Category Archives: The Modern Church
The history of the church from the French Revolution (1789) to today.
[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]
The genius and theologian, Karl Barth, was asked if he could summarize his Church Dogmatics. He pondered momentarily, then began singing the child’s song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Can you picture it? Church Dogmatics is 6 million words long, and he summarized it by singing “Jesus loves me,” that is profound. How I long and pray for all of us to truly see the simplicity of the Gospel. Barth (May 10, 1886 – December 10, 1968) contributed so much to theology, and had he been a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, there is no doubt they would already have given him the title of a Saint. He is a blessing to the Church and I thank God for this man, today may we remember this man after God’s own heart. The following is taken for Church Dogmatics:
The first statement, namely, that Christ is in the Christian, has the further meaning that Christ speaks, acts and rules and this is the grace of His calling of this man as the Lord of his thinking, speech and action. He takes possession of his free human heart. He rules and controls in the obedience of his free reason (2 Cor. 10:5). As a divine person it is very possible for Him to do this in the unrestricted sovereignty proper to Himself and yet in such a way that there can be no question whatever of any competition between His person and that of the Christian, whether in the attempt of the latter to control His person, or conversely in its suppression or extinction by His person. It is very possible for Him to do it in such a way that the human person of the Christian is validated and honoured in full and genuine freedom, in the freedom of the obedient children of God. That Christ is in the Christian means, then, that as the Mediator between God and man He does not exist merely for Himself and to that extent concentrically, but that in His prophetic work, in the calling of His disciples and Christians, with no self-surrender but in supreme expression of Himself, He also exists eccentrically, i.e., in and with the realisation of the existence of these men, as the ruling principle of the history lived by them in their own freedom.
The second statement, namely, that the Christian is in Christ, has not only the local but also the higher meaning that his own thinking, speech and action has its ruling and determinative principle and herein it is the work of his gratitude corresponding to grace in the speech, action and rule of Christ. His free human heart and reason and acts are orientated on Him, i.e., on agreement with His being and action. In the power of the Word of God which calls him, and therefore in the power of the Holy Spirit, this orientation is his only possibility, already in process of realisation. Again, there is no rivalry between the human person and the divine. There is thus no danger that the former will be overwhelmed by the latter. There is no danger that it will necessarily be destroyed by it and perish. Rather, the human person, experiencing the power of the divine, and unreservedly subject to it, will necessarily recognise and honour it again and again in its sovereignty, finding itself established as a human person and set in truly human and the freest possible movement in orientation on it. That the Christian is in Christ means mutatis mutandis for him, too, that as one who is called by the one Mediator between God and man in the exercise of His prophetic office he cannot exist for himself and to that extent concentrically, but that, without detriment to his humanity, awakened rather to genuine humanity, he also exists eccentrically, in and with the realisation of his own existence, being received and adopted as an integral element in the life and history of Christ.
This, then, is the Christian’s unio cum Christo. We recall that in this high view and doctrine we are not presenting a climax of Christian experience and development in face of which the anxious question might well be raised whether we have reached the point, or will ever do so, where in respect of our own Christianity we can sincerely say: “Christ in me, and I in Christ.” On the contrary, we are presenting the last and most exact formulation of what makes us Christians whatever our development or experience. We have seen that Paul particularly in the New Testament does not think of restricting his insight in this regard to himself and a few other Christians of higher rank, but that as he speaks of himself he also speaks of the generality of Christians, not excluding the very doubtful Christians of Galatia and Corinth and not excluding the doubtful nature of their Christianity. If, as we have attempted in concentric circles, we think through what it means that the goal of vocation, and therefore of Christianity as divine sonship, is always attachment to Christ, coordination and fellowship with Him, discipleship, appropriation to Him with the corresponding expropriation, life of and by the Holy Spirit, then we are infallibly led at last to the point which we have now reached and described, namely, that a man becomes and is a Christian as he unites himself with Christ and Christ with him. And we remember that from the purely material standpoint this is the starting-point for everything else which is to be thought and said concerning what makes the Christian a Christian.
(Church Dogmatics; Vol. IV, Part 3.2, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation.” Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1988)
Today marks Dorothy Sayers‘ 118th birthday (June 13, 1893). Writer, theologian, poet, essayist, and playwright, Sayers did it all. And, she did it amazingly well.
To commemorate her birthday, here are some excerpts from her essay on The Lost Tools of Learning. Regardless of whether you agree with her argument that we need to return to medieval models of education (and the way this argument has been used by the classical and home schooling movements), her comments on the importance of learning to think are outstanding:
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
Today is G. K. Chesterton’s 137th birthday (May 29, 1874). To celebrate, I thought I’d offer this outstanding analogy from the beginning of Orthodoxy, one of his most famous works. (For more on his life and significance, check out this post from Billy Cash.)
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?
I got tired of the Rob Bell discussion pretty quickly, so I’ve generally been avoiding posts related to that controversy. But, Relevant Magazine has a great post today from Scot McKnight that is well worth reading. In the post, What Love Wins Tells Us about Christians, McKnight offers an interesting reflection on the current state of evangelicalism, the way evangelicals respond to controversy today, and how our changing social/technological context shapes all of this.
Here’s his list 10 things that we’ve learned from this controversy:
- Social media is where controversial ideas will be both explored and judged.
- Megachurch pastors are being watched closely.
- Tribalism pervades the American religious scene.
- Hell remains a central Christian conviction and concern.
- Christian views of hell are both incomplete and in need of serious examination.
- Pressing questions require serious thinking.
- Missiology remains the center of gospeling in our world.
- Low church, non-denominational evangelicalism, of which Rob Bell is an exceptional representative, carries its own dangers.
- We are still asking a big question: What is the Gospel?
- What is evangelicalism and what is orthodoxy?
Make sure you read the whole post, but I thought his comments on the Gospel were particularly interesting. McKnight argues that the Gospel is still the centering reality of evangelicalism:
You can talk all you want about eschatology and about atonement theory and about evangelism and about worship, but the moment you cross a line others perceive to be too far in the wrong directions, you will be called out on it. The essential line in Christianity is the Gospel, and all theology is measured by its fidelity to the Gospel or its denial of the Gospel.
But, he then goes on to point out that we still don’t have a widely accepted definition of the Gospel:
How odd, I muse at times, that so many claim “gospel” for what they think but at the same time don’t recognize that the word “gospel” seems to be a contested term and category that demands careful words and definitions.
No wonder modern evangelicalism is having an identity crisis.
There is a pretended boldness for Christ that arises from no better principle than pride. A man may be forward to expose himself to the dislike of the world, and even to provoke their displeasure, out of pride. For ’tis the nature of spiritual pride to cause men to seek distinction and singularity; and so oftentimes to set themselves at war with those that they call carnal, that they may be more highly exalted among their party. True boldness for Christ is universal and overcomes all, and carries ‘em above the displeasure of friends and foes; so that they will forsake all rather than Christ and will rather offend all parties, and be thought meanly of by all, than offend Christ. And that duty tries whether a man is willing to be despised by them that are of his own party, and thought the least worthy to be regarded by them, is a much more proper trial of his boldness for Christ, than his being forward to expose himself to the reproach of opposers. (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, 352)
Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. 2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book. Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation. What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?” In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis. (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity). Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up. Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption. At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist. Is there any correlation between these men?
The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time. The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for. According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church. He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day. It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them. However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan. The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.” Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise. Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved. In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice. He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.” Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself. Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox. He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart. Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.
When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck! According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation. Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election. As the subject he is the electing God. As the object he is the elect man. Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them. (He had a major beef with Calvinism!) If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved. This is what Barth hoped for. The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen. When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label. Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man. Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth. You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine. Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic. He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.
So where is Bell? Again, good luck. I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth. Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption. If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book. He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57). Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time. It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91). Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love. Hell can be a place we go to after death. The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.” Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open. (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?) Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance. He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115). If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation. (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!) Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want). However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism. Jesus is necessary. Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus. In this sense Bell is exclusive. Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all. Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155). He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155). Buddhist will use a different name. Muslim’s will say Allah. In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in). Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message. The message is really love. So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation. This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.
If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth. There is the hope of universal reconciliation. I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men. At that point our desires would be in line with God’s. However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen. Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem. Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does. Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus. Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now. Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.” More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17). If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it. They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it. In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.
Buzz is already building around the celebration next month of the 125th anniversary of Karl Barth‘s birth (May 10). Those of you who have already spent some time with Barth’s theology don’t need me to convince you of its importance. You’ve already seen it firsthand. But, others may not yet have dipped into the sweet waters of the Swiss systematician. So, this post is for you.
But, before I begin, a confession. When I traveled to Scotland for my doctoral work, I had no intention of studying Karl Barth. I knew who he was, of course, but my rather conservative upbringing left me convinced that Barth was for those who didn’t really value scripture, were overly enamored of German theology, and had too much time on their hands. So, like those for whom this post is intended, I required considerable convincing that I should study Barth. Eventually, I came around. I’ve noticed that most of those who study in Scotland eventually do. You could be there to study botany, and somehow you’d end up reading Barth along the way. I think it’s something they put in the water.
So, without further ado, here are the 5 Reasons You Should Study Karl Barth:
- Everyone’s doing it. Just look around. They’ve published a gazillion books and articles on Barth in the last ten years. Everyone’s reading him. You can feel the peer pressure building. Must…read…Barth.
- If you don’t, all the cool kids at school will pick on you. You’ll be like that one poor kid who dresses funny and still doesn’t have a cell phone.
- You’ll learn how to use cool German phrases like das Nichtige. You probably still won’t know what they mean, but you’ll sound really smart. And, using expensive foreign phrases like that helps convince people that your education wasn’t a waste of money.
- The 14-volume Church Dogmatics would look really nice on your bookshelves. Granted, you don’t really have to study Barth for this to work. But, you don’t want to get in that awkward situation of someone asking whether you’ve actually read any of those impressive looking volumes.
- You’d get to call yourself a “Barthian”. Granted, you’d immediately have to deny being a Barthian since no true Barthian can accept the label “Barthian.” But still, when no one’s around, you can whisper it quietly to yourself. It not only sounds cool, but if you have a conservative background like mine, you’ll get to feel a little rebellious at the same time.
Without compelling motivations like those, how can you refuse?
Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs writes, “the future of liberal Protestantism is even dicier than we have realized. In a region where liberal churches should be thriving, they are dying, and where evangelicals should be relegated to the margins, they are taking center stage.” What is this region he is referring to? Our own Pacific Northwest. His comments come in response to reading James Wellman’s Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. To read more of Jacob’s post click here.
For another good discussion, see Matthew Sutton’s article in Books & Culture.
For those of you with a theological man-crush on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is your day. On February 4, 1906 he was born in Breslau, Germany. He became a prolific leader in the German church and was actively involved in opposing the Nazi regime. Believing that Hitler was like a madman “driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders,” he joined an assassination plot to kill him. Refusing to flee to the refuge of America he was arrested, placed in a concentration camp, and finally hanged just days before Allied troops liberated the camp where he was held. He is the author of The Cost of Discipleship and Letters from Prison as well as a host of other books that are still influencing the church today. Speaking of the cost of grace, he writes:
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Over the course of my last two years in Seminary at Western I have been struck by the importance of knowing and being anchored to church history. Being intimately acquainted with what those who have run the race before us have said and written develops a more sound and robust theology, and helps guard against making similar gaffes in thinking. We learn from their strengths as well as their weaknesses. This past semester I had the privilege of studying Augustine. Three primary lessons stand out to me. 1) Augustine helped me to appreciate further the tie that the church today has with gospel of Jesus Christ. It is exciting for me to read a statement about Jesus by a man who lived seventeen hundred years ago, and know that I make the same claim of Christ today when I preach and teach. The gospel of salvation alone in Christ has not changed. We live in a day when Pluralists, Inclusivists, and Universalists demand that all theologies bow to the standard of political correctness and affirmation of all. Augustine reminds us, however, that “our heart is unquiet until is rests in [Jesus].” 2) Augustine points to the great depravity of man and the unfathomable grace of God. I am convinced that a man will not cherish the grace he has received in Christ until he comes to terms with the utter despair and helplessness of his state in sin without him. Augustine understood the depravity of his heart. He thought about it often, wrote about it in his Confessions, and constantly encouraged all men to look away from any good or merit in themselves (which would never be found) and to trust only in the grace of God. Indeed, Augustine attributed even this turning towards grace to the gracious enablement of God. In this he helped me to see afresh the great mercy of God and the sweetness of worshipping him. 3) Augustine challenged my theology in the area of baptism. I am a Baptist….a Southern Baptist to get specific. I affirm believer’s baptism as the most appropriate and biblical mode of baptism in the church. Augustine, however, was a staunch advocate of infant baptism and the notion that baptism was a requirement for salvation. I believe he goes too far here, but my concern has been how I account for the rich history of infant baptism in the church. I know the early church was not infallible, but when the church suddenly stops a fifteen hundred year practice (stopping after the Reformation), you better have a good answer. This has led to a question that nags me, and research paper to be written this semester (I’ll let you know what I decide. All my Presbyterian friends don’t get too excited yet!).
If you have never studied Augustine, please do. I highly recommend Peter Brown’s biography, Augustine of Hippo, for a great introduction and overview of his life and significant works. Writings by Augustine that are greatly worth the read are: Confessions (Augustine’s autobiography of his conversion and struggle with sin), On the Free Choice of the Will (Augustine’s early discussion on the nature of freedom of the will and God’s responsibility for evil), Enchiridion (A type of systematic theology of what Augustine affirmed the church to teach), and The City of God (specifically the last ten Chapters…a Masterpiece!). You won’t be disappointed.