Remaining Open: The Provisional Nature of Being a Christian

There is too much complicated stuff going on prior to the quote I am going to provide from George Hunsinger on what Karl Barth would call “eschatological reservation” for me to get into it all. What’s at stake though should become clear through the following quote in regard to the posture that the Bible and Theology student must maintain as he or she is engaged by the object/subject of their consideration; God in Christ. All too often, marymagespecially us Evangelicals, we want to dogmatically absolutize our theological and biblical ideas, and foreclose on things in ways that ultimately results in a foreclosure on God himself; as if we have an access into God and his ways that our brethren and sistren sitting next to us don’t have. And so my quotation of the following is intended to highlight the importance of remaining relatively open, in regard to our posture toward God and each other when engaging in the process of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; the emphasis and awareness should be on the growing aspect. Here’s Hunsinger on Barth’s method:

[…] The statements of theology could and often had to be nondialectical, yet without ever being conclusive or definitive once and for all. The statements of dogmatic theology (like those of dogma itself) had to be conceived as eschatological in status (I/1, 269). Insofar as they were conclusive and definitive (and by virtue of realism and rationalism they strove to be so as much as possible), they could be so only in a decidedly provisional and amenable sense. In principle nothing was incorrigible, so that everything had to be reconsidered again and again in new situations by each new generation. The positive results of previous theological work were to be received with respect and at times with veneration, yet not by repristenating those results, but by rethinking them in light of the subject matter as it bore on the needs of the present. The positive statements of theological formulation could only aim toward revelation and strive after it while never capturing it. For the subject matter had an independent life of its own against all conceptual pinning down.

This combination of the provisional (as required by the insights of actualism) with the normative (as required by the insights of realism and rationalism) represented Barth’s attempt to avoid two perennial problems in assessing the status of theological formulations. A kind of intellectual works-righteousness (as represented perhaps by the “inerrant” propositions of rational orthodoxy), was to be avoided on the one hand, while a kind of conceptual antinomianism (as represented perhaps by the linguistic permissiveness of emotive liberalism) was to be avoided on the other. The alternative was to tread a narrow conceptual path reminiscent of “justification by faith alone” in which all valid theological assertions, whether positive or dialectical, stood under the sign of simul justus et peccator. Formulated by faith for the sake of faith, and inherent inadequacy of all such assertions could finally be judged and overcome only by a truth whose fullness might now at best be glimpsed through such assertions but not known more directly until the life to come. [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 76-7 nook.]

It is this kind of attitude and posture that is hard to strike, really, and for the very reason that Hunsinger (and Barth) give for why we should also maintain such an attitude; the idea of simul justus et peccator, that we are both saint and sinner at the same moment. We have this volatile admixture running through our veins, and as we realize this by the Spirit, we ought to at least remain humble in our theological calculations and conclusions. God is God and we are not. He graciously gives himself to us moment by moment, afresh and anew by the Spirit’s invigorating breath; and this is the point, the point is that God is determinate, we are indeterminate. And so the posture, in theological and biblical engagement ought to always be one of humble yet zealous reception on our part, seeking to hear the Shepherd’s voice through the intonations that we have been given ears to hear and eyes to see. And this is why the analogy of faith is so important at this point. Faith connotes a relation of trust and dependence, which presupposes that there is someone trustworthy and dependable on the other end. In our case as Christians, we know that this someone on the other end is God of very God, God in Christ. And so we don’t find an analogate in ourselves by which we can circumscribe and grasp God; no God has made a way in himself for us (in Christ) by which we can have access to him. And so we humbly trust and depend on his faithfulness to show himself in beautiful and trustworthy ways that we cannot conjure up ourselves, and thus we always are in a state of waiting and receiving. It is in this posture and attitude that theological and biblical dialogue and discourse ought to occur, this way all sectarianisms and schisms can be avoided, as God’s people look and listen together, to God’s last and final Word, Jesus Christ.

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2 comments

  1. Liked that. Reminds me to be charitable towards those I disagree with. To actually wait on God. Sentence that stuck out:
    “For the subject matter has an independent life of it’s own against all conceptual pinning down.”

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  2. I like that clause too, Jerome!

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