Evangelical Theology – Solitude


The next section in Barth’s Evangelical Theology is entitled “Threats to Theology,” and the chapters are: Solitude, Doubt, Temptation, and Hope. Not sure if or how Hope is a threat to theology, but we’ll deal with that when we get there (at this rate, probably around this time next year). If, in reading the chapter titles, you are hoping that Barth is going to share some of the personal struggles that accompany the theologian’s vocation, you will need to look elsewhere. I’m not saying that he isn’t sharing from his own experience, but they don’t take the form first-person accounts.

The chapter can be summarized in one sentence. The reason those engaged in theology find themselves enduring solitude is that, by virtue of theology’s object, it is always a counter-cultural enterprise. This is really an implication of the more fundamental belief in God’s ‘otherness’. One of the most basic claims theists (particularly Christian theists) make is that God isn’t something or someone whose existence is bound by the created order. There are a number of ways to describe this ‘otherness’: transcendent, holy, Creator, ‘infinite qualitative distinction’, eternal, and so on. All of it is to say that if and when we encounter God, God is unlike anything else that is a part of our daily existence. Theology, as a field of study, is uniquely concerned with affirming this truth and describing this reality (even though creatures are ill-equipped to do either).

So for example, the various disciplines which comprise a typical university more or less share some common presuppositions about the world in which we live, what counts as legitimate forms of knowledge, and a commitment to ‘progress’ as collectively embraced by the intellectual and cultural gatekeepers of the Academy. Honestly, it is no small wonder that Christian theology has been allowed a place at the table as long as it has. While the rest of the disciplines, the hard sciences in particular, believe that comprehensive knowledge of their fields is possible and desirable, theology insists, again by virtue of its object, that there are limits to what can be known through human endeavor and that the thirst for omniscience is closely linked to a desire for omnipotence. For that reason, theology exposes the hubris of the Academy, and so it comes as no surprise that the theologian eats alone in the lunchroom.

While theology is only marginally tolerated at best in the halls of learning, Barth reminds us that the theologian’s more appropriate home is within a church. This is underscored by the not so subtle title of his master-work, Church Dogmatics. What makes a theologian a ‘Christian’ theologian is that he or she has banded together with those peculiar people who collectively affirm that the one true God found himself nailed to a tree, humiliated, and rejected. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when the community that affirms this truth opens itself to the likelihood that it will share in a similar cruciform fate. Turns out that the rejection of the individual theologian is simply an extension of the church’s corporate experience.

Of course, the problem runs even deeper yet. There are no guarantees that the church has always gotten it right. In fact, the church is undoubtedly always getting it wrong, and therefore the message of the Cross inevitably runs counter to the culture of the church itself. Churches, therefore, find themselves in an seemingly impossible situation in which they, and all their pastor-theologians, are situated at the intersection of the sacred and the secular, where they simultaneously issue a prophetic critique directed both inward and outward, while also extending an open invitation in both directions as well.

Well, that’s more or less what the chapter is about. I suppose an alternative explanation for the theologian’s loneliness is that we often lack the rudimentary social skills necessary to carry on a normal conversation. Or that we have an encyclopaedic knowledge of long dead 19th century Germans, but probably don’t know the names of the people who live next door. Or that we don’t give enough attention to grooming and personal hygiene.

I suppose Barth didn’t feel the need to point out the obvious.

Evangelical Theology – Faith

And we’re back. Even though you have had a two month break from my half-baked musings on Barth’s Evangelical Theology, rest assured I haven’t been on a Barth-break. For me, it is all-Barth-all-the-time. This is neither bragging or complaining, but a recognition of what a wonderfully odd life I lead right now. Today, we’re taking a stab at his understanding of ‘faith’.

The chapter itself is fairly straight-forward. Barth’s spends the first half clearing the ground of detritus that masquerades as faith. A person’s having weighed the evidence and determined that ‘faith’ is the most reasonable option. No good. Faith as an assent to a set of propositional truths. Also, a no go. People becoming part of the divine essence through faith. Nonsense. Faith in faith. Laughable.

But that isn’t really what I want to talk about. Nor is it really what Barth wants to talk about either. Barth will go on to describe faith as an event, and if that thought is intriguing to you (as well it should be) then you can go read the remainder of the chapter. My thoughts from here are more of a riff on Barth then an attempt to ‘faithfully’ reproduce what he’s said. The question I want to consider for a few hundred words is the apparent dichotomy between faith as divine gift or faith as human response. Or to put it in slightly more crass terms, is faith something God does or something we do?

Now regardless of which end of the theological spectrum a person find him or herself, this isn’t a trivial matter. Huge questions regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility lie in the immediate background. So some folks will read the scriptures and pick up on the strong emphasis on God’s sovereign faith-giving initiative. Certain passages from Paul’s letters lend themselves very well to this understanding. Others are uncomfortable with this overly-deterministic perspective and favor instead the scenes in the Gospels which depict a person making a choice to follow Jesus – or not. This conversation has a very long history and I don’t pretend to think that I have anything to contribute in that debate.

However, I do think that Barth’s language of ‘event’ and ‘encounter’ provides an opportunity to move beyond the stalemate that is, in fact, stale. God’s self-revelation in Christ (as mediated through scripture and proclamation) means that God chooses to freely disclose himself to the individual. That is to say that God takes the initiative. In that event of God’s self-presentation, the individual is freed to respond freely in faith. Again, not faith in some vague generalized sense. But faith in a very specific object – the God who has revealed himself in Christ. This preserves so much of what one wants to say about the dynamics of faith. God is the source and the object of faith. Humans cannot muster up faith on their own, but in the divine encounter they do really and freely respond in faith. 

Now, I say freely. But that suggests that they might have been able to choose otherwise. That isn’t quite what I’m saying. Perhaps a weak analogy will be a help here. Suppose one of my children is in the bottom of a well with no hope of climbing out. They are stuck there. Then all of a sudden good ole’ dad shows up with a ladder. I stick it down the well, climb in, tell them to jump on my back, and climb back up. Ok, lame – I know. But the key bit is that it took ‘faith’ for him or her to climb on my back, right?

Now, in this scenario it is a little silly to ask where the faith came from. Did I give them the faith? Did they generate the faith? Those kinds of questions seem to miss the point. I showed up, and that’s decisive. My showing up prompted them to have ‘faith’ in my carrying them out. And yet, one could say that I gave him or her faith by my showing up. If I hadn’t come then they wouldn’t have had cause for faith. Likewise, was it a free action on their part? Well, of course. Did they have the freedom to choose otherwise, I suppose so. But not really. Just because they had no alternative but to trust me doesn’t mean that their ‘decision’ to trust me wasn’t a free one.

Of course, the analogy breaks down in all sorts of ways, but the point is that the necessity of faith doesn’t in any way diminish human freedom. In fact, Barth makes the point that it is in this very encounter that a person is made free for faith. Unless God shows up, a person is stuck. Neither free, nor free to choose freedom. But whenever God shows up on the scene, he has given the gift of himself. And as someone once suggested,  “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”


Evangelical Theology – Commitment

So I have a tinge of regret for asking folks to read this book. It was meant to be Barth-lite, but this chapter is tough going. One of the challenging things about the book and Barth in general is that he doesn’t feel a need to illustrate with examples. Which means his theologizing/philosophizing ends up being pretty dense. That said, I do think there are some key ideas that can help us to navigate our way through.

One possible way to characterize Barth’s theology is that it is radically Christocentric in nature. That is to say, Christ lies right at the center of his thinking about what it means for theology to be theology. Now for those who are taking the time to read this, this may not seem like much of a radical statement. Of course, “Christian” theology would have Christ at its center. However, doing Christocentric theology is easier said than done. Historically, it might be possible to identify competitors vying for pride of place in our reflections on God. So for example, if I’ve read Kant right (which I most certainly haven’t), he would look at Christianity and try to extract universal moral principles from it and say that is really the heart of Christian faith. There will be others that the might argue that there is no real ‘center’ to the Christian faith and that it is only an individual’s experience with the Other that we can observe, which is more or less a way of saying that humanity lies at center of religion. Another variant that is in some ways the logical outcome of the two ideas above is the conclusion that we really don’t need God, Christ, the Bible, or religion at all. We can simply observe the world as it is around us and through scientific inquiry we’ll arrive at true understanding. And on and on. So there is a sense in which one can understand Barth as a strong reaction to ‘theology’ done in any of these other modes.

While these ‘odd’ ways of doing theology isn’t the sort of thing that my Christian friends tend to buy into, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that each of the brief examples above find their bizarro counterparts in conservative/evangelical theologies as well. There is a strong tendency among Christians to lift Scripture up as a moral guidebook that tells us the right way to live and the wrong way. Those who believe that the Scriptures contain a moral blueprint or that they promote ‘family values’ are perhaps ironically kissing-cousins with Kant. Likewise, it would be difficult to overstate the determinative role that one’s private religious experience plays in shaping the average person’s understanding of their faith. “God really met me in that worship service. God spoke to me as I was doing my quiet time. I left that church because I wasn’t being fed.” All these kinds of statements betray that belief that the goodness or rightness of something is determined by my experience of it. And finally, lots of natural theology and historical-critical exegesis rests on the presupposition that our our ability to empirically observe things is enough to determine truth.

So when I say that Barth takes seriously Christ in theology, I am suggesting that his entire theological task is to come to terms with claim that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and work that truth through in every possible direction. What does that mean for our understanding of God as Trinity? What does it mean for our anthropology? What does it mean for our understanding of revelation and Scripture? What does it mean for our understanding of election? And so on.

Which maybe brings us, finally, to the content of this chapter. I’m not entirely sure how the term ‘commitment’ is meant to function here, but one thing he is making clear is that because the theological task is one centered on God, particularly God as revealed in Christ, being committed(?) to this particular God simultaneously constrains and frees our theological inquiry.

In the first of his three points, he is more or less restating what I’ve just taken a couple paragraphs to explain. Sort of. His talk of center and circumference is a way of saying that the theology is meant to be comprehensive in that everything is only properly understood in its relation to the core (i.e. God in Christ), and that the work of theology is to understand and explicate the ways in which the points on the circumference (e.g. election, etc…) is related to the center. All well enough, but he presses further to suggest that since the center isn’t a thing, a philosophical idea, or a scientific principle, but a Being, then all attempts to systematize those relations are provisional at best.

The second point he makes is broadly speaking about how we know anything, and Barth seems to suggest that the source of knowledge comes from God and not from our own ability to reason. He isn’t denying that we reason, nor is he suggesting that reason doesn’t have a role in theology. Rather, the issue is one of priority. God’s revelation takes precedence over our ability to reason. In fact, he will go on to say that all our ability to perceive, observe, and reason is made possible by the prior working of God for it to be so.

“Theology preserves its freedom by making use of every human capacity for perception, judgment, and speech, without being bound to any presupposed epistemology.”

The last point is about the general direction or disposition of theology. He calls it a ‘happy science’ because, in his view, it should be optimistic. Now, he’s well aware that optimism doesn’t always characterize what he calls the ‘little’ theologian, but he feels that it should. By way of example, with respect to judgment and grace, he says…

“There is no mistaking the fact that here man is made to hear a sharp and overwhelming divine No. But there is also no mistaking the fact that this No is enclosed within God’s creative, reconciling, and redeeming Yes to man.”

So on that note of optimism, have a great week!

Evangelical Theology – Concern

The two men with whom I share an office have different approaches to movies. One prefers to simply enjoy the experience of watching a movie and therefore gravitates towards the sort of film that seeks to entertain. This is the kind that you can appreciate knowing that the succession of images unfolding on screen is make-believe and therefore doesn’t have much to do with real life. My other officemate tends to prefer a film that tells its story in such a way that it makes demands of him. This is the kind of movie that, while telling another’s story, is actually telling our story. We don’t simply ‘watch’ these sorts of movies, but these stories draw us into them in such a way that we find ourselves as participants. We are invested. They make us think and in doing so they lay claim to us. I’m somewhere between the two. There are times when I like to be challenged and changed, but there are lots of times when the escapist in me simply wants to be ‘entertained’.

What is true about movies can be true for theology as well, and Barth’s chapter on “Concern” is essentially a chapter about being invested. His primary contention is that theology – true theology – will always be of this latter variety. While we might think that one can approach theology with an aloof detachment, simply an object of intellectual inquiry, by virtue of theology’s object (really subject, but that’s another post) one can never remain a neutral observer. In as much as one thinks he or she has maintained an ‘objective’ point of view, then ‘theology’ hasn’t happened. Perhaps it is best to let the man speak for himself…

When a man becomes involved in theological science, its object does not allow him to set himself apart from it or to claim independence and autarchic self-sufficiency. He has become involved in theology, even if his reasons for such involvement may have been very superficial, or, indeed, utterly childish. Certainly, he never knew beforehand what a risk he was taking, and he will certainly never fully grasp this risk. But at any rate he has taken this step. He is a theologian because he finds himself confronted by this object. His heart is much too stubborn and fearful, and his little head much too weak, but he cannot merely dally or skirmish with this object. The consequences can no longer be avoided. This object disturbs him-and not merely from afar, the way a lightning flash on the horizon might disturb one. This object seeks him out and finds him precisely where he Stands, and it is just there that this object has already sought and found him. It met, encountered, and challenged him. It invaded, surprised, and captured him. It assumed control over him. As to himself, the light “dawned” on him, and he was ushered up from the audience to the stage.

Barth seems to recognize some danger in turning this into an individual’s existential experience with God and seeks to head this off by anchoring this thought in “concentric circles” of concern. God’s concern is for the world, the church, and the individual. The individual finds herself encountered by God because she is part of the church and world to which God has chosen to reveal himself. It isn’t that the individual’s experience doesn’t matter, but it matters because she finds herself as part of church and world that God cares about.

And hopefully Barth won’t mind if I reverse the flow of concern. If the theologian finds himself ‘concerned’ with God because God has chosen to move from the largest circle of concern inward – world to individual, then a “captured” theologian is one who isn’t concerned solely with God and even less so by his private theologizing. Rather the “ushered up” theologian is one who necessarily finds his concern with God expressed in his concern for the church and the world.

Or maybe a more Piper-ian way of coming at this would be to say “enjoying God forever” is a far cry from being interested in or amused by God. All that said, one begins with a concern for God. In beginning with a concern for (or thinking about) the church or the world, one will tend to think poorly about both. And yet thinking about God that doesn’t end up leading one to be ‘concerned’ with the church and world hasn’t been true thinking about God.

So… anyone seen a good movie lately?

Evangelical Theology – The Spirit

We continue our slow march through Barth’s Evangelical Theology. This chapter on the Spirit in some ways epitomizes all that I appreciate about Barth. First off, even though the chapter is entitled “The Spirit” we’re a few pages in before he even mentions the third person of the Trinity. One of the things I like (most of the time) about Barth’s writing is that he is not in a rush to say what he wants to say. So what if we’re halfway through a chapter before he gets to the topic at hand? He takes the time to lay the foundation before he builds the edifice. As summer draws nigh, I am grateful for this one little insight that good theology – like “good” anything – takes time.

And yet, his discussion of the Spirit’s relationship to theology is what makes this chapter truly good. Theology, by virtue of its subject matter, runs the risk of thinking it enjoys the pride of place in being the most spiritually informed. Theology traffics in God-talk and can too easily assume that simply talking about theos is to take hold of the thing itself. The degree to which theologians (or anyone for that matter) thinks that trotting out clever ideas about God means that one has drawn closer to the truth only reveals how wide of the mark we truly are. The image that Barth employs is one in which our theological endeavors are left hanging in “mid-air.” And unless the Spirit chooses to blow into and through this theology set adrift, then no amount of cleverness or fidelity guarantees that anything will come of it. This is neither an anti-intellectual rant, nor a thinly veiled piety. This is Reformed theology in the key of Barth. It is the sovereignty of God with the static and austere bits stripped away. A truly sovereign God is entirely free to do as He wills, when He wills, however He wills. Theology that presumes to get a handle on the Divine only discovers that the Free One doesn’t simply know a few evasive maneuvers; he is the very definition of elusive. The Decalogue’s first three injunctions would seem to point towards the same.

The charismatically inclined might smugly think Barth is simply vindicating what they have known all along; namely that this sort of theological posturing falls flat on its spiritually impoverished face. However, true to all Barth’s dialectical glory, he performs a bit of theological judo which leaves the critical charismatic flat on his/her back.

“[One] imagines that the Spirit is a power of nature that can be discovered, harnessed, and put to use like water, fire, electricity or atomic energy. The Spirit is thought to be one whom it knows and over whom it disposes. But a presupposed spirit is certainly not the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, this goes for much more than academic theology. Those engaged in church work, activism, personal piety, and the like, all do well to remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to the eternally free Spirit. Energetic liturgies are no more (or less) likely to usher in the Spirit than “dead” ones. Emotive Christians are neither superior nor inferior to the rationalists among us. You can have one hundred ‘justs’ in your prayer or none at all. I hope it goes without saying that voting red or blue (or green!) is a poor indicator of one’s spiritual orientation. Simply put, no group can lay claim to the work of the Spirit, because it is the Spirit who lays its claim on us.

“The Holy Spirit is the vital power that bestows free mercy on theology and on theologians just as on the community and on every single Christian.”

Evangelical Theology – The Community

We’ve almost crossed the fifty page mark in our ‘whirlwind’ tour through Barth’s Evangelical Theology. At this rate, we’ll finish the two-hundred page book around the time I finish the PhD. Nonetheless, we forge ahead. Barth’s chapter on “The Community” raises two significant issues – 1) the role of theology in the Church, and 2) the role tradition plays in the Church and its theology.

Barth suggests that the church exists because it was called into being by the Word, then continued to be called into being by the Word’s witnesses. This call originally came through their preaching, but continues through their writing. And the church today is called to continue to witness to the Word not only through ‘silent’ acts of compassion, but also through continued proclamation. Now one might quibble with how silent compassion really is, but most would agree that there is an important relationship between gospel actions and gospel preaching. Jesus and the early church did both in abundance, and my guess is there was never a question of one taking priority over the other.

But that’s not the issue with which Barth is wrestling. He is more concerned with making clear the role ‘theology’ is meant to play in that. Barth’s main point is that theology is meant to serve the church by providing a guide to its proclamation. He suggests that when the church’s speech is ill informed by theology, “Instead of being helpful, it can be obstructive to God’s cause in the world by an understanding that is partly wrong or wholly wrong, by devious or warped thought, by silly or too subtle speech.” Another way of saying this is that proclamation of the Word inevitably involves making theological claims about the Word, and when a church isn’t theologically self-reflective it comes to bear in its preaching (and I would add, to the life of the community as a whole). Good theology doesn’t guarantee good preaching, but bad theology inevitably leads to bad preaching.

Now it is too easy for one to make lofty claims about what theology is suppose to do and be in the life of the church, and so Barth reminds us that theology is for the church. In his own words…

“Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be only concerned with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community.”

The church is served by theology when careful theological reflection is taken seriously within and for the church. My own sense is that some church cultures view theology with a certain amount of suspicion. Some of the wariness is undoubtedly deserved. In as much as theology is self-absorbed and cares little for the life of church, then the criticism is warranted. However, to simply write off theology because it is overly concerned with ‘right’ thinking and ‘abstract’ concepts is a (theological) decision that doesn’t serve the church very well. The theology of “non-theological” churches could undoubtedly use some revisiting.

In the same way that churches run the temptation of loosing themselves from the fetters of theology, or at least a certain kind of theology, Barth recognizes (or anticipates) a similar mistake with regard to tradition. In fact, given that so much of theology is embedded within tradition, in some ways it is one and the same move. This may be why Barth makes similar statements about the way tradition is meant to function in the thinking and life of the church. The church is meant to ‘trust’ it, ‘respect’ it, ‘learn’ from it (which also assumes it will learn it). By the same token, tradition – like theology – serves the church by informing its theology, preaching, and practice while not lording over it. Hence the statement, “There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Now I’m no contemporary-church basher. My beloved home church would be on the ‘cutting edge’ of a host of church-y things. But in as much as the evangelical church in America thinks that it is the first church to get it right since the Bible was written, it is not unlike the adolescent who thinks he/she has nothing to learn from a parent. Some children grow out of that phase, while others carry the adolescent mindset all the way through adulthood. In the States, a society that is in many ways obsessed with youthfulness and adolescent culture, the church’s tendency towards fadishness and style over substance comes across as especially juvenile. Both child and parent are well-served when they attend to the Word that binds them.

Evangelical Theology – The Witnesses

I’m obviously not cut out for this whole blogging thing. This painfully slow march through Barth’s Evangelical Theology may very well end up being my swan song. For now, onward…

This next chapter is entitled ‘The Witnesses’, by which he means the biblical writers. I hope that part was clear enough from the opening of the chapter. It is an interesting designation that he’s chosen for the scriptural writers (and by extension their writing). He doesn’t go into any real detail here on why this is his preferred way of describing the biblical accounts, but important for Barth is the recognition that scripture is distinct from revelation. Scripture witnesses to revelation but isn’t necessarily revelation in itself. That doesn’t mean that the scriptures aren’t a part of revelation. In as much as the witnesses faithfully point to the reality to which they bear witness, revelation takes place. In fact, maybe that is a helpful way to understand what is going on with Barth – revelation is more an event than a thing. Two equate scripture with revelation is simply a category mistake.

This whole line of thinking is stuff that he explores in mind-numbing detail , but for the sake of getting through this chapter, let’s just walk through what remains…

First, the biblical writers are not just witnesses to the Word, but they are the primary witnesses by virtue of their being called by him. In this group of primary witnesses, he includes both the New Testament and Old Testament writers. Important for him is the notion that it wasn’t any special qualities about the witnesses in particular that legitimate their witness. They are called to this task of witnessing and they respond in obedience. That’s it. Their very real human particularity isn’t left behind. He sees the two testaments as inextricably bound to one another – the Old Testament in anticipation of the Christ and the New Testament remembrance of the same.

Furthermore, Barth suggests it isn’t general information about the life of Jesus that the biblical writers were interested in, but rather their sole interest was in Christ as “salvation and revelation.” Barth suggests that neither the ‘historical Jesus’ or the ‘Christ of faith’ was their focus, but only the incarnate Word one finds in the biblical accounts.

And then he closes out by making seven observations on the way in which theology is related to this witnesses. One, theology (if it is ‘evangelical’ theology) is concerned with what these primary witnesses were concerned with – the revelation of the Word. Two, theology isn’t the same as witness, but rather is derived from them. Three, correspondingly theology is never in a place to judge the witnesses. Four, instead theology is under the authority of the witnesses and the scriptures exist to correct theology at all times. Five, ‘evangelical’ theology concerns itself with the God who has revealed Himself in Christ, and therefore the scriptures which witness to Him. Six, this witness is manifold and not singular. Seven, theology doesn’t exist in isolation from the realities of contemporary life. This task isn’t one that is easy or self-evident, but is done in a spirit of earnest seeking using all the available tools of inquiry.

That’s it on the chapter. Honestly, having very recently waded through a few hundred pages of Barth on Scripture, this chapter was a bit of a disappointment. It doesn’t begin to reflect the depth of this thinking on this subject. However, it does begin to crack open some of the uniqueness of his understanding of scripture, and in doing so perhaps one begins to see why some might have problems with it.

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.

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.


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.