Monday, February 28, 2011

Letter from Barth to Bromiley

There do not seem to be a shortage of controversies and squabbles within the Christian community. One need look no further than the current controversy over Rob Bell's new book to realize the truth of that statement! When debates like this occur, I often find comfort in the controversy and criticism that surrounded Karl Barth's theology. Barth was never short of critics, and some of his most vocal opponents came from the conservative evangelicals within the United States. The details of the relationship between conservative North American evangelicals and Barth are a bit complicated, so I will save you from a long discussion about the matter. But in short, conservative North American evangelicals were concerned with Barth's views of Scripture and his doctrine of election (read: universalism). On June 1, 1961, Barth wrote the following letter to Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley who was the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. At the time, Bromiley was also the co-editor of Christianity Today and asked Barth if he would write a response to various questions that were put forth by certain men such as Van Til, Clark, etc. To be clear, I don't think that Barth ever cared that conservative evangelicals like these men disagreed with him. Afterall, Barth did hold rather revolutionary views of the doctrines of Scripture and election. Admittedly, the letter has a very frustrated tone. But in the end, agreement was never the main goal; I think Barth was more concerned about the posture and the lack of charity that he witnessed from them since most know that Barth was never shy of criticizing the work of other theologians! In the end, Barth simply wanted these men to agree, not merely in words, that the truth always transcends us all. Theology is never simply a regurgitation of and allegiance to orthodox belief, but an ever-unfolding task for the community of believers in Jesus Christ:

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed. Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out - not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. - where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions. I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these men have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to C.D. IV, 2 in the words of the eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: "...for there is no true love where one man eats another." These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a "better mind and attitude" as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,
Karl Barth

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

Photo credit: Here

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Notion of Covenant.

This excerpt is rather lengthy, but fascinating:
The Reformed churches in the sixteenth century primarily avoided two extremes, which were viewed as theological dangers: Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptist "radical Reformation." We do well to describe these two alternatives in terms of their approach to the story found within the Bible. A methodological concession can be offered at this point: it is likely that proponents of both church traditions would describe their own projects in very different terms, so the following should be read as the common way in which Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century characterized their opponents.

First, the Roman Catholic system of religion maintains that the Old Covenant and New Covenant are continuous. Not only is Jesus Christ the lamb of God for both Israelites and catholic believers, but the style of piety, liturgy, and polity to be followed now is basically similar to that which was practiced then. In Reformation era debates, then, the Roman church pointed to the trappings of the Old Covenant temple worship as precedent for her own elaborate Mass. The Roman Mass was not merely pomp and circumstance devised according to high cultural standards within the late medieval period; rather, it was intended to convey the aesthetic complexity of temple and tabernacle worship in contemporary format. A belief in the continuity of God's people - Israel and then the Roman church - led to an affirmation of similar vestiges in ethos and culture. This emphasis on continuity also affected issues of polity, authority, etc. ...

Second, the Anabaptist churches presented the opposition temptation. In place of Rome's emphasis on continuity, the radical Reformation accentuated all discontinuities between Israel and the churches. These reformers pointed to Paul's contrast between letter and spirit as illustrative of this broader historical difference: "we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside" (2 Cor. 3:12-13). THis new boldness arises from the fully redeemed composition of the church, over against the mixed multitude of ethic Israel in the Old Covenant: "their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside . . . when one turns to the LORD, the veil is removed" (2 Cor. 3:14-15). The Anabaptist churches birthed communities, in fact, for they secluded themselves from broader society in an effort to remain pure and unmixed. Whereas Israel was plagued with syncretism, idolatry, unfaithfulness, the churches were now - in Jesus Christ - capable of true devotion and steadfastness. This new self-identity of the Christian community, of course, played itself out in broader reforms, leaving behind all antique forms of church life as external, physical, inferior, and Jewish. Against these mere trappings, the Christian life was spiritual, pure, regenerate, and immediate.

The Reformed churches - along with confessional Lutheran and (at times) Anglican churches - attempted to steer a middle course between these two extremes. Thus, Reformed theology can be views as attempting to negotiate the tensions of mediation, tradition, and structure, as reformed by the ever-new disruptions brought by the proclamation of the Word of God. In other words, Reformed theology affirms continuity in discontinuity, and discontinuity in continuity."

- R. Michael Allen in Reformed Theology, 35-37
Needless to say, the notion of covenant has vast implications for theology. I began to question how profoundly the Roman Catholic doctrine of soteriology is influenced and conditioned by their particular view of the radical continuity between the New and Old testament covenants (excuse the politically incorrect term "old testament"; I do realize "Hebrew Bible" is the preferred label these days, but the author uses it so I'm trying to be consistent). I am often struck by the refusal of many to admit that whatever one confesses in one particular doctrine has an impact upon one's entire theological confession. Everything is interconnected in a rather organic manner and the attempts to deny such reality is futile.

But the portion of this quote that really struck me was the correlation between the Anabaptist understanding of covenant and their views of culture. Most evangelical Churches today are not confessional (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) and therefore have more similarities to Anabaptist tendencies. In these types of Churches, I continually hear language of "us vs. them" in relation to the Church and broader society remaining faithful to the Anabaptist tendency to strive for "pure and unmixed" communities. But Churches that even have some influence from Reformed confessions (even if it is merely the beloved Augustinian doctrine of grace that has swept the neo-reformed movement) show a greater willingness to engage with broader culture (even if it lacks the genuine and profound Christ transforming culture paradigm that is championed by Reformed theology). And let's not even begin to discuss the effect of one's view concerning covenant upon one's view of Israel. The implications are so vast, it is astounding.

So perhaps John Hesselink was not exaggerating when he once boldly declared, "Reformed theology is covenant theology." Might one be able to say that "_____ theology is their particular view of covenant"?

Photo credit: here

Friday, February 18, 2011

The King of Limbs.

The new Radiohead album dropped today! Happy Friday!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


O Holy Father, thou hast freely given thy Son,
O Divine Son, thou hast freely paid my debt,
O Eternal Spirit, thou hast freely bid me come,
O Triune God, thou does freely grace me with salvation.

Prayers and tears could not suffice to pardon for my sins,
nor anything less than atoning blood,
but my believing is my receiving,
for a thankful acceptance is no paying of the debt.

What didst thou see in me?
that I a poor, diseased, despised sinner
should be clothed in thy bright glory?
that a creeping worm
should be advanced to this high state?
that one lately groaning, weeping, dying,
should be as full of joy as my heart can hold?
that a being of dust and darkness
should be taken in Mordecai from captivity,
and set next to the king?
should be lifted like Daniel from the den
and be made ruler of princes and provinces?

Who can fathom immeasurable love?
As far as the rational soul exceeds the senses,
so does the spirit exceed the rational in its knowledge of thee.
Thou hast given me understanding to compass the earth,
measure the sun, moon, stars, universe,
but above all to know thee, the only true God.
I marvel that finite can know the Infinite,
here a little, afterwards in full-orbed truth;
Now I know but a small portion of what I shall know,
here in part, there in perfection,
here a glimpse, there a glory.
To enjoy thee is life eternal,
and to enjoy is to know.
Keep me in the freedom of experiencing thy salvation continually.

- "Freedom" from The Valley of Vision

Monday, February 7, 2011

Patristics Conference

I am very excited about attending this conference at Princeton this upcoming weekend. It is a two-day event and speakers include Fr. John McGuckin and the wonderful Fr. George Dragas. I won't be able to attend the Friday evening session but I look forward to the all-day event on Saturday. I just returned to Boston from Princeton today and I am delighted to return. The lovely town has always been one of my favorites.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

N.T. Wright and Christian Tradition

Whenever I have the urge to write a blog post, I ask myself a variety of questions: will I regret writing this and publicizing this on the internet when I wake up tomorrow? Will this benefit anyone? Will this end up being a theological slander of sorts? Will this be to seek understanding through reflection and struggle?

I ask these questions even more so in relation to my reading of N.T. Wright's scholarship. Admittedly, I haven't always had the best attitude when it comes to Wright. Some might say that it is due to the fact that I am comfortable in my theology and feel rather disturbed by his biblically accurate conclusions. Others might say that I value systematic theology above biblical theology and therefore anything that Wright says will expose my idolatrous systems over and against the text of Scripture. Still, others might even say that I haven't read enough of Wright to offer a fair assessment (fair enough), or that Wright is working within categories that I don't fully grasp (probable?).

Despite all the above, I have been assigned to read Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) for my Life of Jesus course. I haven't finished it yet, but I've been struggling since completing the first 150 pages or so. Before I get into my issues with Wright, I first would like to remember similar angst I experienced when reading Karl Barth's doctrine of election within the Church Dogmatics for the first time last spring. It all started in the beginning of the semester when I was assigned to give a presentation on Barth's Anselm commentary (AQI). The first 78 pages or so were really difficult to grasp, partly because I was a brand new reader of such genius (not to mention the fact that almost 1/4 of the text is in Latin). Despite everything I learned, the one aspect of Barth's theology that really struck me was the relationship between the Credo of the Christian Church and the credo of the individual. As a former Eastern Orthodox catechumen, I was simultaneously overjoyed and relieved to find a Protestant scholar who so deeply valued and respected the great Christian tradition. I didn't mistake this for blind consent, but rather proper humility.

When I began to read Barth's doctrine of election in II.2 of the CD (I think this is right, I'm too tired to go double check), I was immediately alarmed and puzzled at the fact that he departed so radically from the reformed tradition. He never struck me as being hasty or irresponsible, but I began to wonder if his esteem for the Christian tradition offered in AQI was mere lip service. So for my final research paper, I was determined to find out why Barth criticized the theologian (Calvin) so sharply whose picture hung above his doorpost in Barth's study for most of Barth's life. I started reading paragraph 32 and I was almost immediately struck by how much time, effort, and toil Barth put into his engagement with the tradition before and after deciding to criticize it. You can almost sense at one point his existential crisis when he all but says "why Calvin, why? It was right there and you were so close, why didn't you make Christ the Subject of election!?"

At that point, no matter my agreement or disagreement with Barth's conclusions, I believed he earned some type of "street cred." He earned the right to radically depart from the tradition since he first listened to it so closely.

Enter N.T. Wright. Given all of the sentiments expressed above, you must understand my instant aversion to his work when I read titles like What Saint Paul REALLY Said (emphasis added - to be fair, I am told this title was not chosen by Wright but by the publishing company). My hesitations have not changed since reading JVG. In the first chapter entitled "Jesus Then and Now", Wright discusses the historical quest for the historical Jesus beginning with the reformers. He sets the stage for his disagreement with almost every approach before him. Wright remarks that the reformers suffered from "the failure to ask about the theological significance of the ministry of Jesus, and the failure to treat the gospels with full seriousness as they stand, that is, as stories" (15). Even more, "the reformers, then, focused not on the Jesus of history for his own sake, but on the results, the 'benefits', of his work ... [and the reformers had an] uncertainty about the value of the history of Jesus' life in relation to the theological and hermeneutical task" (15, 16). Wright does admit that JVG "is not the place to explore why the reformers made the moves they did, nor [does Wright have] the competence for such an enquiry" (15). Note that there is not one citation from one reformer, nor any engagement with any primary text of even one theologian prior to Reimarus except for one citation to Melanchthon.

Jumping forward a bit, Wright reinterprets the parable of the Prodigal Son away from traditional readings. He argues that the parable is not for personal application, but rather tells "the story of Israel, in particular of exile and restoration" (126). In fact, this parable most clearly encompasses the narrative of God's relationship with His people; "The exodus itself is the ultimate backdrop: Israel goes off into a pagan country, becomes a slave, and then is brought back to her own land. But exile and restoration is the main theme. This is what the parable is about" (126). Since I am a reader of Barth, I immediately expected an excursus which discussed the history of exegetical interpretation concerning this particular parable not to mention citations from multiple western fathers sprinkled with sentences in Latin and some Greek words. But there is no such treasure to be found. Wright fails to offer any engagement with the tradition for why he is departing from it so dramatically.

Before anyone charges me with defying the principles of sola scriptura in criticizing Wright's allegiance to the text of Scripture, I'd like to qualify my issues. First, the reformers never intended for sola scriptura to mean a lack of engagement with the tradition of the Christian confession. I don't have the time nor the energy to get into that detailed discussion. Second, I am not necessarily upset with Wright's ultimate disagreement and criticism of the tradition. Rather, it would seem that he dismisses the tradition without first giving it a fair hearing. On The Sword and the Ploughshare blog, I read his post this evening concerning McCormack's Croall lectures. The following remark found therein really struck me: "it just may be, as some have told me, that the orthodox tradition, if only we listened to it properly, has all the resources necessary to solve these problems." This quote captures my sentiment perfectly. The individual and/or the community of believers should never first assume that the Christian tradition is correct when "doing theology." One can hope that "it may just be" that the conclusions are biblically faithful. Yet, as Barth continually preached, we all must start at the beginning when doing the theological (or exegetical or historical) task. However, the individual and/or the community of believers should never first assume that the Christian tradition is wrong when "doing theology." We can only find this out after we have "listened to it properly."

I admire Wright's commitment to biblical scholarship. I have learned an incredible amount from reading his work. But I wish he would spend more time grappling with the Christian tradition. And I wish he would offer more critical engagement with the Christian tradition within his books. I don't think this is too much to ask from a scholar who believes that he is the first within the entire history of Christianity to truly grapple with the historicity of Jesus Christ.