You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘PhD-Karl Barth-John Webster’ category.

I don’t know about you, but I grow weary of sin; I (we) face an ongoing battle every breath that we take. Whether it be perverse thoughts, dark deep secrets that plague the conscience, actions that result in destruction for you and all those related to you, systemic evil that permeates the very fabric of society (this is probably most insidious since we are conditioned by it in ways that give it a normalcy and thus societal and then personal acceptance); the Apostle can relate,

23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Romans 7:23, 24

We battle on. But how do we know what we battle; how do we gauge the target, how do we even know that there is a target to hit? How do we realize that evil isn’t some just mysterious lurking principle ‘out there’ that ultimately is outside of me, and not something that actually implicates my very being to its deepest depths—even when I engage in the evil ‘out there’ occasionally or situationally? How do I know, even if I can index concrete and ongoing instantiations of evil ‘out there, that the evil is indeed me? And that this all encompassing wickedness and deprivation consumes my inner self, which organically shapes my outer self—since really ourselves (body/soul) are integrated wholes. In other words, I am sin to the depths, and the reason there is sin, evil, wickedness ‘out there’; it is mostly because it has a context ‘in here’, in me. But how can I say such things, how can I ground such assertions beyond some sort of psychological intuition? We know that we are blind when the impression of light intensifies our darkness; when Jesus acts the way he does, and did, we know we are indeed blind. We come to the realization that for all our good, for all our posturing toward ourselves; that the next to the last word is that we live in a state of No, or blindness to the fact that what we see the Apostle Paul giving voice to can only come when faced with the depth of our problem as we participate in the life of Christ. The One who took our No, our blindness, and indeed our sin unto himself ‘by becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (II Cor. 5:21). As Calvin so perceptively knew, we only truly have knowledge of ourselves (and our abysmal state), when we first have knowledge of God through Christ, God the Redeemer.

It is this that John Webster masterfully elucidates as he engages Karl Barth’s vision of a christologically conditioned knowledge of sin in its most depth dimension. Let me quote Webster, who is commenting on Barth’s Church Dogmatics & Ethics, and the moral anthropology embedded therein:

[B]arth’s Christological determination of sin is not so much an attempt to dislocate ‘theological’ from ’empirical’ reality, as an argument born of a sense that human persons are characteristically self-deceived. Human life is a sphere in which fantasy operates, in which human persons are not able to see themselves as they truly are. The ‘man of sin’

thinks he sits on a high throne, but in reality he sits only on a child’s stool, cracking his little whip, pointing with frightful seriousness his little finger, while all the time nothing happens that really matters. He can only play the judge. He is only a dilettante, a blunderer, in his attempt to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, acting as though he really had the capacity to do it. He can only pretend to himself and others that he has the capacity and that there is any real significance in his judging. (CD IV/1, p. 446.)

This theme of concealment surfaces frequently in paragraph 60 (and elsewhere). Believing ourselves to see clearly, even allowing ourselves to suppose our sight to be sharper than that of our fellows, we are blind to the reality of our own selves. Barth acutely perceives that moral earnestness frequently rests upon clouded vision and lack of self-awareness and self-distrust. And so, once again, we return to the Christological basis for the treatment of human sin: ‘Compared with Him we stand there in all our corruption … The untruth in which we are men is disclosed … We are forced to see and know ourselves in the loathsomeness in which we find ourselves exposed and known.’

Human sinfulness, then, entails an ability to disentangle ourselves from our acts in such a way that they are no longer really ours. As Barth puts it in a passage in Church Dogmatics IV/2, we allow ourselves to believe that:

The sinful act is regrettable but external, incidental and isolated failure and defect; a misfortune, comparable to one of the passing sicknesses in which a healthy organism remains healthy and to which it shows itself to be more than equal. On this view, the individual — I myself — cannot really be affected by the evil action. I do not have any direct part in its loathsome and offensive character. In the last resort it has taken place in my absence. I myself am elsewhere and aloof from it. And from this neutral place which is my real home, I can survey and evaluate the evil that has happened to me in its involvement with other less evil and perhaps even good motives and elements; in its not absolutely harmful but to some extent positive effects; in its relationship to my other much less doubtful and perhaps even praiseworthy achievements; and especially in my relationship to what I see other men do or not do (a comparison in which I may not come out too badly); in short, in a relativity in which I am not really affected at bottom. I may acknowledge and regret that I have sinned, but I do not need to confess that I am a sinner.  (CD IV/2, p. 394)

These clarifications of the forms of human self-deception (which are by no means intended to underrate the ambiguity of the moral situation) are an important background to Barth’s treatment of original sin. His objection to some formulations of that doctrine is, at heart, that they are deficient in their account of positive evil. And his refusal of an independent locus peccati, his rejection of anything other than a Christologically determined account of sin, is directed by precisely the same concern. Far from averting attention from evil as fact, Christology is intended to furnish a means of clarifying our vision and dissolving our illusions about our own moral integrity. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 69-70.]

The Apostle Paul concurs with this kind of assessment about the deleterious effects of sin upon a life that knows that it only knows its true state of affairs because of the One who finally has given the last word  to our No-being by his Yes to the Father for us—viz. a Yes that is given concrete form through his death, burial, and most importantly resurrection-ascension. The Apostle Paul, with his eyes wide open, as we noted earlier, gives a final sigh of relief when he writes:

 25I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:25

The Apostle knew, that he knew sin, not ultimately because of the Law; but ultimately, because of Christ who penetrated deeper than the Law could on its own—viz. into the cavernous depths of the human soul which left to itself continues to look at evil and wickedness as if its ‘out there’, while all along failing to realize that they’ve never even seen sin and evil and wickedness in its most grotesque form; that’s because they’ve never presumed that maybe, just maybe the most insidious form of evil, in the end, dwells where they can’t peer, where they dare not, in themselves.

Advertisements

I really like how John Webster describes Barth’s understanding against the Liberal Protestantism of his day. Ironically, I think, that the way Barth understood the Liberal Protestants of his day, could (should) be the way (by and large) that we understand American Evangelicals of our day [please note: I am speaking in generalities, there are obviously many exceptions to this amongst American Evangelicals, just as there was exceptions to the Liberal Protestants in Barth’s day]. In fact, I think this dovetails nicely with the post I just posted on Occupy Wall Street. It gets to the question of how it is that “good” honest hard working (even Christian) people can be duped into thinking that the aformentioned attributes serve as the garb that justifies their place in society (i.e. as good honest hard working folk). There is always room for conviction and self-“criticality;” I know we don’t like this, and I know that much of this ultimately bothers our sensibilities; but we are Christians, people of  love and truth (insofar as we participate in God’s life in Christ).

As I’ve already alluded to, the following is Webster commenting on Barth and his critique of the Liberal Protestants (which I am lifting and applying to American Evangelicals). This is intended to decenter our trust in ourselves, and instead cause us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God in Christ. This is intended to turn our lights on so that we can more critically see how what counts as Christian and Ethical (in America and the West), probably is not as ethical and Christian as we think. This is intended to highlight how it is that “we” so easily become the standard for what is good and right in the world instead of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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

The ‘Human culture building itself up’ was the German one (for Barth) that ultimately expressed itself in German bourgeois society, and ultimately Nazi Germany. For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self; there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.

I am appropriating this critique from Barth (a la Webster) for the American Evangelical in particular. We have come to think that what counts as moral is captured by the symbol ‘Conservative’. It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal. It is this posture that negates any space for the Word of God to break in on all of these norms or the status quo; since the status quo is synonymous with being Christian. And it is this self-evidential situation which allows for atrocities to take place in the name of Christ; through the “absolute self.”

Is what I am getting at overstated?

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 545 other followers

A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

Archives

“A deep brokenness requires a deeper theology.”

Philosophy of Blogging

“I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” - St. Augustine cited by John Calvin

“We must always keep in mind that the reason the Son of God came down from the hidden throne of the eternal Father and revealed heavenly doctrine was not to furnish material for seminary debates, in which the display of ingenuity might be the game, but rather so that human beings should be instructed concerning true knowledge of God and of all those things which are necessary to the pursuit of eternal salvation.” Martin Chemnitz, Loci theol. ed., 1590, Hypomnemata 9 cited by Barth, CD I/1, 82.

Categories

Blog Stats

  • 675,500 hits
Advertisements