May 26, 2012
CBD has some great deals on books which should be of interest:
Thinking about Christ with Schleiermacher
By: Catherine L. Kelsey
Westminster John Knox Press / 2003
By: Karl Barth
Westminster John Knox Press / 2002
By: Karl Barth
Westminster John Knox Press / 2008
The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary
By: Karl Barth, William H. Willimon
Westminster John Knox Press / 2009
Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century
Edited By: Arthur C. Cochrane
Westminster John Knox Press / 2003
Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary
By: I. John Hesselink
Westminster John Knox Press / 1997
Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ
By: Michael Horton
Westminster John Knox Press / 2007
Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva
By: Karen E. Spierling
Westminster John Knox Press / 2009
Those are some of the more recently discounted books. They still have Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth & the Pietists on sale, along with Joseph Mangina’s brilliant survey of Barth. Also, Lesslie Newbigin’s Signs amid the Rubble is still only $2.99.
May 17, 2012
In light of Sarah Coakley’s recent Gifford Lectures, I’ve been reflecting once again on the proper way to formulate the relation between natural and revealed theology. In particular, I am rather committed to Barth’s project of subsisting the doctrine of creation within the doctrine of the covenant (which is to say, within the doctrine of God). Thus, as Barth formulates this in the beginning of his doctrine of creation (CD III.1), creation is the external basis of the covenant, and the covenant is the internal basis of creation.
This means that there is such a thing as a natural theology, just not the sort that dominated either classical Christian theism or Protestant liberalism. The importance of this (and the importance of CD III) is that we are able to move beyond a merely existential theologia crucis that overly emphasizes the eschatological side of the creation-redemption dialectic.
Moreover, in regard to the concerns of Professor Coakley, this means that theology can give proper attention to creation as it presents itself to us (and to scientists). The natural world is a legitimate material field for theological formulations. Revealed theology provides the structure in which natural theology is given the right terms and conditions for its advancement, and (in turn) natural theology provides the material for those terms. There is a correlation in this reciprocity between revealed and natural theology, not a crude accommodation of one to the other. T. F. Torrance aptly expresses this correlation for how “we must advance through and beyond Barth” (not against Barth):
If we are to take as seriously as Barth himself did the relation between the incarnation and the creation in God’s creative and redemptive interaction with the world, then a closer relation must be established between natural theology and revealed theology. Karl Barth rightly attacked traditional natural theology as constituting an independent conceptual system on its own, and therefore as constituting the prior and prescriptive framework within which revealed theology could only be distorted and misinterpreted. He attacked it on a double ground:
(1) from the actual content of positive knowledge of God which called in question prescriptive forms derived from ground on which actual knowledge of God did not arise — the effect of that he held, was to split the concept of God into two, evidenced by the sharp division in mediaeval theology between the tractate on the one God and the tractate on the triune God;
(2) and also from the side of rigorous scientific method which will not allow such a bifurcation between prior epistemological structure and empirical content.
But for these same reasons, which presuppose a rejection of deistic and epistemological dualism, the theoretic and empirical components of our knowledge of God in and through the space-time structures of the creation must be brought together. There is a close parallel here to the advance of physics in its relation to geometry, as Einstein has expounded it. Euclidean geometry was pursued as an independent theoretic system, antecedent to physics, but that has proved an idealisation which falsifies our understanding of the real world when applied to it. But with the discovery of the four-dimensional geometries of space and time, geometry is brought into the heart of physics and pursued in indissoluble union with it. There it becomes, as Einstein said, a kind of natural science, for its structure changes, but it remains geometry and constituted in that organic relation with physics its epistemological structure. Similarly, I would argue, natural theology must be brought within the heart of positive theology, where of course its structure will change, for then physical statements and theological statement will be intimately correlated. This means that positive theology will change also, for it will have to be pursued in indissoluble relation with the space-time structures of the creation, which in a different way are explored by natural science.
[Thomas F. Torrance, "Newton, Einstein, and Scientific Theology," in Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 281-282.]
February 24, 2012
When it comes to angels, Barth is normally quoted to the effect that angels are not the proper subject of theology, and so forth, as he demonstrates in CD III.3 § 51.1 (“The Limits of Angeology”). That is all well and true, but Barth’s point is that the activity of the angels is to reveal the proper subject of theology: God. Thus, he goes on to develop an incredibly positive and constructive angeology in § 51.2 and 51.3. In fact, I was a bit surprised (pleasantly) by the heightened role he gives to the angels in the economy of God. So we read:
All genuine witness to God lives by the witness and therefore the ministry of angels. For by this it becomes in a sense technically possible and real that God is genuinely present and may be genuinely known as God in the earthly sphere, that he genuinely and recognisably speaks and acts, and that He is genuinely honoured and loved and feared. In their so utterly selfless and undemanding and purely subservient passing, in their eloquently quiet pointing to God which is always a pointing away from themselves, heaven comes to earth. …
Without the angels God himself would not be revealed and perceptible. Without them He would be hopelessly confused with some earthly circumstance, whether in the form of a sublime idea or a golden calf. …
As such, although creatures as we are, they stand over against us at the side of God. The very thing which they lack in comparison with us includes within itself their infinite advantage over us. In face of God they have no cause of their own in the espousing of which they have to submit to His will. They do not exist in any reciprocal relationships which have to be conformed to the divine model. They do not sing any hymn of praise which well or badly they have to strike up. They are themselves an eternal hymn of praise. And their existence is not tedious, as tedious theologians usually imagine, because as the entourage accompanying God they have their hands full with what He wills and does and therefore with us. Their liturgy is their service to Him and therefore to us. But in this service they stand over against us at the side of God. They exist in His glory, speak in His truth and work with His power. We cannot rely on them as we do on God. But we must not forget that when we rely on God we can rely on them. We can as little dispute with them as with God; we can as little deny them as we can deny God. In faith in a God of theory or ethics or aesthetics we may well deny the angels, because in the company of this kind of God it makes no odds whether there are angels or not. But in faith in the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ, whose majesty is operative and revealed in His mercy; in faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the case is very different. To deny the angels is to deny God Himself.
August 16, 2011
I recently finished reading Barth’s lectures on the Reformed confessions, delivered at Göttingen in the summer of 1923. The previous summer he had given his lectures on Calvin, followed that winter by his lectures on Zwingli. All of which, of course, is immediately following his revised edition of Der Römerbrief in 1922. These lectures on Reformed confessional theology have been immensely helpful for my own interpretation of Barth during this early period. Of particular interest to me was his persistent discontent at any trace of “psychologism” within the development of Reformed thinking after Calvin. Barth is especially not happy with the Westminster divines, whom he characterizes as obsessed with the doctrine of assurance, as this makes the religious subject the object of attention. I think Barth is exaggerating this concern with assurance given by the Westminster Assembly, but I’m nonetheless challenged by his contention that this involves a turn toward the psychological state of the subject, which then involves a short step toward Schleiermacher and Feuerbach.
Interestingly, Barth is not particularly concerned with predestination. He passingly notes some areas of mild discontent, some tweaks to be made, and points the reader to his treatment of the topic in Der Römerbrief. But, really, he’s not too upset by the doctrine of election as it is confessed by the Reformed. After all, it’s a properly theological topic, given a properly theological treatment, which makes Barth happy. As he sees it, they’re wrong (partly), but at least they’re being theologians, not humanists. Once again, pietism is the real culprit for Barth. So, the reader should not be surprised by his mostly positive interpretation of the Canons of Dort, the last lecture in the book. He locates Dort within the crisis of the Reformation against the backdrop of medieval syncretism (Semi-Pelagianism) and the emerging modern theology in the foreground (pietism, liberalism). Here is a snippet from the lecture, where Barth contrasts the Remonstrants (Arminians) with the fathers at Dort:
I need not say much by way of explanation of the differences on this point. There are two different worlds that collide with each other here…on the one hand, the human person is the measure of all things, and on the other, God is. On the one hand, faith as a human act is in the center, and on the other, the divine ‘good pleasure’ [beneplacitum] out of which come faith and all other good things. On the one hand, a humanly righteous and rational relationship with God, and on the other, God to whom alone all righteousness and reason are ascribed. On the one hand, the human standing in a mild equality with God; on the other, God’s mercy as the only thing with which the human stands or falls. Whether one calls what emerges here medieval Semi-Pelagianism or a modern Christianity of feeling and reason, it ends up as the same thing, and it stands in decisive contrast with the Reformation itself. There is no way to deny that what is expressed in the Canons of Dort is the authentic concern of the Reformation. Their case against the Remonstrants is entirely justified and consistent from the perspective of Luther and Calvin. The consequences from the opposed doctrine drawn in the ‘rejection of errors’ [Rejectio errorum] are also correct. Dort’s own doctrine is, as a whole, nothing other than the comprehensive, level-headed, judicious, thorough expression of what had to be said about the majesty of God, if one were not willing to haggle. With this dogma the Reformed church had raised the banner against the old church some eight or nine decades earlier. With the same dogma it was now setting out the boundaries over against the emerging new church. It is difficult to see what right one might have to call oneself Reformed today if one is not able to engage in the essentials of this thinking. [pp.214-215]
To be Reformed is to “engage in the essentials of this thinking.” Very true, and not something that a lot of people would expect to hear from Barth — those who still think of Barth as anti-scholastic, modernist, et cetera.
July 22, 2011
My second post in two days — I’m on a roll!
According to Mr. Dylan, in the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,
What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat. What’s depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles.
This may be something of a stretch, but as I read that I thought this is similar to what Barth says about Mozart. Mozart’s music is a participation in the ordering of creation from chaos, standing over the darkness in triumph. The blues artists were likewise conquering their problems (“had them beat”) by creating order out of the chaos. Interestingly, this isn’t a naive or idealist illusion of order (for either Mozart or the blues singers) but an order found right there in the material of creation.
May 11, 2011
This is why we love Karl Barth:
…the Holy Spirit is obviously not so much the reality in which God makes us sure of Him as the reality in which He makes Himself sure of us, in which He establishes and executes His claim to lordship over us by His immediate presence.
[Church Dogmatics I.1, p. 454]
Barth makes us think about God.
March 29, 2011
I recently came across the Plough Publishing House, the publisher of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt’s few translated works. Their website generously offers these works for free to download, many in both pdf and Kindle format (and epub).
For those with an interest in 20th century dialectical theology, both Emil Brunner and Karl Barth cite the Blumhardts as major influences on their own thinking, especially their critique of institutional religion and the centrality of the personal event of the Word which extends into a protest against political forms of oppression. Here is Emil Brunner in his “Intellectual Autobiography” (The Theology of Emil Brunner, ed. Charles Kegley, 1962):
[My father] was a schoolteacher who understood his work as a calling and a service to God. From my mother, who stood at his side in this service, I learned to pray. Using an old picture Bible, she introduced me to biblical history and thereby laid the foundation on which my theology was later to be built. Through her influence, my father, descended from a family of nonbelievers, came into contact with Christoph Blumhardt. Through Blumhardt and his two important pupils, Hermann Kutter and Leonhard Ragaz, our family was drawn into the Religious Socialist Movement. [p. 4]
There was a time when the currently reigning agnostic humanism and the materialism, which was identified with Darwinism, occasioned doubts in me. The critical idealism of F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) strengthened me against these temptations, but in a very different way the biblical realism and prophetism of my teachers Kutter and the one even greater than he who stood in back of him, Christoph Blumhardt, kept my faith alive. [p. 6]
His Römerbrief (Epistle to the Romans), written in 1918, I hailed as a forceful confirmation of my own thoughts. If I am not mistaken, I was the first one, who in reviewing this book (in the Kirchenblatt für die Reformierte Schweiz), emphatically pointed to its epoch-making character. My enthusiasm was all the more understandable because Barth, as well as our mutual friend Eduard Thurneysen, came from that circle in the center of which Hermann Kutter and Christoph Blumhardt had been. [p. 8]
I’m attempting to make my way through Thomas Torrance’s Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, a ridiculously complex account of the history of science and philosophy. I’m exhausted after each three page burst of reading. Of course, I eventually skipped toward the end, to his essay on Barth. Torrance provides a very lucid telling of why Barth considered any natural knowledge of God as “invalid,” “illegitimate,” and proper to sinful and rebellious man. As I understand it, the benign spirits at Westminster Philly believe that Barth constructed his critique on the philosophical impossibility, a la Kant, of natural theology, instead of on a properly dogmatic impossibility. Thus, philosophy determines the limits in which theology can operate. These same benign spirits claim that Bruce McCormack has validated this thesis, but I’ll let the current generation of Princetonians debate that one.
Here is a snippet from Torrance’s essay:
Whatever may have been his earlier views, when he was doubtless affected by the Kantian critique of the possibility of the knowledge of God within the limits of the natural reason, Barth quickly left them behind to take up a very different position on the ground of actual knowledge of God based on his Word. Here as he looked out from within the perspective of Christian theology upon natural theology he did not reject the existence of natural knowledge or commit himself to any metaphysical refutation of it, but found himself trying to understand it as something that is ‘impossible’ and that nevertheless ‘exists’, i.e. something that exists in opposition to the actual knowledge of God mediated through his Word, and which must therefore be called in question by it as illegitimate and invalid in so far as it claims to be knowledge of God as he really is. Natural theology is not a phenomenon that can simply be brushed aside, for it has a strange vitality in virtue of which it persists in the history of human thought. Barth explains this vitality as that of the natural man, for natural theology as such arises out of man’s natural existence and is part of the whole movement in which he develops his own autonomy and seeks a naturalistic explanation for himself within the universe. It must therefore be taken seriously and be respected as the natural man’s ‘only hope and consolation in life and death’ which it would be unkind to take away from him in his natural state. Nor is it something that can or should be combated on its own ground, for as soon as one attempts to do that one has thereby conceded the ground on which it rests, namely the autonomous existence of estranged and sinful man. That is to say, the claim to a natural knowledge of God, as Barth understands it, cannot be separated out from a whole movement of man in which he seeks to justify himself over against the grace of God, and which can only develop into a natural theology that is antithetical to knowledge of God as he really is in his acts of revelation and grace.
“Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth,” Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Wipf & Stock 1998), pp. 289-290. Originally published in Religious Studies, vol. 6, 1970.
So, assuming that Torrance is right and Van Til is wrong, and putting that debate aside, the really interesting question becomes whether the Christian can discern any true content in this rebellious natural knowledge of God, or is it all necessarily compromised by the estrangement of the natural mind? Barth, it seems, takes an “all or nothing” position, whereas a sympathetic detractor like Brunner agrees yet while affirming a residual moral component. This moral component needs to be redeemed with true content, but the form remains and acts as a bridge between natural and redeemed man.
November 23, 2010
I’m re-posting a comment left on Bobby’s blog, at his suggestion. The general topic of discussion was on the parameters of the Reformed label. Bobby asked me if I considered myself, “Reformed.” Here’s my trajectory-laden response:
I usually describe myself as Reformed or Calvinist to other people, if they have any idea what that means. Otherwise, I just say “evangelical.” I always qualify my use of the Reformed label, since a lot of people instantly think about TULIP. I’m not entirely opposed to Dort. In fact, I think the Canons of Dort are rather oustanding in many respects: e.g., the problem of leaving the expansion of God’s kingdom to the contingency of human free will. As I’ve mentioned before, Barth is firmly within the Reformed scheme when it comes to omnicausality (the term he uses, and which John Webster uses) and a rejection of Molinism. This aspect of Reformed theology is where I’m in quite a lot of agreement, as long as it is adheres to a synchronic (or non-competitive) double agency of God and man. That was Barth’s view, and it appears to be the view of the 17th century orthodox. So, in this regard, my only real problem with TULIP is the L, along with rationalist presentations of the U and I. In other words, if we interpret U and I in regard to synchronic agency and replace L with universal atonement, then we’ve got a form of Reformed theology that I am happy to call my own. That’s a good example of working within the Reformed confessional tradition, pushing the boundaries, and not making the confessional standards on par with Scripture.
I do like the label, “free church.” Barth himself was both Reformed and free church in his approach to theology and his view of the church. His understanding of confessional subscription (vis-a-vis Scripture) is virtually identical with a lot of Baptist theologians, including Southern Baptist theologians. The Southern Baptist confessional heritage begins with the London Baptist Confession (17th century), then the Philadelphia Confession (18th century), then the New Hampshire Confession (19th century), and then the Baptist Faith and Message (20th century), now in its third revision in order to add complementarian gender roles and to affirm God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. This continual revision of confessional standards is a very good thing, and it is something I greatly admire about the SBC. Interestingly, the London and Philly confessions were strongly federal — essentially rewrites of the Westminster Confession — but this Calvinism was then mitigated with the New Hampshire Confession and then the BFM. If you read the BFM, you will see that it still stands within a broadly Reformed confessional tradition. Here is the article on election:
“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility. [paragraph break] All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. ”
That’s pure Calvinism, if you ask me. The whole point about how election “comprehends all the means in connection with the end” is a classic Reformed qualification, going back to the Westminster Confession (article 3) and before that. This sort of revision and updating is exactly what the PCA, OPC, URC, etc. need, but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
Unless you are a true theology nerd, you probably didn’t get half of that.