und Thesen hat Michael Weinrich, Professor für Ökumenik und Systematik, auf dem Barth Symposion Anfang Mai vorgetragen.


Als Sakrament, sprich als Übersetzung des griechischen mysterion, bezeichnete Barth Taufe und Abendmahl in der KD nicht. Stattdessen sprach er von einem „Tatbekenntnis“ bzw. einer „freien menschlichen Tatantwort“ auf Gottes in Christus „vollzogene göttliche Wendung“ (KD IV/4, 81.IX.99).

Damit unterstreiche Barth, dass nicht nur ein „Gesinnungswechsel“, sondern eine neue „Lebensrichtung“ zur Debatte stehe, so Weinrich.

Ist die Wassertaufe menschliche Antwort auf das Sakrament der Geschichte Jesu Christi, handelt der Mensch als Subjekt. Er gibt, selbst frei, also als von Gott Befreiter, eine Antwort auf Gottes Anrede. Der Mensch entspricht Gottes Verheißung. Weinrich: „Erst in der dann vom Menschen frei gegebenen Antwort kommt die Anrede Gottes zu ihrem Ziel, in dem das ‚Es ist vollbracht!‘ auch zu der ihm entsprechenden Anerkennung findet.“


Das „christologisch orientierte Sakramentsverständnis in der KD“ sei eine Konsequenz, so Weinrichs These zugespitzt formuliert, von Barths Verankerung der Versöhnungslehre in der Bundestheologie. In dem Bund Gottes mit dem Menschen begegnen sich „der freie Gott“ und „der freie Mensch“ als Partner, als zwei Subjekte. Weinrich: „Der Bund ist essenziell auf die freie Antwort des Bundespartners ausgerichtet, die als solche eben auch eine ganz und gar menschliche Antwort zu sein hat ohne eine permanente Inanspruchnahme der Assistenz Gottes“.


Die „Entsakramentalisierung der Sakramente“ bei Barth sei „die Konsequenz einer bundestheologischen Vertiefung seiner Ekklesiologie“, so Weinrich. In dieser müsse Gott Gott bleiben können und der Mensch Mensch. Hier wird der „schmale Grat der Freiheit“ betreten, der menschlichen Freiheit im Bund mit Gott.

Taufe und Abendmahl seien so verstanden keine „geheimnisvollen Rituale“, sondern „gemeinschaftlich eingebundene freie menschliche Antworten des von Gott angesprochenen und auf Gott hörenden Menschen“.

Dabei verweise die Taufe auf die im Geist vermittelte „Begründung“ des christlichen Lebens in Christus und das Abendmahl auf seine allein von Christus zu erwartende „Erneuerung“ (vgl. KD IV/4,72f.).


Diese bundestheologische Auslegung von Taufe und Abendmahl wirft einen kritischen Blick auf die Sakramentalisierung der Kirche. Weinrich gibt – mit Barth – zu bedenken:

„Die weithin in den Kirchen vollzogene Sakramentalisierung der Taufe ebenso wie des Abendmahls bedeuten keine Aufwertung beider, sondern deren Doketisierung [Zuschreibung eines Scheinleibes Christi, bs] zu ‚einem sonderbar konkurrierenden Duplikat der Geschichte Jesu Christi‘ (KD IV/4, 112), die sie ihrer spezifischen Würde als freies Tatbekenntnis berauben, indem sie nun selbst als Gnaden-mittel (Sakrament) ausgegeben werden.

Anstatt Sakramente als Zeichen von Gottes Handeln in Konkurrenz zur Geschichte Gottes mit Jesus Christus aufzubauen, gelte es, das Mysterium der Offenbarung in Jesus Christus zu respektieren, so Barth (vgl. KD IV/4, 168).

Als Sakrament „im Sinne von Heilsoffenbarung oder Heilswerk, Sündenreinigung, Gnadeneingießung oder Wiedergeburt“ schwäche die Taufe „einerseits die entscheidende Deutlichkeit des Christusgeschehens“ (KD IV/4, 233) und gefährde „anderseits die sich hier erschließende Perspektive auf die freie Beteiligung des Menschen in dem erfüllten Bund.“

Fazit: Die Würde der Taufe glänzt „in der befreiten Umkehr zu Gott als das Humanste, was ein Mensch zu tun vermag“ (vgl. KD IV/4, 157), sie besteht nicht in der Zuschreibung eines sakramentalen Sinns.

Rick Floyd reviews Hallowed be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameA recent edition of Theology Today (70.4, January 2014) includes Rick Floyd’review of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (T&T Clark, 2013). Therein, he writes:

Dr. Goroncy is a felicitous writer. He knows his Forsyth, and he also knows the late Victorian world in which Forsyth lived and worked. He leads us ably through the material and brings us to his conclusion, which is that the trajectory of Forsyth’s thinking should have led him to dogmatic universalism, but did not. This is the most controversial (and most interesting) part of the book. The subject of universal salvation has recently gained wide public attention sparked by the popular book Love Wins by Rob Bell (Harper One, 2011). Goroncy’s thoughtful, nuanced treatment of this timely subject adds depth to this conversation …

It is good to see a new generation of scholars take up this important theologian. And now that Forsyth’s writings, once hard to find and largely out of print, are widely available in print and electronically, I hope to see renewed interest by scholars and preachers of this great ‘‘preacher’s theologian.’’

Me too! Access to the remainder of the review is available here.

I am grateful to Rick for his kind words about my book, not least because he knows his Forsyth too! His own study on Forsyth’s thought, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement (Pickwick Publications, 2000) is a very clear reading of Forsyth’s testimony to God’s most unpopular work – the atonement. I warmly commend it.