Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria

Trueman on Why Engage Karl Barth Even If You Think He’s Weird

engaging Barth.jpgThis Fall I’ll be taking a semester reading course on the massively influential, 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. I’ll be focusing on his doctrine of God, with a particular emphasis on his treatment of the divine attributes or “perfections”, to use his terminology. My hope is that it will help me do some preparatory work in thinking through the structure and shape of the doctrine of God for my (hopefully) eventual dissertation on the attribute of God’s holiness.

Also, I’ve been wanting an excuse to take a deep dive into his Church Dogmatics for a while. So there’s that as well.

As a Reformed(ish) Evangelical, mentioning that you’re going to be spending time with Karl Barth may raise some eyebrows, though. Well, not in all circles. (Even here at Trinity, in the house that Carl Henry built, we’re regularly encouraged and expected to be able to read widely beyond traditionally Evangelical authors.)

Still, Barth’s kind of odd and difficult to understand on some key points of doctrine. And when even when you can understand him, he says some things about Scripture, God’s being, etc. that have left people predictably (and not unfairly) uncomfortable. Even (maybe especially) if you’ve never read him, you know to be cautious.

There’s a fear that once you dive in, you might get become disoriented in the haze of all that heavy dialectic and be lost, if not to Orthodoxy, then at least to the regular patterns of English language usage.

So what value is there for someone of fairly traditional theological instincts for spending so much time poring over his mountainous tomes and the mists of difficult secondary that enshroud them? Especially if you suspect you might spend a fair amount of time disagreeing with him?

Carl Trueman actually has one of the better answers for the skeptical.

In the foreword to a collection of essay by Evangelicals interacting with Karl Barth on a host of issues, Trueman sort of sets the scene for why Barth remains such a relevant figure for Evangelical theological interest. Towards the end he lists a few issues like the appeal of his dynamic doctrine of Scripture, some of the cross-appeal with developments in philosophy of language, and the focus on narrative in theology.

At this point he asks, “But is Barth the answer?”

On one level, I would most definitely say no. For myself, I believe Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, offers a more helpful resource on each of these points; but, on another level, interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value. I often tell my students that great theologians are most helpful at precisely those points where I disagree with them, for it is there I am forced to wrestle most passionately, and there that my own thought is clarified and strengthened.

Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiquesed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange (15)

So, first off: Herman Bavinck, y’all. ‘Nuff said.

But more seriously, at the almost purely negative level, then, Trueman says that wrestling with a high-caliber thinker you know you disagree with can help you more fully grasp the logic of your own position, as well as strengthen your theological resolve.

I have seen that time and again, especially in my readings in atonement theology. Some of the most beneficial works I have read were the critiques, precisely because the strength and force of their objections forced me to clarify points at which my thought was too fuzzy. Or in other cases, I had to work to ground my logic even deeper in Scripture, studying passages more deeply in their context and so forth.

Put less negatively, with creative thinkers like Barth, the very “weirdness” of some of the moves they make stretch you and press you deeper into the logic of the issue.

For instance, reading about the way Barth has reordered and coordinated his reading of God’s attributes in distinction to the classical discussion has helped some blocks start to fall into place for me. Instead of treating the more “metaphysical” or incommunicable attributes of “freedom” like independence, omnipresence, and so forth first, as the tradition typically did, Barth flips the order and deals with attributes of “loving” like holiness, patience, and so forth. But why?

To overly-simplify, thought that starting out with the attributes that give you free, independent God tended to leave you with problems when you got around to thinking about that free God setting about actually loving anything outside himself. The metaphysical logic of independence seems to take over undermine our ability to talk about God’s love. In order to counterbalance that problem, Barth starts with the God who definitely loves, and then sets about thinking through how this God is free.

Of course, what’s fascinating is that when you start thinking through developments in 20th Century theology, much of looks like an exercise in making the opposite “mistake” (if you buy Barth’s critique). So much theology starts with an account God’s loving (process, panentheism, etc.) and then has all kinds of trouble talking about God’s freedom or independence. To engage in a bit of clarifying caricature, instead of a cold, self-contained, metaphysical box, you’ve got a warm, co-dependent, metaphysical mess.

In which case, you start begin see some of the appeal of the old logic a bit better in hindsight. But that sort of thing becomes clearer in light of the sort of transitional figure like Barth that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the (over-neat) camps.

And that’s just one example.

Now, given what I have read of Barth in the past, I’m hopeful reason to read Barth for the simple, positive reason that Barth was brilliant. So I’m thinking I’ll profit plenty beyond the weirdness and stretching.

Well, if after all that you’re still worried about me, just know I’m also taking a class on Calvin this Fall, so that ought to even things out.

Soli Deo Gloria 

 

 

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria

The Miracle of Christmas, or On the Incarnation (Advent Readings)

nativityChristmas is coming. Advent is upon us. In the rush and bluster of the season, it’s all too easy to still our hearts, to stop, wait, and prepare ourselves to receive the Savior in the manger. A few years ago I noticed my heart somewhat dry around this time and so I took up the project of listening to Christmas hymns and carols. While that can connect many of us to the spiritual reality we are celebrating, reading key texts on the theological reality we are approaching: the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, the Creator humbling assuming creation in order to redeem us from the condition of alienation, oppression, and damnation.

For those looking to dive into some soul-stirring meditations on the miracle of Christmas, I would recommend two works: Athanasius and Karl Barth.

On the Incarnation

Athanasius wrote his classic treatise, “On the Incarnation of the Word” as a follow-up to his apologetic work, “Against the Heathen.” Building upon his critique of the various pagan philosophies of the time, Athanasius undertook to explain and defend the heart of the Christian gospel, the Son’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem his fallen creation. In 9 very brief chapters, he lays out the logic of creation, the dilemma of sin, the accomplishment of the cross, the Resurrection, and answers various objections from all directions (Jews, Pagans, etc.). It remains a standard work of orthodoxy Christology and Trinitarian faith. What’s more, it’s rigorous as well as beautiful.

You can purchase it, or read it for free online here. For those put off by the idea of reading an old book, either because of its difficulty, or irrelevance, I’ll merely quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the work upon its republication:

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

As any reader of Athanasius will tell you, this little book is worth libraries of modern volumes.

The Miracle of Christmas

That said, sometimes the moderns have something to say. Karl Barth is one of them. Now, while I can’t endorse everything in this following recommendation, for the theological student, Barth’s reflection in the Church Dogmatics (vol. 1 part 2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 172-202), is essential reading. The whole section is typical Barth: long, winding, extensive delving into the tradition, the narratives, and ultimately into the Christological heart of the event. No summary will do it justice, but this little quote in which he speaks of the Virgin Birth forming the corresponding limit to that of the Resurrection ought to whet your appetite:

The virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. it denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place–God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of the dead, but it is grounded  upno the fact signified by the Virgin Birth, that here is this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter. The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particular the revelation of the mystery. It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He become active and knowable. He has no need of human pwoer and is free from all human caprice. Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits too them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work. That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living God has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear. Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One Heis, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Saviour. The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by that mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.  — CD 1/2, pp 182-183

That’s just a paragraph, but in that short excerpt, you see the way Barth masterfully develops the miracle of the Virgin birth in light of the doctrine of revelation and Resurrection of Christ. This is just one small part of the way Barth shows that the proclamation of Christ, born of a Virgin, is actually integral to understanding the mystery of the Gospel and Christ himself. Obviously, this chapter is probably not for everyone, but again, theological students and pastors only ignore it at the risk of their own spiritual and theological impoverishment. If you don’t own the Dogmatics, which is very possible, get to a seminary or theological library nearby, photocopy the section, and take it with you. The section stands alone quite nicely.

Well, those are my two recommendations for reading during the season. I hope they offer you some encouragement. If you all have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and Rob Bell.

All three of those men held/hold views on things like Scripture, the afterlife, and so forth, that as a decently conservative Evangelical I would deem wrong and, at times, quite unhelpful. (Although, to be clear, I think Lewis is very misunderstood and badly appropriated w/ respect to his views on the afterlife in The Great Divorce and atonement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.) Still, for some reason, my reaction to the three, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, is quite different.

Rob BellOf non-canonical authors, few rival Lewis’ impact on my own thought. His apologetic and fictional works were deeply formative for me, though I’ve since moved on from my early, nearly-slavish following of his theology. Barth, for me, is a towering figure whose every sentence (at least the fraction that I’ve read), ought to be considered quite carefully. Even when I find him wrong, even terribly wrong, it doesn’t put me off from reading him one bit, or drive me to see him as, well, a false teacher, or what-have-you. And yet, when I get to Rob Bell, a man whose early books I used to love, whose sermons I used to podcast, and whose style I wanted to emulate when I was younger–I think of him now and all of these flashing red lights start going off. I know I’m not the only one.

Since people have been questioning Evangelicalism’s apparently inconsistent approach to theological diversity of late, I was prompted to ask myself “What’s going on? Is there some double-standard at work here?” I mean, clearly, I’m aware of Lewis’ and Barth’s theological views on Scripture and so forth. Am I just being inconsistent, then? Is this a reflection of an Evangelicalism that’s tightened up its ship too much? A narrowing of my own horizons? Or is it something else?

While I don’t think I can speak to the rest of Evangelicalism, I did have a few quick thoughts about my own differing attitudes towards Bell as opposed to Barth and Lewis, which may be helpful in thinking through an approach towards differing theological sources. To be clear, this is not an in-depth theological analysis of their varying theologies. (Although, I do think that a study of that sort would probably reveal larger differences between them than has been claimed of late.) Think of it more as an exploration in intellectual disposition.

So then, first Barth, then Lewis.

barthBarth is Barth

 Were someone to ask me about different approach towards Barth and Bell, my initial instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Dude, Barth is Barth. He can kinda say what he wants.” Now, that’s not exactly true, but it reflects what I think is the first difference between the two, and that is, I know he’s done the work.

Looking at the Church Dogmatics sitting there on my shelf, I know that I can pick a page at random and Barth will give me some lengthy digression on the minute implications of any adopted doctrine, plus the history of its development from the Fathers onward, as well as extensive interaction with contemporary witnesses. When he differs from the tradition, even widely, you can sense the requisite respect for his theological and spiritual elders present. What’s more, though Barth can, at times, be a bit rough with this theological opponents (natural theology anybody?), I mostly get the impression he’s done the work required to understand them, explain them properly, and then come to the conclusion he has.

While I won’t go into detail here, this is not what I get from Bell. That could be an unfair impression, or simple elitism, but, I doubt it.

The second big factor at play, and I think this might be the bigger issue for me, is that Barth’s trajectory was from liberal to conservative, not the other way around. I look at where Barth started–a young pastor heavily influenced by Kant, Schleiermacher, Hermann, and so forth, who then, after engaging in actual pastoral ministry, and a sort of rediscovery of the Reformers, moves in a more Evangelical and Orthodox direction, against the theological tide, and I see a different situation going on. While some would say he never fully moved past those mistakes, Barth’s Neo-Orthodox theology of Scripture is an improvement in his case, not a regression.

Related to this is the issue of expectations. I already know Barth as a Neo-Orthodox, not classically-Evangelical theologian, so I expect some divergences and am not the least bit shocked when I find them. Incidentally, I think this might explain part of why can expect Evangelicals to keep reading Marilynne Robinson after her rather flip comments about abortion and gay marriage.

With Bell on the other hand, we have a movement that is, on the whole, in a liberalizing direction. Even when Barth and Bell materially end up in the same neighborhood, it’s sort of like two travelers heading in opposite directions meeting at a way station–Bell got there by leaving behind what I consider to be a more biblical orthodoxy Barth was striving towards.

Again, with Bell, there’s the issue of expectations. As a putatively Evangelical pastor, I naturally expect something else and so become alarmed when I don’t hear it. There is a sense of theological betrayal with Bell. There’s an element of “Well, you should know better. You’ve been on this from the inside and now you’re moving on to something defective.” What’s more, it seems indicative of a troubling, faltering theological sensibility. There’s a sense of, “I don’t know what off direction you’re going to go next, but I can’t imagine its very good.” Barth seemed to get better as he went on.

LewisLewis the Apologist

 Well, what about Lewis? Again, apart from the material differences in their theology, Lewis is, in many ways, quite similar to Barth. For one thing, the personal trajectory issue was from atheist professor to broadly Orthodox apologist. That counts for a lot. What’s more, Lewis was not a pastor, nor a professional theologian in the church. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for his words. He was. And at the same time, he made it clear a number of times that he wasn’t an appointed teacher of the church and therefore, open to correction. (As a side-note: one of the things that I wonder about in our contemporary context is how many writers with no theological training, or churchly office are operating as teachers in the church, with no apparent accountability structure for them other than a drop in readership. And even that’s not guaranteed when a teacher goes off the rails, because usually that sells better. But I digress.)

The second factor, and this might be more the issue with Lewis, is his mode and tone. In relation to his context, Lewis was staunchly conservative theologically-speaking. His aim was never to reinvent Christianity, nor present things in such a way that he was unveiling some great truth hidden under some ugly fundamentalism.  It was to present people with mere Christianity, as it had been taught in the Church for millenia. In fact, most of Lewis’ critical jabs at the Church, at least his own, were aimed at the soggy liberalisms the Anglican communion was finding itself mired in, by engaging in the kind of chronological snobbery that rejects orthodoxy for “progress.”

Incidentally, this is another similarity I see him sharing with Barth. Both were spiritually and theologically counter-cultural in a way that pushed against the cultural capitulation they saw their national churches engaged in. In keeping with that that spirit, Lewis aimed his polemical guns outwards at the big issues of scientism, relativism, and so forth, in defense of the gospel the old teachers had always proclaimed.

In reading Bell’s oeuvre, especially his last work (reviewed as charitably as possible here), the direction and thrust all pushes a different way. While Bell and Lewis are both trying to reach the lost, Bell does so more by softening, modifying, or chucking traditional doctrine and less by pushing back on cultural pretensions that make them difficult for postmoderns. I mean, that’s kind of the approach on display in his conversation with Andrew Wilson on same-sex marriage, which is sort of a natural outflow of the approach to God, revelation, and culture in the last couple of his works. It’s not so much a defense of the “truth once for all delivered to the saints”. but an invitation to the “truth sadly covered over and mucked up by the religious”–until now, that is.

The Upshot

Now, please don’t take this as an exercise in “farewelling” Rob Bell all over again, or an expression of animosity on my part. It’s not. In fact, if I ran into him on the street, he’d probably get a smile, a “hello”, and an invitation to coffee or dinner. As I noted the other day, one of the main things we ought to do for those we consider to be drifting theologically is pray for them,

All the same, it seems fruitful to attempt to give an accounting for one’s own theological proclivities and affinities. Andrew Wilson did something of the sort the other day when he spoke of affinities due to key issues in theological battle-lines, and while I largely agreed, I also think the issues of trajectory and tone have a big role to play in my approach to these three thinkers.

Well, that’s enough of my rambling. What say you?

Soli Deo Gloria

Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis on the Birth of ‘Chronological Snobbery’

progressivismIn assessing various arguments across over the years, I’ve found C.S. Lewis’ notion of the fallacy of “chronological snobbery” to be extremely helpful. He describes this flawed thought process as the “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (Surprised by Joy,  p. 207) In other words, “That’s what people a hundred years ago believed, surely you can’t expect me to agree to that?”

Although writing off an idea simply because it is old is a fairly common move in our context, ancient philosophers, theologians, and moralists regularly appealed to the antiquity of a doctrine in order to establish its authority for the present. Somewhere along the line the witness of history ceased to be a source of credibility for an idea, and in some cases, became a liability.

I was reminded of this after writing the other day about Barth’s characterization of eighteenth century man as “the absolute man.” His attitude towards life, the natural order, politics, philosophy, the inner and outer self is that of an autonomous master who has come, or is coming, fully into his own such that his power and potentiality is increasingly limitless. It is an impulse that can be traced throughout various spheres of life including, as Barth points out, his attitude towards history.

Barth and the ‘Absolute’ Historians

Barth notes that the Enlightenment is often unfairly criticized as being historically “deficient.” He recognizes that it was during the birth of the modern academy and the proliferation of the various fields of academic discipline which accompanied the time that much careful research into ancient history was conducted.  At the same time, and it is here that Barth sees the force of the accusation, it is at this point that the problematic “critical study of history” began:

But what else can this mean but that it was in the eighteenth century that man began to axiomatically to credit himself with being superior to the past, and assumed a standpoint in relation to it whence he found it possible to set himself up as a judge over past events according to fixed principles, as well as to describe its deeds and to substantiate history’s own report? And the yardstick of these principles, at least as applied by the typical observer of history living at that age, has the inevitable effect of turning that judgment of the past into an extremely radical one. For the yardstick is quite simply the man of the present with his complete trust in his own powers of discernment and judgment, with his feeling for freedom, his desire for intellectual conquest, his urge to form and his supreme moral self-confidence.

What historical facts, even, can be true except those which to the man of the age seem psychologically and physiologically probable, or at any rate not improbable? How, in face of such firm certainty about what was psychologically and physiologically probable and improbably could eighteenth century man conceive of the existence of historical riddles and secrets? And what else in fact could the past consist of than either of light, in so far as it reveals itself to be a preparation and mount for the ever-better present ‘You’ll pardon me–it is my great diversion, to steep myself in ages long since past; to see how prudent men did think before us, and how much further since we have advanced’–or simply of darkness–a warning counter-example and as such, if you like, a welcome counter-example–in so far as the past had not yet sense the right road to the future, or had even actively opposed it.

The third thing which this attitude precluded was that the historian should take history seriously as a force outside himself, which had it in its power to contradict him and which spoke to him with authority. One way or another the historian himself said that which he considered history might seriously be allowed to say, and, being his own advocate, he dared to set for both aspects of what he alleged history to have said, its admonitory and its encouraging aspect.

Protestant Thought: Rousseau to Ritschl, pg. 36

Apparently if we’re looking for the birthplace of chronological snobbery as a dominant intellectual instinct, we need look no farther than eighteenth century man. At root, the impulse to chronological snobbery is the absolute one; it is the confident assurance that history has been in motion leading moral and historical thought to culminate in the worldview or cultural assumptions of the critical historian. Like nature, history was the raw material of time upon which the absolute historian could impose his moral will to reshape and retell the story of his own understanding of greatness. It must be understood, not on its own terms, but from the historian’s own, critical standpoint–one which at no point could be challenged by the object of its study.

Barth draws out a number of deleterious effects this mode of historical inquiry had on this generation of historians, one of the most instructive and damning of which was that, “although as a race they were very learned in historical matters, they were at the same time singularly uninstructed, simply because their modern self-consciousness as such made them basically unteachable.” (pg. 37) When you come to believe that the judgments of this age are inherently superior to those of prior generations simply because they are further down the time-stream, you’ve rendered yourself unteachable; you can’t be corrected or called to account or caused to question any of your own assumptions by any other age than your own.

On Avoiding Snobbery

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment’s absolutist instinct towards history is alive and well in popular Western culture. The myth of progress, and the unconscious tendency to assume a posture of historical maturity and superiority towards our benighted forbears is part of the intellectual air we breathe. Of course, 200 years on some of the details are different; a certain postmodern fuzziness enters into the equation. A touch of historicism or relativism may prevent some of us from judging the past too harshly, and yet the basic structure of thought, in which our ancestors cannot speak a real word of correction or instruction to the present still dominates.

How might we avoid rendering ourselves unteachable by the past? Lewis gives us some sound advice at this point. He says that whenever we encounter an idea or an assumption that we deem regressive, passe, or “out of date”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

–ibid, pg. 208

In the words of Tim Keller, be prepared to “doubt your own doubt.” Be “radical” enough to question the assumptions of the present age–even the radical, progressive ones–in order to listen to ages past, which, at times, had a better feel for what life in the “age to come” is to be.

Soli Deo Gloria