Karl Barth, More evangelical Than The evangelicals: Thinking About Institutionalized Protestantism versus Jesus

I want to think further about a line of thought that I’ve been reflecting on a bit today; i.e. the issue of institutionalized Protestant orthodoxy. For us Protestants, a branch of the Western church, we are quite Free in our association as Christians, and in the way we think about Christianity. We come from the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and so called Radical Reformation (e.g. pipebarthAnabaptist); within these trajectories the evangelical mood has arisen in various expressions and strands. Some of these strands are more self-consciously and intentionally connected to the reality
of their genesis in the Protestant Reformation, and Radical Reformation, but others are not; for most, I would venture to say, in North American and Western evangelicalism, we stand on a pretty loose and fast understanding of Christianity, one that orbits around me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible. Us evangelicals believe in a type of Biblicism that is solo Scriptura, but not sola Scriptura; meaning we like the way ‘scripture alone’ sounds, but we prefer to live even more privately than that with ‘scripture all by itself.’ Evangelicals, in the main, aren’t much into digging too deep into their heritage and history; they are satisfied with the belief that church history started the day they were “saved,” and maybe the day their local church or denomination started (as long as that doesn’t go back much further than a hundred years or so).

But things have been changing, and for many younger evangelicals (and older too) they want more depth; they want to know they are a part of something that has roots. What these types are finding is that there is this reality known as Post Reformation Orthodoxy. Post Reformation Orthodoxy is the theology that developed in the wake of the magisterial Protestant Reformation (you know, the one Martin Luther started), particularly in late 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. People like the idea of Protestantism having historical place; they like to think that it isn’t just the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have a body of churchly teaching and standards for “orthodox” doctrine. So once these types do some digging they find a whole bunch of Reformed confessions and catechisms that contain theological and doctrinal standards that give Protestant Christianity historical place and identity, and a body of doctrine that they believe becomes almost canonical for how a Protestant Christian ought to proceed. Richard Muller illustrates this as he is discussing the role of orthodoxy for these early Protestant forebears. He writes,

The problem of “orthodoxy” is slightly different: it is not a problem of definition. At some level, even its critics recognize that orthodoxy indicates “right teaching” or the desire for “right teaching.” The problem is not so much what the term is thought to mean as the attitude that has sometimes been found among the most zealous proponents of orthodoxy–and, in the case of “Protestant orthodoxy” the contrast created by a juxtaposition of stereotypes, a dynamic Reformation faith versus a rigidly defined and fundamentally inflexible system of dogmas. There is, certainly, a legitimate historical contrast that can be made between the teachings of the earliest Reformers in their struggle against the corruption and abuse of the late medieval or Renaissance church and the institutionalized forms of late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism working to maintain its confessionally codified teachings. But we must avoid the tendency to canonize the rebellion and demonize its result. The Reformers themselves were concerned with right teaching and it was they who produced the basic confessional documents of Protestantism. The institutionalized orthodoxy of the later generations labored to preserve the confessions of the Reformation as the foundational documents of the Protestant churches.[1]

So there we have it, let’s admit it: Us Protestants have a heritage; we have our own ‘orthodoxy.’ If this is the case, then it behooves us evangelicals, at least those so inclined, to press into our ‘orthodox faith,’ and start getting about the business of drinking deeply of the waters that this well has to offer. We better start making sure other evangelicals know that we have a heritage, and that it looks very much so like so called Protestant Post-Reformation Orthodoxy! We like to know that we have something institutional, and stable to hold onto at an ecclesial level; tradition gives us a sense of location and safety, a sense of control. So whatever this ‘orthodoxy’ turns out to be, if its “our orthodoxy,” we will nourish it, and cherish it, and make it home; we might even feel so comforted by it that we will get Master degrees and PhDs getting to know it for all its worth.

But really, isn’t the church more catholic than that? Isn’t the church more catholic than this tradition or that tradition? Isn’t the catholicity (i.e. ‘universality’) of the church not quite as stable as we would like, and characterized more by a vulnerability than any one theological identity or interpretive tradition can provide? Isn’t there really only one regula fidei or rule of faith for the church; one canonical high-water mark that is the ultimate theological identity-shaper? None of these questions are intended to suggest that Protestant Post Reformation Orthodoxy has no place (same goes for the other traditions in Christianity), but instead it is to highlight the fact that none of them are absolute! None of these traditions, inclusive of PPRO, are totalizing offerings of the Christian faith; they are simply representative of different ways at the Christian reality.

If this is the case, if traditions, even the Protestant one, are not totalizing shouldn’t this give us less gusto in our sense of ‘orthodoxy?’ Shouldn’t this cause us to look less to orthodoxy, and more to Jesus Christ as the real rule; the rule that transcends this tradition, or that tradition? Yes, even the grammar we use to speak of an ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus was given reality at the ecumenical church council of Chalcedon of 451a.d. But Jesus is not held down even by this tradition; He is Lord of the church, and even of its tradition (in all of its expressions).

This is one reason I’m such a fan of Barth. He understands that all interpretive traditions are relative to Christ; to God’s Self-revelation. Barth in my view fits well with the Free way of thinking about things; he fits well with the sentiment hoped for by the Biblicists and solo Scripturaists among us. But Barth even flips all of that on its head, by making the turn to the subject, the turn to the subject of God in Jesus Christ (he turns modernity on its head, and thus modern evangelicalism). So let me quote what I just quoted on Barth’s theology from Adam Neder in my last post as I close this post.

… while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[2]

Barth’s not much into the institutional Protestantism that Muller references. He is willing to cull from that period, and all periods, with the hope that Christ be magnified. But He sees Christ magnified most when our theology starts and ends with Christ alone (solus Christus), and not by repristinating this or that period of this or that ‘orthodox’ faith. Barth (and Torrance for that matter) is a committed “Reformed theologian,” but only insofar that the spirit of the Reformed faith is honored; the semper reformanda ‘always reforming’ spirit. Not in light of a repristinated and absolutized orthodoxy, but in light of Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord over His church, and its tradition[s].

So this is another reason why I think evangelicals would do well to follow Uncle Karl’s lead; he’s more evangelical than the evangelicals.

[1] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 33.

[2] Adam Neder, History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, in Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 150.


Saga and Miracle in the Post-Critical Bible Interpreter, Karl Barth

I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical barthyoungcriticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:

“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.[1]

Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,

the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.[2]

We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.

What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”[3]

I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging with in our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.


[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[3] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

The Dispensational Hermeneutic, An Enlightenment Invention: Ryrie, Berkouwer, and Webster in Relief

Thomas Reid
Thomas Reid

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were, of evangelicals has taken place from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort).

Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.


John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

Miracles Can’t ‘Prove’ God: The Evangelical Heritage

I don’t want this post to be another one of those posts that bashes the Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical past; the past that I was weened in, and moved and breathed in (still do, somewhat!) for my whole life. But, I grunewald_crucifixionam afraid some of this post will have to be just that. I, indeed, grew up under the intellectual and spiritual strictures of what it meant to be an Fundy/Evangellybelly. A essential part of that growing up process was to follow a mode of existence that engaged with Scripture and Christian life in a way that hearkened me to have to conceive of ways to constantly defend Scripture’s viability, and to defend the miraculous stories therein; in contrast to those who were ‘attacking’ it, like the higher critics and ‘Liberals’. And so my whole life, like many of yours, was involved in this task; much of my undergrad and graduate studies involved, in one way or another, a development and sophistication of this kind of way (i.e. being an apologist, before being able to be a theologian).

What I have come to realize over these last 12 years (starting in seminary) is that I have got it all wrong. God does not need me to defend him, I need him to defend me from my incurved self and desires (that are against him, that are anti-Christ). What I have realized is that we cannot and should not separate the work from the person of God in Christ, as if we could talk about his purported works (which are miraculous) in abstraction from the person from whence these works flow; and then use those works in a way that props him up, for ourselves and for the world to see. This is the wrong direction to take, and the wrong way to think by way of order. God precedes us (simply because he created us), we do not preceded him. How we know what we know has an ontic (i.e. the very essence of reality itself, ‘being’) ground supporting that; in other words, we will either ground how we know what we claim to know about God by grounding that from somewhere in ourselves, or we will recognize the actual ground as it is given to us in God in Jesus Christ. And so the consequence of this recognition is that we will no longer attempt to work our way to God by proving his existence by first proving the viability of his works (‘miracles’) in creation. We will instead, stand under them, and allow who he is to contradict our puny attempts to make him known to ourselves and to the world.

There is no one better to confront this kind of problem than George Hunsinger on Karl Barth. The following quote comes from a section where Hunsinger is discussing divine-human agency, in general, and in particular, the reality of ‘revelation’ and ‘miracle’, and the way that miracle functions within the sphere provided it by God’s Self-revelation:

God is not identical with any cosmic process, and therefore God is “not identical with the laws known to us” (III/3, 161). God is identical only with God’s sovereign freedom, “with the free disposing and directing of his own good-pleasure.” God does not overthrow the order of creation when miraculously engaging in self-revelation. “Naturally there can be no question of his contravening or overturning any real ontic law of creaturely occurence. This would mean that he was not at unity with himself in his will and work.” We must allow, however, that our perception of these laws is creaturely and finite. “We must allow that he can ruthlessly ignore the laws known to us, that is, our own perception of the ontic laws of creaturely occurrence…. He is not bound by our human concepts of order, however great may be the noetic clarity and certainty we believe them to possess” (III/3, 161). Everything depends on theology’s offering a conceptual redescription of the biblical narratives that remains faithful to the witness that is found there:

The more definitely the coming of the Son of God is announced in the Old Testament, and the more directly his revelation is attested in the New, the more natural it appears to unprejudiced reason that mention has to be made of events which can be understood only as an activity supra et contra naturam, as an ordering and forming which is beyond the stage of development so far reached by our concepts. And the final revelation of the Son of God at the end of all times was an event of this kind. We must be quite clear in our minds that what is revealed in these events is not a miraculous exception but the rule of divine activity, the free goodwill of God himself, i.e., the law at which we are aiming with our concept of law. And we must also be quite clear in our minds that with all our concepts of law we can never do more than aim at this law. (III/3, 129-30) [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 183-4, Nook.]

It is a constant temptation to feel as if we must rush to the defense of God’s existence, in general, and his reality, in Christ, in particular. But we must submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4). Resisting this temptation might cause us to look like fools to the world, we might appear weak (I Cor. 1:17-25); but the message of the cross always does. I am not suggesting that we cannot actively engage the world through proclamation; in fact we are commanded and commissioned to do so (Mt. 28). What we can do, in apologia or in defense of the Gospel, is to call ourselves, and the world to sit under the Self-revealed categories given by God in Christ. What we can do is to argue that if someone is going to think Christianly (even if they aren’t one yet), is to think from the internal and eternal consistency of God’s Self-revelation, and demand that if they or we are going to think Christianity from anywhere, it must be under the constraints and integrity of its own reality found in Jesus Christ; it will only be from this vantage point that the weakness of God will be seen as power, and the foolishness of God as wisdom.

The evangelical Idolatry of Pragmatic Pietism: Why Are We Afraid to Believe that we Can Know?

In regard to my last post, it was long; but I wanted to put something out there for chutzpahpersonal reference for the future, and also identify the kind of theology I am responding to when referencing the classical Calvinist complex. But in the end; so what, who cares, why does this even really matter, isn’t it all really about just loving on Jesus and loving on others?

In this post I want to address the movement from academic Christian theology to practical (so called) or pastoral Christian reality that takes place in the body life (or is supposed to) of the local evangelical church. The rest of this post will speak from my personal experience and observations that I have made over the years.

Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall write, in their book The Mystery of God, “… Those who do not love The Lord deeply will never be much concerned with the details of his truth.” Ouch! I think this cuts to the chase of where I want to head. But I also want to nuance this a little further; I don’t think the lack of ‘zeal’, shall we say, among evangelicals for pursuing the ‘details of his truth’ can totally be reduced to a lack of love for The Lord, per se—instead, I think another layer to the problem is the imbibing of the cultural psychology by the evangelical church that is also at least a symptom of the problem (and if I think about it, this would come back to a lack of love for the Lord and to a love for the world instead). We live in a Postmodern culture, the culture who operates with a hermeneutic of suspicion, and an incredulity towards any claims of meta-narratives (pace Lyotard). In short, we inhabit a culture that has embraced (even evangelicals and Fundamentalists) a mood of normative relativism, and a theory of truth based upon coherentism and pragmatism (if it “works” for me it is true for me). And even less concrete, we inhabit the information overload technology age; and so trying to nail down concrete correlative reality and truth in our age seems as slippery, for some, as it did when the printing press was invented and the age of the written word and mass production of books began to shape the pre-critical (becoming critical) world.

So how does the above sketched scenario have any relation to that long article I wrote on ‘Mullerian classical Covenant Theology’? Considering the above; I think our attention spans for things has been largely fragmented by the way that we receive information, and try to interpret it–which can make us feel overwhelmed and defeated before we ever even start the process of trying to critically engage with ideas; and so we just don’t. I think that many of us think that the nuts and bolts of the varied theological constructs and biblical interpretations that we encounter either 1) all have elements or components of truth in them, or 2) are so idiosyncratic to said theologian (or school of thought), or biblical exegete that it makes it rather obtuse to presume that one “Pope” has any more authority than another “Pope” (so the conciliar age all over again). And so given the kind of uncritical acceptance of the relativistic mode that we all have imbibed to one degree or another, it makes it almost an inane prospect to consider that one theological truth claim or interpretation (even as a project) has any more luster to it than the next one. So we end up taking a rather passive approach to things (or its polar opposite), and given the more “important” things, like loving on Jesus and loving on others, the ideas that fund what in fact that actually means (i.e. getting beyond the pragmatism of pietism) have very loose shrift in our lives with the rationalization that ‘I don’t really need to know how the nuts and bolts come together, I just need to know that they do, and I am happy to live in the oblivion of my own piety.’

Do I think, then, that everybody (who is “able”) needs to be a Christian scholar? Actually, yes! I know that it is a sacrifice, but to me, the alternative is actually idolatry (and that’s not just because I am wired the way that I am—I hate when people say that!). And the posture the Christian ought to adopt is one of critical realism; that is that we should operate with the attitude and principled  chutzpah that we can know the truth, we can have a growing grasp of the ‘nuts & bolts’, as we continually engage in the kind of repentant and ever growing thinking that we have been called to as Christians. And the reason we can operate with this kind of audacity of thought and life as Christians is because we have a God who knows how to communicate, and has done so through the accommodation and humiliation of his own life for us in Christ, that we might know him. So instead of being relativistic, passivistic, or pragmatistic in regard to our approach of engaging in thinking theologically and Christianly; we need to be bold and think, and in that process, be humble enough to be wrong, and grow that way.

The Implosion of North American Evangelicalism: Is There a Way Forward?

What a pertinent Word for us North American, and any other Evangelicals. This sentiment was intended, in Barth’s context, for the theological Liberals and pietists of his German/Swiss context; but I think the spirit that he is attacking time_evangelicalstherein is the same spirit that has rooted and blossomed in North American Evangelicalism today. There is no other resource but to get back to what Torrance on Barth is posing for us through this following series of questions. Here they are:

Is it not precisely the same battle, Barth asked, that needs to be fought all over again in the twentieth century? Is it not one which combines the forms which the battle took in the fourth and the sixteenth century: God and no other is the content of his revelation, and God and no other is the content of his saving grace? When we speak of ‘Christ’ is it really God himself in his revelation that we mean? And when we speak of the Holy Spirit, is it really God himself in his freedom to be present with us, or is it just our spirit that we mean? Is it not the Godness of God in his secularisation of the Church and the secularisation of the modern man? Has revelation not somehow just become identified with change and improvement in the life of man? Has not knowledge of God come to mean something that goes on in the depths of the human soul? Hence is it not high time to take seriously again the ancient cause of the Church, renewed with such vigour at the Reformation, that God’s revelation is the revelation of God himself, of God-in-his-revelation, and that he is to be known only out of himself, for the God whom we know in revelation is the God who remains subject even when making himself the object of our knowledge? And so Barth insisted that theology is concerned with a knowledge of God that takes its rise from the sovereign act of his self-revelation and which is actualised only way of recognition and acknowledgement of the truth of God as the one reality that is grounded in itself and therefore is to be understood, derived, and substantiated only out of itself. It is the knowledge of the one truth of God who is of and through himself alone, and therefore a knowledge that is in accordance with the transcendent nature of that which is known. It is the knowledge of the ultimate truth which by its very nature cannot be measured by any standard outside of it or higher than it, for there is no such standard — rather does every other truth take its origin from this truth and point away to it as its goal. [Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, 44-5.]

I just noticed that Dallas Theological Seminary is going to be hosting a conference called The Way Forward: Re-imaging Evangelicalism. And here is the blurb describing it:

A seismic cultural shift has taken place that has unsettled evangelicalism and the ministries it reflects, including your church. Come hear what has taken place, why, and how to deal with it. The way back is not to complain about where we are or to seek a past glory. John Dickerson will lead us into the way forward for effective ministry in our changing world.

I fully agree that Evangelicalism has and is imploding. My concern is that conferences like the one noted above are not really going to provide the real kind of theological resource that is required if Evangelicals are really going to move forward.

Good Works, The Work of the Great Deceiver

I am starting to become less and less convinced that Christians, at least in America, actually struggle with things like I am about to highlight in this post. It seems as if a folkism has overtaken American Evangelicalism in a way that pragmatism and utilitarianism rues the day, and principle and doctrinal concerns no longer, for some reason are important—I am somewhat rabbit trailing from where I want to take this post. I hit on this because I think that what this post is going to talk about might be down on the pole of significance for many of us; in fact I think that American Evangelicalism, in general, has so imbibed our feel good pop culture that the concept of ‘good works’ and right standing before God really have no functional meaning for people’s daily lives and spirituality. We are so busy with everyday concerns, trying to make ends meet, watching TV, and entertaining ourselves to death; that serious reflection about doctrinal concerns—like the relation between good works and saved by faith alone—really have no place of import in our lives.

Nevertheless, for those who might be the exception to my sketch above, this post might mean something to you. As you might have already picked up, I want to bring up the issue of ‘good works’ in the Christian’s life. And in particular, I want to get more insight into what Martin Luther, the Reformer thought, who is primarily known for emphasizing sola fide, ‘faith alone’. Maybe though, maybe I am wrong about what I was getting at in my first paragraph above; maybe in fact good works for Christians are alive and well, maybe good works (whatever those are) are what provides salvation, psychologically, for so many of us. Maybe when we do good things we feel good before God (coram Deo), and maybe when we do bad things we feel guilty before God; so maybe that’s why we try to comfort ourselves by the good that we do, and brushing the bad under the good in a way that makes us feel ‘justified’ before God (and of course we attribute the good to the power of God in our lives, and thus we even feel more justified when we see our good works; in fact we start to look at our good works as the basis for our assurance of salvation). According to John Webster, Martin Luther would totally disagree with you—if you think your good works are a sign of your salvation or something—here is how Webster describes Luther’s view here:

[…] Luther’s doctrine of justification b grace through faith severs the bond between acceptance and self-realization which he found in scholastic anthropology; in effect, his moral ontology calls into question the notion that self-conscious, self-actualizing selfhood is anthropologically primary. Indeed, in a crucial phrase he notes how, in good works as traditionally understood (i.e. as ‘religious’ works), ‘the self has been set up as an idol’. He acutely sees that religious works, and the understanding of the human person through which their significance is expounded, have become an exercise in self-preservation; good works are in league with human egotism, and their consequence is accordingly the deepening of human depravity and not release from it. For such works have become ‘merely acts of appeasement and self-righteous attempts at self-salvation. Luther recognised the depth of the corruption of the self which attempts to turn all goods to itself’. The target of Luther’s critique is thus the prudential calculation of benefits which might accrue to the agent on the basis of certain kinds of moral performance; acts undertaken in anticipation of rewards are ipso facto disqualified as good works, because within them lurks the sinful, self-realizing ego. If the Christian is related to his or her good works ‘self-centeredly’, the result is that chronic inflammation of the self which is the curse of sin. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 163.]

This seems like a dilemma! If good works aren’t the sign of my salvation; if good works can’t provide me with assurance of salvation, then what or who can? If good works which are done by natural Pelagian impulse only serve to really further my own self-deception about how sinful I am—as T. F. Torrance would say ‘all the way down’—then I am of all men most to be pitied.

Of course the answer is ‘faith’, the faith of Christ at work in us by the Spirit. This is the ground of assurance, it is the faith of and the faith in Christ that resolves the dilemma. Good works, the ones we have been recreated in, in Christ (Eph. 2:10); are a result of the overflow of relationship that we already have with Christ. We don’t look to our good works as if those are our ‘Yes’ before God, He already said ‘No’ to them at the cross; instead, with the Apostle Paul we look to Christ where ‘all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory’ (II Cor. 1:20).

What Luther’s emphasis can provide is a way out of a moralistic Christian spirituality that can only produce introspective navel gazing Christians who ultimately are driven by angst, instead of the power of God, which is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ; the one that we are not ashamed of (Romans 1:16).

Barth’s Contradiction of Evangelical Theologies through the Gospel

Have you ever wondered what explaining the Gospel entails? Karl Barth wondered such things, and gave voice to what he thought was the best way to do such; explain the Gospel that is. Here is how he thinks we should do that:

[T]o explain the Gospel is to define and describe the nature, existence and activity of God as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, the grace, the covenant and the work of reconciliation with all that these include and in the living terms of the manifestation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is to do all this, according to the measure of God’s Word, in the constantly changing forms of human consideration, thought and expression. It is to introduce this whole occurrence onto the human scene in a way in which it is not knowable but at least intelligible and perspicuous. It is to cause it to be told to men in human terms. The vital thing in so doing is that the whole content of the Gospel in all its elements and dimensions should be allowed to be its own principle of explanation, that under no pretext or title should alien principles of explanation in the form of metaphysical, anthropological, epistemological or religio-philosophical presuppositions be intruded upon it, that it should not be measured by any other standards of what it is possible than its own, that answers should not be given to any other questions than those raised by itself, that it should not be forced into any alien scheme but left as it is and understood and expounded as such. [Karl Barth, CD IV/3, p. 849 cited by John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 146-47.]

So for Barth, the Gospel is not contingent on man or woman’s explanation; instead, we are contingent upon it, the Gospel, Jesus. For Barth, we don’t possess the Gospel, the Gospel possesses us; it gives itself to us, with its own categories of explanation. It is this reality that shapes Barth’s view of apologetics, analytical theology, etc. And it is probably this reality that Evangelical theology and Evangelicals find so repulsing about Barth; his approach counters the rationalist underbelly upon which Evangelical theologies, in general, rest. For Barth a proper Dogmatic order requires that God and knowledge of God in Christ precedes and contradicts our arguments for him.


Too Much Jesus? Your Method of Biblical Interpretation

I would like to expose you all to Thomas Torrance’s take on Irenaeus’ understanding on what could be called a Christocentric Hermeneutic. As you read Torrance’s account of Irenaeus, understand that you are reading Torrance too. Here is Torrance on Irenaeus:

It is, then, to the Incarnation that Irenaeus turns for the clue to the interpretation of the history of creation and redemption and therefore for the clue to the interpretation of the Scriptures. The essential order and connection of things is embodied in Jesus Christ and it is by reference to him that the economic ministrations of God in humanity and the historical covenants are to be understood aright, and therefore the interconnection between the scriptures of the prophets and the scriptures of the Apostles, ‘the Gospel and the Apostles. Even the Scriptures of the old covenant have to be read in the light of Christ’s advent in the flesh, for his coming connected the end with the beginning and made the beginning predictive of the end, thus showing that the faith of the patriarchs and prophets and ours is one and the same. They sowed the seed, the word about Christ (sermonem de Christo), but it is in us that the fruit is reaped and received, and only in the Church is the truth of the things prefigured realised. ‘Certain facts had to be announced beforehand by the fathers in a paternal manner, (paternaliter), and others prefigured by the prophets in a legal manner (legaliter), but others delineated according to the pattern of Christ (deformari secundum formationem Christi) by those who perceived the adoption, for in one God are all things shown forth.’ [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, 122-23]

How does this strike you? Do you think this is too intense for a hermeneutic or mode for interpreting Scripture? Is your method of biblical interpretation this intensively Christ focused? I am really curious how you all think of this; I obviously highly appreciate this kind of ‘Patristic’ method of interpreting and reinterpreting (the OT) Scripture in light of  its fulfillment in Christ. This rubs against the method of interpretation I learned (by and large) in Bible College and Seminary; which is the Literal Grammatical Historical method (the kind that leads to and from Dispensationalism).

A Christian Apologetic: Torrance and “Justin Martyr,” Proving Jesus

Thomas Torrance, in his Theological Science (his theological method, and a title of one of his books), follows what he calls an epistemological inversion; in short, epistemological inversion is the approach that holds out that an object or subject (or both as in the case of Christian Theology) acts upon us (the knowers and inquirers), such that it itself opens up to us its own reality and structures of thought—this process remains an open structured event. It is from within this context that we can better understand Thomas Torrance’s appropriation of someone like Justin Martyr, and his defense of Christian reality and the Christic event itself (one and the same). Let’s follow along as Torrance engages Martyr, this quote will end with Torrance quoting Justin (which is the piece I really want to get to with this post—viz. Martyr’s “argument”):

The distinctive feature of this Word is its relation through the Spirit to historical facts and events. It is when we allow the Scriptures to direct us to these facts and events that our minds fall under the power of their truth and we are compelled to believe for they carry in themselves their own demonstration. This is not, of course, any kind of logical proof, but the kind of demonstration that arises immediately out of the facts and events themselves through their self-evidence. This is particularly well expressed in a fragment of a lost work on the resurrection that has survived through John of Damascus and attributed to Justin.

[T]he Word of truth is free, and carries its own authority, disdaining to fall under any skilful argument, or to endure the logical scrutiny for its hearers. But it would be believed of its own sake, and for the confidence due to him who sends it. Now the Word of truth is sent from God, wherefore the freedom claimed by the truth is not arrogant. For being sent with authority, it were not fit that it should be required to produce proof of what is said, since neither is there any proof beyond itself, which is God. For every proof is more powerful and trustworthy than that which it proves, since what is disbelieved, until proof is produced, gets credit when such proof is produced, and is recognised as being what it was stated to be. But nothing is more powerful or more trustworthy than the truth; so that he who requires proof of this, is like one who wishes it demonstrated why the things that appear to the senses do appear. For the test of those things which are received through the reason, is sense; but of sense itself there is not test beyond itself. As then we bring those things which reason hunts after, to sense, and by it judge what kind of things they are, whether the things spoken be true or false, and then sit in judgment no longer, giving full credit to its decision; so also we refer all that is said regarding men and the world to the truth, and by it judge whether it be worthless or no. But the utterances of truth we judge by no separate test, giving full credit to itself. And God, the Father of the universe, who is the perfect intelligence, is the Truth. And the Word, being his Son, came to us, having put on flesh revealing  both himself and the Father, giving to us in himself resurrection from the dead and eternal life afterwards. And this is Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. He, therefore, is himself both the faith and the proof of himself and of all things. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, 95-6; the quote from Justin, De resurrectione, 1.1f, from the Sacra Parallela of John of Damascus. E.T. from Ante Nicene Christian Library, vol. 2, pp. 341ff. This is not generally accepted as Justin’s own work, but like the Cohortatio ad Graecos was at least written under his influence.]

For all those weary souls who have labored under the Evangelical mantle of ‘Fighting Fundamentalism’ and the Apologetic Faith (as Warfield called it); won’t you join me in commending yourself to a more Christian Way? A ‘Way’ that does not entangle itself in the realm of rationalist-historicism, that seeks to ‘prove’ Jesus to themselves and the world. I am sure that it is the other way around … we are in need of ‘proving’. And I think the “Martyr” quote helps us to think in this order, and not the order of the “world.”