Deus dixit ‘God has Spoken’. The Antidote to Evangelical and ‘Liberal’ Apologetics Alike

Is there a place for Christian apologetics? I grew up (and still largely culturewarsinhabit) in the North American evangelical sub-culture where J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, along with the fellows of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are common fare. I grew up where a whole hermeneutic developed out of an apologetic against the perceived threat of ‘Liberal’ higher criticism; a hermeneutic based upon positivism and empiricism (where biblical prophecy and its fulfillment become somewhat determinative towards proving the veracity of Scripture, etc.) – and of course there are more sophisticated developments, but still, along positivist lines, at least in response to the perceived threat of Enlightenment, rationalist higher criticism. So because of this I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that is always on the defense; always on the defense for God, as if God needs to be defended. But is this what God needs? And is this the best way to approach these types of macro-concerns, as if God needs us to be him (of our choosing, not his), to be who he is for us?

Swiss theologian Karl Barth doesn’t think so, and I have come to heartily agree with Barth on this issue. It isn’t a matter of being anti-intellectual; just the opposite! It is a matter of thinking ‘after God has spoken’ and as if he has before we start trying to speak for or about him. Barth grew up right in the heart of the development of so called ‘Liberal’ theology in World War I German theology; and his response (when he repented!) to ‘Liberal’ theology wasn’t to try and deconstruct it based upon its terms, but instead to turn to God and allow him to set his terms as the means and categories through which Barth was going to attempt to do his theological thinking and preaching. Barth writes:

In detail, of course, dogmatic thinking will everywhere be made up of partly historical, partly psychological, and partly philosophical elements. But if things are to be done aright we must never for a moment let these elements, the stocheia tou kosmou [Col. 2:8], become independent or a presupposition. In dogmatics we cannot for a moment think seriously in historical, psychological, or philosophical terms. We cannot fail to make Deus dixit the presupposition, or do so only questioningly or partially, trying to think our way up to God had not spoken, as though God were a problem and not the ground of all problems and also, whether we have eyes to see it or not, the solution to all problems. From the roots up dogmatic thinking is either kata ton Christon [Col. 2:8] or it is not dogmatic, theological thinking. Let us be on guard not against criticism or doubt or skepticism — these are not the enemies — but instead against apologetics, against trying to get at the matter by detours, as though God could be known without God, as though he could be the second thing, as though he were not already quite unambiguously the first.[1]

I would seriously submit that evangelical Christianity in North America is dying right before our very eyes for the reason that Barth identifies; even if Barth is talking about his attempt to do Christian Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) in a German theologically liberal context. Indeed; exactly. North American Evangelicalism continues on in the Fundamentalist heritage of its recent past; which means that it does theology and lives Christianly from the same pietistic inward turned individualistic premises that so called German theological liberalism lived from (or close enough).

The antidote to this is to REPENT! We need to turn to God, and think from Deus dixit (i.e. ‘God has spoken’) as the premise of our Christian lives. We don’t need to be apologetic about being ‘in Christ’. God is God. He works from what is perceived as weakness and foolishness (in the world); we don’t need to assert ourselves in order to think Christianly. It is okay to be laughed at when the one you are talking about, talking to, and proclaiming holds all of reality together by the Word of his power; remember Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’)!

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 289.

Advertisements

5 comments

  1. Bobby, I do not inhabit the milieu that you describe, so I have to trust your ethnography. Hereabouts, those who know God tell him like he is, smile, and hope that he will help others to understand (= stand under). Everlasting contentiousness to ‘make’ others understand– either by volume of voice or by flurry of footnotes– is usually taken as a sign that God has not yet illumined one’s own understanding by his grace. If he had, then, from that experience, one would know better than to try to argue others into spiritual maturity or even the miracle of faith itself. There is no human control over this. “A sower went to sow some seeds…”

    Like

  2. Dialectic has its uses or we would not be here. But the culture of contention seems to meet some psychological need beyond the requirements of Christian faith that North Americans especially feel. What?

    Like

  3. Bobby, please critique! I need your perspective on this–

    The institutionalization of verbal pugilism makes sense if one assumes– or would like other people to assume– that all the truth about God is accessible to those with little spiritual maturity. That assumption reifies cultural solidarity, social equality, and personal agency by deemphasizing the spiritual maturity we cannot control in favor of standardized thought that anyone can master with a small budget and a little effort. Why would American evangelicals need that reification more than Christians elsewhere? Because, uniquely, their institutions are ‘the sacred canopy’ over ‘secular’ lives that depend on a confidence in the solidarity, equality, and agency of ‘real Americans,’ a confidence that is challenged by a fragile society, unequal wealth, and rare upward mobility.

    The counterfactual condition does not disconfirm this view. The rest of the world’s Christians do not live under the sacred canopy that evolved uniquely in the United States (but cf Boers in South Africa, western province Canadians). They generally have stronger though imperfect societies, less concern about unequal wealth, and recently much more class mobility than Americans. The mere flatness and inclusiveness of churches seems to be much less important to them. In these exotic conditions, evangelicals find the actual differences of spiritual depth and pious opinion among believers less disturbing. As one might predict, there is no comparable support for the institutionalization of verbal combat to enforce flatness and conformity. Indeed, some prominent overseas voices (eg Michael Bird, Tom Wright) view this aspect of US evangelical culture as a sickness that needs to be healed rather than a way of life to be exported.

    If this view is somewhat correct, then US evangelicals are accepting (eg evangelicals entering Orthodoxy) or rejecting (eg Barth) alternate theologies on latent social or political criteria. Our local context is probably not reducible to such indices as social cohesion, household finance, and class mobility. But if these indices are ‘pointing’ to real forces in our milieu, then it may be hard for a better theology to compete without weaving a better sacred canopy for evangelical life on the ground in America. To do that, it would probably to visit the intersection of biblical faith and political economy.

    Like

  4. Bowman,

    I live in American evangelicalism, no footnotes required 🙂 usually.

    As far as your sacred canopy metaphor; yeah, I think we have unique and idiosyncratic components that make up N American Christianity. I am not sure it is possible to achieve the kind of seismic paradigmatic shift that would be necessary to do what you are suggesting. But I do have hope that this can be done on a person by person basis; I think that is realistic.

    But if you haven’t read any of George Marsden or Mark Noll on American Christianity and Fundamentalism I would commend them to you.

    Like

  5. Thanks, Bobby.

    Your patience with a few social science-ish posts is noted and appreciated.

    I studied with Grant Wacker and have read some Marsden and Noll (and Bellah and Smith) on US evangelicalism. There is always more to know.

    Did I suggest a paradigm shift?

    Leadership of world Christianity is emerging in the global south. In the US, somewhat divergent Classic and International streams of evangelicalism may emerge as the years go by.

    Like

Comments are closed.