Germans, Decrees, and “A God Behind the Back of Jesus”

This was the topic of my only offering to Christianity Today (2013); the issue of God’s so called transcendence and immanence, relative to the creaturely order. My article was a contribution to their Global Gospel Project, and in it I attempt to popularly introduce a rather technical conception, that in the history is known as God’s ‘power’ theology—i.e. potentia absoluta/potentia ordinata (his absolute and ordained power). This theology is often attributed to nominalist thinking, or even to William of Ockham, but no matter, what it does, whatever its historical antecedents, at a conceptual level is drive a wedge between who God is in eternity in his ‘inner-life’ (in se), and who he has revealed himself to be economically in salvation history (ad extra). Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have pithily glossed this as their being ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’; they are quite right to do so.

I am currently reading David Congdon’s big Bultmann book (not because he and I are friends anymore, but because I should just probably read it), and in it, as he is developing the distinctions between Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, he offers a sketch (via footnote) of how Eberhard Jüngel critiques a doctoral student of Barth’s, Helmut Gollwitzer, and how Gollwitzer (as news to me) operates with the kind of dualism between God’s revealed will, and antecedent being that we see in the potentia theology we just noted. Let’s see how Congdon recounts Jüngel’s treatment of Gollwitzer, and then reflect upon what this kind of thinking might do for those of us who want to think, along with Jesus Christ, that ‘when we see him [Jesus] we see the Father.’ Congdon offers:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

I wrote the following in my Christianity Today article:

If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[2]

Gollwitzer presents the same dilemma that so many prior to him had. It is a similar dilemma that we get from classical Reformed and Arminian theology; one that has God mediating himself through a mechanism of absolute decrees, and through primary and secondary causation. In this scheme you can never quite be sure if you are dealing with the God revealed through his decrees, or the actual decreeing God (unless of course we want to collapse God into his decrees, but I surely don’t want to do that); similar to Gollwitzer, in this way, there is a God behind the back of Jesus for such presentations.


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bobby Grow, “God Behind the Veil: His ways are hidden from ordinary eyes, but not from the eyes of faith,” Christianity Today (May 2013): 42.


Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.


[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

Into the Far Country: Jesus and Israel in the Theologies of Barth and Torrance

The order of salvation, Christ's Life for usI thought I would repost this since Israel is in the news once again. In this instance we are taking a more theological look at the place of Israel vis-à-vis Jesus; but I thought it might be vitalizing to think Israel from within the context of God’s covenant and through a Christological lens.

I just finished reading Mark R. Lindsay’s book Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel. Lindsay’s treatment was highly stimulating, and represents a stellar contribution to Barth studies. The topic of this book was especially intriguing to me, particularly because of the role that the nation of Israel plays in God’s salvation-history as the covenant people through whom he mediates salvation to the world. Also, given my background, growing up as a dispensationalist, and thus a Christian Zionist, Israel has always played a unique role in my vision of the Bible, politics, and ethics. I have since repented of my former dispensationalism, nonetheless, Israel, both ethnically and theologically have a dominant role in my thinking; particularly because Jesus was from the Galilee, the man from Nazareth.

This will not be a full book review (Ben Myers wrote a book review back in 2007 here), but you can take what I write here as a recommendation for you to tolle lege, take up and read Lindsay’s book (if you can get your hands on it, it is an academic title which means it is exceedingly expensive). What I want to cover for the remainder of this post is to touch on Barth’s understanding of Israel in reconciliation. Lindsay provides good coverage of this, among so many other important things; including some intriguing historical nuance relative to the Jewish situation in Nazi Germany.

As we have covered more than once here Thomas F. Torrance sees a fundamental place for the nation of Israel, a perduring and irreversible place for the nation of Israel as Yahweh’s covenant people who mediate salvation to the nations (Romans 9–11). As such the Jesus we get is not an abstractly conceived human, but a particular human for all humans (pro nobis) from within the concrete and cultic matrix provided for in the history and making of the nation of Israel. This aspect is in Barth’s theology as well; Mark Lindsay explicates that this way as he gets into Barth’s CD IV/1 and Barth’s development of reconciliationisraelbarth:

The Jews in the Far Country

The first major section of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation in which he discusses Israel is §59.1, the subject of which is the divine condescension (exinanitio) of the Son of God. We are faced, then, with the particular history of Jesus of Nazareth. More exactly, perhaps, we are faced with the ‘aspect of the grace of God’ according to which, while not ceasing to be God, God—in Jesus Christ—‘goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and [which is] against God’ [CD IV/1, 158].

In earlier Reformed dogmatics, a distinction was made between Christ’s exinanitio  and humiliatio, the former treating Jesus’ ‘birth and burdensome life’, with the latter referring more specifically to Christ’s death and subsequent descent into hell (descensus ad infernos). In Heppe’s volume, the humiliatio is accorded far weightier significance than Jesus’ birth and life. For Barth, however, the emphasis is reversed. Barth’s overarching theme is that, in the condescension of the Son of God, God became ‘flesh’. Far more illustrative of Christ’s humiliation than any descent into hell is that the Son of God assumed ‘the concrete form of human nature and the being of man [sic] in his world under the sign and form of Adam—the being of man as corrupted and therefore destroyed, as unreconciled with God and therefore lost’ [CD IV/1, 165]. But Barth goes further to argue that, within this context of the assumption of human nature, ‘there is one thing we must emphasise especially … The Word did not simply become any “flesh” …It became Jewish flesh’ [CD IV/1, 166].

The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaninglessness to the extent that [Jesus’ Jewishness] comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of the New Testament Christology may have been shaped by a very non-Jewish environment. But they relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfils the covenant made by God with this people. [CD IV/1, 166)

For Barth, it is central to the Christian message that a Jew stands at the heart of the kerygma. Only as a Jewish man does Jesus also come into the world with a message for the world. It is only from within the sphere of Israel that Jesus can truly be what Israel’s vocation was always to be, that is, a ‘light to the nations’ (Is. 42:6). This is why Barth is so strongly critical of Marcion, the Socinians, Schleiermacher and Harnack, all of whom, in their own ways, tried to de-Judaize the humanity of Jesus and thus the essential Jewishness of the gospel, ‘to the great detriment…of this very heart of the Christian message’ [CD IV/1, 167].[1]

Far from being a supersessionist who believes that the church in Christ has superseded Israel, Barth sees ethnic Israel, as God’s covenant people, as inimical to the particularity of Jesus’ mission as Savior of the world. Thomas Torrance emphasizes the same thing in regard to the centrality of Israel’s vocation in mediating the Son of God, Jesus Christ to the world as its prophet, priest, and King (triplex munus). Torrance writes, and fleshes the implications of this out even further:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all bound up inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures of the New Testament church, the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour. Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God; apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognise Jesus as the Son of God; apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we could not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus. The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work our from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself.[2]

For Torrance and Barth the nation of Israel has significance for always and eternity; from the beginning to the end; from the Alpha to the Omega. Without the nation of Israel, in the theology of Barth and Torrance, Jesus would be nothing more than an accident of history, a demiurge or instrument of the ethereal and abstract who showed up to point people to a God concept; something like we see in Gnosticism and now neo-Gnosticism (think of much of what we see in so called ‘Jesus studies’). With the nation of Israel, though, there is an intelligibility, a theological acuity and context for Jesus to enter into in the fullness of time (Gal. 4). Jesus has a salvific context, what the old Reformed triplex munus captures in the Prophet, Priest, and King triad. With the nation of Israel, Jesus as her son has real reach into the vastness of the universe as God’s regent in bringing salvation to the nations and all of creation (Rom. 8).

As Lindsay hits on over and again, with reference to Barth (but he does bring up both David and Thomas Torrance), the nation of Israel is not just some theological locus that Barth posits to make his doctrine of election work. No, the nation of Israel is a concrete people who as all of humanity find their place, significance and vocation in Jesus Christ. But as Lindsay argues, and Barth emphasizes, the people of Israel are a particular and peculiar people in God’s unfolding plan that cannot and should not be metaphysicalized or made into an abstract idea. What an astounding reality, the Apostle Paul thought so,

33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?”  35 “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?”  36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.[3]

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 93.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 53-4.

[3] Romans 11:33-36.

A Sketch of Thomas Aquinas’s and Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Creation, Salvation, and Human Freedom: How They Contrast and Its Impact on Just About Everything

I think something that is not talked about much, in regard to Barth’s theology, is how counter it is to mediaeval conceptions of salvation and grace relative to a grace/nature binary. In other words in the major strand of Western conception of salvation/grace we get
something as definitive as Thomas Aquinas’s axiom: ‘nature is perfected by grace.’ So we have this kind of symmetry between the two with a telos (or linear purposiveness) tied into nature by God’s grace coming along, as it were, and completing or bringing nature to where it inherently has been designed to be. In this scheme we have what some have called a ‘pure nature’ (naturum purum); what is implicit in this scheme is that at the fall nature only sublimated into a sub situation relative to its inherent trajectory before God—in other words, nature did not fully self-destruct into demise and utter death through and through; a spark of its inherent determinancy remained hither. It simply needed help-along by way of God adding to it his created grace wherein nature, and the stewards of said nature, human beings, could habituate in this added grace in their lives thus bringing nature to where it had always intended to be at an inherent level (as originally designed by God).

But for Barth this is not how nature/creation is conceived of to begin with. There is no nature/grace symmetry; for Barth it is ‘grace all the way down’ (to use a Torrancism). In other words, the condition for creation itself is grounded in God’s first Word of grace realized in his elected life in Christ to be for us and with us. Grace is the precondition of creation for Barth such that nature has no inherent determinancy or ‘purity’ in itself. We might note something like this, from Barth, as a counter to the Aquinisian axiom we shared above: ‘creation is the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant is the internal basis of creation.’ What this gets at in our discussion is how for Barth, contra Aquinas&co., creation/nature itself is inherently tied into God’s gracious choice to be for us in Christ; Aquinas’s view has nature tied to grace in a kind of complementing sense whereas Barth sees creation/nature as always already a reality that is thoroughly suffused and conditioned by and from God’s life through and through.

I bring all of this up to lead us to a quote from George Hunsinger on Barth’s theology in regard to salvation, human cooperation in that salvation (and not), and human agency/freedom. Maybe you will see how my rough sketches on Aquinas juxtaposed with Barth fits into what Hunsinger is getting at in regard to how distinct Barth is from the trad on this most crucial point. At length, Hunsinger writes this per Barth:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi), never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[1]

Do you see the type of discontinuity and asymmetry that is present in Barth’s understanding of a doctrine of creation/nature, and how that implicates the way Barth conceives of what happens in the salvific reality? In the Thomist account grace attends to nature in such a way that nature is prolongated to new heights, but heights pregnant within nature itself. In the Barthian account creation had no such inherence, nature was always already extrinsically conditioned by and for God’s life of grace in Christ. For Barth nature does not simply subsist as inchoate reality waiting to be completed in accord with its own independent ends (i.e. already built-in through secondary causation etc), but instead it has always had this type of apocalyptic eschatological hue to it such that the first creation while anticipative of things to come, heightened and intensified by the fall of Adam and Eve (and thus humanity), was conditioned to be contradicted and recreated in accord with its gracious and given purpose determined by an immediate corollary between its given reality and the reality given to it, always and already, in God’s choice to be for us. In other  words, in the Barthian account, to state it brusquely: creation is and always has been a predicate of God’s gracious and Triune life (insofar as he chose this to be the case). Contrariwise, in the Thomist account we could say that: grace is understood as a predicate of nature insofar as grace is seen as a supplement to expand nature to new heights; that nature came to be, as it were, fitted for grace and grace for nature. In the Barthian account nature has always been inclusiastically situated in and from God’s life of grace both protologically and eschatologically. If this is so, the Barthian account, we can see how Barth could and would draw such a brightly colored line between his own understanding of the nature of salvation versus something like we find in the Thomas Aquinas frame. For Barth first creation and second creation were always and only conditioned by God’s primal choice to be the Yes of creation from the beginning and end in Christ.

Let me close with a quote that I’ve shared before in regard to Barth’s understanding of history relative to resurrection and what that implies relative to all the realities we have just been sketching through:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

What is key in this quote is the emphasis placed on the ‘primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Creation/nature for Barth is not a linear thing, it is apocalyptic; as such it is always open, contingent upon God’s own freedom, to be re-ordered and recreated in such a way that it corresponds to who he has chosen to be in Christ for us. In other words, nature for Barth, in an order of consideration does not precede God, and thus determine how it ought to be completed by God’s grace; no, for Barth, God’s choice has always been the Predicator of the predicated and Christ conditioned reality that we identify as ‘nature.’ Human freedom in salvation, in this Barthian scheme, then, can only be construed by thinking it from the conditions of this type of Christic reality in regard to creation; i.e. through its suffuse predication by what it means to be ‘free’ before God as participants in that life, and in that type of freedom, the freedom that the Son has shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit in the Ultimacy and Intimacy of their Divine life. In Barth’s scheme we shouldn’t think of nature being conflated with some sort of created grace from God, by which the elect might cooperate with God in attaining the perfection for which their created natures have always been regnant; nein, we ought to understand that God’s grace is personal and oriented always already encountering us over again afresh and anew in the face of Jesus Christ. We live from the freedom of God’s life in Christ, and this is what it means to be human; to live from the resurrected and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Nature isn’t being perfected by grace in this scheme, it instead is realizing what it has always already meant to be creatures created in the image of the image of God (who is Christ cf. Col. 1.15).

I left many threads, once again, dangling. But hopefully you’re at least getting a sense a feeling of where things are going here at The Evangelical Calvinist. And maybe you will better understand why I am so resistant to classical theologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, that work from the Thomist (neo or not) categories of ‘nature perfected by grace’.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

My Status with Barth and A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

My Status With Karl Barth

In some ways I’m still in crisis mode in regard to Barth, personally. I don’t want this whole post to be about this, but I wanted to start off with a word as I continue to think about how it might still be possible for me to be Barthian. The reality is this: in the main I find a large percentage of what Barth teaches to be some of the most compelling teaching in regard to theological method (formal) and theological content (material) that I have ever been confronted with; this is not going away for me. I know for some this isn’t the struggle it is for me, but for me it is a struggle—we’ve already treaded these waters. I have come to the conclusion that I will have to accept the notion that Who Barth bears witness to is bigger than Barth himself, and bigger than any unconfessed immorality he lived within throughout his life-time with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I remain deeply troubled by the whole ordeal, and so I experience some sort of dissonance as I engage with Barth’s theology; but like I said, I believe that despite Barth God was able to use Barth to point people beyond Barth and to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ and the Triune God. With this caveat in place let’s move on to the rest of this post.

A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s newly released book Sanctification—I won’t be sharing any quotes from it here—and in it he is arguing, really, for the value of federal or covenantal theology as the best hermeneutic for engaging scripture. Further, he is seeking, in mood, to offer a recovery operation wherein he resources the categories offered by luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, John Owen, et al in order to furnish the 21st century evangelical and neo-reformed landscape with touchstone fixtures by which the Protestant church might better know Jesus through. The reason I bring this up here is because part of what is being retrieved is something that evangelical calvinists are seeking to ameliorate through recovering a different hermeneutic; a hermeneutic that thinks personalistically about how the church engages with God, as if in ongoing dialogue with him. Not through the metaphysics and geometry that funds what Allen is seeking to recover, but instead through understanding that our relation to God is immediately grounded in God’s choice to encounter us in an ongoing basis through the miracle of the Christ-event; the event of the ensarkos, the enfleshment of God in Christ, the assumption of humanity by God for us. And in this event, in the coming of God for us in Christ, the conditions for that coming created by the Holy Spirit, created in the hovering over the waters, over the womb of Mary, becomes the condition by which we come to know God; in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the glory of God in the proposon of the Christ. In other words, what, in accord with folks like Barth, T Torrance, et al evangelical calvinists are interested in developing and pointing people to is that our relationship to God is based upon an ongoing non-analogous miracle. The miracle’s context is given performative reality by the Holy Spirit’s action of uniting the eternal Logos with the humanity of the Son (an/enhypostatic) in the singular person (singular personalis) of Jesus Christ. In further words, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes for the Son in the miracle of the Incarnation is what is accomplished from that first miracle of Incarnation in the lives of humanity simpliciter. What I’m referring to—admittedly I’m not being as forthright as I ought to be—has to do with what traditionally is called the ordo salutis (order of salvation). The entailments of the ordo, doctrinally, are bound up, traditionally, in the theology that someone like Allen is seeking to recover. Grace is typically understood as a created quality, or an abstract quantity that is attached, cumbersomely to the work of the Holy Spirit, by which the elect individual is not only regenerated but enabled by to cooperate with God through fulfilling their covenanted role in the salvific process. In other words, the only thing in this kind of ordo way of understanding salvation that serves as the framework for understanding it in a “personal” way between God and man is the introduction of the covenantal or “contractual” arrangement God has set up between himself and elect humanity in order to bring about salvation (and fulfill the Abrahamic covenant) for the nations. The mechanisms, within this covenantal scheme, that give it energy is not the mystical and personal relationship that coinheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; instead, it is a set of Aristotelian properties, quantities, and qualities synthesized with soteriological categories that covenant theology must appeal to in order to offer their theory of salvation.

Contrariwise, evangelical calvinists, at least this one, as noted earlier, seek to understand salvation directly from Jesus Christ; directly from the unio mystica of God’s Triune life in eternal relation. We understand that because we are up against an Ultimate, up against the ineffable God, that we are fully dependent upon what this God reveals about himself; and this implicates everything. This is why miracle is such an important loci for an evangelical calvinist; we are thinking salvation from Christology; we are thinking salvation from what T Torrance calls a novum, the novum of God’s life in Christ. Yes, there are many implications about reality that are given explication and elucidation from there; but in such a way that things remain untidy, and less coherent (by the standards of philosophical endeavor) than the human mind would like. There remains an element of trust, and vulnerability in how the evangelical calvinist theologian thinks salvation. This bothers people. It makes them think that we are engaging in sleight of hand, and magic thinking; but what is really going on is that we are allowing the rationality of our thought to be conditioned by the determination of the givenness of God’s life in Christ; we are allowing the categories and emphases we think through to come to us through God’s Self-exegesis in Christ (Jn 1.18). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to still interpret, but we are attempting to bear up under the pressure of the Revelation itself; we are attempting to allow that Revelation of God to dictate the terms of our interpretive process; allowing God to interpret us, by the Holy Spirit in the archetypical humanity of Christ, prior to us interpreting him; and living in the spiral of this dialogical relationship.

What this gives us, in part (because there are other parts to all of this), is an understanding of salvation that is at odds with the classical covenantal theology that Allen is recovering; it places us at loggerheads with the substance metaphysics that covenant theology appeals to in regard to developing the guts or mechanics of the various working parts of their federal schema. We end up with an emphasis, relative to salvation, that focuses on the agential and personal reality of the Holy Spirit working us into union with the miracle he accomplished, first, in the hypostatic unioning of the eternal Logos with humanity in the womb of Mary. George Hunsinger brings this into clarity as he details how miracle works in the soteriology of Karl Barth:

The work of the Holy Spirit, as Barth saw it, is miraculous in operation. Within the trinitarian and christocentric framework of his theology, this theme elaborates his point that the Spirit’s work is never “anthropological in ground.” The Holy Spirit is seen as the sole effective agent (solus actor efficiens) by which communion with God is made humanly possible. In their fallen condition (status corruptionis) human beings cannot recover a vital connection with God. Their minds are darkened, their wills enslaved, and the desires of their hearts are debased. Through the proclamation of the gospel, however, the impossible is made possible, but only in the form of an ongoing miracle. This miracle is the operation of the Holy Spirit, not only to initiate conversion (operatio initialis), but also to continue it throughout the believer’s life (operatio perpetua). The only condition (necessary and sufficient) for new life in communion with God is the Spirit’s miraculous operation in the human heart (operatio mirabilis). Faith in Christ, hope for the world, and consequent works of love have no other basis in nobis than this unceasing miracle of grace. Faith, hope, and love, in other words, do not depend on regenerated capacities, infused virtues, acquired habits, or strengthened dispositions in the soul. Those who are awakened to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners in themselves. Yet despite their continuing sinfulness, the miracle of grace never ceases in their hearts.[1]

Do you see what I emboldened in the Hunsinger quote? This is what I’ve been referring to previously; these are the categories that Allen’s theology, in particular, and covenant theology, in general, operate with. They come, as I noted, from an Aristotelian complex of ideas integrated into the medieval church and taken over by Post Reformed orthodox theology; the theology that produced federal or covenant theology. You can see the distinction, I was noting previously, in the Hunsinger quote; the distinction between the impersonal and kind of abstract potentially theocentric theology offered by Allen&co. versus the christocentric concrete theology offered by evangelical calvinists following Barth, Torrance, et al.


The differences here are basic and fundamental. They have their sources not only in and from Barth, but evangelical calvinists appeal to the patristic theology of Irenaeus, Athanasius, and to later Orthodox theologians like Maximus the Confessor. The ontology of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is grounded in seeing the Trinity as determinative for the bases of what salvation entails and what may be said of it. The ground of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is personal, it is Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and humanity in his humanity; a humanity created by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t going to appeal to qualities, the habitus, or created grace when we refer to salvation; we will refer to Jesus Christ and the emphases that come with his coming for us.

Hopefully in my rambling you have come to see, once again, how us evangelical calvinists are different than what you typically will find in what people say counts as “Reformed theology.”


[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 162. [emphasis mine]

How Union with Christ and Christian Dogmatics and a Theology of the Word Converge in Barth’s Theology

Adam Neder always has good insights on Barth’s theology. The following from him gets into his elucidating what Christian Dogmatics is for Barth, and what it is based upon (the Word of God). This is all framed by Neder’s interrogation of Barth’s understanding of union with Christ theology or participatio Christi (a la Calvin i.e. ‘participation in Christ’). Neder writes:

Barth’s conception of dogmatics is grounded in his understanding of revelation, which governs his doctrine of participation in Christ as he articulates it in CD I/1. As an ecclesial activity, dogmatics proceeds from the Word of God and remains ever and solely accountable to it. Its task is free speech in obedient response to God’s speech, which is its sole criterion. Responsible to revelation alone, Christian theology hears and bears witness to the Word of God. Therefore, it does not attempt to justify itself through appeals to authorities external to revelation. Dogmatics is possible for one reason alone: because of the speaking and hearing of God’s Word. Thus, all attempts to ground dogmatics in anything other than the Word of God are in fact betrayals of revelation, since there is, by definition, no higher court of appeals on the basis of which revelation and theological speech about revelation might be justified. Genuine knowledge of God and speech about him are possible and actual because God makes them so. Christian theology presupposes this fact and makes no attempt to establish it. Prolegomena, therefore, is internal to dogmatics.

According to Barth, revelation is not merely the offering and acquisition of information. It is rational, to be sure, since it is the divine reason communicating with human reason. But since it is Dei loquentis persona, it is an event in which God establishes and orderly fellowship between himself and human beings. “God’s Word means God speaks,” and since it is God who speaks, to hear his Word is not simply to become aware of him, but to obediently acknowledge him as Lord. Thus revelation is inseparable from reconciliation. Moreover, knowledge of God is communion with God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as such involves the death and resurrection of the human knower. To know God is to be joined to him in faith and obedience. The connection with participation in Christ is clear: “As God’s Word is spoken to man, it is in him and he is in the Word.” Barth refers to this union as a “mutual indwelling [Beieinanderseins] of the Word and man….”[1]

Christian Dogmatics, for Barth, and for many of us, is something that is done in the sphere of the church; for its edification. But as Barth emphasizes (according to Neder) the church is simply the context within which dogmatic reflection is undertaken, what serves as regulative for it is the Word of God. Of course for Barth this means Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos (think threefold form of the Word); without Christ, without participation in Christ the church has no life blood and nothing to talk about—without Christ the church is a mute.

But we see, as Neder makes so clear in regard to Barth’s theology, that everything is contingent upon Jesus. Knowledge of God is not a static thing, but a personal reality, as such we must be in union with God in Christ personally if there is going to be any space for genuine knowledge of the true and living God. We can see how this would militate against a natural theology, as the sphere for knowing God is not in an abstract creation, but instead in the particular person of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

We can also see how Reformed Barth is. We see the lineaments and emphasis upon a theology of the Word develop early on in the Protestant Reformation; of course what is being referred to by the magisterial and post-reformers is Holy Scripture. This is indeed present for Barth, but again, as is typical he radicalizes things and focuses more dogmatically on Jesus as the Word, and then Scripture follows after; just as creation follows logically after the Creator.

If you haven’t been exposed to anything Barth yet, I think Neder offers a nice and intriguing way in for you.


[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 1.

*A repost. One I like. 

A Response to Thomas Reid’s Speculative-man from Karl Barth’s non-Speculative man in Jesus Christ

A friend of mine on Facebook, who is a Thomist, theologian, and recently PhDd in such areas, shared this quote from philosopher, Thomas Reid, on his wall a couple of days ago.

The vulgar are satisfied with knowing the fact, and give themselves no trouble about the cause of it: but a philosopher is impatient to know how this event is produced, to account for it, or assign its cause. The avidity to know the causes of things is the parent of all philosophy true and false. Men of speculation place a great part of their happiness in such knowledge.[1]

There is some gusto to this, but for me, in the end, it misses the mark in regard to what a Christian theologian (or disciple) is about. I think what Reid is getting at is akin to something (as far as anecdotes go) like what Socrates noted, “ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” (‘the unexamined life is not worth living’). As far as that goes, it’s okay; it’s a call for sentient human beings to live reflective lives that press down into the deeper realities of life. For a philosopher this dictum might be a beautiful life giving way, but it only gets so far; it only provides a horizontal vector towards examining what indeed is called life. And its primary mechanism, as the Reid quote illustrates, is speculation. It lives a life of empirical chutzpah, seeking to discover new things that might help us as humans understand what it means to in fact be human being; the emphasis being on being. It attempts to discursively reach to the stars, and far beyond the stars under the constraints of its own self-asserted and possessed powers, through which an examined life might find meaning; it might even find a Pure Being beyond itself that helps its immanently located human being to begin to find a source for transcendent being, vertical being.

This speculative way has characterized much of the history of Christian ideas and theology in its development; most notably what we find in scholastic theology, of the sort we see typified and indeed maybe even climaxed in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelic doctor). So on the one hand we have the philosophers, like Socrates and Aristotle, seeking to live the examined life by self-discovery and discursive reasoning about life and its source of meaning; and on the other hand we have Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas et al. attempting to synthesize this kind of philosophical speculative way of examined living with Christian Trinitarian theology.

The better way is to elide such approaches, in my view, and instead ground the work of theology in the work of theology done in and through the theological life of God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. This way doesn’t apophatically speculate about God from some sort of via negativa or negation of who God is relative to who we aren’t; as human beings. Revealed theology is, by definition, vertical and horizontal; objective and subjective all at once in the singular personalis of Jesus Christ; the Divine and the human, the vertical and the horizontal all hypostatically united incognito in the God who freely chose to be mistaken as purely man for the sake of the world. Revealed theology does not attempt to discover God by discursive reasoning and reflection, but instead its willing to simply rely on the God who apocalyptically revealed himself in the grist and grim of this world coming to it in the wood of the manger and the cross; the blood of life and death in order to bring eternal life to all who will.

Here is a way (and I’ve shared this quote elsewhere before) that someone like Karl Barth could recognize the relative value of philosophy while at the same time putting it in its place in regard to revealed theology. He writes:

The man in this world knows only of the sighs of the creature and of his own sighs, (8:22–23), he can at least know (1:19–20) insofar as he does not evade the ‘emptiness’ of his existence (8:20), the dialectic of opposition, the relativity, and the homesickness of everything given, intuitable, and objective. Suffering sees to the salutary opening of our eyes, and, directly tied to the given boundaries of suffering, in its essence as the interpretation of this fact stands the philosophy worthy of its name. Thus in its not-knowing of God and his Kingdom, in its knowing the sighs of all created things, we agree with every truly profane, but not with any half-theological, consideration of nature and history. For precisely this not-knowing and this knowing are the blade and the flint from which, insofar as they together in spirit and truth, as the new and third thing, bursts forth the fire of the not-knowing knowing of God and of the knowing not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence, the fire of the love for God because he is God (5:5), while the theological, apparent knowledge of God and the apparent not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence neither meets in spirit and in truth, even less in fire, nor is able to ignite the fire of love for God.[2]

For Barth there is a place for Reid’s type of philosophy, but it is only horizontal; it is inimically profane. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but left to itself it doesn’t go far enough; and more importantly shouldn’t be seen as a preamble to Christian theological reflection—which is non-speculative in regard to the God it encounters in Jesus Christ. All the frailties and contingencies that human reason is able to discover on its own, through the brokenness of this polluted world and reason, can really only stay there; ‘under the sun.’ The examined life in this sense only leads to despair and fear. What humanity really needs is an “examined life” that is life itself; the Triune life given freely to all humanity in the graciously elected human of Godself in Jesus Christ. There is no need to speculate in this relationship, because, indeed, it is a relationship grounded in trust and eternal and indestructible self-giving love.


[1] Thomas Reid, source unknown. By the way, ironically, Reid is known for his prominent role in Scottish Common Sense Realism, so it’s a bit of a riff, contextually, for me to use him as a springboard into discussing ‘being philosophers’; but what is a shared proclivity, one way or the other, is their intellectualist and discursive approach to epistemology and ontology. For me, more personally, it’s interesting to think about the role that Reid’s theology of reality has had upon my own evangelical background and upbringing. As the post develops you will see that I have expanded beyond Reid’s own approach, and tied him into a stream of classical philosophers who indeed get into ‘being’ and more metaphysically based philosophical reflection. Nonetheless, I see them all as either intellectualist or rationalist based in approach. I see them all, even Reid, even if he objects and his whole life and work militates against this, as grounding human reflection in the “I” rather than the “Thou.”

[2] Karl Barth cited in Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 82-4.

An Index to the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum Posts: And Some Closing Thoughts on the Whole Ordeal

I have many things floating through my mind and heart right now; particularly because of the fallout produced by me thinking outloud and online in regard to the Christiane Tietz essay on Karl Barth’s and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. I’ve already spilled much too much cyber-ink at this point attempting to genuinely work through the dilemma it caused me; and also have responded to a detractor’s post. It has cost me much more than I would have realized to simply raise this issue, and attempt to honestly work through it next to Holy Scripture. This will continue to be an issue for me to deal with, and I’ve already noted how I will attempt to do that; but that’s not enough for my critics, to them I’m as good as a legalist/moralist for even thinking that I should attempt to read Barth’s situation against what Scripture clearly says in regard to the qualifications for being a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus Christ.

I was going to write a post on John Webster’s discussion on the Trinity; in regard to the relationship between the economic (ad extra) and immanent (ad intra) Triune life of God. But let me just use this post instead as an index for all five of my posts, to date, having to do with the Barth concern. That way, if people want to caricature me in the future, or label me as a moralist/legalist they will have ease of access to all the relevant posts (the posts start from the earliest to the latest in descending order).

Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: My Response

A Comment In Regard To My Last Post On Barth and Kirschbaum

My Final Post, Ever, On Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Wrestling With An Approach To Karl Barth, And Some Advice From D Stephen Long

Am I A Moralist?  I Guess I am: Barth and von Kirschbaum

A Podcast on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum on my Always Reforming Podcast

There’s every address I made on this issue. Hopefully you will appreciate the tone of every single one of my posts. None of it was ever intended to besmirch Barth or von Kirschbaum, but instead it was all a matter of me responding to some news about Barth that honestly shocked and surprised me. It went way more “viral” than I even imagined, and now there are other posts that have popped up online; some are attacking me; some are using this situation to attack Barth; and some just seem to want to get in on the action in disingenuous ways. Whatever the case may be, my intention was to stop and engage with an issue that confronted me square between the eyes. I am willing to almost bet money that I have written more about Barth’s theology, online, in a consistent manner over the last decade than almost anybody online; and I’ve done so in a favorable and positive manner (in regard to Barth’s theology itself). So when I, as a “Barth blogger” (I blog about Torrance and other things a lot too, of course), wanted to genuinely engage with Barth on his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, all of the sudden I was supposed to cease being a Barth blogger. I was to be silent, and not be a moralist (a view propagated by a very popular online theological personality); I wasn’t, as an evangelical Christian supposed to follow my conviction and go to Scripture and see what it says about the kind of relationship Barth had with Charlotte von Kirschbaum for most of his adult married life. Bobby Grow is supposed to keep his mouth shut, and his fingers immobile when it comes to this issue. That’s been the impression, and in fact the admonition I’ve received from many who think that I am a moralist in all of this; for going to Holy Scripture to see how I ought to respond to this scenario.

The only way around Scripture on this is to go around Scripture, or make Scripture something else; make it so that it doesn’t impinge on the ethics of Christianity or the church today. The only way around lots of ethical issues today is to reorient Scripture in such a way that it doesn’t speak to us about morality in any meaningful way; unless we want it to. But the bottom line in this approach is that it is contingent on the way that we want to read Scripture rather than how Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ want to read and confront us. This approach is readily available, and there are some right now attempting to reorient Scripture in this way (and of course this has been going on for a long time); but that’s not the way I have followed, nor ever will. I am genuinely Reformed and evangelical (historically understood) when it comes to the authority of Holy Scripture (and other things too). This indeed is what caused the whole dilemma with Barth (and von Kirschbaum) for me in the first place; and now this is what is causing the rub and fallout between me and those who would rather skirt Scripture and read it in a way that is malleable to what they think ethics should look like.

Like I have already noted in my “Wrestling With An Approach To Karl Barth” post, there are still themes in Barth’s theology (particularly when it comes to election) that I don’t think I could ever really abandon. I do think Barth’s Christological concentration, as far as prolegomena goes, is the best way; and yet of course this way is not unique to Barth as TF Torrance points out in his referral to Athanasius and others in the history of the church. Like I’ve noted, going forward, my engagement with Barth will be from a different perspective, and more critical (meaning more in terms of engaging with a scholar rather than an “Uncle”) than it was before. But some of his themes have most likely made a life-long impact on me; so you’ll still be seeing that in my posts and writings going forward.

One last point: I will say something very interesting happened as a result of this. Most of the people who I have been most critical of (not personally), theologically—those who affirm some sort of Westminster styled Calvinism, or who are Thomists, etc.—have shown me the most support in this; which really surprised me. And the people who are for Barth, in the main, have shunned me; and now labeled me a moralist (not all, but many!). That says something to me; and it makes this whole thing that much more enlightening.




Am I a Moralist? I Guess I Am: Barth and von Kirschbaum

I have been called a moralist by Ben Myers and Wyatt Houtz simply because I dared question if Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum met the standards God has set out in Holy Scripture; particularly for those who would be teachers/overseers in the church of Jesus Christ. I have noted movement in my initial reading of the Tietz essay that detailed (as far as it could) the inappropriate relationship between Barth and CvK towards where I ended up over a series of four posts (1, 2, 3, 4). Houtz wrote a blog post in response where he identifies me as a moralist (and Myers applauds his effort), and then goes on and explains why he thinks that is so; even though in the end he ostensibly agrees with me (i.e. that Barth disqualifies himself according to his own theology). But Houtz didn’t feel obligated to report on my movement in regard to approaching Barth’s theology. My language is often more terse, and up front than certain sensibilities like, but that doesn’t change the fact that in many ways we ended up in the same place. So I found it odd that he wouldn’t point out the nature of my posts (and that Ben himself would continue on with his moralist charge when I clarified to him what I meant even in my first post), and the organic nature of them. But coming back to this charge of moralism; that’s an interesting charge indeed. Is it moralism to be diligent in checking whether someone is qualified to be a teacher in the church of Jesus Christ by the standards of Holy Scripture? It is. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist then. But what’s the inverse of this? The mood described below is the Schleiermacherian turn to the subject type of theology and piety. Is this the inverse of moralism; to allow the mores of the collective culture to determine how we interpret the moral standards God expects for his teachers? This is where I’m at a loss. If I am a moralist what does that make Ben and Wyatt et al.? I don’t think they would want to identify with the type of turn to the subject theology of Schleiermacher; but maybe some other form of existentialist styled theology fits them better. Houtz wants to use Barth’s own theology as the standard for determining whether or not Barth failed to meet his own standards (Wyatt thinks Barth ends up in self-judgment based upon his theology of marriage). But this seems odd to me. Why would I turn to Barth’s own theology to determine whether or not Barth was meeting God’s standards of morality for a teacher; and meeting the standards for what it means to be a married man? Is this a moralism too; to turn to Barth’s own canon of theology and use it against him as a judgment? So I’ve been labeled a moralist because I’ve turned to the canon of Holy Scripture to see if Barth is above approach to be a teacher; and I guess Wyatt (and anyone else who affirms Wyatt’s post) is a non-moralist in regard to Barth because he turned to the canon of Barth’s own theology to see if Barth measured up to Barth’s own standard for what a theology of marriage entails. So is Wyatt’s standard for Barth Holy Scripture (and it’s reality), or is it Barth’s theology for Barth? This seems like a strange move to me. It makes me wonder, at the least, what kind of role Scripture plays for Wyatt et al in determining such things. But it seems clear that Wyatt et al believe if someone turns to Scripture to measure Barth as a teacher and married man that this person is a moralist. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist; but what does that make Wyatt et al.? Maybe they think I’m a moralist in regard to Barth because I came to the radical conclusion that Barth indeed did in fact disqualify himself as a teacher in the church (even though he ended up getting to be one anyway); that Barth lived in a life of open disobedience before God and the church; without repentance. Yes, I’m sure it caused Barth, Charlotte, and Nelly (and all five kids) all kinds of angst; that’s what I have experienced myself when I’ve persisted in any type of unrepentant sin. I think these guys are labeling me a moralist because of the conclusion I’ve come to in regard to Barth, and how I’ve openly spoken about it. Is my conclusion moralist; is it moralist to recognize that sin is sin; and when we identify it we are to repent of it in our lives? That’s moralist? I guess I’m a moralist.

I also think many in the Barth community believe that me talking openly about such things in regard to Barth (which Wyatt also says in his post) is an unnecessary blight and embarrassment to them; it seems like they think I should keep my mouth shut about such things out of respect for Karl Barth et al. And I’m frustrated that this hasn’t been spoken of more publically in regard to Barth; so I guess there is a bunch of frustration around this issue currently. They say all of this has been known by Barth scholars for years (and yes I was aware of the rumors, but never saw them substantiated until Tietz). Really?! Then why haven’t said Barth scholars spoken more about it; were they afraid of being labeled a moralist or some sort of voyeurist attempting to peer too closely into Barth’s persona life?

I’ve already been labeled a certain way by many young Barthians (and respecters of Barth); the irony is that I have been a respecter of Barth, and promoted his theology as much as anyone has over the last many years online. My initial response, and continued focus on this is a reflection of my attraction to Barth and his theology; if I didn’t care I never would have said a word about any of it (I would’ve just labeled Barth the heretic that so many others in the church so often do, and used this situation to help reinforce my inklings toward Barth). But I actually do care. The problem is, and this has been a problem for many of these younger ‘Barthians’ who have made it clear they want nothing to do with me, is that my sensibilities are still too trad and evangelical; theologically. Indeed, it is these sensibilities that have caused the consternation for me. If I wasn’t absolutely committed to the authority of Holy Scripture none of this would have been an issue; at all! But I am. And so when I read these letters that Tietz translated for us my convictions and hermeneutic kicked in. It caused an ethical dilemma for me. I wasn’t quite sure how to negotiate that. Sure, yes, in theory I’ve always argued for the objective value of theological witness (i.e. not contingent on the messenger’s morality but on the reality to whom the messenger bears witness); but when I read the Barth letters this caused a moment of real life pause because of how much I have come to value so many of Barth’s theological themes (they have become internalized for me in many ways).

So now I’m a moralist because I dared to think out-loud and online about all of this. I still wonder what this makes the non-moralists in all of this. I’m not sorry I worked through this the way I have; the way I often work through things (through blogging). It produced more light than heat for me personally; I received good feedback from many who I respect. And personally the best insight I received came from D. Stephen Long in a comment he made to me on Facebook (which I shared in my last post on this subject). I didn’t plan on writing this whole long segue to the post on Schleiermacher and pietism (and honestly it’s just there for you to read or not, it doesn’t really have that much to do with all of this—it’s pretty incidental to all of this at this point). And I will say, as I close, that my intention in all of this has not been to disparage Barth, but to try to work through some shock and surprise. It doesn’t really matter what other people knew (or didn’t) about Barth; in this instance my posts were prompted by what I found out in a personal way about Barth. It was something Barth’s living children (who shared the letters) called an “unreasonable situation,” and after reading the letters I could see why (which by the way Wyatt doesn’t report on accurately in his post; in regard to the children’s view of the situation). The only reason I have written all of this was because I wanted to respond to the charge of Wyatt et al that I am a moralist; I guess I am then (by their standards). But what does that make them?

I am not going to have comments open for this post. If you want to contact me about it then reach me by email at: I’ve already corresponded as much as I want to about this online (other than this response to Wyatt’s post now).

I’ve been informed by a Schleiermacher scholar that the post I originally had tagged to this, on Schleiermacher, was inaccurate relative to his theology; so I’ve deleted it because it really is unnecessary to the point of this post. I will rewrite another post on Scheliermacher’s theology when I’ve had sufficient time to engage with him more accurately. 


Wrestling with an Approach to Karl Barth, and some Advice from D Stephen Long

Young Karl Barth

I’ve been continuing to process my approach to Karl Barth and his theology in light of what I found out about him in regard to his relationship with his “secretary” Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I will not rehash what I’ve already discussed previously, except to say that it has been something I’ve been thinking about ever since I first read the Tietz essay on September 29th, 2017. The reason I just can’t “let this go,” is because Barth’s theology has fundamentally transformed the very being of my theological trajectory; in the most basic of ways. I have so internalized so many of his theological themes (in re.: to a doctrine of God/Christology, election, soteriology, theory of revelation, theory of history etc.) that it isn’t just something I can simply extricate myself from and move on. So I have been wrestling with this; praying about it. I have gotten lots of good feedback about how to handle this, and then not so good feedback (which of course is how online media works). Here is probably the best advice I’ve received; it comes from a Facebook thread and a theologian/scholar (D Stephen Long) who has written on Barth and other significant theologians:

If I may, Bobby, I think you are correct in being disillusioned but I hope you will not give up hope. I remember when I first discovered the extent of this while in Basel. What impressed me most was Nelly’s ability to forgive. I was told that Charlotte had dementia toward the end of her life and was put in a hospital. Nelly would visit her regularly. Despite Barth, some around him embodied a sanctity that he did not.

We have a similar situation with Yoder, and I find the excuses for his actions and the cavalier disjunction between his life and theology unconvincing as well. Theology is not like chemistry. If done well, it should encumber us with a way of living, especially if we think theology must be made visible so that it can be a witness. Balthasar asks why so few theologians are saints after the modern era, and suggests it is because of the way theology becomes another academic discipline. The task of theology and the work of sanctity should not be disjoined.

I also think that no single, individual theologian is responsible for his or her theology. Each one lives from and depends on the communion of saints, on those who come before us and those who receive our work. An individual theologian’s work should not be discarded because of her or his failures because it is never solely their work. I do think we must raise questions as to the connection between theology and ethics that could lead a Barth or Yoder to their self-deception, especially when they themselves refused a sharp distinction between theology and ethics. Is there something in their theology that contributed to it?

So I have come to terms with these failures by thinking: 1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes. 2. Theologians’ failures cannot be overlooked but must be considered as part and parcel of their theology. Many of us were attracted to Barth because he saw the failures of theology to resist the Nazis. If we easily overlook ethical and political failures, then we would have to say that theology makes little difference in the world and that would be devastating to the theological task.

I try to receive theologians’ failures within these two rubrics. I don’t know if this helps, but I think your disillusionment is a positive sign that theology encumbers you in a way I find encouraging.[1]

Everything, the whole sentiment of this comment is very helpful for me; I share it in hopes of it being edifying for others who might be struggling in a similar way as I am. What stands out in particular is what I have emboldened, in the fourth paragraph: “1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes….” This fits well with the point I was hitting on in my last two posts in regard to approaching a theologian’s writing realizing that they can have an ex opera operato value to them (the Apostle Paul has this understanding of the objective value of the Gospel when he writes what he does in Philippians 1).

What this has done has gotten me past any kind of hero worship (which I don’t really think I was doing, I think I had high respect for Karl Barth as a theologian/teacher), and put things in better perspective. For me, even if I continue to partake of some of Barth’s most basic theological themes, this in no way means I am viewing his chosen lifestyle with Charlotte von Kirschbaum in softer earth tones. Indeed, the conflict continues to still burn within me. But the reality is, is that I think that despite who Barth chose to be personally, that God still used his unique insights and theological imagination in a way that makes them available to be resourced for the edification of the church; not because of who Barth was, but because of who God is. For me, even if I feel compelled to partake of some of Barth’s theological themes, his lifestyle should have disqualified him (biblically speaking) from ever being a teacher; he should have been held to account, and only then be restored to the office of a teacher for the church. So at a personal level I think Barth didn’t get to fully enjoy his own theological witness to Christ because he chose to live in outright unrepentant disobedience to God; he allowed one of his affections to overshadow the more encompassing (or what should have been) affection of God in Christ. To speak biblically: he kept some high places in his life, where there had to be some sort of syncretism (at least ethically) taking place.

We all sin, that’s true. But we need to mortify such things in our life, in an ongoing basis so that the vivification of God’s life in Christ might be made manifest in the mortal members of our bodies. The Gospel will never endorse any kind of sin; it will never show any type of partiality for this person or that person (which Barth’s own reformulated doctrine of election/reprobation makes so clear!) to any single person; the Gospel will always and only confront us with who we are in Christ, and allow us, from that vantage to realize the significance of what God has redeemed us from and to.


[1] D Stephen Long, Facebook Comment, accessed 10-08-2017.