March 11, 2014
This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:
Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?
Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.
Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950′s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.
March 8, 2014
John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.
Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:
It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).
The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.
The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).
I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.
“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …
Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.
You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.
March 4, 2014
“Like a wedding” is a description of the Christian life which in our persistent glumness we have refused to allow. Yet Jesus used it frequently. Old Testament prophets had said with daring, “For thy Maker is thy husband” [Isa 54.4-10, Hos 2.19]; and John the Baptist had claimed as his sufficient honor that he was the friend of the Bridegroom, his joy being to hear the Bridegroom’s voice [John 3.29]. The dominant note of the new religion was deep joy.
The scribes and Pharisees might fast. Religion to them was not joyous; it bound on them burdens grievous to be borne. By its dreary routine of rules and shibboleths men might gain merit, but not a song. Jesus came to lead them from that slavery into a new land of promise. They would still be under the law — God’s decrees welling up within the enfranchised soul — but it was a law whose service was perfect freedom. “The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” [John 4.14].
The disciples of John the Baptist might fast. Religion to them was not joyous. It was a warning of impending doom, a fleeing from the wrath to come. To feel the holiness of God as a fan winnowing the grain from the chaff, or as an axe of retribution laid at the root of the tree, was life compared with the mechanical righteousness of the Pharisees; but it was not jubilant life. Jesus drove the Arch-Fear from the sky and revealed instead a Face of infinite pity, a Holiness inseparable from Compassion. The rainbow was set against the storm. The abounding sin was swallowed up in more abounding grace.
…Jesus replaced the weariness which hangs upon the soul’s quest for its own righteousness with the “large delight” of serving another’s need. Joy is not in defiance of pain, or in pain’s respite. It is through pain, — that pain borne for others by which the world is saved. He, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross” [Heb 12.2], had entered into joy’s deep secret. Therefore He could say with utter truth, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” [John 15.11]. It was joy like a wedding — the marriage of earth and heaven!
[George Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 4-5. Reprint of the original edition from Harper & Brothers, 1928. The parable is from Luke 5.33-35 and synoptic parallels.]
In particular, the joy through pain of Christ and his disciples is much appreciated. This is not self-imposed for one’s own sake but only insofar as it is for another’s sake. And here is one more wonderful moment later in the book:
There are pulpits quick to indulge in orgies of denunciation but tardy to preach the positive tidings of life abundant. There are ministers’ associations and reform organizations more eager to expel disintegrating forces than to engage in the less spectacular task of constructive goodwill. So ready to banish the demon — so loath to welcome Jesus! Yet, if we would but know, when He comes to rule the demon flees of himself!
March 4, 2014
The headline alone caused me to laugh hysterically:
No, this is not the Onion. I love the South, but this is ridiculous!
March 3, 2014
The University of Aberdeen is hosting some large conferences this year on theological ethics, which is something that Aberdeen does especially well (alongside systematics, I hasten to add).
The first conference is on the significance of the Protestant Reformation for ethics: “The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist: The Future of a Reformation Legacy.” Click the title for the flyer with the list of presenters. The dates are October 24-25, 2014.
The second is a series of events related to “The Challenge of Bonhoeffer’s Theology.” There is a two-part conference, “Doctrine and Ethics: The Challenge of Bonhoeffer’s Theology,” held December 12-13, 2014, and January 29-30, 2015. Also, Jennifer McBride will be giving a public lecture at the end of this month, March 28, and Christopher Holmes will do the same on January 27, 2015.
March 2, 2014
February 27, 2014
Not that I had plans to actually see the new ‘Son of God’ film, but I was curious to know what some of the initial reviews were. So far, they are mostly negative. My favorite is Kyle Smith’s review from the New York Post, with some nice doses of humor:
I’m pretty much without sin, so gimme some rocks: “Son of God” envisions a J.C. that’s strictly J.V. It’s a film inspired less by the Bible than by a somewhat lesser guide to Christian precepts: “Jesus for Dummies.”
A repurposed segment of last year’s History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” the film stars Diogo Morgado, a Portuguese actor billed as “the first Latin Jesus.” He makes for a sunny, can-do Portuguesus wandering the land with a miracles-on-demand service available to anyone who walks up to him. He seems oddly, disturbingly in love with himself as he dazzles the Israelites with his fluorescent, Brad Pitt smile.
It trivializes Christian thought to reduce the parables to one-liners and the miracles to magic tricks, but the film was made with the entirely unsurprising input of Joel Osteen, the charlatan self-help guru who has advised his followers that prayer can help you snag a good parking space.
“Son of God” is guilty of all the sins of the 1950s Bible epics, but without any of the majesty. The supporting characters lack depth, and the actors are blocky and silly, lugging around those half-British accents that supposedly indicate seriousness. The special effects aren’t good enough for the big screen — Jerusalem looks like it was created out of Legos — and the overbearing soundtrack turns what ought to be quietly transcendent moments into corn syrup. The Last Supper? Doesn’t need a lot of embellishment. It’s a profound moment. So why bury it under the rubble left by orchestral bombardment?
You can read the rest here. With Joel Osteen as a consultant, then that is about all I need to know! I have some old school Reformed friends who refuse to watch any Jesus movies — as all pictorial representations of Jesus are prohibited in the older Reformed theology — and this movie appears to justify their qualms!
February 25, 2014
Blogging will probably be minimal for the next month or so, because of other commitments. I did happen to read through a short biography of D. L. Moody, the influential preacher in 19th century Chicago. Here is an account of Moody, after hearing a sermon series from a young, untested evangelist from England:
[Moody speaking to his wife:] How do the people like him?
“They like him very much.”
Did you hear him?
Did you like him?
“Yes, very much. He has preached two sermons from John 3:16; and I think you will like him, although he preaches a little different from what you do.”
How is that?
“Well, he tells sinners God loves them.”
Well, said I, he is wrong.
She said: “I think you will agree with him when you hear him, because he backs up everything he says with the Word of God. You think if a man doesn’t preach as you do, he is wrong.”
I went down that night to church, and I noticed everyone brought his Bible. …
He preached a most extraordinary sermon from that verse. He did not divide the text into “secondly” and “thirdly” and “fourthly” — he just took it as a whole, and then went through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to prove that in all ages God loved the world; that He sent prophets and patriarchs and holy men to warn them, and last of all sent His Son. After they murdered Him, He sent the Holy Ghost.
I never knew up to that time that God loves us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out, and I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country. I just drank it in. …
I used to preach that God was behind the sinner with a double-edged sword, ready to hew him down. I have got done with that. I preach now that God is behind the sinner with love and he is running away from the God of love.
[The Life of D. L. Moody, pp. 66-68]
So, there you have it. Moody the proto-Barthian! Of course, other Christians have proclaimed the same truth. Unfortunately, I would say that most Christians today believe that personal faith is the hinge upon which God’s love turns (against Romans 5:8). Also, I appreciate the “far country” language, which Barth uses repeatedly in CD IV.1 (wherein our world is the far country into which the Son enters).
As for Moody’s trenchant Arminianism (which even caused the ire of Darby, an otherwise terrible theologian), I will ignore for now.
February 20, 2014
February 17, 2014
Barth is not as other worldly or anti worldly as may be supposed, given his strident and comprehensive rejection of natural theology. While the grace and love at the foundation of creation is hidden, unknown and unknowable to natural reason, it is nonetheless there, even outside of the church, not floating in some ethereal other realm. Barth elucidates this at a number of points in volumes III and IV of the Church Dogmatics (the doctrines of creation and reconciliation, respectively), yet he is ever cautious for fear of introducing some other norm for theology than Jesus Christ.
In particular, his discussion of “little lights” in IV.3 contains only large hints, no concrete examples, of how these lights are manifest outside the church. He explains his reasoning for this in a small excursus, wherein he states:
None of the concrete phenomena which arise in this connexion is as such the matter under consideration. All such phenomena are doubtful and contestable. What is not doubtful and contestable is the prophecy of the Lord Jesus Christ and its almighty power to bring forth such true words even extra muros ecclesia and to attest itself through them. 
Nonetheless, the “large hints,” as I call them, are indicated throughout his discussion and can basically be summarized as the joyful discovery of genuine love and mercy and forgiveness outside of the church, all of which are the word and work of Jesus Christ in the world. Barth even goes so far as to say that there are prophets and apostles “in different degrees” outside of the particular history with Israel and the church:
We recognize that the fact Jesus Christ is the one Word of God does not mean that in the Bible, the Church and the world there are not other words which are quite notable in their way, other lights which are quite clear and other revelations which are quite real. We may think of the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New. We may think of the genuine prophecy and apostolate of the Church. And why should not the world have its varied prophets and apostles in different degrees? …Nor does it follow from our statement that every word spoken outside the circle of the Bible and the Church is a word of false prophecy and therefore valueless, empty and corrupt, that all the light which rise and shine in this outer sphere are misleading and all the revelations are necessarily untrue. …the whole world of creation and history is the realm of the lordship of the God at whose right hand Jesus Christ is seated, so that He exercises authority in this outer as well as the inner sphere and is free to attest Himself or to cause Himself to be attested in it. 
Carl Braaten, a Lutheran dogmatic theologian, has a clear and helpful commentary on this passage:
Barth has usually been known to restrict the witness to the Word of God in Jesus Christ to the Bible and the church. Now he clearly speaks of another circle of witnesses, including words and signs and lights and revelations in the world of non-Christian religions, apart from and not dependent on the Bible or the Church. Barth’s christological thesis is not shaken by this acknowledgment of a third circle of witnesses beyond the Bible and the church. None of them can replace or supplement the one Word of God in Jesus Christ. …All other words and witnesses outside the wall of the church (extra muros ecclesia) must be measured by this one Word of God in Jesus Christ; and yet Barth is sincere about these extramural words of other religions and systems, including modern neopaganism and secular humanism. [No Other Gospel: Christianity Among the World's Religions, Fortress Press / Wipf & Stock, p. 58]
These other words are “parables of the kingdom” to which the church must listen in its dialogue with other religions or secular thought, finding their material source and center in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture, “although from a different source and in another tongue” (IV.3, 114-115). I like the way Braaten contrasts Barth’s approach with natural theology: “Natural theology always relies on the capacity of human reason to reach truth about God; but Barth counts on the capacity of Jesus Christ to create human witnesses wherever he pleases, even against their knowledge and will, and certainly beyond the limits of the Bible and the church” (No Other Gospel, 59).
Image: “900 Million” (Poverty Series 2) by Liseva. In light of Mt. 25, it seems that world hunger may be a good place to see Christ both within and outside the walls of the church.