John Webster on Scripture as Witness with Reference to Barth and the Reformed

John Webster on a constructive way into Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, and the role that testimony ought to play in a general doctrine of Scripture.

Much less likely to beguile us into such problems is a third concept, namely that  of Scripture as prophetic and apostolic testimony, much used by Barth throughout his writings, but found elsewhere in Reformed theology. What makes this a particularly helpful term is the way in which it retains the human character of the biblical materials without neglect of their reference to the Word and work of God. The very genre of ‘testimony’ — as language which attests a reality other than itself — is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinise the text, since — like prophecy or apostolic witness — testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself. However, some careful specification is needed, because the notion of Scripture as human testimony to God’s revealing activity can suggest a somewhat accidental relation between the text and revelation. This is especially the case when the essential unsuitability or creaturely fragility of the testimony is so stressed (in order to protect the purity of the divine Word) that there appears to be little intrinsic relation between the texts and the revelation to which they witness. In this way, the annexation of the Bible to revelation can appear almost arbitrary: the text is considered a complete and purely natural entity taken up into the self-communication of God. The result is a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism. If the difficulty is to be retarded, however, it has to be by careful dogmatic depiction of the wider scope of the relation between God and the text, most of all by offering a theological description of the activity of God the Holy Spirit in sanctifying all the processes of the text’s production, preservation and interpretation. Thereby the rather slender account of divine action vis-à-vis the text is filled out, without falling into the problems of undermining the creatureliness of the text which afflict talk of accommodation or the analogy of the hypostatic union.[1]

[1] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 23-4.

 

Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.

Conclusion

My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?

 

[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

John Webster Constructively Critiques Karl Barth’s Bible

John Webster, obviously, very much so appreciates Karl Barth, and in fact, he appreciates Barth’s idea on Scripture as “prophetic and apostolic testimony” (or Witness). But his barthexegeteappreciation is not without constructive critique and engagement. Here’s what he has to say, he is presenting various approaches to Scripture; this is his accounting of Barth’s:

Much less likely to beguile us into such problems is a third concept, namely that  of Scripture as prophetic and apostolic testimony, much used by Barth throughout his writings, but found elsewhere in Reformed theology. What makes this a particularly helpful term is the way in which it retains the human character of the biblical materials without neglect of their reference to the Word and work of God. The very genre of ‘testimony’—as language which attests a reality other than itself—is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinise the text, since—like prophecy or apostolic witness—testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself. However, some careful specification is needed, because the notion of Scripture as human testimony to God’s revealing activity can suggest a somewhat accidental relation between the text and revelation. This is especially the case when the essential unsuitability or creaturely fragility of the testimony is so stressed (in order to protect the purity of the divine Word) that there appears to be little intrinsic relation between the texts and the revelation to which they witness. In this way, the annexation of the Bible to revelation can appear almost arbitrary: the text is considered a complete and purely natural entity taken up into the self-communication of God. The result is a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism. If the difficulty is to be retarded, however, it has to be by careful dogmatic depiction of the wider scope of the relation between God and the text, most of all by offering a theological description of the activity of God the Holy Spirit in sanctifying all the processes of the text’s production, preservation and interpretation. Thereby the rather slender account of divine action vis-à-vis the text is filled out, without falling into the problems of undermining the creatureliness of the text which afflict talk of accommodation or the analogy of the hypostatic union.[1]

 Webster provides substance to some concerns that I’ve had in regards to Barth’s approach to Scripture. I’ve appreciated and even favored much of Barth’s thought, but not uncritically; and not whole-sale, it is nice to hear somebody who knows Barth as well as Webster does, provide a balanced appropriation and constructive critique of Barth. Webster employs the category of sanctification to provide a “place” for Scripture’s function within God’s mode of Triune speech and self-witness. In other words, instead of making Scripture the location for assuaging our epistemological needs; he places it within the realm of Revelation, which is co-ordinate with reconciliation. Meaning that God’s self-presentation penetrates our very beings, bringing us into His presence and recreates us through the activity of the Holy Spirit’s creativity and movement drawing us into the divine life through Christ. Scripture is attached to this self-communication of God as it is seen as the locale wherein the Spirit takes creaturely media (like our written word), and sanctifies these words in service to the Word of God who is God’s self-interpreting Word.

So in a nutshell: a doctrine of Scripture, according to Webster, should be under the category of soteriology vs. epistemology (by way of order); traditionally it is the other way around.

 

[1]John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 23-4.

 

On Using Holy Scripture with Appeal to John Webster’s Appeal to an Old Lutheran

John Webster comments on the place that Scripture should have in our lives. He references an “old Lutheran divine,” A. Calov, on the “use of the article on Scripture”:

kingjamesversionThis article is to be used in the following manner: We are to recognize and accept without reservation the holy Scripture . . . as the Word of Almighty God, and we are to regard and cherish it as the most precious of treasures . . . We are devoutly to give audience to God speaking in the Word, we are to reflect upon His Word day and night and we are to explore it with true piety and utmost devotion . . . We are to turn neither to the right nor the left from Scripture, nor are we to suffer ourselves to be moved to the slightest degree by the solicitation of others or the desires of our own flesh, lest in some way we introduce something in doctrine or life which is contrary to better knowledge or against our conscience . . . We are to gain comfort from them alone in every necessity of body and soul, and through patient consolation of the Scriptures have a sure hope of life and remain steadfast to the end of life.[1]

What is of importance is that folks actually use the Scriptures, and approach them in such a way that we believe that God speaks to us of Himself through the Scriptures. There is a place for “critical” engagement of Scripture, but I’m afraid that critics have it backwards if they think they’re the ones doing the critiquing!!

[1]A. Calov, Systema 1, 517, cit. from R. Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture. A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 12 cited by John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 68.

 

Theology of Retrieval, Not Retrieval of Culture[s], Per Se: How Craft Beers, Cigars, and Big Beards can get in the Way of Jesus

Have you ever heard of theology of retrieval? If not, it is a rather popular move among certain confessional Protestant Christian theologians; I am a fan of it myself. At its most basic level it is beardeddudesimply an approach or an attempt to recover, primarily, pre-modern theological doctrinal developments, and resource those in a way that the doctrine retrieved can be translated and used to edify the 21st century church. One big motivation for theology of retrieval is driven by the perception that modern theology has infiltrated the church in such a way that it has actually damaged the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the church catholic. Understood in this way, theology of retrieval is often an attempt to right the ship of doctrinal drift in the church and return it to a stable buoyancy; to an anchor that is closer to the ancient or paleo developments of the early ecumenical church councils—and for Protestants this often also means a return to what is called Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, or the doctrine that developed post-magisterial reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a way, theology of retrieval is itself driven by what might be considered the original theology of retrieval movement like we find taking place in the middle and late medieval theologies driven by Christian Humanism and the ad fontes (‘back to the sources’) trajectory.

John Webster offers a good description of what theology of retrieval entails, but one thing I want to underscore prior to getting to that is something that I think can start to plague theologies of retrieval. Often what I have observed among practitioners of theology of retrieval is a certain attendant mood; i.e. not only do many who are engaged in this discipline seek to recover the doctrinal riches from the dead, but along with that there seems to be a desire to retrieve the culture of say Reformation Western Europe—with the beards (for men), pipe and cigar smoking, and the consumption of craft beers (these accouterments among other things). What I have noticed is an almost unhealthy elevation of a retrieval of a perceived culture to the point that the point of retrieval is lost. For my money the point of retrieval is not to create holy Reformed huddles, but instead it is to retrieve doctrinal reality that points people to Jesus Christ. What I have noticed, particularly among the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed might be something akin to Messianic Christians, with more of an engrossment with trying to somehow reenact what they perceive of the past culture (in which the theology they are retrieving is situated), to the point that the broader point of retrieval is lost. In other words, and this is the broader point, if Jesus Christ is not the reason for theology of retrieval, or if he gets lost in our enamorization with our perception of past Christian cultures, then the point of theology of retrieval means nothing.

We still haven’t pressed into what theology of retrieval actually is, other than my brief introduction to it above. John Webster describes it this way:

‘Retrieval’, then, is a mode of theology, an attitude of mind and a way of approaching theological tasks which is present with greater or lesser prominence in a range of different thinkers, not all of them self-consciously ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’. Although here we concentrate upon strong versions of this approach, it can be found in less stringent forms and in combination with other styles of theological work. A rough set of resemblances between different examples of this kind of theology would include the following: these theologies are ‘objectivist’ or ‘realist’ insofar as they consider Christian faith and theology to be a response to a self-bestowing divine reality which precedes and overcomes the limited reach of rational intention; their material accounts of this divine reality are heavily indebted to the trinitarian, incarnational, and soteriological teaching of the classical Christianity of the ecumenical councils; they consider that the governing norms of theological inquiry are established by the object by which theology is brought into being (the source of theology is thus its norm); accordingly, they do not accord final weight to external criteria or to the methods and procedures which enjoy prestige outside theology; their accounts of the location, audience, and ends of Christian doctrine are generally governed by the relation of theology to the community of faith as its primary sphere; and in their judgements about the historical setting of systematic theology they tend to deploy a theological (rather than socio-cultural) understanding of tradition which outbids the view that modernity has imposed a new and inescapable set of conditions on theological work. For such theologies, immersion in the texts and habits of thought of earlier (especially pre-modern) theology opens up a wide view of the object of Christian theological reflection, setting before its contemporary practitioners descriptions of the faith unharnessed by current anxieties, and enabling a certain liberty in relation to the present. With this in mind, we begin by considering the study of history as a diagnostic to identify what are taken to be misdirections in modern theology, and then the deployment of history as a resource to overcome them.[1]

From Webster’s description we can see that he primarily understands theology of retrieval to provide a corrective for the impact that modern impulses and doctrinal trajectories have often supplied the 21st century church with; and from Webster’s perspective that has often been much more negative rather than positive.

Conclusion

We have covered two points in this post: 1) We have sought to introduce people to what in fact theology of retrieval actually is, and 2) we have noticed, usually at more popular levels, that there sometimes, attendant with looking to the past, comes an unhealthy focus on the various cultures we are retrieving said doctrine from. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with big beards, beer, or cigars (except the latter two have terrible health consequences associated with them); but the point I am driving at instead is that those, among other things, can become symbols that, at a deeper level, an unhealthy fixation on the past culture[s] might have crept in to the point that the real reason for retrieval, Jesus, gets swallowed up by more horizontal things.

More positively, I think Webster is right, that theology of retrieval can offer the type of critical perspective we moderns need in the 21st century to speak of God well. While Webster gives the impression that modern theology, in the main, is mostly bad, I will have to demur a bit from him at this point. I think there are some good theologians and theologies to learn from, and retrieve, from the modern period as well (obviously I am referring to Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et al.). Webster himself, of course, has drunk deeply (more deeply than me even, as far as breadth and depth) from the wells of Barth, Torrance, Jüngel, et al; but of course in the latter years of his life he started to turn back to a more broadly received Christianity with particular reference to Thomas Aquinas, and of course some of the Post Reformed reformers, and then all the way back to the patristic Pro-Nicene theology.

I would like to encourage anyone who reads here to start the process of theology of retrieval. If you haven’t taken any steps in that direction the first thing you might consider is picking up a good church history book, and or an introduction to historical theology.

[1] John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 584-85.

A Word to evangelicals from Alister McGrath and John Webster on Being Citizens from Another World in This World During this Political Season

In this rather intense political season I found this little thought-experiment from Alister McGrath instructive; particularly with reference to how we as Christians coram Deo (before God) ought to handle ourselves relative to our place in the culture at large. McGrath essentially argues for an ‘ambassador’ or ‘alien’ like posture as we live in this world system that is contrary to the dictates of christthekingthe heavenly-kingdom from whence we derive our citizenship and character. McGrath writes:

But let me end with a Pauline image, lent new importance by trends in secular moral philosophy. It is the image of Christians as “citizens of heaven,” developed with such force in Phil. 3:20-21. The model is that of a colony, an image familiar to the Philippians, Philippi then being a Roman colony. It was an outpost of Rome on foreign territory. Its people kept the laws of the homeland, they spoke its language, they longed for the day when they could return home to the patria, the motherland.

Let us think of ourselves, our seminaries, our churches and our families as colonies of heaven, as outposts of the real eternal city, who seek to keep its laws in the midst of alien territory. C.S. Lewis gave us many helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life, and one of the most helpful is that of the world as enemy territory, territory occupied by invading forces. In the midst of this territory, as resistance groups, are the communities of faith. We must never be afraid to be different from the world around us. It is very easy for Christians to be depressed by the fact that the world scorns our values and standards. But the image of the colony sets this in its proper context. At Philippi the civilizing laws of Rome contrasted with the anarchy of its hinterland. And so or moral vision—grounded in Scripture, sustained by faith, given intellectual spine by Christian doctrine—stands as a civilizing influence in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its moral way. If a new dark age does indeed lie ahead of us—indeed, if it is already upon us—then it is vital that the Christian moral vision, like the torch of liberty, is kept alight. Doctrine, I firmly and passionately believe, gives us the framework for doing precisely that. It can be done—and it must be done.[1]

There are aspects of this that might sound like Reinhold Niebuhr’s against culture, but I think it is actually for culture with a proper perspective. It really is a call for Christians to see themselves properly related to this world system; while we live in it we ought to operate as a leavening force by way of our perspective and posture as we draw our life blood from the other worldly kingdom we come from in Christ.

I think one consequence this can have for the Christian is that our relation to this world system will be quite loose. We won’t tie all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations as Christians into the politics of human governments, but we will learn to trust in the government of God’s Kingdom in Christ; we will walk by faith rather than by sight. I think this is the struggle we are currently witnessing right now; particularly in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals, or those of that mind-set (the mind-set I grew up in, I’m 42) have been conditioned by and brought up as culture warriors; as such, I think, they have come to tie their identity too closely to a certain sense of patriotism and nationalism—and a golden age perception of that—that becomes too determinative for their personal security and identity; to the point that that can lead to some pretty out-landish behavior when it comes to supporting this or that candidate. John Webster, as he comments on Karl Barth’s theology, has this pertinent word to offer as he comments on the German Christian’s relationship to the German state during the WW2 period. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

While ‘liberal Protestantism’ is referenced I think this kind of cultural confidence can be applied across the board to North American evangelicals, and of course, to mainline North American Christians. Two sides of the same coin, both “sides” fighting for their rights as determined by their moral and absolute selves, this mind-set has too infected the body of Christ. I think it is high time for Christians to lose confidence and hope in their nation’s successes and focus solely on the successes of God’s in-breaking Kingdom; a Kingdom that actually speaks  judgment to this world system wherein the poor and desperate among us will finally be vindicated by the coming of Jesus Christ at the final consummation (the whole theology of the book of Revelation).

I honestly can say that this political season is making me sick at this point. I cannot believe what it is revealing about evangelicalism, in particular, in my home country of the United States of America. But the good news is that properly oriented all the ugliness being revealed through this election can be and has been redeemed by the super-abundant grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in Christ.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” in David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics. Volume 1: Theory and Method (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 90-1.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

New Creation in Christ: The Resurrection of Christ and Its Implications for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of God

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is as primal, and more so, than original creation itself. It is such because original creation (i.e. Genesis 1–2) was always intended for greater things, in Christ. We can see creation’s original telos or purpose foreshadowed in something as narratively specious as God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day; well we might see that as a foreshadowing. The point is that creation, in the Bible always pointed beyond itself; it always had something grander about it that gave it its orientation. What we see eventuating in the resurrection of Jesus is jesuscreatorwhere creation finds its proper ground, and orientation. If this is so, everything in creation starts there; including how we as creatures in the creation think of God. If original creation was a product of God’s grace the first time around, then how much more is re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ formed and shaped by God’s grace in Christ?

It is this reality that I find so compelling about the truth and reality of the resurrection. The resurrection is not something that Christian apologists are charged with proving; the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the act of God’s re-creation of the world. It is God breaking into His own creation and radically setting the world on a fresh rotation that truly orbits around the Son, Jesus Christ. I am hopeful that many of you can appreciate how radical all of this is towards everything; towards how we think of God; where we go to think of God; how this then impacts a theological ontology and epistemology; how it impacts Christian spirituality so on and so forth.

To this end—i.e. attempting to elucidate how significant the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for us today, and for our daily lives as participants in His triune life—I want to share something from Dawson on Karl Barth’s thinking relative to history and faith. As we read what Dawson articulates on Barth’s theology here, I want to lead in with something offered up by John Webster; Webster speaks to how a proper theological order ought to impact the way we think God and thus do theology—Webster’s point resonates with what we will hear about Barth’s theology insofar as Barth’s theology starts precisely where Webster says theology ought to start, with God revealed in Jesus Christ. What I hope is impressed upon the Christian reader is the idea that we do not prop up God by way of apologetical or philosophical activity; instead, we are given our reality by God’s act upon us, by His voice to us which rings most profoundly in His re-creative act in the re-creation of all things in Jesus Christ (Romans 8).

John Webster writes this of how proper Christian thought ought to run, particularly in regard to doing theology (which I want to say all Christians to one degree or another are engaged in whether they are conscious of that or not):

 . . . prolegomena to systematic theology are an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration, and the rest), not a “predogmatic” inquiry into its possibility. “[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.” The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena are, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so.[1]

In other words, God confronts us with His voice, with His life; He is prior to us in every way, just as the Creator logically precedes His creation—or as the case may be, His re-creation.

With this framework in place let’s now hear from Robert Dale Dawson on how Barth thinks this out from the fundamental and primal basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this that I find so compelling towards everything.

. . . The question of faith and history is one which assumes that the death of Jesus Christ is a contingent truth of history and by definition not a universal truth of reason. Barth objects to this conceptuality and rejects it on the grounds that it is inappropriate to the reality of the death of Jesus Christ as an act of God. The death of Jesus Christ cannot be understood for the reality it is except that it is understood as the reality of the whole of humanity in him, immediately and directly embracing all of history. To pose the question of faith and history is to deny that what has come to us definitively and finally in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is our judgment, end and death which we have no capacity to transcend. Barth is indefatigable in his opposition to the separation of the question of the absolute comprehensiveness of the being and act of Jesus Christ from the question of the relation of faith to its historical referent.

Many of Barth’s critics come up short at this point, because of an inadequate understanding of the grounds of Barth’s refusal to grant interpretive priority to presuppositions and contingent issues which arise from various critical standpoints external to the gospel. Barth comes to terms with the problem as one that is inherent in the gospel and arises out of the gospel, and hence, for Barth, is as such a real and substantive issue.

For Barth, Lessing’s question is understandable in as much as it represents a supreme interest to disguise our relationship to Jesus Christ as one which is ‘purely historical and therefore mediated and indirect’ to be apprehended as a mere recollection. In Barth’s view the question of faith and history is a question which arises from a pervasive human need, that is,

the need to hide ourselves (like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) from Jesus Christ as He makes Himself present and mediates Himself to us; the need to keep our eyes closed to that about which we ask with such solemn concern, taking ourselves and our ‘honesty’ with such frightful seriousness; the need to safeguard ourselves as far as this movement of flight allows against the directness in which He does in fact confront us, against His presence, and the consequences which it threatens.

It is only in this attempt to elude the real problem that the question of historical distance takes on such importance. The question merely reflects our desperate attempt to flee from the reality which confronts us in the risen Jesus. The only way to explain our fear of this reality, the reality of our death in him, is that this reality is really present in his resurrection, and as such is the occasion of our fear of and flight from it. Hence, for Barth, even our rejection of him has its ground and occasion in Christ’s resurrection presence with us.[2]

Profound and deep thinking. So for Barth the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the new ground for all things; and it thus must be by christological reality, where all Christian thinking must start in every way. For Barth there is an upheaval-ness about the resurrection of Christ; it confronts us where we are, it is not simply a datum of history past. For Barth the resurrection is a present reality just as sure as the world itself is upheld by the Word of God’s power in Jesus Christ; in other words there’s an immediacy about God’s presence to us because His resurrection presence is indeed the reality of the world: past, present, and future.

For Barth all philosophical reflection about God, by Christians or not, is put to death at the cross of Jesus Christ; and all resource for thinking God is only provided for in and from the re-created and mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. Given our fallen predispositions as humans, Christian or not, we don’t like being told how to think of God; we would rather press back into the dignity of our own collective humanity and dictate to God who He is—but for Barth (and for me) to do this is mythology.

All things are new in Christ.

If any man be in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed the new has come. II Corinthians 5.17

[1] Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” 57.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 97-98.

What is Theology? With Reference to Charles Ryrie, Millard Erickson, and Special Reference to John Webster

Theology is used frequently, and very often, generically. I use it in a certain way, personally, with a certain understanding when I use it. But what has become apparent to me, particularly because of a recent post on FaceBook, is that what theology and theologian actually entail, definitionally, is not as apparent as I had thought. In this post I will try to offer some definition of what I mean when I refer to theology and theologian.

When I first graduated high school in 1992 I attended what at that time was called Southwestern College in Phoenix, Arizona. For my first semester Systematic Theology class we used Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology.[1] Here is my first real exposure to a definition of what Systematic Theology, or simply theology entails:

The word “theology,” from theos meaning God and logos meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith.

At least three elements are included in that general concept of theology. (1) Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner. (2) Theology requires explanation. This, in turn, involves exegesis and systematization. (3) The Christian faith finds its source in the Bible, so Christian theology will be a Bible-based study. Theology, then, is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God.[2]

This a pretty straight-forward vanilla understanding of what theology is. There are components hidden within Ryrie’s definition that I think need some interrogating, and we will do some of that as this post proceeds.

After my first exposure to Ryrie’s theology I left Southwestern (after a semester), and just went home and starting working. After awhile though the Lord, through some circumstances, began to tug on my heart which eventuated in me enrolling and attending Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. The primary, school-wide, go-to Systematic Theology text used at Multnomah was Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine (this text was used at both the under-grad and grad levels). This became the occasion for my next exposure to a definition of what theology entails. Erickson writes:

To some readers, the word doctrine may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps grounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers that the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask.

Doctrine deals with general or timeless truths about God and the rest of reality. It is not simply the study of specific historical events, such as what God has done, but of the very nature of the God who acts in history. The study of doctrine is known as theology. Literally, theology is the study of God. It is the careful, systematic study, analysis, and statement of Christian doctrine. Certain of its characteristics will help us understand the nature of the theological enterprise:

1.Theology is biblical….2.Theology is systematic….3.Theology is done in the context of human culture. 4. Theology is contemporary….5. Theology is practical….[3]

These were my first exposures to what theology entails. At a certain level they are pretty benign and descriptive: i.e. theology is the study of God. But on further analysis what these definitions, respectively, provide for, despite Erickson’s protest that theology is not dry and abstract, is a rather intellective-centered, abstractive process of reducing Scripture and God to propositions. And in Erickson’s case, he sees theology quite philosophically, even “world-viewish,” as if a primary task of Christian doctrine is to provide answers to profane philosophical questions about the meaning of life and so forth.

This was not satisfying for me, but until I hit seminary these were the types of definitions of theology I “labored” under. When I finally hit seminary in 2002 things changed. Dr. Ron Frost, my historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, introduced me to historical theology. At this point I realized that theology had a history, and that there was whole lineage underlying the ideas and doctrine I understood to be Christian Systematic Theology. At this point my horizons broadened and the world opened up; I began to read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Perkins, Gunton, Barth, et al. and the world of theology took on a whole new shape and hopefulness for me.

One thing led to another over the years, and I am where I am currently. Once Frost (and Paul Metzger) opened these doors for me, and as I went through them and kept reading and studying I of course bumped up against Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, and then John Webster (and others). For the rest of this post I will engage with, in particular, Webster’s thoughts on what theology entails.

I am going to share from Webster at extenso (at some length!), as you read what Webster has to say—and it will require some sustained attention on your part to follow the various lines he is tracing—you might think “hmm, this sounds a lot like what was shared from Ryrie and Erickson.” Superficially that could be the case, but if you pay attention closely you will see that Webster is actually critiquing the approach that Ryrie and Erickson describe; Webster highlights the ontology of theology as couched within soteriology and theology proper, as if theology as a human endeavor has an ordered place relative to God and the idea that God has spoken (Deus dixit). Here is Webster:

The presentation of the genus and tasks of systematic theology has to begin quite far back. Understanding what systematic theology (or any other division of theological study) is about depends upon grasping the nature and ends of rational creatures; and such an account rests finally upon an understanding of God and the works of God. Systematic theology is an exercise of reason in the domain of God’s saving and revelatory goodness to creatures. Undertaking it well requires that practitioners orient the work of the mind within that domain, in order to receive instruction and assistance in their task. This is why a primary requirement of the pursuit of the task – neglect of which is so easy and so disastrous – is the confidentia divini auxillii of which Aquinas spoke in the prologue to the Summa theologiae.

To unfold the matter a little more full: (1) Determining the possibility, nature and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. ‘[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.’ The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena is, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so. (2) More closely: specifying a theological sense of scientia is a derivative task, one to be undertaken only after clarification of the economy of salvation and revelation within which theological reason fulfils its calling. Recall the order of the very first two articles of the Summa theologiae: Aquinas only asks whether Christian theology is a science (1a. 1.2) after asking whether another teaching is required apart from philosophical studies (Ia. 1. 1) and, crucially, the answer which he gives to the first question is, in essence, an appeal to the saving and revelatory works of God as that by which the human good is secured and made known. ‘It should be urged that human well being [salus] called for schooling in what God has revealed, in addition to the philosophical researches pursued by human reasoning.’ The setting of theology is thus not simply the immanent sphere of human inquiry, but the transcendent vocation of rational creatures. Schooling in divine revelation is necessary ‘because God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason … Now we have to recognise an end before we can stretch out and exert for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare [salus] that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’. (3) A definition of theology and its various tasks thus rests upon teaching about God and the human good; and the deepest disagreements about the nature of theology commonly arise, not simply from divergent conceptions of scientia, but from differing understandings of God and the creatures of God.

Adopting this starting point in the context of mainstream Anglo-American scholarly study of systematic theology presumes what Lewis Ayres has called ‘a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology’. Much might be said by way of analysis of that culture (or cultures: at least on the surface there is not much consensus). One feature, commonly encountered but not often remarked upon, is that of granting a certain priority to an understanding of systematic theology as a mode of public engagement over systematic theology as an act of contemplative intelligence. Positioning systematic theology in this way affects not only conceptions of the ends of theology (as, essentially, a practical science of Christian history and action), but also conceptions of its sources, its modes of argument, the virtues required of its practitioners and – and most of all – its material content, for in systematic theologies of this type, rather little tends to be said of God in se. This may go along with disinclination for, even suspicion of, systematic theology as dogmatics, and preferences for conceptions of the systematic task as open, free and cumulative learning.[4]

As usual with Webster he is careful to sketch out a theological taxis or order or ontology even for defining what theology is in the first place. As Webster does with his doctrine of Scripture, here in his defining of theology, he acknowledges, as he must, that theological endeavor is a creaturely and intellective endeavor, but he places that activity within the realm of God’s Triune life and Self-revelation; more particularly he places theological activity within the prior reality of salvation. It is here where genuine doxological reflection about God can take place. It at this point that theology has the capacity and resource to press deeply into the interior reality of God, and where theology is not just an exercise in answering philosophical world-view questions (Erickson) or a process of rational abstraction (Ryrie and Erickson). Instead, theology is a dialogical exercise where Christians engage with the living God and make Him known as they participate in His effervescent life.

Theology for the Christian, as Webster hits upon, can take on different cues and diverse shape; depending upon the conception of God the theologian starts out with to begin with. Theology in its most base form is simply study of God, but after that things pick up and we get into the complexities of how that task takes shape; and under what type of pressure. I would contend with Webster that the best pressure is the pressure provided for by God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ; this should be the context the theologian operates within, a context where doxology and the living Triune God are at its center.

I would like to say much more, and unfortunately this post ended up taking a bit of a different shape than I’d hoped for in the beginning; but hopefully there has been something interesting communicated.

 

 

 

[1] Which might clue you in on what type of school it was. It was a Conservative Baptist Bible College, with all the doctrinal distinctives and culture that typically attends a Conservative Baptist Bible College.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (USA/Canada/England: Victor Books, 1986), 13.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, ed. L. Arnold Hustad (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), 15-16.

[4] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 133-35.

Reformulating the Reformed Faith after Karl Barth: An evangelical Calvinist Response

Bruce McCormack offers some very instructive words when it comes to defining Orthodoxy, and how that functions as a definer for Barth’s mode of theologizing as a Reformed Protestant Christian who inhabited the Modern period. In this post we will work through a section of McCormack’s book Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and conclude with an evangelical Calvinist response to what we have engaged with. Here is McCormack’s development of how he thinks Barth was an “orthodox” theologian:

orthodox-and-modernBut what of my other term—“orthodox”? In what sense do I mean to employ this term in relation to Barth’s theology? “Orthodoxy” means “right teaching” or “right doctrine.” But what and who determines what is “right teaching”? The what-question is more easily answered. For any Protestant theologian worth his or her salt, the material norm of what can and must be said within the bounds of Christian dogmatics can be only Holy Scripture. But Scripture must be interpreted—and it is at this point that the who-question becomes pressing. Protestantism in its originating form did not really differ from Catholicism in its insistence that the proper “subject” of theology is finally a church and individuals only as servants of the Word in and for a church—“doctors of the church,” in other words. It was for this reason that Calvin could insist that confessions of a church ought not to be written by an individual but by a company of learned pastors. In cases of doctrinal conflict, he wrote, “we indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.” But he could also say, “Whenever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination I have mentioned.” Both traditional Protestantism and traditional Catholicism held that a church must finally decide questions of controversy. For both, the ancient councils and their creeds and definitions have a high degree of authority as interpretations of Holy Scripture. But for the older Protestants, the ancient councils were not to be regarded as irreformable—and that marked a major difference from the Catholic view. Protestants also believed that the confessions of their own churches constituted a relatively binding, authoritative interpretation of and/ or addition to the ancient councils and, as a consequence, had to be taken with as much seriousness as the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils.[1]

Barth followed, just as all Reformed theologians did, and do, the idea that God and Scripture are the principia of the Reformed Christian faith. As such, his final canon for establishing ‘right teaching’ in a norming way was to test all things and hold fast to the regulative reality of what Scripture attests to, Jesus Christ. Following this principle, the Protestant principle of Scripture, as McCormack notes, Barth remained open to the possibility that even the ecumenical councils themselves could be ‘reformed’ (i.e. not done away with) as the church of Jesus Christ pressed deeper and deeper into the inner-reality of Scripture; in other words, because of the provisional nature of theological knowledge of God (dare I say ectypal knowledge), for Barth even the catholic teaching always has room for further precision and clarification as we as the church move closer to the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. McCormack expands further on how the provisional nature of church knowledge of God was just that, particularly because, as Barth maintained, since we are up against a perfect God, our theological pronouncements and Dogma are an eschatological concept. McCormack writes:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

And so Barth has this openness in his theological mode, but an openness toward God in Christ; which means a constant sensitivity to what the teachers and doctors of the ecumenical church concluded as they too wrestled with and produced theological grammar that reposed upon the reality disclosed in Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. Barth held to the traditional teachings of the catholic church, but of course in light of what we have been developing (through McCormack), Barth reformulated all of these teachings in light of the type of Christ concentrated focus he had in his theological posture. McCormack writes further:

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the face of it, it would seem to be very hard to deny to anyone who affirms, as Barth does, the doctrine of the Trinity, a two-natures Christology, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the visible return of Christ, the immutability of God, and so on, the honorific of “orthodox.” And yet the issue is not quite so simple. The truth is that Barth has not simply taken over unchanged any doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation churches. He has reconstructed the whole of “orthodox” teaching from the ground up. It is not the case that he simply tinkered with the machinery. What he did was to ask, in the case of each piece of authoritative teaching, exactly what Calvin would have him ask: What was at issue? What was the intention? How was it formulated? Did the formulation do justice to the theological subject matter to which it sought to bear witness? And most important, perhaps, is it necessary to affirm the philosophical commitments which aided the ancients and the Reformers in their efforts to articulate the theological subject matters under consideration? Or may one draw upon more modern philosophies in one’s efforts to explain the creeds and confessions today?[3]

Barth never lost the curiosity that John Webster maintained was and is a hallmark of a genuinely Christian imagination as it attempts to engage with God ever afresh and anew; even from within what George Hunsinger identifies as the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology.[4] Webster writes, “Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification.”[5] It is this lively curiosity that marked Barth’s theological engagement as his intellect and passions were ‘directed to the proper object of theology’ who is Jesus Christ. It was this preoccupation that drove Barth to re-work even the ecumenical pronouncements of the church ‘from the ground up’; Barth after-all was a Modern, who just also happened to be Orthodox in a very ‘curious’ way. McCormack offers his opinion on how these two realties melded together in Barth’s theology as both Orthodox&Modern:

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and the confessions seriously—how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter. This is why he was willing to think for long stretches with the help of Kant’s epistemology and (later) Hegelian ontology. This is why he was willing to set forth an actualistic understanding of divine and human being. Still, I would argue, his reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy succeeded in upholding all of the theological values that were in play in its originating formulations. For this reason, Barth was both modern and orthodox.[6]

This kind of openness seems scary to some people, but it shouldn’t. If the reality that regulates this type of theological curiosity is Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ; if someone in this theological posture is committed to the spirit of the Protestant Reformed faith; then there is nothing to be fearful of except God in Jesus Christ—which is a healthy, purifying fear.

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

What we have been surveying in regard to Karl Barth’s posture and mode towards the orthodox Christian faith is one that I as an evangelical Calvinist adopt myself. There is some vulnerability here, but only a vulnerability to the reality of Jesus Christ imposing who He is upon me rather than me closing that down by restricting Him to language that only has the capacity to be provisional to begin with. There isn’t an abandonment of the sacred and catholic grammar of the church and the ecumenical councils, including the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, but there also isn’t a slavish bounded-ness to them in such a way that there is no room for reformulation as dictated by the reality and attestation of Holy Scripture. For an evangelical Calvinist, like myself, there remains room for reformulating things from the ground up, if need be, in light of God’s Self-interpreting Word, in Jesus Christ. While recognizing, along with Barth, the provisional nature of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions, it is important to me as an evangelical Calvinist, as it was for Barth as his own man, to not think in lesser terms than those provided for by the grammar of the tradition, but instead in greater terms as, again, we as the church of Jesus Christ move closer to the light of God’s life in Christ than when we first believed.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.

[5] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 200.

[6] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 17.

Reading Scripture as Participatory, Transformative, and as Encounter–with John Webster

When we read Scripture as Christians it isn’t a matter of simply finding all of the neat little literary nuances, or distilling all of its inner-logical reality for all its worth; in other words, for the Christian reading Scripture is not an intellectual exercise alone. To read Scripture for the Christian, first and foremost it is a participative event wherein we are encountering the viva vox Dei (living voice of God); an event from moment to moment that is transforming us from ‘glory to glory’. John Webster says it this way,

… the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[1]

All too often, I think, reading Scripture becomes a casualty of academia. Indeed, even as Webster notes, the academic intellective has its place, and done from the right motives can be fruitful; but the terminus of reading Scripture for the Christian, I would contend, should be to know God and Him crucified. Reading Scripture, because it brings us into direct contact with God in Christ by the Spirit, ought to have the impact of making us look more like its author and less like the words that shape the profane world we inhabit in this time in-between.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.