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 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.
February 13, 2014
Barth generally likes to treat the “subjective side” at the end of his volumes in the Church Dogmatics, after rightly hammering us over the head, for hundreds of pages, with the objective side: Jesus Christ. These evaluations of the subjective “correspondence” to God are some of my favorite parts. For example, in IV.2 he closes his doctrine of sanctification, which is definitive in Christ, by (finally!) looking at “The Act of Love” (783-824), which is a beautiful and devotional study of our graced capacity to love.
In IV.1, which I have been reading through, he treats justification by faith alone toward the end of his multi-layered account of “the Lord as servant,” which includes such marvelous moments as “The Judge Judged in Our Place” (§59.2) much earlier in the volume. He begins his treatment of faith as the “human work” acceptable to God, not because of any “intrinsic value” to our act of faith but only because God has chosen to accept it as the “counterpart and analogy to God’s own action” (615-616). Man’s faith as such does not justify him: “He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. In relation to it, considering himself as a believer, he cannot see himself as justified….” (616). He follows this paragraph with a short excursus on John Calvin’s own clarification that faith is not a virtue, as in his exegesis of Abraham’s faith. I thought it was worth posting as a whole. I have provided the translations from the study edition of the CD (in italics below), assuming that most of my readers do not read Latin and French:
Of the Reformers Calvin made this distinction with particular sharpness. Faith as such cannot contribute anything to our justification: bringing nothing of our own to procure the grace of God (Inst. III, 13, 5). It is not a habitus [disposition]. It is not a quality of grace which is infused into man (on Gal. 3.6; C.R. 50, 205). Faith does not justify by virtue of being a work which we do. If we believe, we come to God quite empty, not bringing to God any dignity or merit. God has to close his eyes to the feebleness of our faith, as indeed He does. He does not justify us on account of some excellence which it has in itself; only in virtue of what it lacks as a human work does He justify man (Serm. on Gen. 15; C.R. 23, 722 f.). For that reason there is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith. Exegetes who understand the reckoned of Gen 15.6 as follows: Abraham has been reckoned righteous, and that belief in God was a virtue which he possessed are condemned by Calvin quite freely and frankly: those dogs must be an absolute abomination to us, for these are the most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth (ib. 688). As if there were nothing worse than this confusion! And, indeed, according to the fresh Reformation understanding of the Pauline justification by faith there could not be anything worse than this confusion. It is clear that if faith was to be a virtue, a power and an achievement of man, and if as such it was to be called a way of salvation, then the way was opened up for the antinomian and libertarian misunderstanding, the belief that a dispensation from all other works was both permitted and commanded. And the objection of Roman critics was only too easy, that in the Reformation sola fide this one human virtue, power and achievement was wildly over-estimated at the expense of all others. Even at the present day there is still cause most definitely to repudiate this misinterpretation, for which the Pauline text is not in any sense responsible. [CD IV.1, 617]
The “most enormous blasphemies which Satan could vomit forth” are the attempts to qualify faith as a virtue or disposition acceptable to God. Nothing worse than this confusion! And the upshot, of not making this confusion, has significant practical consequence: “There is no point in inquiring as to the completeness of our faith.” Amen. The “experimental” Puritans, and their heirs today, could benefit from that. Edwards could have kept his job at Northampton!
Image: Calvin window at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, Alberta
February 6, 2014
Paul Molnar will be giving our spring lectures in Charlotte. Since Molnar is a Roman Catholic, I have a ton of important questions to ask him:
Have you ever driven the popemobile?
How on earth has Karl Barth not convinced you of the sublimity of the Reformed faith?
How many indulgences do you have?
Is Mary as pretty as Botticelli depicts her?
If I’m feeling astute, I may ask about the analogia entis. Seriously, Molnar is a fine scholar, working within the dogmatic traditions of both Catholic and Protestant theology. The lectures are on Sunday, Feb 24, and Monday, Feb 25. They are free! The title is, “Karl Barth and the Importance of Thinking Theologically within the Nicene Faith.” If you are in or around the Carolinas, or even (heaven forbid) up North, you are very welcome. Our world-famous Southern hospitality is completely true, not that I’m biased or anything.
January 22, 2014
Is Karl Barth a universalist?
This is one of the most common questions posed to Barth, both during his lifetime and among his students to this day. For the sake of clarity, I am using “universalist” to refer to an ultimate restoration of all people. Barth is assuredly a “universalist” if we are speaking of the scope of the atonement or, as Barth would prefer, man’s “justification, sanctification, and calling” in Jesus Christ. Yet, the question of Barth’s “universalism” is more commonly in reference to whether he affirmed the eventual appropriation among all people, by the Holy Spirit, of man’s “proper being” in Jesus Christ.
Let us first take a look at an instance where Barth comes closest to affirming a universal restoration. In Church Dogmatics IV.1, Barth gives a survey of his christology in the doctrine of reconciliation. Therein we find his famous threefold delineation of Christ’s person and work: the servant as Lord (justification), the Lord as servant (sanctification), and the true Witness (calling). After mapping the territory which will occupy the rest of CD IV, Barth addresses the “subjective apprehension and acceptance” as distinct from the “objective relevance” of man’s justification, sanctification, and calling in Jesus Christ (147). He also uses the language of “appropriation” as distinct from “ascription,” the former of which is “the being and work of His Holy Spirit.” Barth recognizes that the “ascription” is universal but the “appropriation” is given according to the Spirit’s determination, and both are equally the work and decision of God: “That God did not owe His Son, and in that Son Himself, to the world, is revealed by the fact that He gives His Spirit to whom He will” (148).
As if that were not clear enough, he repeats, “In this special sense Christians and only Christians are converted to Him. This is without any merit or co-operation on their part, just as the reconciliation of the whole world in Jesus Christ is without its merit or co-operation” (148). Barth is comfortably Calvinist here. He refuses to introduce even the mildest synergism at the point of “appropriation,” just as surely as he refuses to do at the point of “ascription.” Yet, Barth will speak of Christians as “representatives” of all people, and this is where the universalism comes to the fore, implicitly at least:
[Christians] have over the rest of the world the one inestimable advantage that God the Reconciler and the event of reconciliation can be to them a matter of recognition and confession, until the day when He and it will be the subject of His revelation to all eyes and ears and hearts, and therefore of the recognition and confession of all men. 
The language here is the same that he uses for those who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit: “eyes and ears and hearts.” Barth had similarly drawn together the “elect” and “rejected” (Jacob/Esau, David/Saul, etc.) in CD II.2 with the use of “proximity” language, in order to emphasize their common orientation to Jesus Christ. Yet, I do not recall Barth coming this close to a universal restoration in II.2. In fact, he is at pains to avoid it when he discusses “the determination of the rejected” and in his massive excursus on Judas at the end of the volume.
When we turn later in the Church Dogmatics to IV.3.2, we have an instance of where Barth directly addresses the question of universalism and expressly rejects it, even though he recognizes that “theological consistency” may urge us in that direction. Here is how he discusses the matter:
A final word is demanded concerning the threat under which the perverted human situation stands, in spite of its limitation by the powerful and superior reality of God and man, to the extent that from below it is also continually determined by the falsehood of man in a sinister but very palpable manner. Can we count upon it or not that this threat will not finally be executed, that the sick man and even the sick Christian will not die and be lost rather than be raised and delivered from the dead and live? …
First, if this is not the case, it can only be a matter of the unexpected work of grace and its revelation on which we cannot count but for which we can only hope as an undeserved and inconceivable overflowing of the significance, operation and outreach of the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ. To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift. [IV.3.2, p. 477, underlining mine]
Barth will immediately, on the following page, say that “there is no good reason” that we should not be open to the “unexpected withdrawal of that final threat” — “open to this possibility” (478). Yet, he has made it clear that it is not known, which is why he uses the language of “possibility,” whereas he loves to use “certainty” for the objective work of the God-man. As far as I know, this is the most explicit rejection of universal restoration in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Whether this is entirely compatible with his statements in CD IV.1 is another question.
January 19, 2014
I have been reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s letters, published in Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr (HarperCollins, 1991). They are written to his dearly loved wife, Ursula, with whom he would frequently engage in theological discussion. A particularly amusing letter, to me at least, was written from Basel in 1947, after his meeting with Karl Barth. Here it is:
Two of your letters forwarded from Geneva were handed to me by Karl Barth on my arrival here. He came down to the station and I have just had four hours with him from luncheon through tea. I’ll report on that first.
He is, of course, a very charming man but also very honest, and we had some very searching discussions the upshot of which was that he criticized me for trying to make a new wisdom out of the foolishness of the Gospel and I accused him of forgetting that the Gospel was really the wisdom as well as the power to them that believe. This involved the whole question of the relation of faith to philosophy on the one hand and to ethics and politics on the other. I found it most stimulating and helpful. I was too much of a preacher not to look for points of contact between the truth of the Gospel and the despair of the world. He was surprised that I preached, and I told him that you accused me of preaching like Schleiermacher on religion to its intellectual despisers. This pleased him very much and he repeated, “Did she say that, really?”
He, like all the Swiss and all the continental Calvinists, has no sense for liturgy and was indifferent toward my criticism of the barren confirmation service I attended on Sunday. He depends upon the sermon to maintain faith. I do not think that is enough though it is just as good as a liturgical service with no real sermon. That is I suppose a kind of dividing line between us as it is between England and the Continent. I am continental of heart and faith but not so (after being corrupted by you) that I could stand these services long. Another thing about Karl Barth. He has developed curious sectarian tendencies having thrown the church in an uproar here by his criticism of infant baptism. Now he is on the Congregational tack, insisting that the real church is only in the simple community of faith in the congregation and that theologians, bishops, secretaries imagine they are the church. I went after him on these issues pretty hard though I must grant he is right in regard to the emphasis that faith, hope, and love in the life of believers are the real substance of the church and that all else is superstructure.
I am staying here tonight and going on tomorrow to Zurich and will spend Thursday and Friday with the Brunners. …Emil Brunner is becoming a good friend. Barth told me several times that he recognized that Brunner and I were closer together than I to him or than Brunner to him, and I acknowledged this. Then he said, “But in reading your books, I can see you have read me and learned some things from me, or, of course, it is just possible that you have rediscovered the Reformation as I did.” Then he added slyly that he thought I was in my spiritual development where he was when he wrote the commentary on Romans. “I thought,” he said, “that I had to beat the people over the head with divine judgment. Now I know they do not repent unless they know the divine grace.”
Basel, Switzerland – April 2, 1947
[Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 238-239]
I would actually side with Niebuhr on the liturgical matters — aesthetics, sacraments, and the like — though I admit that it is difficult (as church history illustrates) to value the visual media without diminishing the proclamation of the Word. Barth, of course, was all about the Word!
In the following year, Niehbuhr attends a conference in Holland, where C. H. Dodd and Karl Barth gave speeches:
Barth and Dodd had the opening speeches yesterday in the presence of royalty. Dodd was superb on the Bible and the church. Barth was brilliant and irresponsible as usual.
Amsterdam, Holland – August 18, 1948
You gotta love that. Brilliant and irresponsible as usual!
January 16, 2014
Among the new releases this year, I am most excited about D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press), which is scheduled to be released in a few weeks. Long is a professor of systematic theology at Marquette.
To this day, Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth is among my favorite books and surely among the most influential books in my own theological development. There is no equivalent book on Barth which penetrates with such grace and clarity the depths of Barth’s dogmatic project. Balthasar asks the really important questions, from a Catholic framework that joyfully embraces the “yes” of God toward humanity, from the Incarnation and then outward embracing philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and ecclesiology. Barth is less comfortable with the second move. If Balthasar is correct, the only real option before us is either (1) Barth’s purified Protestantism or (2) the loving arms of Rome! I happen to agree. Yet, Balthasar is also drawing the former toward the latter, or perhaps the other way around.
As many of my readers are already aware, Balthasar’s thesis is that Barth makes a significant move toward (more catholic-friendly) analogy, once Barth sheds the last vestiges of his early existentialism. Once again, I agree — as did Barth. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary, although highly appreciative of Balthasar, has challenged this reading in an important monograph, emphasizing the continuity of Barth’s early rejection of natural theology (especially the second edition of Romans) into his mature dogmatics, with its positive orientation in christology. This debate may be a matter of degree or emphasis. I have been more inclined, with Balthasar, to stress the importance of Barth’s turn toward “the humanity of God,” once he finally parts company with his dialectical colleagues and his own early formulations of a negative “capacity” within man (as found in Kierkegaard). Thus, I am rather content with Barth’s own reading of his development, even if his timetable is a bit off — on this point, see Keith Johnson’s insightful article, “A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism,” in IJST 14:1 (January 2012).
There are nuances that I am not recounting, but hopefully that will intrigue new students of Barth to purchase Balthasar’s volume on Barth and then Long’s volume. I am open in my own appraisal of these issues, but I will be forever indebted to Balthasar for giving me the right questions.
January 8, 2014
Stephen Webb at FT has been making battle with the resurgence of classical theism. Now he employs the help of Barth. His latest entry is a short treatment of Barth’s account of divine simplicity in Church Dogmatics II.1, §31. The appropriate section is “The Unity and Omnipresence of God,” pp. 440-490. It just so happens that I read this section today, in preparation for a Barth reading group tomorrow. So, it is rather fresh on my mind.
First, it should be clarified that Barth does not reject “simplicity” and “infinity” altogether. He is rejecting “absolute simplicity” and “absolute infinity,” which are derived from apophatic reflections upon creaturely limits. The “absolute” as such is not God’s absolute but, instead, something imposed upon God and limiting God. Barth is not denying God’s infinity, but he is expanding it to include spatiality and finitude — in accordance with Scripture. I will try to explain briefly.
As Barth has been doing this whole time in CD II.1, he is treating the divine perfections (attributes) as determinations of God’s love and freedom. God is the one who loves in freedom and is free in his love, as Barth defines God. The perfections of his freedom, such as unity and simplicity, are such that God determines their meaning; he is not determined by them. The reversal is what Barth perceives to have happened in the received tradition (orthodoxy), such as illustrated in Augustine, Anselm, and the Protestant scholastics. Statements of God’s simplicity are “put at the head,” not “in their proper turn,” as if God’s simplicity were derived from “the general idea of an ens vere unum” (446-447).
If God determines the meaning of his unity and simplicity, then these concepts are “not at our disposal” (448). They cannot be defined apart from “God’s self-demonstration” in his Word and work (459). Per usual, Barth gives a run through of passages from both the OT and the NT (see especially 451ff.). Following upon his exegesis, Barth will define God’s simplicity according to the determinations of his love:
…the simplicity of God consists in the trustworthiness, truthfulness, and fidelity which He is Himself…If He were divisible, dissoluble, or flexible, He would not be trustworthy…This divine simplicity, however, is not to be looked for in any other place than that in which the prophets and apostles found it, when it offered itself for them to find and they were found by it. [458-459]
So, God is without division in his unique self-determination as wholly faithful, not because God is bound by some prior concept of simplicity or infinity. Such prior concepts are answers to the question, what is necessary for existence to be extended beyond creaturely limitations? But, “The Christian doctrine of God has to face and answer questions put to it by the God who confronts man and not by the man who confronts God” (464). That should be memorized by every student of Barth. The concern to have a God who is without our limitations is actually a form of idolatry, and man will defend this “God” with the utmost zealotry. Rather, God determines his own “limits,” as his being derives from himself. He’s God. And God is without division in that he is wholly trustworthy and faithful. His fidelity is not one part of his essence, but of all. Nothing alongside him or apart from him can threaten his constancy and fidelity.
Barth gives an extensive treatment of the common coupling of “omnipresence” with “eternity,” as they are placed under the heading of “infinity.” Barth is convinced that “infinity,” as a predetermined concept, is doing more work than it should. It constrains God in his capacity to include finitude within his infinity. “God’s ‘infinity,’ if we want to use this expression, is true infinity because it does not involve any contradiction that it is finitude as well” (467). The point, for Barth, is that a concept of infinity that cannot contain (or make space for) the finite is not God’s infinity. As we have said, it would be a limitation provided by the concept, not by God’s own determination. As such, it would not be God’s infinity at all. Here is a longer excerpt:
We certainly do not deny that God is this too, that He is infinite, i.e., that He is not bound to the limits of space and time nor to the forms of space and time generally as the determinations of His creation. But we must add at once that God is infinite in His own divine way, and not in the way in which this can be said of created spirit. …The infinity which as a concept stands in antithesis to infinitude, and therefore to this extent the isolated concept of infinity, is quite insufficient to describe what God is in relation to space and time. God’s ‘infinity,’ if we want to use this expression, is true infinity because it does not involve any contradiction that it is finitude as well. For there is no reason why God in His essence should not be finite in the same perfect way as He is infinite. But to be finite in this perfect way necessarily means in such a way that His finitude does not prevent His being infinite, and therefore that while finitude is that which limits and is a determination of His creation, it does not involve any limitation or defect in God. 
So, Barth is “stretching” the concept of infinity to include, for God, the concept of finitude. This is not the first time that concepts have been stretched for theological reasons. It seems like ousia was stretched for the sake of God in the fourth century. For people who believe in the Trinity — wherein Greek categories are modified beyond all recognition — I find some of the criticisms of Barth a bit odd. The orthodox christology, likewise, has the temerity to say that one hypostasis can have two different natures in each’s fullness! I am beginning to think that Christianity has a habit of borrowing and significantly modifying the capacity of categories.
December 19, 2013
I am reading through the opening chapter of John Frame’s recently published Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Some have described it as his “magnum opus,” though it appears to be just a distillation of his four-volume Lordship series. It features the obligatory forward by J. I. Packer, the evangelical equivalent of a papal imprimatur or nihil obstat. John Frame is not my cup of tea. Anyone who writes with such bulk must justify the bulk with imaginative prose and wonder-inducing insights. Frame does neither.
Anyway, I was struck by his odd criticism of Barth’s definition of theology:
Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:
“Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God.” [Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 49-50]
Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and so on.
I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more. The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant. [pp. 4-5]
Frame then goes on to expound his own definition of theology: “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (p. 8). As for the above passage, how on earth does Barr’s criticism apply to Barth’s definition? I am basically familiar with Barr’s criticism of Barth in general, and Barth’s exegesis in particular, but how is Frame connecting this to Barth’s definition of theology? He’s not. It’s just bizarre. Barth is defining theology, not biblical terms like δίκαιος (“righteousness”) and then weighting them with greater theological content than the text allows (which is Barr’s criticism of nearly every theologian!). Moreover, how is Frame’s definition of theology superior? And what’s the point of all of this, besides appearing to be pedantic?
So, I found this section exceedingly curious.
November 22, 2013
Union Presbyterian Seminary has recently published several audio lectures and sermons from John Leith, professor of theology at Richmond for three decades and a fine interpreter of the Reformed tradition. He loved the Reformed tradition in all of its breadth, whether Calvin or the Westminster Assembly or Karl Barth. The lectures can be found at the Foundation for Reformed Theology.
A good place to begin is his lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Forum: “The Reformed Perspective,” from 1978. You can stream or download (right click).
As for books, his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is still the best all-around introduction, serviceable to a broad audience. Your next stop should be his Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making.