A Jesus Reading of the “Love Chapter”

One of my biggest personal take homes from Karl Barth has been a refreshing re-orientation around Jesus, the Word made flesh who is the ultimate revelation of the God who is love. Jesus has to be at the center of any worthwhile Christian theology. In this vein, Barth mentions in passing that 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous love chapter) is “best understood if for the concept ‘love’ we simply insert the name Jesus Christ.” (CD I.2, p 330)

I couldn’t help but use this as a devotional experiment. The result would (in part) go something like this:

Jesus Christ is patient, Jesus Christ is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud.  He does not dishonor others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs.  Jesus Christ does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Jesus Christ never fails. (verses 5-8, revised from the NIV)

Try it out!

The Church’s Identity Crisis

I just discovered an article written by Jürgen Moltmann titled “The Cruficied God,” published April 1974 in Theology Today (just before the publication of his famous book by the same title). Moltmann argues strongly that “there is no true theology of hope which is not first of all a theology of the cross.” (p. 8) To Moltmann, the church’s very identity is at stake when we talk about the cross. Get the cross wrong, and you may have spirituality or theism or even religion… but you don’t have Christianity.

Behind the political and social crisis of the church in modern society, there stands the Christological crisis: From whom does the church really take its bearings? Who is Jesus Christ, really, for us today? In this identity-crisis of Christianity, the question of God lies hidden: Which God governs Christian existence — the one who was crucified or the idols of religion, class, race and society? Without a new clarity in Christian faith itself, there will be no credibility in Christian life. (p.6,7) 

I have a feeling that these words are just as relevant today as then. Where do we, the church, find our identity? In the idols of this world? Or in Christ, the crucified one?

Moltmann is a German Reformed theologian who (having served as a Nazi soldier) offers an interesting perspective on the subject of “faith after Auschwitz:”

How is faith in God, how is being human, possible after Auschwitz? I don’t know. But it helps me to remember the story that Elie Wiesel reports in his book on Auschwitz called Night. Two Jewish men and a child were hanged. The prisoners were forced to watch. The men died quickly. The boy lived on in torture for a long while. “Then someone behind me said: “Where is God?’ and I was silent. After half an hour he cried out again: ‘Where is God? Where is he? And a voice in me answered: ‘Where is God?. . . he hangs there from the gallows….

A theology after Auschwitz would be impossible, were not the sch’ma Israel and the Lord’s prayer prayed in Auschwitz itself, were not God himself in Auschwitz, suffering with the martyred and the murdered. Every other answer would be blasphemy.  (p 9,10)

Read the complete article here (about 13 pages printed, and well worth the read!). I’ve not yet read The Crucified God, but have a feeling that if this article is any indicator of its content, the book too is a must-read. The complete text is available on Google (though I’ll probably go for a print copy). Another of Moltmann’s works, The Trinity and the Kingdom, is already in my queue to read directly after Barth’s CD I.2.  You can hear Moltmann himself sharing his personal story (in English!) recently here. Good stuff!

Quotable Barth: Our “Paper Pope”

This is how Karl Barth describes the shift towards Biblicism that took place in much of Protestantism after the Reformation:

The Bible was now grounded upon itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the holy Ghost. It became a “paper Pope,” and unlike the living Pope in Rome it was wholly given up into the hands of its interpreters. It was no longer a free and spiritual force, but an instrument of human power. (CD I.2, p 525)

Here is where Barth finds the great sin of Biblicism. Rather than submitting to the Word made flesh revealed in the Bible (i.e. Jesus), we have all-to-often submitted simply to the book, to the Bible. Which ultimately takes the authority away from Christ and places it into the hands of the interpreter of Scripture.

I hope to blog more about Barth and Biblicism in the near future (as Barth will actually be addressing the subject more directly in chapter 20, which I am about to start). Christian Smith’s eye-opening book,  The Bible Made Impossible (which I read in December), is a devastating critique of Biblicism… and actually offers Barth’s Christocentric hermeneutic as as a way forward.

Is the Canon Closed?

Sort of. Not exactly. Or so I take it from Karl Barth.

This is an issue that tends to be taken for granted in most American Evangelical churches…. where a typical doctrinal statement says something about how the “Sixty-six books of the Bible are the inspired and infallible Word of God.” But Barth maintains that throughout church history it has been an open question worth repeated conversation and confirmation.

“In the past there has already been more than one proposal to narrow or broaden the human perception of what ought to count as canonical Scripture, and if the proposals never came to anything they were at least seriously considered. The insight that the concrete form of the Canon is not closed absolutely, but only very relatively, cannot be denied even with a view to the future.” (CD I.2, p 476)

In fact, Luther’s criterion for testing Scripture was whether it “sets forth Christ or not.” And other Reformers (like Calvin and Zwingli) are among those Barth cites as openly engaging the question of the canon (and had reservations about particular books of the Bible). They engaged in a question that many churches today would consider out-of-bounds.

Barth still says that the canon is driven by consensus in the church… and that until consensus changes, “we have steadfastly to accept the force and validity of decisions already taken both in respect of the faith and also of the Canon.” (p. 479) After all, the canon of Scripture wasn’t chosen by the church… it forced itself on the church by it’s own inspiration. But that doesn’t mean that the conversation is to be considered closed.

What say you? What is the canon? Is it to be considered closed? Why? Why not?

How I Caught the Barth Bug

As I mentioned in a previous post (I know, ages ago), I’ve begun a journey into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD). It started innocently enough last fall with an electronic version of the first volume (I.1), which turned into a pre-Christmas petition that the CD set be my present (and it was! best theology nerd Christmas present ever!). At this point I’m just over halfway through the second volume (I.2), and hope to have it completed in the next month or so. Barth is by far the most difficult reading task I’ve ever undertaken. His thought is meaty… and he quotes many original sources in Latin and Greek (yikes!).

I’m intending to do a series of posts exploring Barth’s thought and its initial impact on me. Mostly, this will be simple “take homes” that I’ve found helpful or wrestled with (in hopes that processing this way will help me internalize them). If you, one of my two blog followers, get something out of this, even better. 🙂 We’ll talk about his Christocentric hermeneutic; his take on the idea of “religion” (“the revelation of God is the abolition of religion”… what’s that all about?); and (I hope) much, much more. This hinges, of course, on whether I “get around to it,” and we have every reason to be skeptical, as I rarely follow through on such intentions.

By way of introduction, I wanted to start off by briefly explaining why I started reading Barth. Which means, of course, talking about Bonhoeffer.

A year ago, bothering with Barth would have been the last thing on my mind. I would have recognized the name, and could probably have told you that he was a 20th century Neo-Orthodox theologian (though I’d have been a little rusty as to what that meant). That’s about all the Barth I was exposed to in my Evangelical/Pentecostal Bible College training: A sidebar in a Doctrine textbook, and maybe a partial segment in a Church History course. Barth was not worth the serious attention of a committed evangelical called to preach the Word.

My friend Wyatt had already beaten me to Barth… but I really caught the Barth bug last spring via Eric Metaxas’ biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), previously reviewed on this blog here. This is an incredible book telling the story of a young German academic and pastor who stood against Hitler (in a variety of ways) during the rise and dominance of the Third Reich in Germany… and whose theology was shaped most profoundly by (drum roll, please!) Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer first encountered Barth through his writings. According to Metaxas,

[Barth’s] groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles, that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that. (p. 60)

Metaxas continues:

Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him. (p. 61)

I’ll comment more on Barth’s understanding of revelation in a future post (or two), as the subject  is one with which Barth is most preoccupied with in CD I.1/2.  Barth’s “Deus Dixit” (God speaks) stood in stark contrast to what Bonhoeffer perceived to be dry liberalism at institutions like Union Seminary in New York.

Barth and Bonhoeffer met multiple times between 1931 and 1933, while Barth was teaching at Bonn and putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Church Dogmatics.  At that time Adolph Hitler was ascending into power, and Barth was among a group of Confessing believers who still believed the national leader could be reasoned with. In 1934 Barth penned most of the Barmen declaration, rejecting the influence of Nazism on German Christianity. Upon its completion (which was, according to Barth, “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars”), the declaration was mailed personally to Hitler by Karl Barth himself.

It is against this backdrop of crisis for the church that CD born. Far from being a detached philosopher, Barth was rubber-meets-road thinker whose theology was very relevant in a time when the church of God was having to fight for its unique identity.

Metaxis summarizes one of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral take-homes from Barth this way:

Anything good must come from God, so even in a sermon that was poorly written and delivered, God might manifest himself and touch the congregation. Conversely in a sermon wonderfully written and delivered, God might refuse to manifest himself. The “success” of the sermon is utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and “grasps” us, or we cannot be “grasped.” (p 81)

Or as I would put (not so eloquently): “I don’t have to get everything right for God to do His thing.” In all, Barth is mentioned 85 times in this biography, as a theologian, a leader in the Confessing Church movement in Germany (though his involvement was from afar after 1935 when he was forced out of the country for refusing to swear allegiance to the Führer), but most of all as a sort of mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was an outstanding pastor and theologian in his own right).

I found that every mention of Barthian ideas in this book seemed to resonate with me. Barth presents a credible and vibrant theology for ministry that neither retreated to fundamentalism nor capitulated to modernity (as many theological liberals did). I had to get to know this Barth more….