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’.


  1. Tough life for you Jason,
    I guess, someone has to do it, though.
    The Bible says that envy is a sin, so I ca’t do that.
    So, by faith, I say, ‘if one suffers, we all suffer’.
    Suffering together with you!


  2. It was good to meet you, Jason. Thanks, too, for this helpful synopsis of a few of the presentations. I hope next time we can have an actual discussion over a bit more of that bourbon you mentioned above.


  3. Jason,

    A rich summary of your time here. Thank you for your ministry of encouragement, especially for the impressive young pastors we met. When we are discouraged about the church, it is good to recall the promise that God will not be left without witnesses.

    What a great time we had!



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