Four for Friday

It has been a while since I’ve done a round-up of discoveries, so here goes…

1) I have no idea what I was listening to in 2010, but it should have been this. Thank you Spotify for this recommendation. I will probably be listening to Angus and Julia for an entire month now.

2) “Simon” has been looking forward to seeing The Lego Movie for months. I had no idea Tegan and Sara had it in them. “Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!”

3) Much of my master’s thesis was written while listening to Big Gigantic’s Nocturnal. I think I can confidently say that never before has a PhD been written on Barth while listening to this band.

4) And we’ll round things out with a quote from this Swiss guy who is becoming like a best friend.

Except we’ve never met.

Nor will we.

Because he’s dead.

No one has read the Bible only with his own eyes and no one should. The only question is what interpreters we allow and in what order we let them speak. It is a pure superstition that the systematizing of a so-called historico-critical theology has as such a greater affinity to holy scripture itself and has therefore in some sense to be heard before the Apostles’ Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism as a more convincing exposition of the biblical witness. What we have there is simply a commentary of a theology, if not a mythology.

Happy Friday!

Evangelical Theology – The Word

In Evangelical Theology Barth moves from his introductory material and begins to address the Word as the object of theological reflection.

First, he briefly speaks to the place of theology within the University. He suggests that this field of study, which at one time held a prominent position in educational life, has been relegated to the backwater of humanities. This marginalization of theology results in an insecurity within the discipline which manifests itself in a need to secure its place in the academy by capitulating to the philosophical presuppositions which animate the university. At a weekly school meeting, I’ve been a part of an ongoing conversation for about a month now in which one of the things we’re discussing is how theology is meant to interface with other fields of thought. While the conversation has been helpful, there certainly haven’t been any meaningful conclusions. That said, Barth is something of a radical in suggesting that theology can go about its business without being overly concerned with what other academic disciplines think of the theologians work.

Barth’s aim in the remainder of the chapter is to further extend the observation he made in the introductory section that theology has a specific object – namely God. However, Barth is insistent that one isn’t able to immediately apprehend God. Fair enough. Rather, we can only ‘theologize’ over that which God chooses to reveal of himself. This revelation is his Word.

Now, evangelical protestants will want to avoid jumping to conclusions concerning the identity of this ‘Word’. Our impulse is to equate God’s Word with the Bible. This one to one identification is something that we make with little or no effort. Not so for Barth. He understands the Word to be God’s self-disclosure – primarily in Jesus Christ. There is a way of understanding the Bible in terms of the Word of God, but only in as much as it is a re-presentation of the Word that is Jesus. I know that for most this is the kind of hair-splitting that causes people to think theologians need a good kick in the pants. I assure you that for Barth, there is much hanging in the balance on this. The main thing to remember is that Scripture and the Word aren’t exactly the same thing. He’ll have a different “w” word for Scripture that he’ll get to in the next chapter.

Part of Barth’s insistence on wanting to make a distinction between Scripture and Word is his insistence that the God has spoken, is speaking, and will continue to speak. I realize that one can (and does) say this is exactly what the Bible is all about, but Barth wants to maintain a distinction between a ‘Person’ who speaks and the book that both reveals his speaking and is the means by which that Person speaks.

In as much as the Word has been revealed in Christ, then Christian theology is not just study of God in some general sense, but the particularity of God revealing himself in a human being and…

The task of evangelical theology, therefore, is to hear, understand, and speak of the consummation of God’s Word, both its intensive and its extensive perfection as the Word of the covenant of grace and peace. In the Christ of Israel this Word has becomeparticular, that is, Jewish flesh. it is in the particularity of the flesh that it applies universally to all men. The Christ of Israel is the Saviour of the World.

Folks often have deep concerns about Barth’s orthodoxy (and perhaps rightly so), but it doesn’t get much more ‘evangelical’ than that. By the way, since the word ‘universal’ is so freighted with baggage these days, you should know that Barth doesn’t necessarily use it in the same way that people have come to understand it today. I know that this is a recurring theme, Barth not using words the way we use words. He isn’t being cagey. He’s just living in a different time and place.

i’d like to teach the world to sing (and give us lots of money)


Don’t expect anything profound here, but I wanted to make a very quick observation about the recent Coke commercial controversy. If you didn’t look at social media in the last couple days, you may have missed it. Coke did an advertisement during the Superbowl in which ‘America the Beautiful’ is sung in various languages. This caused some kind of uproar among certain true-blooded Americans. No, not native Americans, Americans whose ancestors immigrated from European counties. Many of which I presume didn’t speak “American”. Thank goodness the internet exists so that these good folk will have a way to vent the racist remarks that they have had to repress for so long. I don’t have anything to add to that conversation that would be enlightening. I’m not sure anyone does.

However, one version of the patriotic rant went something along the lines of…

“When our ancestors immigrated from the their country of origin, no one catered to them and made their life easier in America by making allowances for them to keep speaking their mother tongue. They were forced to learn English if they wanted to make their way in this new world. There was no ‘press 1’ to hear it in their own language.”

My observation doesn’t have anything to do with the truthfulness of this statement or even if it is a right thing to do or not. I simply want to register that the ‘press 1’ accommodation has absolutely nothing to do with welcoming the foreigner into our midst. It has everything to do with capitalism. People who don’t speak English are a definable target market. If ‘pressing 1’ helps a company to sell stuff to them, then you can bet that corporations will ‘welcome’ and ‘accommodate’ all day long. And in the event you were thinking that Coca-Cola was trying to create a beautiful expression of modern multi-cultural America with their insanely expensive Superbowl ad, think again. It’s all about the dolla bills y’all.

Evangelical Theology – “Commentary”


So a while back, I talked about reading through one of Barth’s more accessible books with some folks. I think a few people picked up the book, but we never really figured out a way to generate a meaningful conversation over it. In my own re-reading of it, I started feeling bad about the recommendation. “Accessible” may not be the first word that comes to mind for my friends who are reading it. So in lieu of a legitimate reading group, and in a spirit of wanting to honor the folks who actually spent some cold hard cash on the book, I’m going to blog my way through it in the the hopes that one or two of my reflections will help others to make some sense of what’s going on there. That is, of course, assuming that I’ll be able to make any sense of it myself.

In the introduction (which is oddly called, “Commentary”), Barth sets out to define what he means by the terms “Evangelical” and “Theology”. While there is some overlap between Barth’s use of the word “evangelical” and more current uses of the word to describe a conservative movement within the larger Church, Barth isn’t caught up in quite the same turf battles of recent American church history. Importing our meaning onto his meaning will be more frustrating than helpful. That said, Barth did write in response to the liberal Protestant theology of his own place and time. This is an over-simplification for sure, but liberal Protestantism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to reinterpret Christianity in terms of universal human experience, thereby removing any of its particularity. Once Christian faith has been reduced to vague spirituality, then faith becomes a matter of religious feelings or “consciousness”. In as much as there are parallels between early 20th century liberal Protestantism and early 21st century (post-)evangelicalism, Barth’s critique is as relevant today as it was in his day. I’ll leave it to you (or we can take it up in the comments) to make the connections.

So when Barth wants to define theology, he is blatantly affirming that the object of study is God. “Evangelical” theology goes one or two steps further to say that God has revealed himself as not simply a divine being, but specifically a triune God, and one discovers this trinatarian God in the pages of scripture. I realize for some reading that this shouldn’t need to be spelled out in any detail. In most people’s mind Christian theology tries to makes sense of the God of the Bible, but in Barth’s day (and perhaps ours) this is not what theology had become. Theology for some is not study of God, but a study of man’s experience of God or religious feelings or intuitions. I’m not suggesting that those aren’t important subjects worthy of study, but they aren’t necessarily theology proper. One can (and many have) responded that all we are able to study is man’s experience of God. This isn’t necessarily the place to rehash a whole long history of epistemology and religious experience. Instead, I’ll simply make the somewhat naive suggestion that if we make it our goal to start with humanity and our experience of God, then we are committing ourselves to a never ending game of navel gazing. On the other hand, if we take the scriptures at their word that God has revealed himself and we set our sights on describing that self-revelation, then even while acknowledging all the limitations of human creatureliness, Barth suggests we are at least aiming at the right target. I understand that some would see any and all talk of God as the ultimate game of navel gazing, and that the whole theological enterprise is predictably circular. My sense is that any discourse on reality in general has a certain element of circularity to it, which is exactly why we need a Word from without to save us from that fate. Anyway, this line of reasoning could go on and on. Eventually, one simply has to acknowledge all the complexities and then define what one is going to attempt and then go from there. That is more or less what Barth is doing in this opening section.

There is much more that Barth can and will say about this act of God’s self-revelation. My insanely brief commentary on Barth’s “commentary” in Evangelical Theology doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but hopefully these thoughts can help you to begin to make sense of the context in which Barth is carrying out his theological vision.



I’m still neck-deep in my reading of Barth. There has been so much that I’ve wanted to share, but I haven’t been able to come up for air long enough to do so. I stumbled across this paragraph today and was impressed by a number of things. I’ll save my thoughts for after the quote, but first a couple quick mentions to help guide you through. One, this is following a discussion concerning the lack (but not absence) of straight-forward statements concerning Christ’s deity in the New Testament. Two, “dogmatics” is sadly a word freighted with baggage. Barth worked in a different time and place. Maybe substituting “theology” will help to avoid some of negative associations with dogma. Ok, go…

As a rule [affirmation of Jesus’ divnity] is to be found between the lines and inferred by the reader or hearer from what is otherwise said directly or indirectly about the name Jesus Christ. It awaits, as it were, the reader’s or hearer’s own confession. These facts might weigh heavily upon a dogmatics especially eager for as clear, comprehensive and precise an answer to its questions as possible. They cannot surprise us. The New Testament is the instrument of proclamation and witness; it is neither a historical exposition nor a systematic treatise. The modest task of dogmatics it has left to the Church, to us. But it is possible that by the very reserve with which it handles the confession at this central point, it might direct us more forcibly to the twofold statement [that Jesus is the Son of God and the Word of God] as being well-nigh the final import of its utterances. Church Dogmatics (II/1, p.14)

So much goodness here. Both ‘what’ he says and ‘how’ he says it demonstrate why he is so highly regarded. “It awaits, as it were, the reader’s or hearer’s own confession.” Beautiful. Barth is suggesting that the Bible isn’t more explicit concerning Jesus’ divinity because it is meant to be read as an invitation to faith and not simply a book from which we marshal enough evidence to convince ourselves and others of the “facts” about Jesus. At yet, Scripture isn’t left wide open for us to construct our own portrait of Jesus (no matter how much we remain committed to doing so). It is rather by its very “reserve” that one is strongly led to the conclusion that the New Testament writers themselves had. One might complain that if the Author had really wanted to be clear with us, then he should have been more forthright. Barth seems to suggest that the Author was as clear as he needed and wanted to be.

By the way, this isn’t all that uncommon a thing to come across in theological writing today, but this was written over seventy years ago. A man ahead of his time.

Time to dive back in.

back to it


Howdy folks. I wish I could say that I’ve been taking the new year by storm, but sadly the beginning of 2014 has been fits and starts for me. So in a effort to ease back into the blog, I’m sharing a few things that I found interesting as of late. 

The flurry of the end of year “best of’s” always unearths some previously unknown musical gems. Someone on Facebook recommended this band, and little did they know that it is right up my alley. I could do a whole list of finds (and probably will) that came about through the end of year music frenzy.


Also, the missus has been telling stories. Not stories as in lies, but real stories. Twelve of them to be exact. Yours truly plays a supporting role in some of them. Read at your peril. You might enjoy yourself.


Just to make sure I’m maintaining some cred as a theology-nerd, here’s a couple of quotes that explain precisely the attitude I hope to cultivate in my own theological endeavors…

Christian theology is to manifest a modesty of transparency, a deferral to its object, which is the divine self-communication through Scripture.


An authentic Christan theology will simply go about its task with a measure of quiet determination, working under the tutelage and for the well-being of the spiritual community of which it is part and seeking thereby to fulfill its office.

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch

Modesty, transparency, quite determination, under the tutelage, and for the well-being, are not words or ideas that come to mind naturally when people think about the theologian’s task. More often arrogance, obscurity, know-it-all, and detached are what many would say characterize this vocation. Here’s hoping that the former attitude prevails.

Happy New Year!

2013 Mixtape


Lots has changed for us in twenty-thirteen, but one thing hasn’t… the end o’ year mixtape. I’m going to go ahead and fess up. This hasn’t been my best effort, and for that I can only offer my sincerest apologies. Searching out the very best in music didn’t rise to the top of the priority list. Somehow, writing a thesis, applying to doctoral programs, having a job, raising a family, spending time with friends, moving across an ocean, commencing studies, and generally getting acclimated to everything new, didn’t leave much time for culling the “best of the best.”

But never fear. As an obscure little band from my new country of residence once sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” You’ll find an original contribution or two on here, but mainly these are all songs/bands that came recommended by someone else. In a year in which I’ve been dependent on the generosity of others in an unprecedented way, it only seems fitting that my mixtape reflects a similar dependency.

This LINK gets you the goods.

Before you treat yourself to aural delight, the usual disclaimers apply. These are songs that are more or less new to me in 2013; not necessarily new in 2013. This playlist is right at 80 minutes and should in theory fit on a standard length CD. The time parameters meant that a whole host of songs were left on the cutting floor. Some honorable mentions go out to… Polica, MIA, Sleeping at Last, Avetts, The Head and the Heart, Canopy Climbers, Two Door Cinema Club, Andrew Bird, Glen Hansard, Iron and Wine, Bombay Bicycle Club, Ben Rector, and so on. Enough with the introductions, let’s get on with it…

  1. Dustin O’Halloran – An Ending, A Beginning // This has all the elements of a proper lead off song. A title that alludes to what has transpired in the past year. Properly down-tempo, which sets the tone for the entire mix. Instrumental. Like I said, just right. This song apparently comes off a Bonobo project of some kind. I think it was @taylorhall who first showed me the goodness of Bonobo.
  2. Loch Lomond – Wax and Wire // So there is a guy who I like watching on youtube who does tricks and stuff on bikes. His name is Danny MacAskill and he’s amazing. One of the pastors at our church in Aberdeen suggested that I check out his “Way Back Home” video. In addition to being blown away by his cycling prowess, the music was fantastic. By the way, Danny is Scottish and so is Loch Lomond. Good stuff.
  3. The Jezabels – A Little Piece // This is the other song on the bike video. Not Scottish though. Aussies.
  4. Lurgan – Wake Me Up (in Gaeilge) // I don’t think I’ve got the names right, but I’m not sure. So someone named Avicii sang a song that went crazy. Alison went to Ireland for a blog thing and got to see the song covered by a young Irish band that covered it singing in their ancestral language.
  5. One Direction – Right Now // I’m sure you are wondering what alternate Chino-verse you are living in when 1D bumps the Avett Brothers, but the “struggle” is very real for the father of a fourteen year old girl. There is no denying that after seeing “This Is Us” early this fall, I’m officially a Directioner.
  6. Alt-J () – Tessellate // I believe this was a 2012 release, but I was introduced to it early this year by @KandaceCity. This album was on heavy repeat throughout the year and may very well go down as my favorite.
  7. Bastille – Pompeii // This one came recommended by my good friend, Ben Land. This song also begins a string of songs that all have mild (or not so mild) imperialistic allusions.
  8. Lorde – Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears Cover) // As the family and I were getting used to driving around Aberdeen, which was no small feat considering that the steering wheel and the side of the road on which one drives is “wrong,” we listened to Lorde’s “Royals” on the radio exactly 1009 times. I can not hear it one more time, but I’m liking this one from the Catching Fire soundtrack. So true… everybody does want to rule the world.
  9. Lissie – Mountaintop Removal // Lissie is a favorite of MP’s and mine. I’m not entirely sure, but I think this is a critique of materialistic impulses that are true in many places but especially true in ‘merica.
  10. Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill // This one comes to us via my friend and office mate, @KevinHargaden. He has brought many very good things into my life, but this “song” possibly tops the list. “Thou shalt not judge Lethal Weapon by Danny Glover.” I think you need to see the video to truly appreciate it.
  11. The National – Graceless // I’m a devotee of The National. They make music. I listen to it. I like it. It’s that simple. This wasn’t always the case, but my good friend Bobby Harrison encouraged me to stick with them, and now they have stuck with me.
  12. Volcano Choir – Alaskans // Another good friend (@jacobslaton) sent me the latest Volcano Choir album as a gift. What a fine gift it is. Jacob, pour one out for me around the firepit.
  13. Andrew Belle – Dark Matter // A few years ago, Bobby and I would listen to Andrew Belle in the office. A year or so later, Alison and I saw a show of his. His new album is a not quite as “sad bastard” as the last one, but I still like it.
  14. Royal Teeth – Wild // This is another Bobby recommendation. It is nice when a friend knows just the sort of music you’ll like and sends those recommendations your way. Keep em coming.
  15. Ed Sheeran – I See Fire // So I think this is the first song I’ve ever heard by Ed Sheeran, and it will probably be the last. However it was this song’s destiny to be on my 2013 best of’s. From the moment the first words were sung at the closing credits of the second Hobbit film, I was hooked.
  16. José González – Stay Alive // This is the third song on the playlist form a soundtrack. I’ve been looking forward to seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’m looking forward to it all the more knowing that Mr González is lending his talent to the film.
  17. Greg Laswell – Comes And Goes In Waves (2013 Remake) // This one is sort of cheating. It is a song from a few years back, but when I found out that he reworked one of my favorite songs of his, I couldn’t resist including it.
  18. Denison Witmer – Right Behind You // @bob_davidson introduced me to Witmer’s song-crafting several years ago. He rounds out pretty well a quartet of ultra sleepy man tunes.
  19. Gungor – Finally // Needs no comment.

The Handmaiden of Theology?

Yesterday, I attended a theology seminar in which a presentation of analytic and natural theologies were front and center. It was a fairly dense discussion (in more ways than one), but later I came across a video that helped to give a bit better lay of the land. I offer this as a help to anyone who might be unclear of the on the ways in which theology and philosophy intersect.

One of the interviewees calls philosophy a “handmaiden” to theology. In principle, I would agree. However, the concern would be that the handmaiden might not be content to serve, and instead seeks to become the overlord. I suppose it is more or less unavoidable. One’s philosophical presuppositions (known or unknown) determine how we will do theology. No one does “pure” theology. I suppose it is better to understand what that philosophical framework is and be upfront about it.

Believing the Bible


“What are you studying?” or some variation of this question is something I am asked fairly often. I wish I had a better response than “I don’t know” or “if I could tell you in two minutes, I wouldn’t need to write a dissertation.” While both responses have an element of truth to them, neither answer is helpful for the person asking. So in an effort to help friends, family, colleagues, and innocent by-standers understand more of what I’m giving the better part of three years to, here’s my attempt at a brief account.

First, I’m pursuing a doctorate in Systematic Theology. I know that for many, neither the word ‘systematic’ nor its counterpart ‘theology’ does much to stoke your passions, or even your curiosity. Understandably so. However, I would argue that all of us ‘do’ theology, and to a greater or lesser extent we do so systematically. Perhaps if you replace the prosaic sounding terms with ‘organized beliefs’ then maybe you’ll begin to see that this is something that all of us do. Not that organized beliefs is much of an improvement. Anyway, Systematic Theology is a discipline that is distinct from Biblical Studies, or Church History, or Practical Theology, or Biblical Theology, and so on. It is unfortunate that the turf is marked out in this way, but it isn’t entirely unjustified. In other fields of study, we are happy to have various specializations. We like that there are heart doctors and brain surgeons and psychiatrists, and that they all carry out their narrowly prescribed thing well. Or that there are electrical engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers… you get it.

Within the field of Systematic Theology, I am looking more specifically at the Doctrine of Scripture. Generally speaking, most of us hold certain understandings about what kind of book the Bible is. Is it inspired? Are certain parts more relevant for people than others? Does it contain errors? What kind of role is it meant to have in a person’s/church’s life? For Christians, what we believe about Scripture is one of the most fundamental doctrines upon which the rest of our theologizing is built. It is the book that in one way or another communicates who God is, his activity in the world, and how we are meant to live in light of that. There are maybe one or two other doctrines that have a more far reaching impact on our understanding of God and faith, but this one is way up there. The inherent significance of this particular doctrine may explain why there seems to be perennial interest in the topic. As a case in point, Rob Bell has been tumbling his way though some kind of answer to this question. And in characteristic ‘robelling’ (its a word, look it up) fashion, he’s promoting a fairly healthy conversation, and his reflections are mostly good. Nothing earth-shattering, but good. Or at least thought-provoking.

So back to my project. In thinking through what the Bible is, two theologians in particular have exerted considerable influence on Christian understandings of the Bible. One guy is Benjamin Warfield. He was an American Princeton theologian who lived during the late 19th/early 20th century. He is most famous for his vigorous defense of the authority of Scripture against various secularizing impulses in the Academy and the Church. It was Warfield who popularized the term ‘inerrancy’ that many (mostly American) church’s and religious organizations have in their statements of faith. The phrase ‘Bible-believing’ also probably has some pretty organic links to the kind of thing Warfield was trying to promote.

And then I’ll be looking at another fella named Karl Barth. I gave a bit of background on him in my last post. When I tell people that I’m interested in Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, I sometimes get a raised eyebrow. Some of my friends are a little suspicious of Barth, precisely because he isn’t fond of the term ‘inerrancy.’ However, to suggest that Barth didn’t hold an extremely high view of the authority of Scripture because he didn’t affirm inerrancy simply reveals that Barth hasn’t been read. In fact, I think one could make a pretty strong case that Barth understood the authority of Scripture in a way that has more weight than many within ‘Bible-believing’ churches today. I realize that for most, it is impossible to hold together a high view of Scripture without also affirming inerrancy, but theology can be complicated. Now there are aspects of what he believes concerning the Bible that deserve some critical evaluation, but whether or not he placed a high value on the scriptures is undeniable. Ok, I realize that I haven’t really told you what Barth believes about Scripture, but that is what justifies a thesis length treatment.

So that’s more than most care to know, but less than others might want. In summary, I’m basically looking at the doctrine of Scripture through the lenses of two paradigm-defining theologians and trying to make some good sense out of the two. This doesn’t even touch what Jesus, Paul, Moses, David, or Isaiah believed about the sacred writings. Some people might go out on a limb and suggest that their beliefs matter too.

In case you’re wondering, I’m the life of the party.


Karl who?

Most of you reading this are aware that I am currently working towards a degree in theology at the University of Aberdeen, but you probably don’t have a clue what I’m actually studying here. When I’ve talked about it in the past, I’ve been fairly brief – Barth and Warfield on the doctrine of scripture. I’ve come to realize the error of my ways and I recognize that this doesn’t actually mean much to most people. If I took some creative license and went with “What do Rob Bell and John Piper believe about the Bible and why does it matter?” then I would be speaking in terms that get closer to what the majority of my readers (North American Christians) would more readily understand. Which perhaps begs the question, why am I not writing on what Rob Bell and John Piper believe about the Bible? A question for a another time.

The main reason I’m taking the time to post is to invite you to read Karl Barth along with me. Tempting, I know. Let me give you a short sell on why you should consider reading Barth.

He is often described as the most influential theologian of the 20th century.
He is both revered and reviled.
He has had a profound impact on my thinking about God, the Bible, the Church, and the world.
He is Swiss.
He will at time leave you perplexed while also leading you to worship. He might even go so far as to say that your state of perplexity is an act of worship.

I’ve never been much of a salesman. Anyway, I’m planning on reading some ‘easy’ Barth with some friends, and if you want to get in on the conversation consider this your invitation. We are planning to work through his book “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.” By way of full-disclosure, ‘Evangelical’ and perhaps even ‘Theology’ don’t mean entirely the same thing that most of us are accustomed to. This probably has to do with his being Swiss and working during the mid-20th century. It is a book that emerged from a series of lectures that he delivered late in his career during his only trip to America. So I guess one could think of it as his attempt to introduce his thinking to an American audience after a lifetime of scholarship.
51rhmRn9O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ok, so clicking the cover or HERE gets you to where you can buy the book. Or if you don’t mind reading online, you can find it HERE for free. (Sorry. I didn’t realize that this is a university resource. Bummer.)

Not sure how fast we’ll read or what venue we’ll use to discuss, but we’ll get it sorted out. This is just the sort of thing you want to be reading while recovering from the Turkey coma that many of you will slip into over the next few days.