Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Why I stopped reading Barth, and why I started again. (or "I Can't Quit You, Karl")

Unearthing this old blog has been an enlightening experience. I began this blog several years ago as an avenue of exploring the thought of Karl Barth, hoping to draw intersections between Barth and my current ecclesiastical home of Pentecostalism. I have gone through some theological waffling this past year, and it appears to have been the latest incarnation of a struggle that was alive long ago.

Since beginning this blog, and since dropping out of it, I have completed my master's degree in theology and become a dad. A lot has changed, and apparently a lot has not. Even in this last year Barth and I had a break up. But the sly old Swiss has won me back yet once more. I felt it was worth exploring the rockier parts of our relationship in writing, and so I have returned to this old blog.

My apprehensions about Barth appear always to have been centered around fear. Especially in my early days, I distrusted Barth because of his famous rejection of verbal inspiration. Coming from a theological tradition (conservative evangelicalism) for which the verbal inspiration of the Bible, or "inerrancy" as it is usually known in the U.S., is the theological issue, this made Barth feel dangerous. Second to the issue of inspiration was Barth's implicit universalism, which I dealt with early on in my journey here. I have since satisfied myself that one can follow Barth's thought and not become a universalist in the process. In fact, I take Barth at his word that his theology does not lead to universalism, though it does leave room for a very broad hope. With regard to Barth's doctrine of Scripture, all I can say is that it is a high view of Scripture. Evangelical caricatures of Barth's doctrine aside, I do admit that Barth's view is certainly not inerrancy, but it is a high view. The Bible is authoritative for Barth in the best way. It is active witness, alive by the Spirit, true in its testimony. It is "God-Spirited." We do not correct the Bible, the Bible corrects us (to paraphrase Barth). So these two early apprehensions I have more or less laid to rest. So what made me take this latest break from Barth?

In this last year I began to feel, wrongly I think, that Barth's theology carried an implicit gnosticism with relation to the issue of natural revelation. Famously, Barth rejects natural theology, the discipline of determining what can be known - or even "proved" - about God simply by observing the natural world, or by observing human religiosity. Discovering the work of Carl Henry, I wondered at the close equation of natural theology with natural, or general, revelation. While I continued to accept that God cannot really be "proved," I rejected the idea that God does not speak by means of the natural world or even human conscience. Is there no connection between our "insider" reality as Christians and the "outside" world? I began to feel that when I looked at authors I liked who followed Barth, they did not really treat the gospel like genuinely public truth. Everyone is probably saved but not everyone is supposed to believe. "Barthianism" began to feel irresponsible.

As is so often the case with intellectual turns, my return to Barth has not happened in a straight line. I still believe that the text of Scripture is verbally inspired and hold to some form of the classical evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. I believe the redemption won by Christ for all the world is entered into through personal faith in Christ and to reject Christ is to reject one's salvation (a thought that does appear in Barth quite regularly, actually). And I believe that the one, true God can in some sense be known by means of general revelation, even if he is known in negation. But in Barth and his followers there is a calmness and confidence where there is a certain anxiety in conservative evangelical thought. In conservative dependency upon an apologetic type of faith, there is an implicit insecurity - my faith is true, so I have to win this argument...because my faith can't afford to lose this argument. For Barth, the gospel is universal and public truth, but it is a truth known only through special revelation. Christian truth cannot be determined through natural human learning, but natural human learning is set in a new light by Christian truth. In other words, when I look at the mountains and think of a god who made them I am not thinking necessarily of God as he is, but once I have met God in Christ I can look at the mountains and see the God who is.

Something else that appeals to me about Barth is Barth's willingness to let the truth remain myserteous. For all his thousands of pages of writing, one would assume that Barth's project was about eliminating mystery. It is not. Barth expounds Christ, and Christ is the revelation of God. In fact, all of God is revealed in Christ. In other words, there is no other God "behind Christ's back" - meaning we don't have to worry that God is one way in Christ but might be some other way apart from Christ. But that does not mean we master God or the things of God. I believe my latest foray away from Barth was in some ways an effort to eliminate mystery from my faith, to have every duck in the right row. As much as that is a stereotype of conservative evangelical faith (and often an unfair one) I think it was true in my case. I was simply afraid and so ran to a faith that promised to make all my fears go away. But faith is about trusting Christ, not knowing everything, and I realize the only antidote to fear is to trust Jesus. Barth' writings help me do that. Conservative evangelical writings encourage me to trust my system. There was the rub, and that was where I realized I needed to quit running hot and cold with old Karl and make a commitment already.

There were two other things that kept me from turning my back on Barth altogether. First, for me Barth's theology of election is really the only strong alternative to classic TULIP Calvinism. In fact, my waffling has more or less always been between Barth's interpretation of the Reformed faith and a more classical, conservative evangelical Calvinism. While this is the wrong place to get into the details, Barth's unidirectional monergism - leaving sin, death, and damnation as the mysterious shadow cast by God's light, a tohu wabohu - and his doctrine of Christ as the Elect One in whom we are elect is a stronger alternative than a more passive Arminian benevolence, and it is more mysterious, and also less cold and frightening, than classical Calvinism.

The other, and final, reason I couldn't quit Karl was the fact that the two best pastoral theologians I have ever come across - William H Willimon and Eugene Peterson - are Barthians through and through. And while I understood that they are not Barth, Barth is not them, and Jesus is really the point rather than a bunch of old white dudes with book deals, I could not help but realize that presuppositions underlie all thought and action, including theology and ministry, and that the theology I choose and the ministry I perform are intimately connected. The church growth stuff I've been feeding on will create a shallow, pragmatic theology (and ministry itself will be my god). Conservative, fundamentalistic evangelicalism will lead to a ministry that is largely concerned with being right. The ecclesiologically rich, historically aware, theologically deep work of Peterson, Willimon, and those like them, comes out of who they read and the streams they interact with, Barth being a big one. The pastoral ministry I respect is ministry soaked in the work of Barth and his followers. And so, Karl, I can't quit you.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Fall and Redemption of Time

"Between our time and God-created time as between our existence and the existence created by God there lies the Fall." - Barth, CD I/2, p.47

"'The Word became flesh' also means 'the Word became time.'" - ibid., p.50

"Revelation in the sense of Holy Scripture...is an eternal, but not therefore a timeless reality.  It is also a temporal reality.  So it is not in itself a sort of ideal, yet in itself timeless content of some or all times.  It does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself." - ibid., p.50

In this week's Wednesdays with Barth which I am somewhat loosely tagging along beside, I chose to focus on pages 45-70 of Church Dogmatics I/2, which is chapter 14.1, "God's Time and Our Time."

Barth's focus in these and subsequent pages is on the relationship between God's self-revelation and time.  This might seem like an odd thing to focus on, and I remember when I first read some of this section a few years ago it struck me as needlessly heady and abstract.  However, upon revisiting these pages this week I was struck by the profound relevance of Barth's point.

Barth begins this section by discussing the philosophical problem with time.  Is our understanding of time a human construct?  Because time moves, is there really such a thing as the Present?  Toward the end of the section, Barth interacts with the problem of relating time to revelation, particularly in dialog with the questions of his own day.

In the midst of all of this, at the main heart of Barth's discussion, is the principle of Creation-Fall-Redemption.  Barth's basic point is that the Fall has corrupted everything, even time.  Time is now fleeting.  Time is "lost."  Because of the Fall, our experience of time is not what God intended it to be.  However, by God's grace, fallen time also becomes a time of anticipation, of looking forward to redemption, all while being upheld by God's gracious hand (p.47).  In the midst of time - in the midst of fleeting time during which (with every tick of the clock) there seems to be more past than future and less life to look forward to every minute - God enters time.  When God became human in Jesus, he not only took on flesh, he took on time, fallen time, and redeemed it.  Just as creation and human nature were created "very good" by God, corrupted by sin, and made new in Christ, so has time.  In fact, it's all connected (since by nature we exist, and were created, in "time").  Barth ties all of this to the New Testament language of the "old aeon" and the "new aeon," the time before Christ which still exists and will pass away vs. the age of the kingdom which was ushered in by Christ's resurrection and will continue on into eternity.

There is more to Barth's theology of time than this, and I am sure others could give a better evaluation of it.  Barth's theology of history was a widespread source of ignorant criticism by conservatives in the mid-20th century, with people claiming Barth did not think Christ's resurrection happened "in time" or "historically."  After Barth's visit to America, during which he was famously "challenged" by Carl Henry on this issue, Barth could only shake his head in unbelief that he had been so thoroughly misunderstood by suspicious minds.

Pastorally, and for the sake of Pentecostal theology, I think there are two valuable aspects to be considered here.  First, the idea that time as we experience it is "fallen."  That has some profound implications, and certainly rings true in experience.  Not only in sickness and death, but in stress, despair, sentimentality, apocalypticism, utopianism, etc., can we sense that time as we know and relate to it is fallen.  Our relationship to past, present, and future is a complicated one, and though created by God to be stewards of creation, we are most certainly living under the tyranny of time.

And secondarily, the realization that Jesus Christ took on this fallen age, judged it, and in his resurrection brought in the age to come, or "redeemed time," undoubtedly has implications for Pentecostal experiences of the Spirit as the foretaste of the kingdom and as signs that we are, right now, living in the age to come.

[Even as I write this is I notice that I am behind schedule and am about to miss a ferry to go meet my father for lunch. This produces the anxiety of being rushed and impatient with myself and others (and especially that guys driving too slow in front of me!). And thus, once again, I fall prey to the experience of fallen time! We won't rush for ferries in heaven!]

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The One Who is Three, and the Three Who is One

In an effort to make headway on my Barth studies and to find a way to navigate Barth while pastoring a church and studying towards my MA in Theology and Culture, I have decided to tag along with another blog that is heading through the Church Dogmatics in a little over a year.  I will undoubtedly miss some readings (in fact I already have), but having a ready made reading schedule provided for me that appears doable and that provides a little camaraderie will, I hope, help me achieve my goals of interfacing Barth with Pentecostalism.

Having said all of that...

Last week's readings were from the end of CD I/1 and covered Barth's doctrine of the Trinity.  This aspect of Barth is actually quite controversial.  The reasons for this are Barth's insistence on the absolute unity of God and also on his decision to use the term "modes of being" rather than "persons" when discussing the three, ummm...., well, persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  (There are more recently other controversial readings of Barth that also argue that in some sense Barth believed the Son was at some point, so to speak, "created."  I both disagree with this and also do not believe it touches on what I am looking at here - it usually is based on Barth's later writings than volume 1).

Barth's trinitarianism is, however, from my reading profoundly orthodox.  He interacts extensively with both the church fathers and the biblical text.  His central concern is the biblical doctrine that there is only one God and that the God whom we meet in Christ is not another.  In detailed manner he dismantles Arianism and tri-theism (saying that either approach, which he looks at together, would make whoever worships the Son an idolater).  He also speaks extensively against modalism (which he is accused of teaching) as really being a theology of One in Four rather than One in Three (because in modalism the "true" God is not Father, Son, or Spirit, but another person altogether who merely appears as these persons at various times).

For Barth, one way of looking at the Trinity (and the main way for the purposes of volume 1, on the doctrine of revelation) is to see God's three "ways of being" as Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.  In revelation, the One True God reveals himself in his eternal Son and is "seen" when his Spirit creates faith in the believer.  This God which we meet in revelation is the eternal God, and thus we can deduce that the God who comes to us as the Father through the Son by the Spirit must therefore eternally also be Father, Son and Spirit.  We only know God as he reveals himself, but we can trust that whom God reveals himself to be, he truly is.  Thus God exists eternally in three ways, related to one another in love - the Father begetting the Son and the Father and Son together spirating the Spirit between them.  But, despite this eternal three-ness, there is only One God.  And more importantly, the Bible never says that God has three personalities.  There is only One God and this God is One Person.

Here is where Barth's theology gets tricky.  We are accustomed to think in our day and age, if we thin of the Trinity at all, as three individual persons not unlike three human beings sitting at a table.  From Barth's perspective, today's popular trinitarianism would border dangerously close to tritheism.  But it is important to note that Barth is expressly not a modalist, nor is he denying God's eternal "three-ness."  In fact, after adding signficant qualifiers and reservations to the term "relationship" to describe how the three "modes of being" in God are connected, he then goes on to use the term himself.  What Barth is careful to do is to maintain the mystery of the Trinity.  God is not three "persons" relating to one another in a tritheistic sense.  He is One God existing eternally as Father, Son and Spirit, and the only way we know that is because God meets us in his revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit.

If anything, I see Barth's trinitarianism as walking in step with ancient trinitarian thought precisely because he is so careful to avoid making the Trinity easy.  Barth keeps the One and the Three so closely connected that the doctrine remains mysterious and overwhelming, as it should be.  Barth does not, as his critics claim, sacrifice the Three for the sake of the One.  Nor does he, like many modern preachers and writers (including myself at times) sacrifice the One for the sake of the Three.  And how do I see this as helpful for us as Pentecostals?  Precisely in this: without slipping into a Oneness error, Barth's doctrine of the Trinity in divine revelation helps us to avoid pitting Jesus the Savior against God the Judge.  It also helps us to realize that the Spirit who dwells within us is not a force but the Eternal God himself - and not less of a God than the Father or the Son.  The Spirit in our midst is causing us to see Jesus, whom to see is to see the Father.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A couple of Barth blogs perhaps worth following...

I have recently have run across a couple of blogs both of which are doing series called "Wednesdays with Barth."

One is by Able Baker at Think Theology here.

The other is by a Johnny Walker at Freedom in Orthodoxy here.

I hope to follow these along as I do my own posting.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Contemplative Prayer and Pentecostal Worship

I have been reading Roman Catholic author Hans Urs Von Balthasar's book Prayer. While this book does not directly relate to the intersection of Barth and Pentecostalism, I think some reflections in this forum are appropriate, as Balthasar was a contemporary of Barth and his RC spirituality might have some valuable things to say to Pentecostalism.

Balthasar's book is primarily about contemplative prayer. He grounds the practice both in the Triune God (ch.2) and within the broader, specifically Catholic, church (ch.3). For Balthasar, contemplative prayer is primarily about hearing the Word of God, by which he means both the text of Scripture and the Person of Jesus Christ. He grounds the act of contemplation in meditation on the biblical text and the person of Jesus, and places it within the broader church and tradition both in the sense that as believers we are not alone in our faith and also in that the broader tradition provides limits and direction to what we may or may not believe ourselves to be "hearing" from God.

There are twopoints which I think intersect Balthasar's book thus far with Pentecostal spirituality. First, by grounding the contemplative's meditations in the text and in Christ, and placing it within the bounds of the community and its confession, Balthasar simultaneously sets up the expectation that the pray-er will indeed hear from God while at the same time establishing some focus and boundaries which prevent some of the wilder, subjective, and/or heretical "revelations" sometimes present within Pentecostal, charismatic, and particularly neo-Pentecostal Christianity. 

Second, though Balthasar insists that contemplative prayer should normally be practiced alone for the psychological reason that others will provide a distraction (p.77), it seems to me that what Balthasar's contemplative both expects and experiences is rather akin to what the sincere, hungry Pentecostal experiences during fervent, normally public and corporate, worship.

What do you think? Does providing Christ as the focus and the great tradition of the church as guidelines rob personal spiritual revelation of it's truly revelatory character and freedom? Does the Pentecostal in public worship experience something akin to what the contemplative experiences alone?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Starting with God

Well, it has certainly been a long time since I have blogged anything, either here or here.  Having gone back to school to pursue my Master's in Theology and Culture at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, I have not even had much time to think, much less read Barth, much less write about him.  But going back to school itself is actually related to my desire to link Pentecostalism and Barth in my own life and ministry, and possibly in the thinking, reading, and praying of others.

All that having been said, I have been re-reading Barth's Dogmatics in Outline these days as a mental break from paper writing and Greek homework.  Today I came across this classic Barthian thought:

"The mystery of creation on the Christian interpretation is not primarily - as the fools think in their heart - the problem whether there is a God as the originator of the world; for in the Christian sense it cannot be that first of all we presuppose the reality of the world and then ask whether there is also a God.  But the first thing, the thing we begin with, is God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  And from that standpoint the great Christian problem is propounded, whether it can really be the case that God wishes to be not only for Himself, but that outside Him there is the world, that we exist alongside and outside Him?  That is a riddle." (p.53)
 Classic Barth.  No room for apologetics.  No room for the question, Is there a God?  As in all Barth's thought, the unavoidable presupposition (not conclusion!) is the triune God - Father, Son and Spirit.  Does creation exist?  Do I exist?  Do you exist?  These are valid questions, but not the question, Is there a God?  The God we meet in Christ is the Great Presupposition which we know because of revelation.  And because of this Great Presupposition, we also know that creation and we ourselves are real too.  How do we know that?  The incarnation.  "Because God has become man, the existence of creation can no longer be doubted" (p.53).

What do you think?  Is Barth's confidence in God's existence and the unquestionableness of the divine revelation overstated?  Mis-stated?  Or profoundly right on target?

Thursday, July 25, 2013


"This is how it happens between God and those who belong to him!  This is why they are all such broken, human, dissatisfying figures.  Each one is an anti-hero.  Their life histories are inconclusive.  Their life's work is incomplete.  The condition of their souls and their success are more than problematic..." - Barth, "Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas," in The Word of God and Theology, Kindle Location 2309
The above quote comes from a lecture by Barth to a group of students in 1920.  His lecture, apparently, was not well received and was criticized as being somewhat aimless.  As I read Barth's lecture, however, I felt that the meaning he wanted to convey to an audience seeking to know how the Bible could be "practical" or "relevant" in the modern age was that the Bible can only be practical and relevant by calling into question everything that we would consider practical and relevant.  Barth's lecture is more a thundering gospel sermon than a true lecture.  Perhaps that is why it was so poorly received.

Barth  himself was a picture of the contradiction that is the Christian believer.  We are simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinful.  We hear God's "Yes" only by hearing God's "No."  Conversely, we only truly realize how sinful our sin is after we've come to the knowledge of our forgiveness in Jesus.  Barth was simultaneously proud and humble.  He was not faithful to his marriage.  In many ways, he was a poor disciple.  Yet he also grasped the gospel like few ever have.  He understood Christ.  He endeavored, in his own somewhat pathetic way, to maintain his marriage.  Barth was simul iustus et peccator.  Barth knew brokenness.  He saw the glory of God in the failures of the patriarchs and the shortcomings of the church.  Barth knew brokenness.

Within the Pentecostal community, with our rightly emphasized focus on holiness, what do we do with the continued brokenness of the church and of believers?  Do we continue our pattern of separation?  Do we call into question the salvation of those whose walk with Jesus is, lets be honest, a mess?  Do we quake within ourselves at our own ongoing sinfulness, ashamed and scared to admit how far we still have to go? 

As Pentecostals, what do we do with brokenness?