Saving Karl Barth

I have been reading D. Stephen Long’s new release, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation. It is such a joy to read this book. So far — in the first two chapters — Long has given us a careful narrative overview of Balthasar’s journey into reading and presenting Barth, his struggles with suspicious fellow Catholics (and suspicious Protestants), and the precise distinctions involved in his analysis and appropriation of Barth, while remaining faithful to Vatican I’s duplex ordo: “Balthasar’s preoccupation, interpretation, and presentation of Barth’s work is much too broad, dynamic, and changing to be encapsulated in any single formula such as ‘from dialectic to analogy'” (37). The first half of the second chapter is a fascinating look at Balthasar’s early work on Barth, works not yet translated into English, leading up to his 1951 monograph on Barth. In the third chapter, he will look at the collapse of Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth among many Catholic and Protestant interpreters today, which includes Long’s evaluation and rejection of Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. The remaining chapters engage Balthasar and Barth through three dogmatic loci: the doctrine of God (ch. 4), ethics (ch. 5), and the church (ch. 6).

In this post, I will provide just one excerpt that should be of interest to those curious about the book (which should be everybody). Long is analyzing Balthasar’s 1944 essay, “Analogie und Dialektik”:

[Balthasar] did not dismiss dialectic but distinguished dialectic as method from dialectic as ontological contradiction. The latter was particularly found in Romans 2, which was a “demonic attempt to think contradiction through all the way to the end.” Once Barth thought it through, without “short-circuiting” or “evasion,” then it inevitably led to the “horizon of analogy” because dialectic as ontological contradiction is a dead end — literally. All it can do is deny and destroy creation; it is one more instance of German apocalypse. For this reason, dialectic alone cannot express well the basic form of Christianity, the incarnation. What Balthasar and Barth shared in common, a commitment to the incarnation as the form of theology, is also what caused their deepest disagreements. For Balthasar, Barth was never merely a dialectical thinker because he was always a Christocentric theologian. Even in the early period, analogy was tacitly necessary. The issue between Catholicism and Barth, and thus between Catholicism and Protestantism, did not really take the form of analogy versus dialectic. That was misleading. Both agreed, given the incarnation, “analogy” is the necessary form Christian theology must take. The real difference was whether the analogy is of being (entis) or of faith (fidei). This difference mattered. Balthasar named it “the last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism. It had a “deadly seriousness” and was something much more than “idle theological bickering.”

Balthasar may have always heard analogy in Barth’s dialectic, but he also heard “identity” even in the “contradiction” of Romans 2, albeit “horribly distorted.” In other words, these stages were not progressive advances. They were failed attempts to express adequately the Christian form. As he had argued in the 1939 essay “Karl Barth and Catholicism,” so he argues here: Barth’s early work collapsed creaturely being into guilty and sinful being. Thus he lacked an adequate concept of nature. His anthropology did not take the form of the fall of a nature, but the nature of falleness. This left nothing for creatures to do but be negated. This was how dialectic as contradiction collapsed back into identity. If creation can only be negated, then it contributed nothing in the soteriological drama. God will be the lone actor. Balthasar acknowledged this is not what Barth sought to affirm, but it was the logical consequence of dialectic as contradiction if it were consistently carried through.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 53-54. Long is translating and quoting from “Analogie und Dialektik,” Divus Thomas 22 (1944), pp. 171-174.]

Long continues to explain precisely what this means, focusing on Balthasar’s distinction between “analogy of being” and “pure nature” (the latter is the real error, a late medieval and Baroque perversion of the former, according to Balthasar). As you can see, Long is able to distill and communicate clearly this rather complex material, which should make the volume accessible even for those students who are fairly new to these debates.

Barth reading - retouched

For those who have read widely in the Church Dogmatics, you know that Barth will occasionally refer to his earlier work, prior to the CD, in order to partially chastise his former self. One such occasion is during his discussion of God’s eternity, located near the end of II.1. I will first set-up the discussion. In God, there is “a readiness of eternity for time” because God is the “prototype and foreordination of time” in his very being (611-612, 618). This “readiness of eternity for time” is Barth’s way of expressing that: creaturely time is wholly contingent upon eternity for its being as time, but God’s time-in-eternity is not dependent on creation for its reality in God’s own life. This readiness “does not compel Him to actualize it” (618).

The “concrete form” of this readiness is then expressed through the categories of pre-temporality, supra-temporality, and post-temporality. In relation to creation, God “precedes its beginning, He accompanies its duration, and He exists after its end” (619). In an excursus, Barth deals with the way in which different periods of Protestant history have prioritized one or an other of these three. The Reformers were too one-sided in their emphasis on pre-temporality, therefore making human life “a kind of appendix” (632). In reaction to this, the modernists made the “far more dangerous” move of emphasizing supra-temporality (God’s present accompaniment), which was duly followed by the late 19th / early 20th century reaction through emphasizing post-temporality (apocalyptic readings of Jesus and Paul).

It is in this last group that Barth recognizes his early work, as a reaction to liberal optimism. As he explains, “In the attempt to free ourselves both from these early forms of one-sidedness, especially from that of pietistic and Liberal Neo-Protestantism, and also from the unsatisfactory corrections with which our predecessors had tried to overcome them, we took the surest possible way to make ourselves guilty of a new one-sidedness and therefore to evoke a relatively justifiable but, in view of the total truth, equally misleading reaction…” (634). Barth then continues with an example, which I love because it perfectly captures what I disliked about his Romans commentary:

Expounding Rom. 8:24, I even dared to say at that time: “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgment and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men of hope, or anything additional?” Well roared, lion! There is nothing absolutely false in these bold words. I still think that I was right ten times over against those who then passed judgment on them and resisted them. Those who can still hear what was said then by both the religious and worldlings, and especially by religious worldlings, and especially the most up-to-date among them, cannot but admit that it was necessary to speak in this way. The sentences I then uttered were not hazardous (in the sense of precarious) on account of their content. They were hazardous because to be legitimate exposition of the Bible they needed others no less sharp and direct to compensate and therefore genuinely to substantiate their total claim. But these were lacking. If we claim to have too perfect an understanding of the Gospel, we at once lose our understanding. In our exposition we cannot claim to be wholly right over against others, or we are at once in the wrong. At that time we had not sufficiently considered the pre-temporality of the Reformers or the supra-temporality of God which Neo-Protestants of all shades had put in such a distorted way at the centre. Hence we had not seen the biblical conception of eternity in its fulness. [634-635]

“Well roared, lion!” You gotta love that. He then recognizes that these early writings were why Bultmann and Tillich could once think of him as a comrade. Of course, Barth is not entirely disowning these early apocalyptic and existential notes, just their capacity to distort the truth of God’s prior and present relationship to creation.

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Image: This is my own retouching of a photo of Barth reading. I removed a significant amount of “noise” in the image (dust and cracks) and slightly brightened it.

On reading Balthasar

April 24, 2014

Balthasar_Herrlichkeit

I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.

Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.

It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.

In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.

In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.

[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]

Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

It would be helpful to read a prior post: “Subordination in God, modal not personal.” That was a brief distillation of why I disagree with Kevin Giles, in his commendable work against subordinationism within “social trinitarianism” of a conservative persuasion. In sum, I argue that subordination is constitutive of God’s essense, but this cannot be ascribed to any “person” of the Trinity if we define person as a distinct, self-subsisting subject of operation. As such, God’s essence would be divided, and the Son’s subordination would entail a different ontology from the Father — hence, “subordinationism,” Giles’ worry. Yet, if we define “person” as a mode of the single divine subject, per Barth, then subordination can be formulated in God’s essence, necessarily both a se and ad extra.

Yet, Barth consistently affirms a genuine relationality in God, such that the divine unity and oneness are not conceptually opposed to fellowship and togetherness. This puts Barth in a unique position vis-à-vis the current controversies. He can say that God “does not exist in solitude but fellowship.” This is the living God — the God who has life and movement in himself and from himself. He is “alive in His unique being with and for and in another” (II.1, 275). God’s unity is not “for oneself” but “for another,” from eternity as the ground in God for his fellowship with creation and our fellowship with one another. This is the God who “includes in Himself the differentiation and relationship of I and Thou,” which is the basis for the imago Dei as man and woman (III.1, 191-192). In God, there is a One and also Another, a first and a second, an above and a below. This does not mean, for Barth, that there is a “society of persons,” which would introduce an all-too-human conception of divine fellowship, but Barth is clearly treading rather close to that view. The difference, of course, is that Barth is rigorously thinking from God’s side, so to speak, and not beginning with our conception of ideal relationship and fellowship, as if to validate the former.

Thus, it is not entirely wrong to align Barth, in some obvious respects, with social trinitarianism, controversial as that claim is today among Barthians — and even if Barth once said, “Modernism has no Doctrine of the Trinity. The notion of a ‘Social Trinity’ is fantastic” (Table Talk, 50)! He means fanciful and wild. Yet, this is the same Barth who later continues this discussion by saying:

In the one essence of God there is togetherness; so there can be love. There are other things in God, such as authority and humility. Our minds cannot unite these, but these are in the one God. I admit a social threeness. The distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ are our distinctions. Why not something different in God: not a division, although a distinction? Yes, the Son prays to the Father, and the Father hears. But this is the divine life. [Table Talk, 58]

It is helpful to look at CD IV.1, §59 (“The Obedience of the Son”). Barth here refers to “two unfortunate and very arbitrary ways of thinking” from which we must free ourselves (IV.1, 202). In the context, Barth is discussing the astonishing claim — the “offensive fact that there is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. And our present concern is with what is apparently the most offensive fact of all, that there is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience” (IV.1, 200-201). What are the unfortunate and arbitrary ways of thinking that militate against recognizing this astonishing claim?

The first consists quite naturally in the idea that unity is necessarily equivalent with being in and for oneself, with being enclosed and imprisoned in one’s own being, with singleness and solitariness. But the unity of God is not like this. It is, of course, exclusively His unity. No other being, no created being, is one with itself as God is. But what distinguishes His peculiar unity with Himself from all other unities or from what we think we know of such unities is the fact that — in a particularity which is exemplary and instructive for an understanding of these others — it is a unity which is open and free and active in itself — a unity in more than one mode of being, a unity of the One with Another, of a first with a second, an above with a below, an origin and its consequences. It is a dynamic and living unity, not a dead and static. Once we have seen this, we will be careful not to regard that mean and unprofitable concept of unity as the last word of wisdom and the measure of all things. And its application to God will be ruled out once and for all.

The second idea we have to abandon is that-even supposing we have corrected that unsatisfactory conception of unity — there is necessarily something unworthy of God and incompatible with His being as God in supposing that there is in God a first and a second, an above and a below, since this includes a gradation, a degradation and an inferiority in God, which if conceded excludes the homoousia of the different modes of divine being. That all sounds very illuminating. But is it not an all too human — and therefore not a genuinely human — way of thinking? For what is the measure by which it measures and judges? Has there really to be something mean in God for Him to be the second, below? Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? Why should not our way of finding a lesser dignity and significance in what takes the second and subordinate place (the wife to her husband) need to be corrected in the light of the homoousia of the modes of divine being? [IV.1, 202]

There is much to discuss in this passage, and I would especially direct students to Barth’s work in II.1, §28 (“The Being of God as the One Who Loves in Freedom”), for further technical analysis of how Barth negotiates with classical theism. For my interests here and elsewhere, I would highlight Barth’s question, “Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack?” That is the general assumption, and Barth is not exactly beloved today for his unfolding of this in CD III.4, §54.1 (“Man and Woman”), even though it follows from his doctrine of God in II.1, the imago Dei in III.1, and the christology in IV.1.

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Image: Karl Barth, probably circa 1910’s or 1920’s, provided by the Universität Freiburg.

Fra Angelico - Beato Angelico Annunciazione, San Marco Museum, Florence

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico

The church is “the description of an event,” according to Barth, the gathering of a people by “the living Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (IV.1, 650). The church is thereby always a miracle. She does not exist or thrive by the ingenuity of man, even though she is susceptible to all of the standard historical tools of cultural analysis at our disposal. The Christian knows what the anthropologist could never discern – that the church is always freely given by grace. The sola gratia of the Reformation applies to the church just as much as it does to our justification and sanctification. Indeed, the true splendor of the church is “the glory of the Lord justifying man and of man justified by the Lord” (657). All other collectives or societies, political or otherwise, seek to maintain and promote some human good. This “society,” the church, is where God seeks and maintains our human good. It is not our achievement, and this society publicly confesses her incapacity to discern this good, much less to maintain it amidst our pride and rebellion.

The purpose of Christ’s work of reconciliation is that a people may be sanctified and brought into a familial relationship with the Father. Thus, our salvation is not individual but communal: “the collective is the purpose” (688). There is no salvation without this entry into a community of “saints,” as Paul addressed his churches. There is no salvation that may bypass our entry into the church. The real presence of Christ is found in the church, and Barth even goes as far to say that the church is “the earthly-historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ Himself” (661). The Christian discovers Christ in his “body,” the church, and she is thereby constituted in this body for the sake of witnessing to Christ in this world. It is in this sense that the church is “essential.” But the “body” remains his body. The church does not guarantee this essence from its own authority, as if Christ “handed over” this responsibility to the church. We can trust that the church shall always prevail against the darkness at her borders (Mt 16.18), but this is not the church’s own doing – indeed, it is very much in spite of the church’s own doing! It is God’s good pleasure that alone ensures the continuing existence of the church. Christ sustains his bride, the church, from his heavenly throne, so that the freedom of his grace may be established on earth as it is in heaven.

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The church as the bride of Christ and the body of Christ are fascinating images, seemingly in contrast. As bride, the church is distinct from Christ; as body, the church is identified with Christ (indeed, “as” Christ in some sense, though Protestants are rightly wary at this point). Yet, if we follow the nuptial union (à la Ephesians 5) then the bride and the bridegroom are united in “one flesh,” and this allows us to bring both the “bride” and “body” images together. The church is the body of Christ because she has been joined with Christ as his bride, forming “one flesh” out of two.

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Image: “Beato Angelico Annunciazione” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455), San Marco Museum, Florence

Why we have gods

April 2, 2014

Fra Angelico - The Mocking of Christ

The false gods are not capable of becoming something less than their exalted and powerful selves – of becoming unworthy of the honor that is their due. They cannot become lowly, for who would cast his lots with a lowly god? Who would worship a lowly god? Therefore, these gods must not and cannot enter “into the far country” – our world of sin and shame and death. The false gods must remain apart and must never become “neighbor to man” (CD IV.1, p. 159). These gods are worshiped and adored precisely because they are not mundane and weak and pathetic as us. Moreover, these gods must not humble themselves to something lower than themselves, an obvious betrayal of their strength and glory. They are what we most desire of ourselves – self-sufficient and healthy and in control, subject to no one.

Man must become divine (through spiritual exercises that sublimate finitude), but the divine must never become man. The “divinity” that is proper to their majesty is incapable of becoming meek and burdened with the load of another. Natural man does not want to carry such burdens, much less would the gods they honor. “In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it” (Ibid.). Barth identifies these gods as a “reflection” of the worshipper, because the gods are a projection of their own desires. They worship themselves through their religious practices. By contrast, the God who made covenant with man is one who condescended to be a neighbor to man, to come alongside him in his hostility to Himself. This is the God who defines his own majesty as one of humility. God does not change from one into the other – for from eternity God is the humble One who became flesh: “for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high” (192).

This humility contrasts with the elemental sin of human pride. The false gods of our own construction have all of the features that we most admire within ourselves, if only we were not limited and bound to forces out of our control. This sin of pride is overcome in the humility of the Son, wherein the Lord becomes servant to man. Man’s pride rejects this God, so man rejected the Son and put him on the Cross. This is God’s judgment on man, a judgment borne in his flesh and destroyed in the same flesh. His death was the death of this sin — the sin of all.

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Image: “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Karl-Barth

This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:

Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?

Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.

[pp. 16-17]

Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950’s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.

D. L. Moody the Barthian

February 25, 2014

Moody

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?

“Yes.”

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.

Poverty_Series_2__900_million_by_liseva

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. [135]

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. [97]

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).

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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.

Calvin window at Rundle United Church, Canada

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!

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Image: Calvin window at Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, Alberta

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