Reflections on My Time at the Northwest Evangelical Theological Society’s Conference, and Speaking Barth as Strange Theological Language

Today (well yesterday now as I write this) I attended the Pacific Northwest Regional Evangelical Theological Society’s meeting which was held at my alma mater, Multnomah University. Dr. Karen Jobes was the plenary presenter, and the title of her presentation was: It Is Written: The Septuagint and Our Doctrine of Scripture. She offered some intriguing insights on text critical issues and its impact on evangelical hermeneutics; she used I Peter 2:3-4 and Psalm 34 as a case study. After the plenary we had lunch and then there were break-out sessions where
evangelicaltheologicalsocietypapers from other presenters were presented. All in all it was an edifying time, and a time of fellowship being surrounded by former classmates and professors, and new friends.

Something dawned on me today in pretty striking fashion; I’ve been learning a new theological language now over these last ten years, as I’ve been reading Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance as my steady diet. This struck me sharply in particular because when I attempted to ask a question (in a Q&A session after a paper was presented), and to do so from a Barthian/Torrancean/Athanasian perspective it was as if I was speaking a foreign language; either that, or the person I was asking the question of quickly realized where I was coming from (because he knows me – he’s a former prof), and wanted to shut it down as quickly as possible (which he did). But I’ve come to realize that thinking and doing theology After Barth is not an acceptable mode of theological discourse and engagement within evangelical scholarship; it is dismissed, and I would say even scoffed at. This poses somewhat of a problem for me, because I am not your typical “Barthian.” I am still quite evangelical, and I would say more evangelical when it comes to tapping into the intentions of the best of evangelical theology.

Here’s what I’ve found in Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; I’ve found teachers who offer an alternative and resourceful mode of theological engagement that offers formal and material theological framework and conclusions that emphasize God as Triune love (versus a decretal god), and a relational understanding (versus legal) that forwards the aims of evangelical theology much better than say Post Reformed Orthodoxy. And yet, Post Reformed Orthodox theology (the theology that was done immediately after say, John Calvin, Martin Luther, et al.) is what is considered the seedbed for conservative evangelical ressourcement! Even Karen Jobes’ discussion on inerrancy explicated the Old Princeton stalwarts on said doctrine: i.e. Warfield and Hodge. I do believe there is fruit to be found by resourcing certain doctrinal contours present in Post Reformed Orthodoxy, but then I also think there are many fruitful things to be found in Modern theology (i.e. Barth, Macintosh, Torrance, et al.).[1] And I actually believe that Barth’s trajectory is more correlative with biblical themes and presentation that is found in Post Reformed Orthodox theology. Why? Because Barth&Torrance offer groundbreaking thinking on such important issues as everything: i.e. doctrine of God, election, theory of revelation, ontology of Scripture, hermeneutics, theological methodology, etc. And yet they are considered, by and large, quacks or idiosyncratic by most evangelical theologians and exegetes.

As an evangelical, who also happens to be substantially Barthian in trajectory and mood, it is as if I am speaking in tongues when I’m with my fellow evangelicals.

Some might respond that this is Barth’s and Torrance’s own fault; that they speak in such an unorthodox or unruly theological tongue that they aren’t worth trying to understand. But my response to that would be: that Barth and Torrance et al. have achieved something that most evangelical theologians have never considered, they have actually been able to evangelize metaphysics. With the result that historic orthodox doctrine has been captured in such a way that Christ is truly at the center, not just by assertion, but by hermeneutical intention in a very intensive way! Like I said earlier, the reason I was attracted to Barth and Torrance was because they offer a weary evangelical soul like myself an alternative to the idea that the only real alternative, theologically, is to become an adherent of classical theism and resource Post Reformed Orthodoxy among other Latin offerings provided by the Western branch of the Christian church. Honestly, without Barth and Torrance, theology would be pretty boring and academic to me. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy historical theology; I absolutely do! It is to say though that I see Barth, Torrance, et al. working from within the best of the spirit of the Reformed faith. Unfortunately around my brethren and sistren this makes me seem like a weirdo, an alien life form speaking in a strange tongue. At the end of the day there isn’t much motivation left to want to say much, because it will be quickly dismissed; at least among evangelicals.

 

[1] Bruce McCormack hits an excellent pace on this in his Orthodox and Modern.

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13 thoughts on “Reflections on My Time at the Northwest Evangelical Theological Society’s Conference, and Speaking Barth as Strange Theological Language

  1. I wouldn’t take the typical ETS member as representative of all evangelicals everywhere. I’d argue that non-ETS evangelicals are likely to be friendlier to Barth-Torrance than ETSers, generally speaking. Come to a meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society or the Tyndale Fellowship, for instance. The ETS’s inerrancy clause is officially interpreted by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and a good chunk of ETS members come from academic institutions whose statements of faith are shaped by the Old Princeton view of Scripture, so naturally that’s what you’ll hear at an ETS meeting–the presenters are being true to the statements of faith to which they’ve subscribed. (That’s not to say that one can’t be both an ETSer and pro-Barthian; just that, to use your metaphor, one has to be bilingual to do so.)

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  2. Hi Bob
    I think you have touched the nerve centre of what constitutes faith (by hearing the True Word). When The WORD is forced into the mould of prescribed interpreted ink on paper/actual text, we then miss seeing the trees for the wood. Heresy is then defined by Control, who intuitively are scandalized of any erosion to approach and valid interpretation other than their own. Their contextual it is always bound to past and have real hesitancy to move out of the boat and to the Lord on the water. Bless you

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  3. @Jerome,

    Yes, I’m aware of what characterizes an ETS’r; I’ve been attending ETS meetings over the last 18 years. And it is the inerrancy clause that really changes things in dramatic ways; hermeneutical ways. This is not lost on me because it’s my heritage and what I come from. I was trained in an old school traditional institution; again, this is why my turn to Barth and Torrance has been such a welcome and refreshing one after years of struggling through a lot of this other stuff (like my whole life prior). I know how to be bi-lingual just not sure I want to be anymore.

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  4. Jim,

    In some ways, yes, maybe. But I would not want to compare being Barthian or something with being more Christlike. To be fair, Barthians can be just as crass and dismissive as non-Barthians can. It’s just that when I do go to academic events they are typically right here near where I live in PDX attending regional ETS meetings. To be clear, I am still friends with all of these folks, it’s just when it comes down to it when I want to start talking about Barth Torrance et al it gets shut down one way or the other.

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  5. Rein,

    Yes, I think there are much more fruitful ways to approach a doctrine of Scripture! I don’t believe in the inerrancy or errancy, both springing from a postivisit approach to reality. That’s what I wish my evangelical brothers and sisters could begin to see, but as you note there is fear at play in much of this; and control as you note.

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  6. Bill,

    It had to do with a point being made in regard to the imago Dei and a theory of knowledge; the point was being made from an analytically philosophical point wedded with the theological point of imago Dei. I asked the presenter if he would be opened to grounding the image of God in Christ first, and then seeing us as images of the image; I referenced Col 1.15. He shot that down immediately (I know he sensed what I was trying to get at), and asserted that that doesn’t work because a concept of humanity still is a matter of interpretation (i.e. it is contingent on the philosopher to construct a concept of humanness and then even Christ’s humanity can be interpolated into that concept — this is my paraphrase of his response to me). Then I responded that his point has to do with epistemology on the front end, but mine is a point of ontology. He rejected my response and that was it.

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  7. What the C21 Church needs is a good comic book about Barth Torrance et al. I used to think that a $9.99 Amazon Kindle book with clean, simple sentences and a logical chapter sequence would be enough to attract those now drawn to to the elegance of the Institutes. But Bobby’s depressing dispatch from the front shows that an even more potent genre is required.

    Some, I realize, will argue hard for an alternative– a murder/fantasy film. A serial killer who targets coffee-roasters, microbrewers, and banjo players is bringing civilised life in PDX to a standstill. The only clue to the killer’s identity is an obscure passage in Greek attributed to St Athanasius of Alexandria. Thus a pair of hardened and unbelieving detectives used to the noirish, vice-infested underbelly of the city that never sleeps find themselves instead going to Baptist preachers, megachurch superpastors, seminary professors, Christian bookstores, an InterVarsity camp, etc in search of a translation and explanation. Several can read the passage, but none can understand it, and a few find it frightening, although they will not explain why. Finally, an old informant– a gypsy palm reader now born again and painting nails– suggests hitching a ride on the only railcar in the yard that rolls through a timeworm to St Athanasius. In no time, so to speak, the two godless detectives are looking out the windows of the car at the courtyard of a desert monastery of the C4. St Athanasius is in exile there talking to two visitors, one Scottish, and the other German Swiss. The three solve the murder, but along the way explain evangelical calvinism.

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  8. Pingback: Further Reflection on the Evangelical Theological Society and the State of Evangelical Academia with Reference to Barth as Corrective | The Evangelical Calvinist

  9. Yes, Cal, tough times call for tough measures. And a reasonable chance at residuals. But no Star Trek, of course, and no Lord of the Rings, as ETS is not Mordor.

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  10. In reflection of much of the above, I must confess to still being daunted by Barth’s vehement refusal to accede to even the slightest tendencies of natural theology and his constant pejorative tone on those who somehow or purposefully ventured there. So that was discouraging. However all that negative, that was quite a hurdle; was well offset by the unflinching focus and attention of the sufficiency of grace there in any outset. There was also the admission that in all he had stated was always in the sense of a proviso and that he demanded of himself the need to always begin again from the premised axiom that God is God and we are not. His logic and deep undoubted devotion and total commitment brought forth so much (too much ?) clinical conclusions adapted to the modern and postmodern context. So if not a complete Barth; I have ended up as a committed adherent to his thought and in similar stance also a postmodern Salvationist. Not many follow or understand my theology/ logos either but I seem to detect at least some resonance in many encounters while continuing pilgrimage, which I, like St Paul, am not ashamed about but find thrilling.

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