March 14, 2015
I will attempt the impossible. In the course of two blog posts, I will try to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s infamous proposals for a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. There is a vast literature of academic discussion on Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, especially these particular letters from April to July of 1944, and the continuity or discontinuity with his earlier works. For the sake of blogging brevity (my go-to excuse!), I will have to ignore most of that.
Below is part one, and I will soon post a follow-up next week, discussing Bonhoeffer’s cryptic complaints about Barth’s “posivitism of revelation.” There, I will register some criticisms, not surprisingly.
In a letter to Eberhard Bethge from prison in Tegel, 30 April 1944, Bonhoeffer signals some new developments in his theological reflections, which then reappear in subsequent letters. And it is best that we label these as “reflections” or even “musings,” given the suggestive and piecemeal nature of this epistolary material. Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer intends them to be taken seriously, as the most recent fruit of his fertile mind. He is quite aware of the radical nature of these suggestions, warning Bethge that he “would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to….” What are these thoughts and conclusions? They deal with Bonhoeffer’s proposal for a “religionless” Christianity, or better yet, a “non-religious interpretation” of Christianity. We will look closely at the precise way in which Bonhoeffer expresses himself, focusing on this question of non-religious interpretation.
Bonhoeffer has spent his life discerning who is Christ and especially who is Christ for the church and for us today. He is imprisoned for his own commitment to the sole lordship of Christ and his demand for us now. He informs Bethge that these questions have been “bothering him incessantly,” and it appears that the pressure to revisit these questions anew has come from his assessment of the society of his day. As Bonhoeffer sees it, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.” But what does he mean by “religious”? His explanation is grounded in the recent philosophical and cultural developments of Western society. There was once a “religious a priori,” according to Bonhoeffer, which supported and sustained religious man, which is to say virtually every man in religious society. This a priori is the metaphysical foundation, or background, or framework upon or through which religious man understands himself and his relation to God. As such, it provided the “plausibility structure,” to borrow from Peter Berger, for how the divine exists and interacts with the finite realm. It also provided the inwardness or self-consciousness of religious man in relation to spiritual matters, where God is a necessary and vital corollary. This religious man is disappearing, according to Bonhoeffer, and so the church must ask, “How do we speak of God – without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God’?” Moreover, this metaphysics for the last nineteen hundred years, in Bonhoeffer’s view, has led us to consider ourselves as “specially favored,” as belonging to another reality other than the concrete world to which we belong. And, thus, there is a moral component to Bonhoeffer’s criticisms, namely that this metaphysics distracts and takes us away from our neighbor who wholly belongs to this world with us.
In a subsequent letter to Bethge, written on the same day, Bonhoeffer continues with his reflections about a Christianity without religion, further clarifying what he has in mind. It is here that Bonhoeffer expresses his dissatisfaction with apologetic theology and faith, where God only appears as the cause or sufficient explanation for the unknown or inexplicable. As Bonhoeffer explains:
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, wither for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries.
The problem with this sort of religious faith is that the boundaries are ever decreasing as humanity advances in its knowledge of the world. This God of the gaps is a desperate attempt to “reserve some space for God,” even as the gaps continue to close. But more importantly for Bonhoeffer, it places God on the boundaries of life, in the ignorance or in the weaknesses of our fragile life. This is even true of those existentialist theologies that have acknowledged the failure of “the God of the gaps” approach.
In this other type of apologetic theology, God is the explanation for our guilt or sense of alienation. And, thus, the popular existentialism of Bonhoeffer’s day appealed to the “ultimate questions” of death and guilt, to which only God can provide a satisfying answer. For Bonhoeffer, the world is generally quite happy and content with itself, and so we have the amusing situation when an existentialist theologian like Tillich “sought to understand the world better than it understood itself.” All of these strategies fail, according to Bonhoeffer, because they are all making God into the answer to our problems, whether intellectual or existential, instead of having God first and foremost as the “center of life” itself and in its entirety. This is the God of life and love, not just death and guilt.
 Ibid., 280.
 Ibid., 281.
 Ibid., 281-282.
 Ibid., 282.
 Ibid., 326.
 Ibid., 327. Bonhoeffer would later refer to this as “clerical tricks” (p. 346).
See part two.
March 4, 2015
This is a rather technical theological discussion. You are forewarned.
In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In this commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). Barth recognizes, in the CD, that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.
In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.
And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:
I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]
You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:
Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]
In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.
But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.
February 26, 2015
Yesterday, the Henry Center at TEDS posted a debate between Douglas Campbell (Duke Divinity School) and Douglas Moo (Wheaton College) on Paul’s doctrine of justification. This debate will garner wide interest. I just finished watching it, and I can highly recommend it. Moo is well-known for his several commentaries on Paul’s epistles and as a leading biblical scholar in the American evangelical academy, including his work on the new edition of the NIV a few years ago. Campbell is that rarest of things: a biblical scholar who is an unapologetic Barthian, happy to utilize systematic and confessional categories. You should watch his advice to students.
As the debate progressed, I thought the discussion got more and more interesting, all the way into the Q and A. Campbell and Moo are irenic and respectful throughout. I would have liked to see more exegetical work, but it serves well as an overview of their respective positions.
Embedding is disabled, so you will have to click on the link and watch it on YouTube.
If you are new to these issues, then you would do well to read Joshua Jipp’s introduction to the debate: “Re-Reading Paul: What is Being Said and Why It Matters.” Jipp’s summary of Campbell is probably the clearest that you will find anywhere.
Tip of the hat to Jennifer Guo for alerting us to this debate.
Image: The Carl F.H. Henry Center
December 29, 2014
At the end of last year, I did a retrospective listing of the blog’s content for 2013. Now it is time for 2014. This is helpful, I hope, for newer visitors to the blog or as a refresher for longtime visitors. As I expected, the top “category” for this past year is Karl Barth, and that is probably true for every year since I started the blog. That’s not counting the music category, of course!
Without further ado, here is a look at 2014 here at After Existentialism, Light:
Hans Urs von Balthasar
On German Theology
“Worldview” Gone Wild
(Sarcasm alert) Al Mohler is more humble than evolutionists
For the troubled and tried (Spurgeon)
Against “illuminating the human condition” (Hauerwas)
Image: Jorge Alvariño & Ali Larr
December 10, 2014
If you have not read it yet, you must read Peter Leithart’s review of Khaled Anatolios’ defense of “person” language, and what that entails, in the doctrine of the Trinity:
I have touched upon this issue in the past. In particular, I am fascinated by where Barth would stand in the current discussion. It is not easy to say. As I have blogged before — Barth and the “fellowship in the Trinity — he can be appropriated by both sides, those for and against social or personalist models of the Trinity. I also discussed these matters here: “In God, subordination is not deprivation,” which is one of my favorite posts.
Image: Khaled Anatolios (source: Boston College)
November 29, 2014
I have previously blogged one of my favorite Q/A’s from Karl Barth’s Table Talk:
Here is another favorite of mine, about the conversation between theology and “the world”:
Student: What is the relation of the Church to the world, with its science and philosophy? Why is dogmatics necessary for fruitful contact and conversation?
Barth: You speak of conversation, but what does this mean? Conversation takes place when one party has something new and interesting to say to the other. Only then is conversation an event. One must say something engaging and original, something with an element of mystery. The Church must sound strange to the world if it is not to be dull. The Church’s language has its own presuppositions. The Gospel is good news, news that is not known. Even we Christians will find ourselves in conflict with the Gospel, for it is always news and new for us too. The secularized Church is peaceful, but not a light in the world. The Church must be salt and light, but in order to be these, it must clarify its presuppositions. Thus the necessity of dogmatics! Even philosophers will not listen to a theologian who makes concessions, who is half-philosopher himself. But when you ring the bell of the Gospel, philosophers will listen! For the past two centuries most theologians have been cowards, and the result was that the philosophers despised them. There is no reason for theologians to be afraid. We may read philosophers (and we should!) without accepting their presuppositions. We may listen respectfully (I have a holy respect for a good philosopher!). We can learn much from philosophy and science. But as theologians we must be obedient to the Word.
[Karl Barth’s Table Talk, ed. John Godsey, p. 19. Originally published by John Knox Press in 1963.]
September 23, 2014
In the “letters to the editor” portion of the latest issue of First Things (October 2014), George Hunsinger responds to Matthew Rose’s attempted take-down of Karl Barth in the June issue. Among others, I wrote a response, “Barth’s failure?” Within Barth studies, I am close to Hunsinger’s interpretation of Barth, so we both highlight similar points, namely Rose’s unacknowledged indebtedness to a particular reading of Barth, which was itself not very well presented.
After Hunsinger’s letter, there is also a brief response from David Congdon, unfortunately not available online without a subscription. Congdon rightly challenges the claim that Barth depended upon “Kantian epistemological concepts” that are grounded in “secular axioms regarding human reason,” ignoring the Scriptural warrant that was Barth’s only justification for proceeding forth with his project.
Rose responds to Hunsinger and, very briefly, to Congdon. His response is also not available online without a subscription. In response to Hunsinger, Rose basically says that the ambiguity in Barth’s doctrine of God is the problem. But this is not the thrust of Rose’s essay, where he is quite confident that Barth was a disastrous anti-metaphysical plague in the bloodstream of modern theology. In regard to Congdon, he has the odd reply, “David Congdon insists that Barth finds his epistemology in Scripture. Here we have another version of the same problem. I don’t think Barth was unsuccessful in doing this. I think it cannot be done” (p. 11).
Huh? If it cannot be done, then Barth was unsuccessful in doing it.
September 22, 2014
With a snappy title like, “God’s Eternal Self-Consciousness,” you know this post is going to be good! An alternative title could have been, “The Aseity of a Personal God,” which is just as catchy!
If you have ever struggled to explain how the Trinity is necessary for a personal God, then this is what you say:
The idea of the Trinity of essence is one with the idea of the Divine personality; and, therefore, to have an ontological conception of the essential Trinity is to have a conception of the form which is fundamental and necessary to the personal life of God; is to have a conception of those momenta of the essence of God, without which personality and self-consciousness are inconceivable. It is true, both ancient and modern Arianism is of opinion that God may be a personal God without being a Trinity, and that the personality of God is sufficiently secured if we represent to ourselves a “God the Father,” to whom we attribute self-consciousness and will . But we ask, — is it possible for us not merely to imagine to ourselves, but to think, that God could have been from eternity conscious of Himself as a Father, if He had not from eternity distinguished Himself from Himself as the Son, and if He had not been as eternally one with the Son in the unity of the Spirit? Or, in other words, Is it possible to conceive of God as eternal self-consciousness without conceiving of Him as eternally making Himself his own object? When, therefore, following in the footsteps of the Church, we teach that not merely the Father, but also the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally pre-existed and are independent of creation, we say that God could not be the self-revealed, self-loving God, unless He had eternally distinguished Himself into I and Thou (into Father and Son), and unless He had eternally comprehended Himself as the Spirit of Love, who proceeds forth from that relation of antithesis in the Divine essence.
[Hans Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, p. 107]
This is applicable to how God can be personal while preserving his aseity and freedom vis-à-vis creation. In a Unitarian reckoning, you can have a personal “Father” God in relation to the creation, but then creation would be necessary for this personal dimension of God. By contrast, if God is self-constituted in his essence as an I and Thou, then he can exist in free relation to his creation as the One who has life and fellowship in himself (using Barth’s language).
However, Martensen turns to the love of God as the basis for establishing a certain necessity between God and the world for God’s perfection (see below). So, whereas Martensen does not use the personal relations of God per se to make such a connection, he turns to the attribute of love, established by these personal relations, in order to do so.
Martensen has an intriguing account of the Holy Spirit as the free, ethical relation of God to himself, which would not be the case if his love terminated in the Son alone. And it is this free “procession” within the Triune God that is the basis for creation ad extra (see p. 110). It is at this point where Martensen ventures into questionable statements about the necessity of creation for a loving God, which he has avoided heretofore. For example, he states that “perfect love is not merely the love of God to Himself, to His own perfection, but must also be conceived as love to what is imperfect; in other words, it must be conceived as the will to create a world, one of whose essential features is the need of God…” (111). The divine blessedness becomes perfect only when the grace and love of God are fulfilled in the “glorious liberty” of his children:
[The divine blessedness] then for the first time becomes perfect, in so far as it is the will of God not merely to rest in His eternal majesty — for in this the Triune God was able to rest independently of the world, before the foundations of the world were laid; but to rest and be blessed in the completed work of grace and love, in the glorious liberty of the children of God, — a goal which will not be reached until, in the words of the Apostle Paul, God shall be all in all. [112-113]
So, God is able to rest eternally in his “majesty,” but that would be less than the “blessedness” of revealing and consummating his love to a dependent creation. As such, an attribute (or perfection) of God requires the existence of a creation ad extra. For some of us, usually Reformed sorts, that would undermine the freedom of grace, toward creation, by turning it into a necessity for God’s perfection. Not surprisingly, he faults Calvin for not recognizing this mutually constituting relation between God and his free creatures (p. 115).
However, Martensen tries to avoid the Reformed criticism, as I see it, by designating this “lack in God” as a “superfluity”:
In a certain sense one may say that God created the world in order to satisfy a want in Himself; but the idea of God’s love requires us to understand this want as quite as truly a superfluity. For this lack in God is not, as in the God of pantheism, a blind hunger and thirst after existence, but is identical with the inexhaustible riches of that liberty which cannot but will to reveal itself. From this point of view, it will be clear, in what sense we reject the proposition, and in what sense we accept it, “without the world God is not God.” 
Whether this notion of a “superfluous” necessity is convincing, the reader will have to decide. I have my doubts. Nonetheless, the doctrine of the Trinity in Martensen’s dogmatics is highly stimulating and beautifully expressed. I recommend it to one and all!
Image: Trinity Window at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Asheville, North Carolina
August 26, 2014
The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,
Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)
Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.
As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!
Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:
To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?
A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.
[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]
Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”
May 15, 2014
I am glad to see that David Congdon has offered his own evaluation and criticism of Matthew Rose’s FT article, “Karl Barth’s Failure.”
Congdon and I both agree that Barth rejects natural theology “on his own theological terms.” We also both read Barth as a “modern” in important respects, and there is actually a fair amount of consensus in the divided world of Barth studies on this point. (Even the most “conservative” among us have long assumed the importance of Schleiermacher’s christocentrism and Hegel’s historicism for Barth, even as we disagree on what this means materially in Barth’s dogmatics.) So, the difference is that Congdon reads Barth as more of a modern theologian than I am willing to concede, precisely on those questions of “historical consciousness” and the conditions in which theology operates. Nonetheless, Congdon’s piece is an excellent and spirited defense of Barth from a different framework, well worth your time to read. I would like to see more from other “Barth bloggers,” but Congdon has probably already said what many others would have offered.