Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

McGlasson’s Invitation to Dogmatic Theology: A Review

INVITATION TO DOGMATIC THEOLOGY: A CANONICAL APPROACH. By Paul C. McGlasson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006. Pp. 284. $24.99, ISBN 10:1-58743-174-2; ISBN: 13: 978-1-58743-174-6.

Pastor and former seminary professor, Paul McGlasson, is no newcomer to the world of theological publication, having already published a number of notable works, including:

In this latest offering, Invitation to Dogmatic Theology, McGlasson presents a case for how and why theology must consciously serve the church’s ministry, and particularly its preaching. Well aware of the issues that continue to plague not only the discipline of doing theology, but also those of the wider church, McGlasson, leaning on Karl Barth, boldly reminds us that theology’s task has long been, and must continue to be, the proclamation of God’s action in Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The book consists of five parts: (i) The Authority of Scripture, (ii) The New World of God, (iii) Proclamation, (iv) The Trinity, and (v) The Divine Imperative. Building on Brevard Childs’ insights on the primacy of canon, McGlasson seeks to show why and how biblical studies and dogmatic theology need to inform one another as they share the task of ‘expounding scripture for the church, though in different but complementary ways’ (p. 27). McGlasson argues that dogmaticians need to begin where biblical scholars end, trusting that the latter have done their homework in providing a basic orientation to the true nature of the Scriptures. For more on this topic, see my posts on Biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue here and here.

McGlasson makes assumptions and draws conclusions that not all would agree with, and possibly some of his claims are overstated. However, McGlasson is seeking to raise many of the right questions, and he does so in a manner that is always respectful, fair and generous to those with whom he is in disagreement. The book would be considerably enhanced by the inclusion of an index.

A modified version of this review is to be soon published in Religious Studies Review, after which the definitive version will be available from Blackwell Synergy.

Biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue 2

Dogmaticians and biblical critics ought to dialogue more readily, for they share the same task of edifying the Church. They do not do this by their own unaided powers, but in the power of the same Risen One for whose body they exists, and for whose Person they bear witness to. John Webster has reminded is that ‘the particular task of theology is to attest the truth of the gospel in the wake of Christ’s own self-attestation’ (John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM, 2003), 3). So much as the Church seeks to do this articulating work, it concentrates on two fundamental tasks, exegesis and dogmatics. Webster rightly asserts:

‘Exegesis is of supremely critical importance, because the chief instrument through which Christ publishes the gospel is Holy Scripture. Exegesis is the attempt to hear what the Spirit says to the Churches; without it, theology cannot even begin to discharge its office. Dogmatics is complimentary but strictly subordinate to the exegetical task. It is not an improvement upon Holy Scripture, replacing the informal, occasional, language of Scripture by conceptual forms which are better organized, more sophisticated or more firmly grounded. Rather, dogmatics seeks simply to produce a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in Holy Scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading. Dogmatics attempts a ‘reading’ of the gospel which in its turn assists the Church’s reading. Developing such a ‘reading’ of the gospel entails, of course, the development (or annexation) of conceptual vocabularies and forms of argument whose range and sophistication may seem distant from the more immediate, urgent idioms of Scripture. But though technical sophistication is not without its attendant perils, it is only vicious when allowed to drift free from the proper end of theology, which is the saints’ edification. When that end is kept in view and allowed to govern the work of theology, then dogmatics can be pursued as a modest work of holy reason, transparent to the gospel and doing its service in the Church as the school of Christ.’ (Webster, Holiness, 3-4)

Biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue

The eye cannot say to the ear, “I have no need of you”’: biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue

Whilst there certainly remains a place for a full-blown treatment of the topic at hand, the purpose of this brief paper is considerably more modest: to contribute some thoughts to a round-table discussion by a handful of folk concerned with the intercourse between biblical studies and dogmatic theology.

While it has not always been so and, indeed, is a relatively recent phenomenon, the legacy of separation between biblical and dogmatic theology is, sadly, both deep seated and profound. In the right corner, weighing more pounds than I care to guess, many dogmaticians have become suspicious of biblical exegetes, accusing them of a lack of theological grounding. While in the left corner, biblical exegetes, weighing just as many pounds, share a suspicion of dogmaticians and their projects, accusing them of a lack of careful precision in handling sacred texts.

Occasionally, one of these fighters remembers why they are really there and ventures to leave the corner and move closer to the centre of the ring, much to the disdain of most of the crew in both corners. Some, however, cheer on quietly (and I suspect that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on) sensing that what is going on here might be akin to the very reason they joined their team in the first place. But they are usually too nervous to go that way themselves, frightened of being accused not merely of selling out their team, but also of neglecting to take with them some of their teams most valuable weapons. Indeed, some don’t even want to wear the obligatory gloves.

As the clock ticks down, and the inevitable dead end approaches, the two groups decide that it might all be too difficult and bloody to engage one another at this time. So, whilst agreeing that it would be good to ‘get together sometime’, for now the Scriptures can be left to the exegetes domain, whilst the dogmaticians are left to pursue themes more philosophical. In this all too common scenario, both teams loose, and the one body (the Church) that they both exist to serve loses the help that it has every right to expect from both teams.

In the past, that one body was given people who could command both disciplines. I am thinking of scholar-pastors like Luther and Calvin. The latter wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, gave himself to their exposition, and also wrote a little theological work called The Institutes of the Christian Religion so that ‘new Christians’ would have an interpretative lens through which to understand his commentaries.

Whilst both biblical and dogmatic theology share the task of expounding the Church’s Scriptures, and, more specifically the Scripture’s Gospel, for the Church, they do so from different corners of the ring. Nevertheless, the aim of both ‘teams’ ought to be complimentary – to give the best and clearest illumination of the Gospel to which the Scriptures bear witness, returning again and again to the witness of Scripture in light of the subject matter, and of speaking to and with the Church the Bible’s Gospel according to the inner logic of its own content and purpose.

While I concur with something of the spirit of what is being offered, I do not think that the assertion that ‘dogmatic theology begins with the results of biblical theology … [trusting] biblical theology to provide the basic orientation to the true subject matter of scripture’[1] is good enough. Biblical theologians need to do some work in dogmatics, turning to the theological meta-narrative of the Scripture’s Gospel and to the Church’s Creeds to inform their work, and biblical dogmaticians ought to keep returning to and mining the Scriptures to inform and provide a ‘rule’ for their projects. For dogmaticians to refuse the insights of the biblical critics is to refuse ‘light from heaven. The critics have done wonders not only for particular passages, but for our construction of the whole Bible and its historic atmosphere. They have, in certain respects, made a new book of it, and in a sense have saved it.’[2] Here I believe Adolf Schlatter[3] and Karl Barth have both provided different models for us worthy of emulation. Not only were they both consciously seeking to serve the Church in its proclamation, but their respective corpora betray page after page of solid exegetical homework.[4] I lament that many (certainly not all) of Barth’s students, and their successors, have not followed in their doktorvater’s footsteps here and have too quickly moved to begin where Barth started, bypassing the work he did to get there. Because of this, I contend, they are of less service to the Church and its preaching than Barth is.

Theology is the study of God, and it is only possible because of God. More specifically it is possible because God has chosen to reveal not merely things about himself, (and about the creation), but because he has revealed himself. God has not chosen to prove or commend himself. Rather, his self-revelation is primarily confrontation, and in that confrontation we are saved. The Scriptures bear witness to this divine activity. They seek neither to prove nor to justify God. They bear witness to his existence and activity. God is always at work, and he cannot reveal himself without revealing his intentions and his telos for the creation. This he does in his Son. We know this because the Scriptures bear witness to this, and because the Scripture’s Author (the Holy Spirit) has ‘read’ the Scriptures to us, and continues to do so.

Returning to the image of the boxing ring, I assert that both teams are called to read the Scriptures with their Author, and with their Author’s intention in mind, in a perichoretic movement of giving and receiving, with a common call of aiding the Church to proclaim the Bible’s message to itself and to the world and to apply the Bible’s message to the issues of contemporary life in accordance with the canon of faith. That’s why the image of the boxing ring may be a particularly unhelpful one. In reality, what we are called to be engaged in is being something more akin to a football team, where defenders, midfielders and attackers all bring their own unique skills to the game, as well as rely on the skills of their team mates to play well, and hopefully win the game – as a team. The skills required are different. The questions and ways of thinking are different. But the aim ought to be a common one – to play well as a team and, hopefully, win the game, i.e. fulfill the task that God has given these gifts to the Church to fulfill. In this hermeneutical spiral, that is, as the ball is passed around the field, not least by the other team as well, the Church hears afresh the words of God and is given confidence to proclaim that word with boldness. Of course, part of the difficulty is that defenders and attackers are playing by different rules and, too often, playing entirely different games. Sometimes the midfielders, respecting both sets of their teammates, try to hold it together, with various levels of success.

Recently, Frank Thielman has reminded us of the difference between the NT theologian and the secular historian:

Whereas both the New Testament theologian and the secular historian are interested in the history to which the canonical text give access, they differ on the importance that they grant to the perspectives of the texts themselves. Historians who stand outside the church employ every means at their disposal to render the perspectives of the canonical texts inoperative in their thinking. The texts then provide the raw data with which the secular historian attempts to reconstruct the story of early Christianity according to another perspective. The New Testament theologians, however, through the basic insight of faith, want to embrace the perspectives of the texts on the events that provoked their composition. The perspectives of the texts on the history of early Christianity are not husks to be peeled away so that the historian might see more clearly. They are not merely historical data that provide information about early Christian religion. For New Testament theologians who regard the texts as authoritative, the perspectives of the texts speak of their true significance. They are, in other words, objects of faith.[5]

Peter Taylor Forsyth gives even stronger voice to this theme:[6]

It is the gospel that must save the Church and its beliefs – yea, even the Bible. It is not these that save the gospel. The historic Cross is saving us from much in the historic Church. The historic gospel saved everything at the Reformation. It saved the Church from itself, and it must go on doing so. We must not come to the gospel with the permission of the critics, but tocriticism in the power of the Gospel. Faith does not wait upon criticism, but it is an essential condition of it. The complete critic is not a mere inquirer, but a believer. It was to believers, and not to critics, I repeat, that the things appealed which are criticised most, likethe Resurrection. Critical energy is only just and true in the hands of a Church whose heartis full of evangelical faith. The passion of an apostolic missionary faith is an essential condition to a scientific criticism both sound and safe. By sound I do not mean sound to the confessions, but to the mind. And by safe I do not mean safe for the Church, but safe for the soul. I mean that faith in the gospel, evangelical faith, is essential for that view of the whole case upon which sound results are based. It is essential in order to be fair to all the phenomena. It must enter in not to decide whether we accept proved results, but to decide the results we are to count proved. Faith is not only an asset which criticism must include in its audit; it is an organ that criticism must use. The eye cannot say to the ear, ‘I have no need of thee’.[7]

The dogmatician wishes to assert that, as the past quality and the present power of the Revelation which enables us to discern between truth and falsehood, faith is essential to sound criticism.[8] And that faith gives rise to theology. Faith is neither the same as theology, nor does it depend on theology. Rather, both faith and theology are dependent on one thing, the same thing, God. But faith’s speaking, confession and communication, demands theology. Faith wants to express itself, it wants to worship, confess and witness. It wants to be heard. Dogmatics desires that the faith mined by biblical critics in the passages of the Bible be verbalised meaningfully, intelligibility, and faithfully to the Church, and through the Church to the world. Again, Forsyth offers us a warning here:

There are too many people working on problems for the number that are concerned about the soul and its task, whether in a man or an age. It might be well that people were less occupied with the problems of the text if they were more with the problem of themselves and their kind. What we need most is not intellectual certainty but evangelical, not scientific history but history impressive, creative, teleological. And that is why one turns away for a time, however gratefully, from the scholars to the theologians, from the critics, work upon the New Testament to the believers work upon the Gospel.[9]

As important as ‘systematic’ theology is, too often the score is set by non-apostolic musicians, and so even if the jazz-theologians wish to move away from the score and improvise on the theme, it is the theme itself that really sets the tone. And as vital as biblical criticism is for the service of the Church, its very methodology often seems to deal out any sustained engagement with supra-historical questions, or to even raise the question of the significance of its own findings in the broader canonical and extra-canonical sphere.[10] This has led to the futile error of trying to reconstruct lives of the historical Jesus. Has biblical criticism forgotten why it exists – to witness to faith’s historicity, and ‘to help the Church to hear in all clarity the contingent reality of the early Church’s witness to the kerygmatic Christ’?[11] Yeago is right to assert that ‘historical research is propaedeutic[12] to the real theological-exegetical task … and it will not fare well if it is not pursued by the means proper to theological reflection.’[13]

Biblical exegetes perform an invaluable function. They help us to ‘disengage the kernel from the husk, to save the time so often lost in the defence of outposts, and to discard obsolete weapons and superfluous baggage’.[14] However,

The critical treatment of the Bible must have its place. Let us not make fools of ourselves by denying it. We shall be fighting against God and resisting the spirit. It arises out of the sound principle of interpreting the Bible by itself But its place is secondary, ancillary. It has little place in a pulpit. Criticism is the handmaid of the gospel – downstairs. The critical study of Scripture is at its best, and the higher criticism is at its highest, when it passes from being analytic and becomes synthetic. And the synthetic principle in the Bible is the gospel.[15]

Here Forsyth gives voice to the essential truth that the highest standard of criticism that we must apply to the Bible is not that of higher criticism, but of the Gospel itself. As Hunter put it, ‘What we have in the Bible is sacramental history, history with a drift the drift of God’s ongoing purpose of grace, prefigured in the Old Testament, and consummated in the New.’[16]

So how does the Gospel read the Bible? How did Christ use his Bible? On this, a lengthy quote from Forsyth may serve us well:

For we cannot be wrong if we use ours in the same central way. He used it as a means of grace, not as a manual of Hebrew or other history . His business was not to revise the story of the past or disentangle origins, but to reveal and effect the historic grace of God. He used his Bible as an organ of revelation, not of information, for religion and not science – not even for scientific religion. He found in it the long purpose and deep scope of God’s salvation, his many words and deeds of redemption in the experience of the chosen race. He cared nothing for the Bible as the expression of men’s ideas of God. He prized it wholly as the revelation of God’s gracious dealings with men. He cared for events only as they yielded his Father’s grace. He belonged to a race which was not made like other races by an idea of God, but by God’s revelations and rescues. ‘I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ He did not teach us ideas of God. He was not a sententious sage, full of wise saws or modern instances. He did not move about dropping apophthegms[17] as he made them. He does not even tell us ‘God is love.’ It is an apostle that does that. But he loves the love of God into us. He reveals in act and fact a loving God … He saw the loving God in nature and in history; and within history it was not in what men thought but in what God had done. What he saw was the whole movement of the Old Testament rather than its pragmatic detail. He dwelt lovingly indeed on many a gracious passage, but he found himself in the total witness of Israel’s history as shaped by grace. He cared little for what our scholars expound-the religion of Israel. His work is unaffected by any theories about the Levitical sacrifices. What he lived on was God’s action in his seers, God’s redemption in his mighty deeds, as it rises through the religion of Israel, yea, breaks through it, shakes itself clear even of its better forms, and translates it always to a higher plane. What he found was not the prophets’ thoughts of God, but God’s action in Israel by prophet, priest, or king, God’s invasion of them and their race by words and deeds of gracious power. It was the reality of God’s action on the soul, and in the soul, and for the soul. Above all, it was the exercise and the growth of God’s messianic purpose with the people, and through them on the whole race. It was in a messianic God that he found himself, and found himself God’s Messiah-Son. Abraham! ‘Before Abraham was I am.’ If Abraham ceased would he? And he grasped what his whole age was blind to, the Old Testament witness, deep in its spirit, to a Messiah of the cross. In a word, the torch he carried through the Old Testament was the gospel of grace. He read his Bible not critically, but religiously. He read it with the eyes of faith, not of science; and he found in it not the making of history by men, but the saving of history by God. That is to say he read his Bible as a whole. For he was its whole. And he lived on its gospel as a whole.[18]

From where I sit, biblical and systematic scholarship, often seduced by academia, has largely become a discipline, an academic quest, whose agenda is set by the academy and so is increasingly removed from the practical conditions that pastors and the Church face. In so far as it has allowed this to happen, it has moved itself away from the Scripture’s view of its own function. The NT was written by apostles and pastors who were daily at the coalface with people in their doubt, grief, death, guilt and repentance. No NT writer was condemned to the ‘mere scholars cloistered life’.[19] Their theology was hammered out not from articles and commentaries but on the anvil of existential need. They sought, at every turn, to bring every situation under the scrutiny and grace, not of Scripture, but of Jesus Christ, mindful of the fact that Jesus did not come to preach the Gospel (or the Bible) so much as he came to make a Gospel to preach. As the Apostolic band stood in Jesus Christ in the world’s midst, they were reminded again and again that the Gospel was mighty to deal with any and every issue. They fought and wrote out of this conviction and as people empassioned to make this good news known to the ends of the earth. They did not labour to defend or expound the Scriptures so much as they laboured to defend and expound the Gospel that the Scriptures bear witness to, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. O that exegetes and dogmaticians may do likewise!

Forsyth offers us a list of twenty brief points on the authority over (or source of) the Bible that may serve us well as he gives voice to the truth that the task of biblical exegesis is to serve theology whose task is proclamation of the Gospel which is authoritative for both disciplines.

1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.

2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.

3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.

4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.

5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.

6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.

7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?

8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.

9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.

10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.

11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.

12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.

13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.

14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.

15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.

16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.

17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.

18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.

19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.

20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption. [20]

Forsyth contends that the Bible bears witness to the truth that its own authority is the Gospel itself. The Gospel is the interpretative lens through which scripture is to be read and understood. That Gospel is neither sociological nor historical at core, but rather theological. That’s why the biblical exegete must be informed by dogmatics.

An example. The people of God are endlessly being called upon to discern the mind/will of God on all number of issues. Sometimes these issues are clear cut, as in whether we should pray or evangelise. But the discerning process is rarely so clear, as in the case of infant baptism or nuclear energy or euthanasia, or the plethora of questions regarding church authority, even the nature of the Bible itself, or even why and how we should pray or evangelise. This is at least partly why denominationalism arose. More recently, many denominations have been engaged in a process of re-discerning the Church’s thinking on sexuality. What is obvious in all of these examples is that neither thorough biblical exegesis nor historical reviews are able to take us to where our minds and hearts need to go, and this in spite of the insistence in some camps that if the Bible has a text on it, then the matter is settled. What is clear to me is that even the very best exegesis on the relevant passages[21] only takes us some of the way. The discussion, for example on sexuality, also needs to be informed by historical, pastoral, and medical considerations, although each of these voices ought be played with differing levels of volume in the Church’s discussion. The key hermeneutical question is the theological. It is primarily not a question of ‘how’ or ‘why’ but of ‘who’. The starting question for all Christian theology is ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ And this question can not be answered by biblical exegesis alone. It requires the Church to engage with thousands of years of exegesis – of the scriptural witness and of its experience – harnessing Scripture, reason, experience and tradition.

A final thought. Both biblical critics and exegetes perform an indispensable function for the Church. Harnessing all the tools and insights that critical scholarship can muster, exegetes and dogmaticians both require a new centre of orientation. What can I do that this new centre might be made both more attractive and crowded? How can both ends of the field play well as a team, play the same game, communicate in the same language, and, hopefully, win the game, that is, serve the Church in her proclamation of the good news? Is this even desirable? Is this even possible, given the resistance to it in even those of the same theological camp? Granted some camps like playing together more than others. What do we do when some of the players want to play on a different team? Or even play an entirely different game? Should we encourage this diverse game playing? Why? Why not? Is Yeago’s suggestion the best way forward?

In such a situation, subversion is perhaps a more hopeful strategy than frontal attack. That is to say, the future of theological exegesis may depend on those who quietly go about learning how to do theological exegesis from the tradition and the clearest-headed contemporary sources, and then actually let the void of the texts be heard in their preaching and theologizing. And this may simply mean that we are forced back into a posture which is itself biblically normative! modeled for the Church in the self-presentation of the Apostle Paul.

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4).[22]

[1] Paul C. McGlasson, Invitation to Dogmatic Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 27.

[2] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 36-7.

[3] See Adolf Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles: The Development of New Testament Theology (trans. A. J. Köstenberger; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

[4] For Barth, Holy Scripture is not simply a record of theological reflection from below. By God’s grace, the Scriptures are the revealed Word of God. That’s why exegesis and interpretation of Scripture are critical for his dogmatics. See his lengthy discussion of this in Church Dogmatics (I/1 and I/2). As a ‘science of the Church’ dogmatics presupposes not the ‘objective’ exegesis of the Romans but rather a ‘theological exegesis’. This‘theological exegesis’ is informed by the history of the Church’s hearing of God’s Word in Scripture and exists with a view to hearing that Word afresh in our own day. Barth develops this in Church Dogmatics I/2 under the title of “Freedom under the Word of God” (695-740). Fundamentally, Barth calls for the recognition of humanity’s relative standing with respect to God’s Word. Human beings, while not forbidden to bring to bear their tools of philosophy and critical exegesis, must subordinate the text and the meanings found there to God’s self, who is always ‘other than’ the words we humans use to express God’s will.

[5] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 31-32.

[6] I turn here to Forsyth not just because he is one that I am somewhat familiar with, but because in many ways he was a man who lived and served caught between two camps. Rejected by liberal theologians as being outdated in his views on God’s wrath, judgement and transcendence, more ‘orthodox’ Protestants, both within and without his denomination, were suspicious of his use of, and praise for, liberal theology’s critical tools and his embracing of some liberal terminology. This does not mean that he believed that critical tools should be adopted injudiciously. They ought be used, but used ‘critically’, andnot abused, like those who sought to create divisions between the ‘Historical Jesus’ of the Synoptics and the ‘dogmatic Christ’ of the Epistles. 25 years before C. H. Dodd penned his Apostolic Preaching, Forsyth was arguing for the importance of seeing a common kerygma that created both the Gospels and Epistles. And at a time in Britain when critical scholarship was spurned in favour of doing ‘real theology’ and chasing more ‘practical’ enterprises, Forsyth sought to encourage fellow theologians to be better informed by the insights of biblical critics, particularly those in Germany. He saw in scholars like Adolf Schlatter an outstanding example of the kinds of scholarship that dogmaticians and pastors ought to be reading and allowing to shape and inform their theology.

[7] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Missions in State and Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 304-6; cf. Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Work of Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 38, 55.

[8] See Peter Taylor Forsyth, Missions in State and Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 300, 303.

[9] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 85. Forsyth has written not a little on this area. See Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 12-15, 112, 122f., 169, 184, 185, 194, 195; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1909 (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales/Hodder & Stoughton, 1909), 104, 178, 180, 204, 262, 267, 274; Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘Churches, Sects and Wars’, Contemporary Review 107 (May 1915): 620; Peter Taylor Forsyth, Faith, Freedom and the Future (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), ix, 84; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 36, 75-76, 104, 113; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, The Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 67, 69, 91-92; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987), 39-40, 53, 57.

[10] Yeago has put it thus: ‘One of the consequences of the Western Church’s two centuries of fumbling with the implications of the historical-critical method is a loss of any sense of the connection between the classical doctrines of the Church and the text of scripture. It is assumed that a truly scholarly interpretation of the scripturaltexts methodologically excludes any reference to Christian doctrine as a hermeneutical touchstone, and as a matter of historical fact, though not of logical necessity, the historical-critical enterprise has often been understood as the liberation of rational intelligence and religious experience from the dead hand of dogma. The doctrines, in such a context, come to seem a superstructure overlaid on the texts by theological speculation, at best a time-conditioned expression of spiritual experience somehow distantly responsive to the scriptural witness, at worst the token of the “Hellenized” Church’s cultural alienation from that witness.’ David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 87.

[11] John H. Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth: The Cross of Christ and the Revelation of God (London: Independent Press, 1965), 169.

[12] ‘Propaedeutic’ means pertaining to or of the nature of preliminary instruction.

[13] David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 97.

[14] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 280.

[15] Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘The Evangelical Churches and the Higher Criticism’ in The Gospel and Authority: A P. T. Forsyth Reader: Eight Essays Previously Published in Journals (ed. M. W. Anderson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 24.

[16] Archibald M. Hunter, P. T. Forsyth: Per Crucem ad Lucem (London: SCM Press, 1974), 33. On the Bible as sacrament see Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952), 134-135, 372-374; Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘Churches, Sects and Wars’, Contemporary Review 107 (May 1915): 620; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 132; Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, The Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 68-69, 125-127.

[17] A terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim.

[18] Peter Taylor Forsyth, ‘The Evangelical Churches and the Higher Criticism’ in The Gospel and Authority: A P. T. Forsyth Reader: Eight Essays Previously Published in Journals (ed. M. W. Anderson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 34-5.

[19] Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 193.

[20] Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 67-70.

[21] Thomas Schmidt’s Straight and Narrow?: Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (Leicester: IVP, 1995) is an excellent review of the biblical literature. See also J. Arterburn, How Will I Tell My Mother? (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1990); D. J. Atkinson & D. H. Field (eds.), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995); M. Bergner, Setting Love in Order: Hope and Healing for the Homosexual (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); S. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Green, 1955); A. Comiskey, Pursuing Sexual Wholeness (Lake Mary: Creation House, 1989); B. Davies & L. Rentzel, Coming Out of Homosexuality (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993); S. Grenz, Sexual Ethics (Dallas: Word, 1990); J. P. Hanigan, Homosexuality: The Test Case for Christian Ethics (New York: Paulist, 1988); A. D. Hart, The Sexual Man: Masculinity Without Guilt (Dallas: Word, 1994); C. Keane (ed.). What some of you were: stories about Christians and homosexuality (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2002); L. Payne, The Broken Image (Westchester: Crossway, 1981); L. Payne, The Healing of the Homosexual (Westchester: Crossway, 1984); T. Payne & P. D. Jensen, Pure Sex (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 1998); P. Pronk, Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation Regarding Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); O. P. Robertson, The Genesis of Sex: Sexual Relationships in the First Book of the Bible (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002); D. W. Torrance (ed.). God, Family and Sexuality (The Stables, Carberry: The Handsel Press, 1997).

[22] David S. Yaego, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (ed. S. E. Fowl; Maryland: Loyola College, 1997), 98.