Taking a break from theology and philosophy, I read a history of accounting! Yes. The book is Jane Gleeson-White’s Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance (Norton, 2012). It is the story of how Venetian bookkeeping — “double entry” wherein every transaction is entered twice in separate columns, debit and credit — revolutionized the world. The natural order became controllable and less mysterious, such that nature could be quantified and calculated. The concept of “capital” was born, though not theorized until the late 19th century.

The book is really twofold. The first section, about 2/3 of the book, is a recounting of the history of “double entry,” including the necessity of Arabic numerals and the gradual de-mystification of mathematics. The industrial revolution of the 19th century is when “double entry” would come into its own, resulting in the explosive growth of the newest trade, “accounting,” which fought hard to justify its respectability alongside law and business. The final portion of the book is a fairly swift transition to the financial scandals of the 20th century and, especially, the first decade of this century. It is here that her Keynesian side is most pronounced, irksome to many reviewers. I appreciate both the strong points of Keynes and his opposition at the University of Chicago, so I was not bothered. I rather enjoyed her passionate defense of federal regulation. Her main thesis is that far too much that is valuable to humans — the environment is the main example — is not “quantified” and thereby “valued” by all of the measures for a nation’s well-being and success (such as the GDP). This is especially problematic for developing countries where vast natural resources are not measured and, as a result, do not account for the country’s value in the global market, until these resources become commodified. This thesis is set alongside a parallel thesis, tangentially related, about the manipulation of financial records by accounting firms (and auditors), with hardly any “accountability” of their own because accounting is treated as purely objective (“scientific”) and above reproach. This will be the most compelling to a broad range of readers.

You can watch a presentation of the book: “Monks, Maths, and Magic.”

Jane Gleeson-White


January 28, 2014


For those who are interested in the exciting world of evangelical debates over the atonement — scope, efficacy, and related concerns — then I commend the following:

Two Tales of a Doctrine: Reviewing Definite Atonement

The book in review is From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway, 2013), a rather large volume of essays defending the doctrine of limited atonement, the dominant (not unanimous) view of scholastic Calvinism. As for the reviews, Tom McCall from TEDS represents the Arminian side, and Aaron Denlinger from Reformation Bible College represents the Reformed side. In particular, I appreciate Denlinger’s points about hypothetical universalism, which is effectively “de-Reformed” in the book, contrary to the tradition. Denlinger is a good guy, who I enjoyed meeting a few times while at Aberdeen. He knows this stuff backwards and forwards. David Gibson, one of the volume’s editors, is also a sharp guy. He was finishing his doctorate at Aberdeen, while co-pastoring a Church of Scotland parish (which has since departed the C of S) that I attended when the university chapel was not in session.


While I’m recommending reviews, I see that Thomas Schreiner from Southern Seminary has posted a lengthy review of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013). His review is in the latest issue of Credo Magazine, which is free online. The review is pp. 26-56. I just started reading it, so I cannot opine yet. While Southern Seminary is, needless to say, not my style of Calvinism, I have always appreciated Schreiner’s integrity and fairness. His latest book, The King in His Beauty, is a joy to read.

I realize that I have never discussed Wright or the New Perspective on this blog. I actually did my undergraduate dissertation on Paul (and Christian mysticism), for which I read Sanders for the first time. This was in the mid-00’s. Since then, I have tried to keep abreast with the debates in Pauline scholarship, including the newer variant offered by Douglas Campbell at Duke. Yet, it is hard for me to get really excited about these debates. The good things in Wright (and the NPP more generally) I have since imbibed from Barth, such as the “faithfulness of Christ” emphasis. Appropriately, Barth manages to maintain this emphasis while sufficiently attending to the substitutionary depths of δίκαιος, which Wright reduces (in my opinion) to a historical construction that is remarkably limited and shallow. I do not have the time or energy to defend this, but I know that my impressions are widely shared among theologians of a more systematic orientation.

Emil Brunner revisited

January 27, 2014


In a previous post, we looked at D. Stephen Long’s new study of Balthasar. Now, I am also excited to announce Alister McGrath’s latest, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal. I assume that McGrath’s interest in Brunner is an extension of his recent work in natural theology. This includes The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, as well as his 2009 Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (published here) and his 2009-10 Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge (published here).

Emil Brunner was one of the most creative theologians working within the expansive movement of “mediating theology,” though with a decisively Kantian orientation that stressed the Creator’s transcendence (not “becoming” through creation). Barth saw that he was basically a mediating theologian, regardless of Brunner’s severe criticisms of Schleiermacher and the whole prior century of theology. They were both Swiss Reformed pastors in the 1910’s, professors of dogmatic theology by the 1920’s, and collaborators in the fledgling movement of Reformation retrieval in the service of dialectical criticism of the liberal hegemony in church and academy. As Barth’s rejection of natural theology became more comprehensive and clear, he broke ranks with Brunner, receiving notorious attention with the publication of No!, in response to Brunner’s Nature and GraceThis is not Barth at his conciliatory best, and he would later express some regret for his treatment of Brunner. For an insider’s account of their relationship, see this interview with I. John Hesselink.

As I look at my bookshelves, I own thirteen volumes of Brunner’s translated works. My own focus and stimulus has been provided more by Barth, who Brunner recognized as obviously the most important theologian of their day, but Brunner is stimulating and challenging in his own way. He was, after all, one of the first theologians to accurately gauge the significance of Barth’s project, including the radical reversal of nature-grace and law-gospel (to grace-nature and gospel-law), which Brunner thought was a rather presumptuous thing to do! John W. Hart has a fascinating account of the Barth-Brunner correspondence in For the Sake of the World.

A good place to begin with Brunner is his important work in christology, The Mediator (1927), which is available free online. His books are still published by Lutterworth Press in the UK, but you can easily find used copies for a reasonable price. His other works include Reason and Revelation (prolegomena), Man in Revolt (anthropology), The Divine Imperative (ethics), and his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews in 1948, Christianity and Civilization, in 2 volumes. There are also a few collections of sermons and a three-volume Dogmatics.

David Gilland (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg) has recently published a fine study, Law and Gospel in Emil Brunner’s Earlier Dialectical Theology. He has also translated the Barth-Brunner letters, which should be published in the near future.

For a certain type of evangelical who is hyper-sensitive to “biblical authority” issues, you will not like Brunner. I have my own criticisms. But please, it is time to expand your horizons and start reading outside of the Crossway orbit. In fact, Brunner is actually the finest exponent of Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever read, as expressed in the third volume of his Dogmatics and elsewhere. He was a pietist at heart. See “Billy Graham among the theologians.”

Barth’s universalism

January 22, 2014

Barth with pipe

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 to say, man’s “justification, sanctification, and calling” in Jesus Christ. However, the question of Barth’s “universalism” is more commonly in reference to whether he affirmed that all people, by the Holy Spirit, would receive our “proper being” in Jesus Christ. That is the sense in which we ask the question, “Is Karl Barth a universalist?”

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. [149]

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.

Hank and Anita

January 22, 2014

This clip is such a treasure. It is a rare duet from Hank Williams and Anita Carter. So pure and natural. Their vocals are perfect together. And I think Anita may have a crush on Hank! Enjoy.

This is an excerpt from the BBC documentary, The Hank Williams Story.


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

[p. 257]

You gotta love that. Brilliant and irresponsible as usual!

Saving Karl Barth

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.

The Joy of Presbyterian Sex

January 13, 2014

Attracting the "male gaze"!!

Probably not a Presbyterian

Camille Paglia is a libertarian feminist and anti-feminist, which is appropriately confusing. She received renewed attention recently thanks to her criticisms of A&E for (temporarily) suspending Phil Robertson, though her own views are expressly “affirmative,” as they say, of homosexuality.

I decided to read her article in The New Republic, “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,” from December 2, 1991. The article is a review of the Presbyterian Church (USA) report, Keeping Body and Soul Together, which purports to offer an enlightened, contemporary, and relevant understanding of human sexuality. It was widely rejected at the General Assembly of that year, though I doubt we could say the same today.

Paglia’s rousing criticisms of the PCUSA report are a riot! I do not offer this as any “support” for Paglia, with whom I surely disagree on a number of things. Yet, I think she has identified, with marvelous rhetorical skill, the Gnostic frame of mind that dominates liberal Protestantism, which has a parallel on the right to be sure. I am using “Gnostic” in the sense of failing to comprehend or appreciate gender dynamics and power — as capable of being creational goods. The Gnostic ideal was an androgynous, powerless “beyond” our material given reality. The Cathars were especially enthusiastic about this.

(I am aware that feminism predicates itself upon a renewed awareness and affirmation of “embodiedness,” especially of “the other,” so I am obviously rejecting their pretensions to extol the body — or creation in general — much less “the other.” Karl Barth, by contrast, does do this in his exegesis of the imago Dei as “male and female.” Feminism does not.)

The article is not available online, so I had to pull it from our seminary library databases. For those without such access, here are some choice excerpts:

Keeping Body and Soul Together offers itself as a profound, compassionate, and expertly researched statement on contemporary sexuality. But it is a repressive, reactionary document. Its language is banal, its ideas simplistic, its view of human nature naive and sentimental. Above all, its claims of sexual liberalism are false. It reduces the complexities and mysteries of eroticism to a clumsy, outmoded social-welfare ideology. The old-style Protestant suppression of the passions, torments, and untidy physicalities of the body is in fact still abundantly evident in the report, which, in its opening premise of “the basic goodness of sexuality,” projects a happy, bouncy vision of human life that would have made Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds—those ’50s blond divas— proud.

Keeping Body and Soul Together demonstrates the chaos and intellectual ineptitude in the fashionable liberal discourse on sex that now fills the media and the academic and political worlds. All human problems are blamed on an unjust social system, a “patriarchy” of gigantic and demonized dimensions, blanketing history like a river of molasses. The report paints a grotesque picture of America. …”Sexual violence”—bizarrely dubbed the “incarnational heresy”—takes “diverse forms,” including “catcalls, cartoons, snide asides,” rock videos, and Playboy. Humor, irony, satire, and bawdiness are evidently politically incorrect in the eyes of the new sexual commissars.

The report assails the “influential tradition of radical asceticism” in “Western Christianity” that expresses “body-alienation,” “fear of sex and, in particular, of women.” It assumes that eremites and monks were not contemplatives but killjoys, neurotics, and misogynists, scowling while the rest of the world caroused, footloose and fancy free. The report complains of “our cultural captivity to a patriarchal model of sexuality and its ethic of sexual control,” as if sexual rules and taboos were not prevalent in every culture. There is no sense whatever that asceticism exists in other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, where it has the highest spiritual status. There is no reference even to pre-Christian thought in our own tradition: Greco-Roman philosophy regularly addresses moderation, restraint, and abstinence. Socrates, after all, remained chaste through his tempting night with the beautiful Alcibiades.

The committee members seem to have read nothing in their lives but feminist tracts churned out since 1969. …But there is something deeper at work in the report than contemporary platitudes and ignorance of world history and culture. It is the revival of the old Protestant ethic, masquerading in hip new clothes. Like so much current feminist ideology, this supposedly liberal statement on sexuality represents not progressive thinking but a throwback to pre-’60s conventionalism: rigid, narrow, and puritanical. …

“Eros,” says the report’s glossary, is “a zest for life.” Is this a soap commercial? Eros, like Dionysus, is a great and dangerous god. The report gives us vanilla sex, smothered with artificial butterscotch syrup. In its liberal zeal to understand, to accept, to heal, it reduces the grand tragicomedy of love and lust to a Hallmark card. Its unctuous normalizing of dissident sex is imperialistic and oppressive. …

The committee members seem to have a foggy idea that all guilt and shame in human life come from either a lack of “loving full of joyful caring” or from cold patriarchal institutions, those useless, totalitarian structures that we must, as part of a “global struggle,” dismantle as quickly as possible to achieve a blissful “egalitarian” society. To which one must reply: go read King Lear to see the anarchy and wolfishness, the primitive regression that results from a sentimental deconstruction of social institutions. Stormy nature, in our hearts and beyond the gates, is ready to consume us all. …

Life without guilt or shame would be found only in sociopaths and the lobotomized. In our culture, guilt may automatically accompany the construction and reinforcement of identity in earliest infancy, from which comes our entire ability to function as autonomous adults. As I got into my car recently on the way to work, I was greeted by a two-year-old neighbor boy who had wandered out of the house without his pants on. Waving cheerfully, he stood on the curb nude from the waist down and with his sister’s purse on his arm. Contemplating his enviable happiness, I could not help but reflect that bare-bottomed purse-carrying would be short-lived in his future. But he will gain and not lose identity by his instruction in our particular social codes. Rules governing sex and gender are always relative but are not necessarily authoritarian. …

The primary error of the report is its collapsing of the social sphere of life into the overlapping but quite different sexual, spiritual, and emotional sphere. It assumes that spirituality is linked to or predicated on social reform. Like many feminists, the committee believes that adjusting the social mechanism, whether through re-education or passing more regulations, will eliminate the turbulence between the sexes. But most of the sexual and emotional sphere of life is unreachable by legislation or by verbal formulas of any kind. Christian misogyny cannot be blamed for the suffering of the lovesick Sappho, six centuries before the birth of Christ, or for the humiliation of Catullus, obsessed with the faithless, promiscuous Clodia. Homer’s portraits of the femmes fatales Helen, Circe, and Calypso tell us much more about the magic irrationalism of sex than do the bitterly anti-male tracts of current feminism that underlie the Presbyterian report. …

The Presbyterian report waffles, calling sexuality “always culturally encoded” or “socially constructed” on one page and “God’s gracious gift” elsewhere. It is a critical confusion. …

The Presbyterian report, confronted with conflict, tries to smother it with all-absolving salve. It wants acceptance for its victimized groups without real understanding. It confidently predicts that the ideal future family will be “nonpatriarchal” and will function “on a friendship model.” In wonderful “countercultural zones,” we are told, “such families will exhibit both closeness and spaciousness, and offer its members room and resources for stretching and growing.” Sound familiar? It’s the chipper Chamber of Commerce language of a country club brochure, the authentic voice of 1950s American Protestantism, with its trimmed-lawn view of sex and emotion. Pardon me: I happen to think that Italian opera and African-American rhythm and blues contain the real truth about sex, with its Dionysian energies and ungovernable intensities.

The Presbyterian report is so skittish about the physical facts of our mortal life that it argues, ‘The tendency in our culture to consider birth children more authentically related to their parents than adopted children are to theirs is rooted in a fundamentally patriarchal understanding of family in which children are seen as possessions.” This is Orwellian logic approaching lunacy. Birth children emerge from their mother’s body, a primal, concrete, sensory relatedness unconnected to and prior to patriarchy. In its political scheme, the Presbyterian report exalts love but represses biology, through which love gains material expression. …

That is probably my favorite paragraph. You will enjoy reading the whole thing if you can get a copy. I left-out some of the more obvious things that I would disagree with — related to her libertarian views and exaltation of gay “sedition.”


Image: “Yesterday’s Love” by WinterWolf


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. [467]

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.

ryan bingham2

It’s time for a little respite from Simone Weil. So, let’s talk about cowboys! Why not.

In a previous post from last year, we looked at the creativity of early country music, as discussed in Richard Peterson’s fascinating study, Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). In short, the leading producers, talent scouts, promoters, and record executives — at the dawn of country music in the 1920’s and 30’s — hated country music! As Peterson put it, “In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience.” So they did not interfere, and pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff could develop their sound as they saw fit.

At the risk of over-romanticizing, it can indeed be said that this was the music of the rural Southern worker, who had migrated to cotton mills and other factories that sprouted across the South. Away from home, they longed for the music of their upbringing. A few upstart businessmen in Atlanta and elsewhere discovered that the ragtime, jazz, and blues from Tin Pan Alley (NYC) was not really what these workers wanted to hear. So they began recording some of the fiddlers and pickers that were popular within these communities, and — to their surprise — the records sold briskly! Country music, as a commercial enterprise, was born.

The other significant contribution came from AM radio stations, namely those with a clear-channel signal that would reach beyond the cities and far into the rural country. The most important and most famous is WSM in Nashville, which is still going strong. WSM had a little show called, The Grand Ole Opry, which was based upon a “hillbilly” comedy-and-song format that had become popular at a few other AM stations. In 1942, Roy Acuff created his own label in Nashville, which attracted other country artists who were being exploited elsewhere, many having traveled to NYC to get recorded. Acuff signed Hank Williams in 1946, who would take country music to new heights of success. At this time, Nashville was not the “hub” of country music. There was none. It could have just as easily been Atlanta or New Orleans, if not Chicago or New York! It was the combined success of the Opry and Acuff’s record label that attracted other labels. Nashville quickly became synonymous with country music.

So, how do cowboys come into the picture?

In the early days, if you wanted to perform in a public venue, you would dress-up in your Sunday best. And, that is naturally what the earliest country performers did. Suit and tie — usually the only nice set of clothes they owned. However, the “hillbilly” image became popular, and most artists began to play the role — regardless of whether they were actually from the mountains or not! This dominated the country music image well into the 30’s, and “hillbilly music” (not “country music”) was the most common name for the genre.

But, the hillbilly image had limited appeal to a broader range of listeners. Even in the South, “hillbilly” was not necessarily a beloved epithet and could denote lazy or ignorant. Meanwhile in cinemas across the country, a string of “western” flicks were depicting the adventures and excitement of the cowboy’s life. And long before this, in the 19th century, the folk stories of frontiersmen like Davy Crockett had captured the imagination of the people. The cowboy was a ready image for country artists looking for a new way to express themselves. In the 30’s and 40’s, Gene Autry became famous as “the singing cowboy” in a series of popular western films. The cowboy image quickly took off, with Hank Williams being a notable example.

The “cowboy” signifies courage and strength, combined with passion and self-sacrifice. It was very much a chivalrous image. It also signifies a free spirit, on the open range. Interestingly, this aspect of the cowboy image would be taken-up by the “trucker” image in the 1970’s. Truckers became the “cowboys” on the open highways and “outlaws” if the situation demanded it! (See the movie, Convoy, for example, and most famously, the Bandit!)

So, there you have it. That is how the cowboy became the dominant image in country music and frequently a motif in the music’s storytelling. Real cowboys, let it be known, were not known for writing songs or carrying a guitar on their saddle! But it has become ingrained in the imagination of Southern folkways, even if you live east of the Mississippi River (as I do) among cotton fields and tobacco farms, not open ranges for steering cattle. As someone who values imagination and folkways, I am fine with that.

And here is my favorite cowboy-themed song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” from George Strait:

This is just a perfectly crafted song. No frills. Just perfect.


The picture above is Ryan Bingham, one of the most gifted country artists today. Begin here.