Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barth and Subordinationism.

I went into the Princeton Theological Library today only intending to find one specific book. Before I knew it, I made my way to the printed journals and starting perusing one after another. Note to self: this is a horrible time killer. Per usual, I picked up the Scottish Journal of Theology and immediately flipped to Kevin Giles' article entitled "Barth and Subordinationism". At first glance, the charge of subordinationism against Barth seemed rather odd. Many of Barth's notable conservative North American evangelical critics have always critiqued Barth as being a modalist. Apparently, a trend has emerged among a few global conservative evangelical scholars who have used Barth to support their view of the eternal subordination of the Son. I was completely puzzled before I even began reading the article. How could this be? Modalism is a charge that in some ways is understandable to some (small?) degree, though ultimately incorrect in my opinion (modes of being, anyone?). But subordinationism not only would threaten Barth's entire christocentric project (this is truly and fully God present in the person of Jesus Christ), but it would make him a tritheist to whatever extent. What is even more troubling and interesting to me is that these same scholars are trying to further the cause of the eternal subordination of the Son to justify their complimentarian view of the female gender. Just as Jesus Christ is supposedly eternally subordinate to the Father, women are also eternally subordinate to men. However, such subordination does not mean ontological inequality (Sidenote: Giles notes that this heresy of eternal subordinationism is ironically being championed as orthodoxy within such circles, which is a fascinating piece of theological amnesia!). I can not recall how frequently I have heard some evangelical pastors preach growing up that even though Adam and Eve were fully made in the imago Dei and possess ontological equality, they have distinct roles. Women are to submit and be subordinate to men. And men are supposed to serve as Christ-like leaders (taken most often from Ephesians 5). In some circles, it is explicitly stated that Adam was made for God while Eve is made for Adam. Therefore, the woman is to always concern herself with supporting and furthering the purpose of her husband. I should note here that the article didn't grab my attention for its details concerning Barth's trinitarian theology, but rather what Giles says about the use of subordinationism in trinitarian theology to further the subordination of women. I really appreciated his words on this trend as it clearly articulates my personal concerns with the implications of such female subordination, namely that it logically equates to ontological inequality between the genders:
"These often undeveloped and passing claims that Barth teaches the eternal subordination and obedience of the Son in the Godhead in mainline scholarly works now find frequent expression in conservative evangelical literature promulgating 'male headship'. The argument that the eternal subordination of the Son explains and theologically grounds the permanent subordination of women is now endemic in socially conservative evangelicalism, and in recent years Barth has been frequently quoted in support. For example, in Australia Robert Doyle says Barth teaches 'the eternal relation subordination' of the Son, while Mark Baddeley says much the same. He argues that for Barth God the Father eternally commands and God the Son eternally obeys, adding that 'Barth rejects a purely economic submission as modalism'. In Great Britain this appeal to Barth in support of the eternal subordination of the Son is also found in writings by evangelicals committed to the permanent subordination of women. For Example, Thomas Smail in his book, Like Father, like Son, argues that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in function and authority to the Father, apart from ontological subordination, and he claims Barth as the basis for his views. For him the Father is 'sovereign' and what is proper to sonship, human and divine, is 'obedience'. He says 'God the Father is the prototype of leadership'. In Smail, and most other conservative evangelicals who argue for the permanent subordination of women, the governing premise is that it is possible to have permanently ascribed functional subordination and ontological equality. I think not. If one is permanently subordinated solely because of one's sex, race or divine identity then the subordinated party is not only subordinated in role or function: they are the subordinated sex, race or divine person. Simply denying this does not alter this fact. What must be recognised is that in this usage the terms 'role' and 'function' do not refer to characteristic behaviour that can change and is not person defining, as a dictionary would suggest, but to unchanging power relations, who rules and who obeys. The terms 'role' and 'function' are used to obfuscate what is actually being argued: the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to the Father and this hierarchical ordering prescribes the permanent subordination in authority for women."
- Kevin Giles, "Barth and Subordinationism", Scottish Journal of Theology 64 (3): 327-346 (2011).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Edwards and Barth on God's Holiness.

I was assigned to read an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff entitled "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness". Wolterstorff discusses the unseeming but necessary connection between the recognition of God's holiness and the pursuit of justice that takes expression in the liturgy. In the first part of the essay, Wolterstorff explores the view of God's holiness from the perspective of two prominent theologians: Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth.

Wolterstorff explains that Edwards maintained that God's holiness compels human creatures to love God and it is the very holiness of God which serves as grounds for our love of God. Holiness, above all else, draws the creature to the Creator. In short, it should come as no surprise that Edwards believed that holiness is "the totality of God's moral excellencies." Prior to reading this essay, I knew that I was not fond of Edwards conception of God. But this essay helped to clarify my disagreements more sharply. The entire time that I was reading this small excerpt regarding Edwards, I kept thinking God's love and not God's holiness reveals the essence of God's inner being. God's love and holiness are not opposed, but the latter is a manifestation of the former. Edwards maintained the opposite.

Thankfully, Wolterstorff immediately turned to Barth for a necessary "step beyond" Edwards in order to offer a better understanding of God's holiness (though I would say this is not merely an addition but a reorientation). Wolterstorff writes,
Karl Barth, in his discussion of God's holiness, enables us to take a necessary step beyond Edwards. Rather than seeing God's holiness as the totality of God's moral excellencies, Barth sees God's holiness as a facet of God's grace; and God's grace he sees, in turn, as one of the perfections of the divine love. One of Barth's concerns is to avoid the picture, with which Edwards operates, of holiness as one-among-other excellencies of God. On Barth's view grace is, as it were, an adverbial qualification of God's love - God loves in a gracious manner. And holiness is in turn an adjectival qualification of God's grace - the graciousness of God's love has a holy quality to it. 'When God loves,' says Barth, 'revealing His inmost being in the fact that He loves and therefore seeks and creates fellowship, this being and doing is divine and distinct from all other loving to the extent that the love of God's being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter - able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition. ... to say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins. But since both reflect the love of God, how can there by the one without the other, forgiveness without judgment or judgment without forgiveness? (CD, II/1, p. 353, 360)'"
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Liturgy, Justice, and Holiness" in Hearing the call: Liturgy, Justice, Church and World, 65-66.

This quote is a breath of fresh air and I was compelled to take a deep sigh of relief and thankfulness. If the totality of God's being is holiness, how is this good news for the creature? As Wolterstorff points out, Isaiah's response to the holiness of God was not one of pleasure and delight (though this is not altogether excluded) but rather terror and fear! Truly, the Gospel message does not exclude the holiness of God's judgment. But isn't the good news precisely that in God's gracious unmitigated love, God took the deserved judgment upon Himself in the cross of Jesus Christ in order to reconcile humanity onto the Father? In this act, God revealed His identity to humanity as the God who lavishly loves His creatures without hindrance. For this reason, we worship Him as the holy One.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Communion of the Church.

"When I reluctantly continue to share the church's communion with someone whose moral judgment I deeply disagree with, I do so in the knowledge that for both of us part of the cost is that we have to sacrifice a straightforward confidence in our 'purity'. Being in the Body means that we are touched by one another's failures. If another Christian comes to a different conclusion and decides in different ways from myself, and if I can still recognise their discipline and practice as sufficiently like mine to sustain a conversation, this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question. I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition; I need to keep my reflections under critical review. This, I must emphasise again, is not a form of relativism; it is a recognition of the element of putting oneself at risk that is involved in any serious decision-making or any serious exercise of discernment (as any pastor or confessor will know). But this is only part of the implication of recognising the differences and risks of decision-making in the Body of Christ. If I conclude that my Christian brother or sister is deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decision, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the 'grammar of obedience' in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The church's need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who I believe are wounded as well as wounding the church, in the trust that in the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing."
- Rowan Williams, "Making Moral Decisions" in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, 11.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Cone and the Hope of Witness.

I stumbled across this interview between Bill Moyers and James Cone through a friend's posting on facebook. I was simply enthralled with the interview and at one point felt the same feeling I usually feel when attempting to engage in the issue of race: hopelessness. As a white woman, despite all my desires and good intentions to be some sort of agent for change in relation to racism and discrimination in society, I often wonder what I can do. More than that, I wonder what ability (and right) I have to even engage in any witness to racism and the black experience given my rather privileged life as a white, upper-middle class individual. And then the inevitable guilt sets in as I realize that I can't exempt myself from both past and present responsibility in terms of racism, oppression, and discrimination. While I don't think guilt is altogether useless (I'm thankful Mark Lewis Taylor recognizes the sometimes important role of guilt/reflection in these contexts here), it doesn't offer a constructive way forward. I was thankful for this interview with Cone because not only is he unrelenting in his call to honesty and communication, but he is also charitable and inclusive to those non-black individuals who seek to bring hope and change to the issue of racism. The following was particularly challenging and powerful to me as I hope it will be for you:

Moyers: What can people do to bring about this beloved community you talk about?

Cone: First, it is to believe that it can happen. Don't lose hope. If people lose hope, they give up in despair. Black people were slaves for 246 years, but they didn't lose hope.

Moyers: Why didn't they?

Cone: They didn't lose hope because there was a power and reality in their experience that let them know they were apart of this human race just like everybody else and they fought for that.

Moyers: So, I have hope. What's next?

Cone: The next step is to connect with people who also have hope. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asian, all different kinds of people. They have to connect, be around, and organize with people who have hope.

Moyers: What do you mean organize?

Cone: You organize to make the world the way it ought to be. And that is the beloved community. You have to have some witness to that even if it is just a small witness of just you and me.

Friday, September 2, 2011

You Know Who We Are.

Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers.

You know where we come from: from our circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or from great loneliness; from lives of quiet leisure, or from all manner of embarrassment and distress; from ordered, tense, or destroyed family relationships; from the inner circle, or from the fringes of the Christian community.

But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other; that we all must die someday; that we all would be lost without your grace; but also that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

We are here together in order to praise you by allowing you to speak to us. We ask that this might happen in this house in the name of your Son, our Lord. Amen.

- Karl Barth