Book Review: The Epistle To The Ephesians Karl Barth

The Epistle to the Ephesians: Karl Barth

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017) ISBN 9780801030918 (hardcover) – 182 pp. Price $18.33

Edited by: R. David Nelson

Translated by: Ross M. Wright

I wanted to first off say thank you to Baker Academic for sending me an unsolicited review copy of Karl Barth’s Ephesians commentary. This review will offer entrée into the current volume under consideration by engaging with the editor’s and translator’s thoughts, and then by engaging with the two forwards written respectively by Francis Watson and the late John Webster. In closing I will give a my brief impression of this book, and impress upon the reader what I think about its value.

As the editor, David Nelson notes in regard to the origin of Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, as well as its offering in English translation in this current work, “Karl Barth’s lectures on Ephesians from 1921–22 are published for the first time in English in this little volume. The lectures provide a window into Barth’s developing theology during the critical period of the early 1920s and right around the publication of the second edition of Der Römerbrief (1922)” (p. 1). Indeed, Barth did this work as he taught Ephesians in his role as professor of Reformed theology at Göttingen University; which was his first professorial post following the publication of his first volume of Der Römerbrief. As the translator Ross Wright notes in regard to the development of these lectures and what became Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, “…The exposition consists of a detailed exegesis of the Greek text of Ephesians 1:1–23, originally delivered as thirteen lectures, including a summary of Ephesians 2–6 in the final lecture” (p. 7). The reason Barth had to compress chapters two through six was simply a lack of time; he of course had many other pressures placed upon him, not to mention the publishing of his second Romans commentary. But what he did produce in his more detailed exegesis is quite impressive, and what you would expect from the capaciousness of Karl Barth.

As noted previously Francis Watson and John Webster, respectively, wrote introductory essays for this publication of Barth’s commentary; both valuable pieces of reflection in and of themselves. As David Nelson notes, as a former PhD student of Webster’s: “Barth’s Epistle to the Ephesians turned out to be my final opportunity to work with my erstwhile Doktorvater, John Webster, who passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. From what I have been able to gather, it is also his last word on Barth, with whose thought he had wrestled his entire career” (p. 6). For those of us who were “students” of Webster’s from afar, this makes his contribution to this volume that much more significant.

In order to get a taste of how both Watson and Webster engaged with Barth’s Ephesians, and for purposes of time, I am simply going to offer quotes from each of them as provided for in the concluding summative remarks of their respective essays. Hopefully you’ll be able to get a sense of the whole of their essays by reading a small part of them here. We will hear from Watson first, then Webster.

Here is how Francis Watson closes his essay:

As evidenced in the Ephesians lectures of 1921–1922, Barth’s relation to the traditions and conventions of biblical scholarship is complex. As we have seen, Barth distances himself from what he (wrongly) regards as extraneous historical questions about author and addressees, yet he devotes significant parts of the earlier lectures to discussing them (I). He works with the Greek text and has internalized the exegete’s awareness that small-scale issues of syntax and sense can have major interpretive consequences (II). Equally characteristic of the exegete are Barth’s concern to analyze the structure of larger units of text and the willingness to engage with and learn from other exegetes in doing so (III). While theological preoccupations are everywhere to the fore, Barth makes serious and successful attempts to show their grounding within the scriptural text (IV). Barth’s radical Paulinism leads him to make unexpected common cause with a scholar already regarded by many as an archenemy of historic Christianity (V). Nearly a century after they were delivered, and from whatever perspective one comes to them, these lectures on Ephesians retain their power to disconcert (p. 30).

Reading Watson’s closing remarks the reader might get the impression that the whole of his essay was largely critical of Barth; but that isn’t quite the case. While he has some serious reservations about Barth’s ultimate conclusions I think Watson’s essay as a whole offers a charitable reading of Barth, and sheds light on Barth’s context and circumstance as he operated as a theological exegete of scripture.

John Webster approaches Barth a bit differently than does Watson. Here are his concluding remarks at the end of his essay:

It would be relatively easy to judge Barth’s lectures, both in what they say about divine revelation and its apostolic media in their presentation of Christian existence in relation to God, as often trapped by the malign contrast: aut gloria Dei aut gloria hominis. Such an opposition is not Barth’s intention: the lectures (along with those on Calvin from the following semester) are in part a struggle to articulate a relation between the “vertical” and the “horizontal” that is neither antithesis nor synthesis. So intense is Barth’s concern to draw attention to the nongiven, nonrepresentable character of God’s presence that he allows himself to say rather little about the human forms and acts by which divine revelation and saving action are communicated and received and about the ways in which they shape and order human life and activity—beyond some highly charged descriptions of the dislocation that they engender. Together with Barth’s instinctive occasionalism and his insistent rhetoric, this intensity runs the risk of denying what, after many qualifications, he is trying to affirm. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth will leave this difficulty behind in his long descriptions of God’s economic acts and the human moral history that they evoke and sustain. Here, however, his principal concern is to refuse to think of God and creatures as reciprocal, commensurable terms; yet in so doing, he sometimes appears to subvert not only commensurability but all relation (p. 49).

Whereas Watson focused more on the biblical discipline aspects of Barth’s approach to lecturing and exegeting Ephesians, Webster, as the quote reveals, focuses on theological thematic themes that he perceives as funding Barth’s theological frames as he engages with the book of Ephesians. While largely appreciative of Barth’s work, Webster also evinces some critical notes as he thinks through what in fact Barth accomplished and communicated in his study of the epistle to the Ephesians.


In contrast to the esteemed Watson and Webster, while their points are clearly attuned to the finer impulses of Barth’s theology and exegesis, I walked away from my reading of Barth’s Ephesians with the impression that what he did in Ephesians was rather commentarial. In other words, juxtaposed with the work that Barth did in Romans, his lectures/commentary on Ephesians fit much better with a more traditional biblical commentary. For this reason I found it very refreshing, and even surprising; I wasn’t expecting to encounter Barth with this sort of genre attendant to his pen. You will certainly get Barth’s theology, as his exegesis, no matter where that is encountered, is always going to “err” on the side of the theological exegetical combine; but I was impressed with his ability to follow the text-line in an almost expositional manner. He certainly hits upon a variety of themes, one important theme being his doctrine of resurrection, which Webster highlights in his essay, and for that this work is also important as it gives us an insider’s look into Barth’s early theological thought life; again, another reason to pick up this book and read.

All in all, I was very refreshed by reading this book. I commend it to all who are interested in understanding Barth’s theology; not to mention for those interested in getting a unique look at the Apostle Paul’s theology—from one theologian to another. If I was going to rate it on a star system I’d give this volume a five out of five stars. Tolle lege.  



Book Review: Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy by Kenneth Oakes

Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0-19-966116-9 (hardcover) – 288 pp. Price $125.00

By: Kenneth Oakes

I want to say thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology& Philosophy for review. The following will not be a comprehensive review (i.e. of the whole book), but will focus on the last chapter of the book where Oakes provides a summary of Barth’s thinking on philosophy and theology; and then highlights some fruitful ways forward towards how Barthians might think about this relationship (and non-Barthians as well).

This book is a revised version of Oakes’ PhD dissertation which he finished under the watchful eye of the late and great, John Webster at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In order to have an understanding of what Oakes covers throughout his development in the book here is the table of contents:

Click Here

Hopefully this whets your appetite to get your hands on this invaluable resource offered by Kenneth; you won’t be disappointed. It is indeed pricey given its academic title status, so maybe check your local theological library, or maybe request a review copy yourself. I have read volumes of secondary literature on Karl Barth’s theology, and I would have to say that Oakes’ book is among the best and most insightful that I have read. He writes in a clear, concise manner; providing coverage that is comprehensive, but at the same time does not sacrifice on detail. It is a well written well balanced book that any scholar could aspire to achieving in his or her own work.

Oakes’ Summary Insights on Barth’s Philosophy of Philosophy and Theology

According to Oakes Barth’s career of understanding relative to the relationship of philosophy and theology can be reduced to three recurring thematic entailments:

In the final years of his life, Barth’s thoughts on theology and philosophy changed little. The primary argument of the essay ‘Theology and Philosophy’ was a lengthy and rehashed presentation of material from GD: theology moves from God to creation and back again; philosophy moves from creation to God and back again. Both have the same tasks, although they undertake them in inversed and contradictory orders. This essay even repeated the clock imagery found in GD and the ChrD. There was also little new material in his post-retirement interviews and round-table discussions. Barth was constantly asked about theology and philosophy, and his usual response included (1) the independence of theology from philosophy (a classic Hermannian or ‘liberal’ point); (2) the exercise of Christian freedom when reading Scripture (as against Bultmann and his demythologization programme); and (3) the inevitable presence of philosophy within theology. All three of these points have precedents within the Göttingen Dogmatics. (pp. 249-50)

Personally this has been of issue for me ever since I came to the realization that I couldn’t read the Bible without presuppositions; that I couldn’t read the Bible nakedly as it were. And just as that tension is present in biblical exegesis, it is, as corollary, present when we think about how theology and philosophy implicate each other; or don’t. For Barth, as a modern, there were always the underlying currents of his context (which Kenneth just noted in sum), and how he brought those to his own theological project in one way or the other. But as is signaled by what I just shared from Oakes, Barth cannot be relegated to a facile place when it comes to considering this question; viz. in regard to how philosophy and theology relate. Barth was clearly committed to theological theology, as Webster might say it, and in that he believed that Christian theology ought to operate under its own terms and conditions as those are prescribed by the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

I think the best example of what the reader will find in Oakes’ work, in regard to the relationship between philosophy and theology, comes at the very end of the book in the last few pages of the last chapter. It touches upon the most salient point I can think of when attempting to engage with the question of philosophy and theology; viz. the question of correlation. Oakes writes (at length):

For the Barthian, the primary task and modality of theology is not correlation, for humans already live and think from within a multitude of philosophies. Correlating various and different myths, gods, and scriptures cannot be a major or necessary concern, as what is at issue is difference. Theology sees other philosophies and theologies being attentive to other scriptures, and concerned about the criticism of human knowing, being, and acting (or if this seem [sic] too anthropocentric, the world, objects, causes, etc.) in accordance with these scriptures. From the perspective of a philosophy that is attentive to Christian Scripture, these other objects may or may not exist, they may be better or worse named, and they may or may not be pertinent to the hearing of Scripture and the correction of church proclamation in accordance with Scripture. Yet why would one purposefully correlate YHWH with Zeus, some first cause with the transcendental unity of apperception, das Nihil with the State, money with inner experience, the infinite with the dialectic  of history? Why would one purposefully correlate Scripture with the US Constitution, Financial Times, Cosmopolitan, the Nicomachean Ethics, or of Grammatology? The issue for the Barthian is not correlating but differentiating, as the most pressing task of theology is the continual identification and worship of God as against the misidentification of the gods with God.

In its work of differentiation, theology reaffirms and follows God’s own active self-differentiation from the gods. Humans follow a multitude of gods, scriptures, and churches and so require a God to differentiate, identify, and present himself, his Word, and his works of love and rule. For the sake of following God’s own self-differentation, comparing and evaluating a whole range of other claims and pursuits may be helpful, and indeed necessary (as in the practice of Vergleich in CD III). Theologians may and should explore the differences between the ethics of Dionysius and the Crucified; between the freedom of the transcendental ego, the patriot, and the Christian; and between the optimism of technological progress and that of Christian hope for the restoration of all things. For the Barthian, such comparisons can be a mode of Christian theology if they are performed for the sake of acknowledging and confessing God’s own self-disclosure and differentiation, and not modes of curiositas or gestures towards the exigencies of academic politics. Of course, in the process of differentiation that which is being compared my turn out not to be so different, and this result would cause no surprise or embarrassment to the Barthian inasmuch as all intellectual and practical endeavors take place within a world created and loved by God and in which God became incarnate (CD III/2). (pp. 260-61)

As is typical for Barth, according to Oakes, the preponderance of the theological task is always Self-determined not by the theologian, per se, but by the Self-exegesis and regulation of all things in God in Jesus Christ. As such the ‘Barthian’, following after Barth, will work from the primacy of the Gospel as its own sui generis non-analogous reality, and understand that differentiation not correlation will be the common mode by which the Barthian theologian will engage in the theological practice. As we see in the quote from Oakes, there is almost a kind of accidental correlation that may well happen in say comparative analyses between various truth claims that can be found in the world at large. But the correlation would be from the top down rather than the bottom up; meaning the reason other truth claims might come upon “truths” in the world at large is because the world at large is circumscribed by the domain of God’s recreative and gracious life in Christ. For Barth the genuinely theological task is always a scandalous one precisely because it starts and ends in the foolishness and weakness of God as revealed in a particular man from the backwater of Nazareth.

But none of this is satisfying for the non-Barthian theologian/philosopher. They might detect certain informing theologies, maybe even correlations funding Barth’s theology; they might see Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and even Aristotle in the midst of Barth’s theological activity. They might attempt to use this as an ‘external criteria’ by which to disqualify the supposed Gospel-determined “foundationless” theologizing that Barth ostensibly engages in. Yet as Oakes develops; to attempt to read Barth too deeply in this area, while an interesting engagement, fails to appreciate the overriding commandeering that the Gospel plays in the material conclusions that Barth’s theology produces. Oakes writes:

Theology, for the Barthian, names the assemblage of philosophies that is attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth can swiftly dismiss a line of thought or an argument as ‘philosophical,’ and yet he never means by this epithet that theology is being to reasonable or thoughtful. Usually this label is functionally equivalent to ‘insufficiently scriptural,’ or what is essentially the same thing for Barth, ‘insufficiently Christological.’ Conversely, labelling an argument, theme, or method ‘theological’ cannot mean something very different from ‘scriptural.’ Barth is especially interested in the influence of philosophy upon the interpretation and exegesis of Scripture, because philosophy and ‘natural theology’ always remain so close to theology and to theology’s very source, Scripture. Yet he seldom shows much interest in these background philosophies or the influence they might exert, for undue attention to them might distract one from the actual task of reading Scripture and thus hinder the transformation these philosophies undergo when Scripture is read.

The ‘isolation’ of theology, if it is not to be established apologetically, can only be derivative of its attentiveness to Scripture and to the things to which Scripture is mindful. When Barth speaks of theology’s ‘independence’ he does not mean that theology is or should be insulated from other discourses. Theology can and should listen to those who have also been attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth will sometimes use a variant of the word ‘pure’ to describe theology, but this adjective does not represent a theology anxious to defend itself against foreign despoilment or alien elements. ‘Pure’ does not mean that theology ought to be devoid of all things ‘philosophical,’ ‘foreign,’ or ‘human.’ As Barth notes, ‘let theology avoid all interests but its own, then it will not be isolated. It is isolated so long as it is afraid that it will be isolated.’ (pp. 256-57)

This might be the most basic and important observation of Oakes’ development, in regard to how philosophy functions in Barth’s theology. Personally I find this to be the most inviting thing about Barth’s approach; there is a genuine movement to use philosophy, but only in a way as if it is ‘passing away’ and as if the ‘Word of God will endure forever.’ In other words, as Oakes points out (my paraphrase), Barth doesn’t make much of the philosophies he may or may not slide in and out of, and this is because he’s more concerned with the theological task of allowing Jesus Christ to reinscribe the verities provided by the philosophies by the ultimate reality revealed in the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. That noted, Barth clearly sees many of the modern developments (i.e. Kant, Hegel, et al.) as the most pertinent categories towards articulating a theological grammar for the 20th century wherein Jesus Christ can be magnified most intensively; and in the lingua franca of Barth’s modern context. And yet, even if the hues of these various philosophers can be detected in Barth’s own theologizing, precisely because of Barth’s own locatedness, for Barth the philosophies themselves are only incidental for the task at hand; which is to produce theology that magnifies Jesus Christ. For Barth, as I read Oakes’ presentation, the categories he wants to think through are those revealed in and through Jesus Christ; because of the priority of the Christ’s reality, all other human languages (i.e. philosophies) will ultimately have to bow down to their Lord, who is the Christ.

Final Impression

I found Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy to be one of the most insightful books I’ve read when attempting to get at the way philosophy functioned within Barth’s theological development. The only weakness with the work that I can think of is that it wasn’t long enough; I wanted more, I didn’t want the book to end.

A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film

Rather than a review I thought I would offer a response to Les Lanphere’s recently released film: Calvinist. Co-founder of the Reformed Pub and Pubcast, and film producer, Les Lanphere last year started a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise money to produce the film I’m offering response for now. The film just released September 12th, 2017 on vimeo, and it already appears to be getting quite a few views. It is available for $7.99 to rent (for 48 hours), or $20.00 to purchase. I was actually surprised that it cost anything given that it was a crowd-sourced undertaking; I’d wrongly assumed that the $50,000 or $60,000 raised from that would have been sufficient for producing and distributing this film—apparently it was not. Beyond that, for the rest of this response I will attempt to cover the main bases covered in the film, and try to provide an accurate feel for what to expect. Once I have finished with that I will offer my response (so I guess this will be something like a review). Here is the preview to the film:

Overview of the Film

The film starts out by describing the phenomenon of Christianity itself, but then quickly turns its focus to why the Protestant Reformation was needed and who was involved in that process. Before getting into anything else the film highlights the role that the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has played in revitalizing the resurgence of Reformed theology in North America. The producer, Les Lanphere notes his own generational position within this movement, and frames the rest of the film through this lens. Once this frame is provided we get right into the thick of things with Martin Luther and his realization from his engagement with Scripture, in the original languages that the Roman Catholic Church had come to its current shape in the 16th century through an accretion of traditions that were actually unbiblical. The film notes how Luther’s realization led him to begin protesting what he considered to be unnecessary and burdensome religious tasks that had nothing to do with what the biblical Gospel entails. Moving on we are next introduced to John Calvin as the second generation reformer who provided the concrete impress into a doctrine of Scripture; what later would be known as sola Scriptura. The film emphasizes how a move in authority shifted from the magisterium of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to Holy Scripture; and then notes how things developed from there. Pretty quickly we are introduced to Jacobus Arminius, and the development of Arminianism; the debate between the Arminians and Calvinists is noted with reference to the Synod and Canons of Dordt. Accordingly we move from this entrée into an introduction of what the 5 points of Calvinism entail; each point of the TULIP is given some depth of coverage. Much of that coverage involves interviews with various participants who describe what a particular point involves, and how they see it functioning both personally and corporately in the church. As we finish up with the “P”, and in closing, the Calvinist touches upon a potential weakness that has plagued Reformed theology since its inception; that is its ostensible lack of penetration into the more marginalized demographic of people groups. It speaks to this primarily through the impact that the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence has brought to Reformed theology by interacting with some Christian rap artists, most prominently with Shai Linne, and their thoughts on the impact that Reformed theology is having within the minority communities as it has contact through rap music in particular.

The film features these voices: R.C. Sproul, Collin Hansen Paul Washer, Shai Linne, Ligon Duncon, Michael Horton, Timothy Brindle, Steven Lawson, Joel Beeke, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Joe Thorn, R. Scott Clark, Tim Challies, Carl Trueman, Jeff Durbin, Peter Lilliback, Scott Oliphant, Robert Godfrey,  and some lesser known folks. There is reference made to Matt Chandler, John Piper, J.I. Packer, Martin Lloyd Jones, Marc Driscoll; with particular focus on Piper as a kind of codifying godfather of the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence. The film also singles out Driscoll as a kind of golden-child of the movement, but then also as a representative of what happens when celebrity takes over instead of the doctrines of grace; and the kind of ruin that can come if perspective is not kept.

Calvinist makes a hard case for the 5 points of Calvinism and attempts to demonstrate how the TULIP simply represents a straightforward prima facie reading of Holy Scripture. It contrasts its reading of Scripture with the mainstream evangelical understanding of salvation which it aligns with the man-centered part Roman Catholic/part Arminian concept offering of the salvific envelope. The film wants to provide a hard and fast distinction between the orthodox Gospel of grace that Calvinist theology offers, versus the shallow offering that mainstream seeker-sensitive churches offer; or more extreme what televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen offer their parishioners. There is a binary set up between what Calvinism offers, and what the rest of evangelicalism offers. It does attempt to soften how folks approach this by warning of what is often called the cage stage; the stage that happens when someone is “converted” to the ‘truth’ of Calvinism, and they want everyone to know it (and if people don’t accept it then folks in this stage are prone to look at these people as possibly not even Christian).

My Response

As The Evangelical Calvinist we are automatically going to have problems with how the Calvinist film set things up. For one thing it trivializes the history and development of Reformed theology. It glosses over huge aspects and developments of Calvinist theology, and as a result it ends up reducing things to an unfortunate and binary level. For example because it almost immediately sets things up within the context of Calvinists versus Arminians, and it does so by noting the Remonstrant articles and the Synod of Dordt’s subsequent response and articles (which much later would be captured by the acronym known as the TULIP), it sets things up as necessarily combative from the get go. Because the film moves so quickly in this direction it doesn’t give the proper focus to the development of the guts of what classical Reformed or Protestant theology involves; viz. Covenant or Federal theology. It doesn’t note how this framework in the historical milieu sets up the conditions that gave rise to Arminius’s own theology; and ultimately how Reformed theology culminates in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. It does acknowledge that this history is present, but only with a quick reference and comment made by Carl Trueman. Without this context all the Calvinist could be left with is what it ended up emphasizing and presenting: TULIP theology. While it noted that there is more to Calvinist theology than the TULIP, and it noted, quickly, the various streams and developments of the Reformed Confessions and catechisms, it failed to discuss in any meaningful way what type of theology was present in these important confessions.

To be fair it is a film that only had about 90 minutes to work with (although I would imagine they could have made it longer at the discretion of Lanphere), but because of this limitation the film unfortunately comes off rather flat; and I mean in regard to the picture that it paints of Calvinist or Reformed theology. Furthermore, because of this kind of flat development, in regard to the material ideas that shapes Calvinist theology in the history, it didn’t have the capacity to offer any type of meaningful nuance and distinctions that were actually present in the history. The film comes by this lacuna honestly though; in other words, the scholars it relies on are committed to an idea that the Reformed faith is basically a monolithic reality. Not that there aren’t nuances in and among the various theologians say of the 16th and 17th centuries, when what is called Post Reformed orthodoxy developed, but they would argue that there is an essentialist type of congruency at a basic thematic level that would allow all of these theologians in one way or another to affirm what we find, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Unfortunately what these scholars, and subsequently, this film fail to recognize is that the history itself reflects different strains of Reformed theologians who were actually contemporary with the construction of something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were the Marrow men in England and Scotland who were averse to the hard Federal theology that prevailed at Westminster; there were Puritans like Richard Sibbes, John Cotton (in America), et al. who have been called The Spiritual Fathers who contested the so called Intellectual Fathers who came to be known as the orthodox champions of Reformed theology. But things were never as tidy as the scholars in this film would like us all to think.

I was not surprised by the direction of the film; it delivered exactly what I expected. It is not a film that will provide any new information for anyone who has had any exposure to Calvinism for any length of time—even at the most rudimentary of levels. I see the Calvinist as a kind of introductory or orientation film for the newly ingratiated Calvinists; folks who aren’t totally sure yet what it is all about. Or maybe for folks who are, indeed, in the so called stage cage, who would like to be bolstered in their new found tradition.

As far as its relationship to Evangelical Calvinism; there is none. This film offers a version of Reformed theology, 5-Pointism that Evangelical Calvinism stands at total odds with. What the film doesn’t do, because it skims across the surface as it does, is that it doesn’t delve into any of the background depth theological and metaphysical levels that funds the theology they are promoting. Unfortunately, as is typical, it doesn’t note the role that Aristotelianism, Scotism, Ramism, Agricolanism, Voluntarism, Nominalism, so on and so forth plays in the development of the apparatus that supplies the 5 point Calvinist with their hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions. In other words, it oversimplifies to the point that things are left too sterile and clean; it doesn’t complexify the history enough in order to problematize or self-criticize in anyway. Honestly I wouldn’t expect this with a film like this—not even the scholars and pastors it relies on take this tact typically—but that’s what a film called the Calvinist should be about. It makes a point about how the Young, Restless, and Reformed represent a generation that wants to get deep, but then ironically the film itself doesn’t illustrate what that looks like for them. It doesn’t dig deep into the history of Reformed theology; it doesn’t refer to scholars like Michael Allen or Scott Swain who are aware of some of the challenges in the history and development of Reformed theology (even though both of them argue, along with folks like Carl Trueman that Federal or Covenant theology is the way to go). The film’s producer[s] doesn’t seek out other strains that have developed in Reformed theology; like the strain that we flow from as Evangelical Calvinists (which can be found primarily in Scottish, English, and American contexts in the history). So the Calvinist fails to layer things in the deep kind of way that its self-identified audience, by their own description, is looking for; for depth of understanding in regard to the development of Reformed Protestant theology. In this respondent’s view this was a seriously missed opportunity by the Calvinist.

Overall, other than viewing this for “critical” purposes I wouldn’t recommend this film. I think most people who already identify as Calvinist won’t find anything new here, and for those in the ‘cage stage’ it will only add unnecessary fuel to your fires. I think it glosses things too quickly; that it doesn’t provide the depth its audience would be looking for; and it presents the Calvinist or Reformed faith too reductionistically.

Geordie Zielger’s: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. On God’s Freedom and Grace in Creation in Critique of Barth

I am continuing my read through of Geordie Ziegler’s published dissertation published by Fortress Press (thank you Olga for the review copy, and Geordie for having it sent to me) entitled: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. As I noted previously instead of doing a standalone book review I am going to do a running review and engage with parts of the book that stand out to me along the way; this post represents one of those serial reviews and engagement.

What stood out to me in the following, from Geordie’s research, has to do with Torrance’s appropriation of the concept that God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that being Creator and even Incarnate is something new for God; something that is associated with God’s grace which is an act for the other generated, as it were, by God’s triune life of eternal love. As you will see, Geordie makes an interesting distinction at this point though, a distinction between how Torrance conceives of God’s grace versus Barth (and this distinction might actually say more about the reading of Barth that Geordie has adopted rather than Barth himself—that’s what I need to find out further). Let me share the quote in full length (a few paragraphs worth), and then I will respond with a bit more push back. Here’s Geordie on TFT and God’s freedom to be gracious:

How: in Freedom

How does God create? While Torrance emphatically asserts that there is an ontological correspondence between the being and activity of God in se and ad extra, this does not detract from his insistence that the ad extra of creation is an utterly new event for God. The acts of God ad extra are acts of God’s will, whereas the activity of God ad intra in the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are eternal activities of God’s nature. Creation is neither eternal in the way that God is eternal, nor is it necessary. Thus, there is no logical link between creation and generation. Because creation is brought into being by a definite act of God’s will and freedom, it must be affirmed as ex nihilo. God “does not beget out of himself but wonderfully brings into being out of nothing.”133 The newness of the act of creation is in fact an integral element in the logic of Grace.

This means that while God has always been Father, he is not always Creator. Creator is something (and consequently someone) God became. At this juncture, the important point to emphasize in Torrance’s thought is that God’s ontological becoming does not mean ontological change. Ontology is not constituted by or dependent upon soteriology. God’s ontology is such that “without ceasing to be what he eternally is” he is free “to be other than himself, and to bring into being what is entirely different from what he has done before.”134 Because God’s acts are his acts-in-being and his being-in-action, for God to do new acts implies that his being is “always new while always remaining what it ever was and is and ever will be.”135 In this sense, Torrance can affirm with Jüngel, that “[God’s] eternal being is also a divine becoming.”136 Yet for Torrance the language of becoming is not to evoke potential or development, but the overflow of God’s eternal fullness.137 The act of creation does not expand God’s being, for he is life in himself. Yet as life and aliveness, God’s being is also dynamic. Thus for God becoming is fitting, but not necessary; free, yet not arbitrary.

Thus the newness of the act of creation does not imply its strangeness. In all of its non-necessity, creation is entirely fitting. Because it is as the Father that God is Creator, and not visa versa, creation can be understood truly as an act of love. God’s power to create flows from his intrinsic nature as love; the eternal Father freely shares the fullness of his love in fellowship with that which he creates.138 As Father, God is “essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself.”139 The work of creation “is activated” and “flows freely” out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, that is, from the life and love of the eternal God. In this sense, creation (and incarnation) cannot be said to be an after-thought. Creation is a free act of God’s will. Thus, the motion of Grace ad extra is fitting to who God is inwardly.140

At this point an important difference between Torrance and Barth arises—one that has significant implications within contemporary theology. While Torrance affirms the fittingness of the motion of Grace ad extra to who God is inwardly, he does not consider Grace per se to be an activity of the immanent Trinity. God in himself is not Grace to himself. Grace itself is not a divine perfection. The Father is not gracious to the Son, nor the Son gracious to the Father, nor is the Spirit the communion of Grace between the Father and the Son. What the triune persons share among themselves in the eternal communion of their life is more appropriately defined as love, not Grace. Grace specifically is that eternal movement within the Trinity turned outward beyond the Trinity. For Torrance, to blur this distinction, and to insist (as Barth does) that Grace as such is one of the divine perfections, is to deny the gospel of Grace itself. Grace by necessity cannot be necessary.[1]

Much to affirm, if not all. But it is the very last clauses (which I’ve emboldened) which I find most striking about what Geordie is getting at. As we can see for the bulk of what Geordie has written, it is pure Torrance description, relative to his Athanasianly influenced theology, but it is how that is then used to offer a substantial critique of Barth (almost in passing) that intrigues me the most about this section. It is interesting to me that Geordie makes this critique in a section entitled “How: in Freedom;” it’s interesting to me because I am positive that the Barthian response, at this juncture, would be to refer precisely to this very reality in God: i.e. his freedom. Indeed, it is by pressing into this idea of God’s Freedom that someone like Bruce McCormack can elevate the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology as constitutive of God as Triune and Creator in the first place (which is what George Hunsinger critiques, and thus serves as the basis for the so called Barth Wars), and at the same time avoid collapsing God’s being into creation as if creation is necessary.

So whether or not we follow McCormack’s reading of Barth, or Hunsinger’s, either way in Barth’s thought itself God’s Freedom as a primal reality, in my view, would allow Barth to escape Geordie’s critique from the Torrancean perspective. Hmm, an interesting conundrum and much to contemplate.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 38-9.

The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth.

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy in his first chapter entitled The Earlier Barth concludes a section in that chapter with a summary of the characteristics that formed the core of who the young Barth was. This was a time prior to pencilbarthBarth’s ‘conversion’ to the Barth that so many have come to know through his more mature writings found in his Church Dogmatics. What’s of interest, at least to me, is that as we see in Oakes’ development, even in the young Barth there are many recognizable traits that will emerge later in the maturing and older Barth. Here is what Oakes writes:

A number of the young Barth’s intuitions and practices have now been covered. Barth’s earlier theology is stamped with ethical, experiential, and individualistic characteristics. It is focused on the ‘historical’ and the concrete over the transcendental and the abstract, and is highly suspicious of the effects of metaphysics upon the doctrines of God and Christ. Particularly worrisome are the neutralization, reification, and intellectualization of God at the hands of metaphysics. Faith is generated by God, and it is primarily an affective and practical matter that is either indifferent or hostile towards apologetics and metaphysics and impervious to the yet good and necessary work of historical and psychological knowledges. In a telling sign of his freedom from historical Protestantism and Protestant confessions, Barth can even criticize the Reformers for understanding faith as a matter of believing certain things to be true. Revelation is the inner communication of an objective Jesus Christ, and this revelation is objective even if not primarily cognitive. Barth can even call religion and the religious life ‘irrational,’ insofar as they lie outside the strictures and sphere of transcendental consciousness even if they still motivate and ground cultural consciousness in reality. There is a fundamental passivity of the human being before revelation, but the human being, nevertheless, actively responds and submits to revelation. The young Barth can look favourably upon Socrates, Plato, and Kant while criticizing the re-emergence of metaphysics within theology inasmuch as what impresses him the most are Socrates’ questioning and critical spirit, Plato’s emphasis upon the good, the true, the beautiful, Kant’s ethical austerity, and the moral, self-involved nature of all three of their philosophies. Finally, while Jesus Christ should not be identified with the church or with any kind of Christian worldview, he is and should be identified with the social movement.[1]

One of the traits, noted by Oakes, that is most controversial in Barth’s theology (for people who approach Barth’s theology), and one that remains throughout Barth’s life, is his posture towards metaphysics. Later on his animism, if we can call it that, towards metaphysics is circumscribed by his heavy concentration upon Christ, and even more pointedly, by his doctrine of election. Instead of an Augustinian a priori method for thinking God, for Barth there is a focus on an a posteriori method for knowing God; by encountering the personal Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth Christ exhausts God’s Self-revelation, as such any a priori metaphysical reflection about Godness detached from Jesus Christ becomes a non-starter for Barth. Thomas Torrance makes this clear when he writes of Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Because of this Barth is often charged with being someone who has historicized God’s revelation; even more foreboding that Barth has Hegelianized theology; or even that he has offered a kind of positivistic theology. While some of these things may be true, at a certain level, in reality none of these charges actually take much care in attending to Barth’s reification and constructive appropriation of his own modern context. In other words, I would contend, that even though Barth was as much of a product of his own context as we are, he was self-critical (or he became such throughout his life) enough to materially move beyond some of the negative connotations of the labels that he has been tagged with.

But still, what of metaphysics? Does Barth’s ostensible allergy towards metaphysics place him at odds with the pre-critical, pre-modern tradition of the church; the tradition given shape in various streams of theological development by appeal to both Aristotelian as well as Platonic metaphysics when attempting to speak of God and his ways? There are obviously different ways to answer this, which in our North American context has resulted in what has become known as the ‘Barth Wars.’

What is clear though, particularly from Oakes’ summary, all that we have received from Barth started in seminal ways for him very early on in his theological development. Truly, Barth, the young and old was a modern theologian, but one who sought to constructively and imaginatively engage with the tradition of the church; so much so that George Hunsinger identifies what he calls the Chalcedonian pattern framing Barth’s theology. This is why I personally am edified by Barth so much; while he serves as a polarizing figure for some, he doesn’t for me. He represents a modern Christian thinker who loves Jesus Christ, and who seeks to express that love for the church of Jesus Christ in ways that engages with the whole stream of the intellectual history available to him in the Christian church. I find his focus on Jesus, and as such his de-emphasis upon metaphysics, refreshingly ‘biblical.’ Barth attempts to think from the ‘event’ of God’s Self-revelation as attested authoritatively in Holy Scripture; he attempts to allow the contours of Scripture’s themes and motifs to dictate the way he speaks of God. It is his dialectical approach, at this point, that I find truly refreshing. Barth does not attempt to artificially impose intellectualized or scholasticized ‘fixes’ on the teachings of Scripture as they find their reality in Jesus Christ; he is content to live within the tensions and pressures created by the living and ineffable God who is Triune as given literary attestation in the written Word of God. Sometimes metaphysics aren’t all they are cracked up to be, they can do more damage than good to the Word of God by imposing certain emphases and characteristics upon God that are not true to who he is as revealed in Christ and spoken to in the Bible.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

The ‘Young’ Karl Barth and Wilhelm Herrmann’s Impact on Barth’s Anti-Natural Theologizing and other Miscellanies

I am currently reading Kenneth Oakes’ published PhD dissertation researched at the University Aberdeen entitled: Karl Barth on Thoelogy&Philosophy. The copy I have is a review copy graciously sent to me by Oxford University Press. I will be posting from this book along the way as I read it, which will culminate ultimately in a final summarizing “book review;” but I intend these barthyoungposts to be like mini-reviews of Oakes’ book along the way—even if what they really are end up only being my reflections upon whatever I am reading at a particular moment from Oakes’ book.

I am currently in the early part of chapter 1, the chapter is entitled, appropriately: The Earlier Barth. For anyone who has even spent a cursory moment with Barth they will be expecting some sort of mention of one of Barth’s more prominent teachers, the famed Wilhelm Herrmann (1846–1922). As Oakes develops the impact that Herrmann had upon the young Barth that stands out to me are the contours of thought that bleed through into Barth’s lifetime project; one of which is his segregation of “religion” from history and philosophy. Oakes’ sketches this type of development in Herrmann this way; you will notice the genealogy that not only impacted Herrmann, but as consequence of relation, impacted Barth’s theology one way or the other.

The struggle for the Selbständigkeit of religion in modern German and Prussian theology has a long and distinguished history. It found one of its most forcible exponents in a young Friedrich Schleiermacher and his Reden (1799, 1806). In the second of his Speeches Schleiermacher handles the Wesen, or essence of religion and distinguishes religion and religious knowing from both ethics and metaphysics. Piety or religion, a young Schleiermacher famously argues, is neither a doing (Tun) nor a knowing (Wissen), and so religion is independent of both ethics and metaphysics. Hermann adopted and carried on Schleiermacher’s quest for the establishment of religion’s independence. This task was most notably undertaken in his 1876 Die Metaphysik in der Theologie and 1879 Die Religion im Verhältnis zum Welterkennen und zur Sittlichkeit. In both of these works Herrman sharply distinguishes the ‘knowing’ characteristic of ‘knowledge’ of the world and of religion, granting the latter a free and independent sphere. These works antedate a similar attempt to distinguish faith and metaphysics by Albrecht Ritschl in his 1881 Theologie und Metaphysik. In this slim but influential volume Ritschl argued for the removal of metaphysics and philosophy (especially the philosophies of Aristotle and Hegel) from theology so as to extract any vestige of natural theology. Ritschl even thought that orthodox Lutheran dogmatics, and in particular the works of F.H.R. Frank and C.E. Luthardt, were guilty of dabbing in natural theology. In the cases of Schleiermacher, Herrmann, and Ritschl, establishing theology’ independence meant distinguishing between religion, ethics, and metaphysics.[1]

I am sure that none of these contours of thought, for those familiar with Barth’s theology in general will surprise anyone. But I find it interesting to have a trace understanding (if not more) of Barth’s informing theology since, for one negative reason, so many of Barth’s critics attempt to guilt him by his various associations and lines of thought. In other words, Barth’s critics often think that just because they can identify some sort of Kantian, Hegelian, Schleiermacherian, or other influences in Barth’s thought, that by virtue of that alone he should at best be regarded as heterodox and not orthodox. But honestly such criticism of Barth is simply engaging in, for one, the genetic fallacy, and for two, poisoning the well; there are numerous other fallacies engaged in when critiquing Barth along these lines. All I can say to such critiques is: so what! We all have informing voices, and we all are conditioned by those voices one way or the other. The salutary thing about Barth, the genius thing about Barth is that more than others, in some respects, he was able to become aware of his informing voices, critically aware, and in turn offer critique where it was necessary, and appropriate under the pressures of his christological concentration where it was appropriate to do so.

As Oakes continues to write he reiterates the impact that Herrmann had upon the ‘young’ Barth:

His commitment and dedication to Herrmann ensures that Barth’s earlier thought bears the marks of centuries of reflection and debate within Prussian and German intellectual life. His thought, like that of all pupils, is the outcome of wars waged and treatises made long before him. The education in which he was formed was not only broadly post-Kantian in its distinction between religion and culture, but also had dealt with and responded to higher criticism of Scripture, a secularized reading of church history and confessions, and the History of Religions school. This inheritance meant that some distinctions were already put in place for Barth: a strict split between faith and history and the God of faith and the god of metaphysics. Otherwise put, there was a strong distinction between (1) the individual’s experience of faith and God’s love and forgiveness; and (2) either a transcendental or empirical determination of the human subject and its knowing, and being in general. The work of theology falls within the first realm, while the work of psychology, history, and philosophy in the second.[2]

Again, for anyone who knows Barth these themes are not surprising at all. But what might be enlightening to realize is that just like any of us Barth had a context, an informing context; a context that shaped and conditioned Barth’s life’s work one way or the other. One thing in particular that stands out to me as we look at this sketch of Barth’s background is the aversion to ‘natural theology’ that his teacher[s] had. Often we will hear it asserted that Barth developed his anti-natural theology because of his German/Nazi context; indeed, it well may be the case that this reality heightened this mode for Barth. But as we can see through Oakes’ development this anti-natural theological bent was already seeded into Barth’s life by his teacher Herrmann and the context he was surrounded by, theologically, as just a young virtuoso. There is more to this background, particularly with reference to this aversion to natural theology, but we will have to get into that later. Nevertheless, I think we should bookmark this point in regard to Barth’s development. He indeed ended up being known for his anti-natural theology, but this was just one thing of many he inherited from his intellectual predecessors and informers.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.

[2] Ibid., 27.

Book Review: ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition. Natural Leather, Brown, Flap with Strap

ESV7ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition: natural leather, brown, flap with strap. ISBN – 10 1-4335-52760/ISBN – 13 1-4335-5276-2. PP. 1584. Price: $129.99. Publisher: Crossway: Wheaton, IL., 2016.

I would like to thank the fine folks at Crossway for sending me along a copy of the ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition; the version they sent me is the natural leather, brown, flap with strap style, resembling something you might find in the saddle bag of famous theologian and pastor, Jonathan Edwards. Indeed Crossway’s description of the Bible notes the intentional move to model this Bible after Edwards’ Blank Bible:

Patterned after the Bible that Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century preacher and theologian, used to record more than 5,000 notes about God’s Word, the ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition features a full, blank page next to every page of Bible text. Created for Bible readers looking for as much space as possible for sermon notes, personal reflections, prayers, or artwork, this edition features cream-colored paper and a durable binding to ensure that it lasts a lifetime. (source)

The story goes that Edwards’ wife sewed blank pages in between the pages of his Bible in order to provide the over 5,000 notes that he would eventually make as he read and preached through his Bible. This Bible, created by Crossway, will give you a sense that you are holding a bit of history and remind you of the great teachers Jesus Christ has provided for his church; including, Jonathan Edwards.

The Bible itself is rather big (6.5 in x 9.25 in and 70.7 ounces), and the font is relatively small (7.5), although it is readable. But other than that, the Bible itself is put together well. The brown natural level feels sturdy, and looks appropriate for a Bible that sells itself as a replica of Edwards’ Bible. The paper used for the pages of the Bible are cream colored, which I like, and are a very sturdy paper which will not be prone to bleeding, for any note takers who insist on continuing to use highlighters rather than colored pencils (which is my preference when highlighting). Between each and every page of this Bible there are indeed blank pages of paper where someone could make voluminous notes; I am guessing way more than 5,000 (depending on the size of the notes). Unlike most Bibles, this particular Bible does not have Bible-land maps in the back; instead it has a “through the Bible in a year reading plan.” As the reader opens the flap of the Bible, by unwinding the strap used to keep the flap of the Bible closed (which can be a little cumbersome to undo while using the Bible in a church service, etc.), they will immediately notice a little pencil or pen holder which will hold a pencil or pen in your Bible even with the flap closed.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this Bible. It is a great looking Bible, accompanied by a great translation of the Bible, and it has the durability of a Bible (because of the quality of materials used to produce it) that will last someone a life time. If you purchase this Bible I would recommend, that as Augustine would say tolle lege, ‘take up and read,’ and read it constantly!







Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, A Book Review and Highlight of Suzanne MacDonald’s Doctrine of Election

sanctifiedbygrace2Sanctified By Grace: A Theology Of The Christian Life (London/New Delhi/New York/Sydney: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014) ISBN 978-0-567-63217-3 (hardcover) – ISBN 978-0-567-38343-3 (paperback) 264 pp. Price $39.95 (paperback)

By: Kent Eilers and Kyle C. Strobel

To begin with I would like to say thank you to Nicholas Stewart (of Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) for sending me this review copy, and also to Kyle Strobel for thinking to include me in the blog tour of this book; thank you both!


Sanctified By Grace is an edited volume by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel. Eilers is an Associate Professor of Theology at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana; he has a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Aberdeen. Strobel is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Spiritual Formation at Biola University in La Mirada, CA; he has a PhD in Theology, also from the University of Aberdeen.

I am participating in a blog tour (sponsored by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) of this book, Sanctified By Grace, as I alluded to earlier. My post will be one of many blog posts of this book over the next couple of weeks (here is the link to the blog tour page at the T&T Clark Blog: click here). As such this will not be a formal review, per se, but a blog post that will seek to underscore the value of this book (and it is valuable!) by highlighting, at least in my approach, one of the chapters offered in this volume. That said, I will give you all a synopsis and index of the various authors and chapter titles offered in the book.


The volume is broken into four parts, with an introduction by Eilers and Strobel as we enter the book.

Part One is entitled, The Gracious One. Here are each of the chapter titles and authors who make up this section: 1) The triune God by Fred Sanders; 2) The electing God by Suzanned McDonald; 3) The creating and providential God by Katherine Sonderegger; 4) The saving God by Ian A. MacFarland; 5) The perfecting God by Christopher R.J. Holmes. Part Two is entitled, The graces of the Christian Life. Here are the titles and authors that make up this section: 6) Reconciliation and Justification by John P. Burgess; 7) Redemption and victory by Christian Mostert; 8) Communion with Christ: Mortification and vivification by John Webster. Part Three is entitled, The means of grace. Here are the chapter titles and authors who comprise this section: 9) Scripture by Donald Wood; 10) Church and sacraments by Tom Greggs. And the final part, Part Four entitled, The practices of grace. Here are the titles and authors who comprise this part: 11) Discipleship by Philip Ziegler; 12) Prayer by Ashley Cocksworth; 13) Theology by Ellen T. Charry (a former prof of mine); 14) Preaching by William Willimon; 15) Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The volume closes with a bibliography and index.

As you can see by the material being covered in this volume it is a worthy topic for any and all serious Christians to consider and give considerable amount of time to in regard to contemplation and practice. As you can also see Eilers and Strobel did an excellent job in finding top-notch theologians and Christian thinkers and communicators as contributors for this volume.

The book, as envisioned by Eilers and Strobel, is intended to function, for one of its uses, as a volume used in college and seminary classroom teaching; i.e. as a textbook for a Christian theology class, or maybe even for a rigorous Sunday school class at church involved in Christian Education, etc. I would say, beyond a doubt, this volume achieves that mark and more! In fact I would go so far as to say that any thoughtful Christian ought to take this book up and read (tolle lege)!

To give you more of a sense of what the volume is intending at a theological level let me share what its editors, Eilers and Strobel, have written as far as the book’s aim goes:

Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. In this sense, grace names the self-giving nature of God and his movement in the Spirit to draw believers into fellowship and sanctification. Thus, the theology of the Christian life developed here attempts to mirror the broad movement of God’s saving action – the fellowship of the triune God turned outward in self-giving in Son and Spirit and the calling of his people to fellowship and mission. (p. 7)

As you might recall from earlier Strobel is a Professor in the Institute of Spiritual Formation, and I know personally that Eilers’ heart is in the same place; the aims of this book flow naturally from both of these editor’s hearts. I.e. To take what sometimes might seem like abstract theological teaching and press it into the concrete lived realities of Christian people who are making contact with this world, inside the walls of the church and out, on a daily basis. The book is intending to inculcate an understanding of the gigantic and wondrous grace of God for us in Jesus Christ, and to do so in a way that comes with understanding and prudence. From this reader’s view the volume exceeds its aims.

I would highly recommend this book to all serious Christian thinkers! Further, for any faculty at Bible Colleges or Seminaries, and any Pastors who are involved in Christian Education and discipleship (i.e. spiritual formation) at your local churches, I would commend this volume to you with the highest amount of commendation.

Highlighting a Chapter

As I noted earlier my approach was going to be to highlight one particular chapter in this volume, and I have indeed decided on one; but this was very difficult. As I finished each chapter I thought to myself, “okay, that’s the chapter I am going to highlight!” Each chapter in this volume is that good; a page turner, and for a volume on theology that is rare to find.

The chapter I am highlighting is chapter two the electing God by Suzanne MacDonald. McDonald has her PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews, she currently is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. She is also author of the book (her published PhD dissertation) Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (2010).

MacDonald’s particular chapter, the one we are considering here, is a compression of her thicker and more developed account articulated in her aforementioned book. Don’t get me wrong, as far as material significance, her chapter here is chalked full with deep insight relative to a Christian dogmatic doctrine of election, and how that gets cashed out within the trajectory of this volume; i.e. how election can have a ministerial role in understanding and living out the logic of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. MacDonald writes:

Election takes us to the heart of God’s intentions for the whole of creation. It is the setting apart of a particular people for a unique relationship with God, and to be the instruments of his promises and purposes in the world. It entails nothing less than the eternal Son taking flesh as a member of his own covenant people. It is the key to mission, serving to remind us that a central element in the calling of God’s people is to be the bearers of God’s blessing to those beyond the elect community itself. (p. 33)

We can see how MacDonald, strightaway, is going to take a route that is much less traveled than the typical way of slogging through this oft debated issue (i.e. between classical Calvinists and Arminians). Her central thesis is that our doctrine of election tells us a great deal about God, and his purposes for his people and for creation in general. She seeks to reorient the priorities that we bring to election, moving from the usual focus on individual eschatological salvation, and instead focusing on the biblical and theological contours that emerge from a doctrine of election as we, indeed, have a properly tuned perspective. (p. 33).

MacDonald’s chapter has three sections with an introduction (p. 33) that give her essay shape: 1) Broad scriptural contours (pp. 34-7); 2) Election and the Individual (pp. 37-41); 3) Election and the Triune Being of God: A contemporary controversy within Barth Studies (pp. 41-44); and a conclusion (pp. 44-5). She lays out the exegetical basis for her case in her first section by working through Old Testament themes, particularly God’s covenant faithfulness and purposiveness with his Covenant people Israel which she sees culminating in the gracious Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for all. She then, in section two, engages with the classic debate that inheres between the classical Calvinist and Arminian in regard to election and reprobation. And in her third section she engages with an in-house debate which has been called the “Barth Wars” and/or the “Companion Controversy” between two of the foremost Barth scholars of today, both professors at Princeton Theological Seminary: Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger. She offers compelling analysis within each of her sections, and weeds through some of the more technical issues presented by the doctrine of election in very accessible ways (for the thoughtful reader).

After her body of work she concludes that election must be focused primarily on God and his Covenant purposes in a lost and dire creation; a creation that needs her Lord! MacDonald writes this in conclusion:

… While the representative controversies about election have helped to remind us that we cannot always expect Scripture to give us straightforward answers to our pressing questions on election, neither can we afford to allow those pressing questions and debated issues to take us away from what the sweep of the scriptural narrative does indicate to us about the nature and purpose of election, and the character of the God who elects. Whatever positions we come to in any of the issues raised by the doctrine of election, the resulting picture of God – and of God’s people – must be consonant with the priorities that emerge from election as God’s chosen means to bring about the fulfillment of his promises and purposes for the whole of creation. (pp. 44-5)

MacDonald’s priority is to let the priority of God’s life impinge and condition how we think of this usually contentious doctrine. As she develops her case what emerges is a picture of an electing God who is personal, Triune, incarnational, and thus gracious. If you are looking for ammunition to forward the typical debate around election/reprobation and double predestination, then look elsewhere; MacDonald admirably elevates this doctrine into the wondrous councils of the ineffable God who indeed is full of grace.


Book Review. Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings

billingsRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (2015)

ISBN. 978-1-58743-358-0 (201 pages)

Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He has become my friend (at least in electronic fashion) over these past many years, and someone I look up to in regard to cultivating my development as a budding theologian; and beyond that in my development as a person who loves Jesus deeply–Todd is a person that can be looked to for that, and more as a brother in Christ.

Todd and I share something in common: he and I both have been diagnosed with rare and typically terminal and aggressive cancers; as Todd labels them “incurable” (mine is in that category as well). In 2012, at the young age of thirty-nine Todd was diagnosed with what is called Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure. As a result he underwent immediate treatment involving chemo-therapy, and ultimately a stem cell transplant. By God’s grace Todd’s treatment protocol has put his cancer into remission; the prognosis remains open, and he continues to go through what they call a maintenance protocol to attempt to keep his cancer at bay (hopefully from coming back at all).

As a result and in response to his cancer diagnosis Todd set up a Carepages account–a blog format available particularly for those struggling through some sort of life crisis, usually health related–here he would reflect periodically about his treatments, his progress, and in particular about how he was processing all of this (as a Christian theologian) through the lens of Christ and within the matrix of that relationship that he has personally with the Triune God. As things developed, and the treatments have worked for Todd, he found the strength and time to take his Carepages blog posts to the next level and place them into a book format where he talks about the Christian concept of ‘Lament.’ The following will be a brief review of his book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. I also wanted to say thank you to Trinity McFadden at Brazos Press for sending me a complimentary copy of Billings’ book at his request.

The first chapter–Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?–Todd discusses how his future plans, in light of his cancer diagnosis, began to narrow. I would imagine–I know this was true for me when I received my diagnosis–that this experience is rather universal for those diagnosed with cancer. And yet Billings is clear that while his future plans became a future limited to living from day to day, he indeed still had and has a future hope that kept things open; indeed, it was lament itself where the future opened up as Todd’s gaze was able to turn from his immediate circumstances and upward to God in Christ. Billings writes:

In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition, and discover that the story of our loss is not the only, or most important, story that encloses our lives. We discover that this spacious place–of living in Christ–is wide and deep enough for us to petition, rejoice, and also join are laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf (see Rom. 8:24). Jesus is no stranger to lament…. (p. 15).

And with this frame Todd Billings proceeds into the rest of his book to develop his theme of lament within the context of his cancer diagnosis, and his way into it as he sought to process it through the lens of Christ’s life.

Chapter two–Sorting through the Questions: The Book of Job, the Problem of Evil, and the Limits of Human Wisdom–does exactly what the title suggests: it engages with the problem of evil, and in particular taps into the book of Job to ponder the exploratory wisdom that this literature provides for the sufferer. I think this paragraph captures the gist of what this chapter works through:

Job is a powerful book that pushes us to reframe our urgent questions–identifying which questions are dead ends and which ones we should keep asking. Reading Job as part of the biblical canon along with the book of Psalms, there is no doubt that we ought to bring both praise and protest, trust and grief, before our God. Job brings all of these before God–including his raw grief and protest in the face of suffering. He laments in grief and protest against God. Later in the book, God testifies that it is Job who has “spoken of me what is right” rather than his friends who refrain from lament (Job 42:7). In the end, after presenting his case to God that the Almighty has been unjust, Job hears God’s response and is brought to the point of recanting his case. But Job does not confess lament as a sin against God, for it is not. Rather he comes to recognize the limits of human wisdom before the awesome face of the sovereign Lord: “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NJPS). In his relenting, Job “admits that his own wisdom is limited; he bows to a God whose wisdom is limitless.” (p. 22)

Billings’ engagement with Job resonates with me, and my own cancer experience. I remember when I was in the thralls of my cancer, in the thralls of my chemo treatment that I had someone tell me (online) that I was in sin because I had expressed (online at my blog) that I was, at points, angry with my God and Father; that I didn’t understand why he was allowing this to happen to me, a thirty-five year old (at the time) young man with a wife and two young children. I didn’t understand why he would let me be diagnosed with an “incurable” cancer, and allow me to suffer in deep and unbelievable ways; painful ways, with fear of death crouching around the corner. This would-be counselor of mine told me that I was questioning the sovereignty of God when I expressed such ‘anger’ towards God–even though my “anger” was framed within the category of ‘lament’ and wonder at what God was doing; the reality was, was that I was still crying out to God, because I trusted him with my life. This is what so resonated with me about this particular chapter that Todd wrote in reference to his own struggle through these deep issues and types of wonderings. The conclusion that Todd comes to in this chapter, and the conclusion I came to was ultimately that God did not have to give me an exacting answer to my wonder, but he has given us something better: Himself!

You will have to read the rest of the book to experience the blessing of insight that it offers for cancer sufferers as they attempt to live in their cancer through Christ; you will realize that as you read it it is not just for cancer sufferers, but all sufferers (and thus all human beings). Just to keep things going, and to whet your appetite, here are the rest of the titles that make up the rest of the book:

  1. Lamenting in Trust: Praying with the Psalmist amid a Sea of Emotions 36
  2. Lamenting to the Almighty: Discerning the Mystery of the Divine Providence 55
  3. Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King 75
  4. Death in the Story of God and in the Church 93
  5. Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom 111
  6. In the Valley: Toxins, Healing, and Strong Medicine for Sinners 131
  7. The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness: God’s Impassible Love in Christ 149
  8. “I Am Not My Own”: Our Story Incorporated into Christ’s 169

As you can see, just by the chapter titles, this book engages with a host of rich issues in relation to lament and understanding how to suffer as a Christian in the everlasting arms of a faithful and loving God. On that note I would be remiss not to mention one of the driving frames of Todd’s whole book; it is something that he started his Carepages entries off with from early on in his cancer process, and it is something that I think captures best the gist of the whole book in tone and character. Todd, from early on in his process, Reformed and Confessional theologian that he is turned to one of the richest Reformed catechisms available: The Heidelberg Catechism. Todd turned to the reality that this catechism confesses as a source of comfort, and I think we can all benefit from it in the same way.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ;  who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins,  and delivered me from all the power of the devil;  and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head;  yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation,  and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life,  and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The sentiment expressed in ‘Question 1. & Answer’ encapsulates the whole gist of what Todd Billings develops throughout the pages of his book. In fact as you finish the book you will see that the very last clause of the book is indeed Billings quoting the ‘Answer’ to ‘Question 1’ from the Heidelberg Catechism; it serves as his anthem and confession before God, that as he walks through the shadow of death he intends to do so with this as his deep down resolve in, before and from Christ–a resolve that we would all do well to ask the Lord to allow us to walk with, even when faced in intense ways with our mortality.

General Impression

As a fellow sojourner with Todd, one who has also walked in this particular shadowy valley, I can say that Billings’ book is what the soul thirsts for; even if it doesn’t know it, in the moment. When I was in the heat of my cancer, not knowing what the outcome was going to be, whether I was actually going to live or die, having Todd’s book at hand might not have had the impact that it has had upon me now (as someone who has currently survived my “incurable cancer”). In other words, as a sufferer, depending on what stage you are at, and what level of lucidity you have at the moment (because of your treatments, or even your fears), Billings’ book may or may not have the capacity to penetrate your heart. But even if it doesn’t now, it will later.

Nevertheless, if you are suffering with cancer, or are a family member or friend of someone who is, I would implore you to take Todd’s book up and read. It is a rich theological resource for those who are suffering, especially from the ills of cancer; and its pages are full of hooks where you can hang so many of your wandering questions in the season you are facing, personally, or as a family member or friend of someone who might be facing cancer (or other sufferings). As Todd made clear over and again, ultimately, when we suffer through things like cancer, and we are filled with questions, or even just voids where we are just groping, or just sitting there in absolute unbelief and shock with the reality of what is happening, we can cry out to God who might not answer us in the way we would like him to, but he will hear our cry and he will meet us in the cry.