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In memoriam Karl Barth

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”

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)

Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

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?

Origen

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.

Barth

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.

Bell

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.

5 Reasons You Should Study Karl Barth

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Karl Barth and pastoral theology

I discovered the spending a day reading thrity pages of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics helped me more in my pastoral work than a hundred of pages of how-to literature.

………………………….~David Hansen

(HT)

My dissertation is online, but it’s not “appropriate”

Many thanks to Nick Norelli for pointing out that my dissertation is  available online through the University of St. Andrews research database. You’d think I would have known that already, but I didn’t realize the database was open to the public. So, if you’re looking for something to fill your spare moments, feel free to check it out.

I am dealing with some emotional turmoil, however. I tried to access my dissertation a few minutes ago, but I was blocked by the seminary’s web filter because the material “is considered inappropriate”! I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s one thing to have a reviewer or professor tell you that your dissertation isn’t any good. But, when some mindless software starts taking potshots at your research, that’s pretty annoying. I bet it hasn’t even read my dissertation. Stupid software.

I did give my dissertation a pretty snappy title, though, so more people would want to read it:

Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies:  An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind-Body Debate with Special Reference to Karl Barth’s ‘Church Dogmatics’ III.2

Seriously, who could possibly stay away from a book like that? In my family, we gather around the fire and read our favorite parts to each other while eating ice cream. You should try it.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/27)

This article challenges that belief by questioning some of Dembski’s assumptions, pointing out some limitations of his analysis, and arguing that a design inference is necessarily a faith-based rather than a scientific inference.

I conclude that most if not all of Foucault’s condemnatory remarks concerning the subject are not intended as a death sentence for the subject per se; rather, his objective is to lay to rest a particular socio-historical construction of the subject and subjectivity. That is, Foucault’s critique is directed expressly at themodern construction of an ahistorical, autonomous subject as sovereign originator of meaning, one untainted by his own particular historical and socio-political context.

Pride – Plagiarism is driven by the refusal of limitation. A student comes up against their own intellectual limits, the time allotted in a busy semester, etc., and, unwilling to accept limitation, compensates by deception.

A prayer for Sunday – Karl Barth

O Lord our God, you wanted to live not only in heaven, but also with us, here on earth; not only to be high and great, but also to be small and lowly, as we are; not only to rule, but also to serve us; not only to be God in eternity, but also to be born as a person, to live, and to die.

In your dear Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, you have given us none other than  yourself, that we may wholly belong to you. This affects all of us, and none of us has deserved this. What remains for us to do but to wonder, to rejoice, to be thankful, and to hold fast to what you have done for us?

We ask you to let this be the case in this hour, among us and in all of us! Let us become a proper Christmas community in honest, open, and willing praying and singing, speaking and hearing, and let us in great hunger be a proper Communion community! Amen.

~Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Flotsam and jetsam (12/2)

“Glee” is conversational. The show succeeds, I think, because it examines the pressing issues of our day in a humorous, pop-song inundated way. “Glee,” like most good art, doesn’t dictate, it discusses. As Christians especially, we ought to join this discussion.

  • Here’s an interesting post on  Christian ghostwriting. I guess I’m not surprised, but I didn’t realize how common ghostwriting was in the Christian world.

I believe Christian ghostwriting is a scandal waiting to explode. If we in the Christian community don’t clean up our act soon, we’re going to face widespread loss of credibility.

It is interesting to me that there in the last couple of weeks I have happened across several different takes on what is commonly being called ‘the New Calvinism’. The range in perspectives has been interesting to observe.

  • HuffPo has an interesting post on a Buddhist view of the self and the way that memory constrains our freedom to experience the world and fully be our “true” selves.

For most people, realizing that most of what you think, do and feel is nothing but the activation of stored memory is unsettling, for it smacks the popular notion of who we think we are right in the face. This truth not only exposes that we are not as free as we like to believe, but that we are not fully present to the people and things in our life as well.

Karl Barth Blog Conference (Week 3)

The third week of the Karl Barth Blog Conference is underway, and Travis has lined up another set of interesting posts. Here’s the lineup for the week with biographical information on each blogger. And, here’s what’s been posted so far.

Karl Barth on giving thanks to God alone

Only God deserves the thanks of man. We speak of true and essential gratitude – of the gratitude in which man must accept permanently and unreservedly the benefit he has experienced as the benefit which he simply cannot do without, as the perfect benefit showered upon him in the sovereign freedom of the Benefactor. We thus speak of a gratitude in which acceptance of the blessing has a depth and abandon and constancy corresponding to its character, in which obligation towards the Benefactor is felt to be absolute so that it cannot be fully discharged by any attitude of gratefulness which it may arouse. There are also other and more modest benefits. All the benefits which one creature can be or give towards another belong to this category. We do not underestimate the fact that these other more modest benefits exist, and that they are genuine benefits because first and last God the Creator is their source. Similar there is also another and more modest type of gratitude – the gratitude which creatures may show one another for reciprocal favour, and which can be genuine because first and last it is to God that they are thankful when thy receive genuine benefits. Butt his also implies that all other thanksgiving is weighed in the scales and placed under the question whether it refers to a genuine benefit of God for which man is giving thanks, and whether it is therefore the true and essential gratitude which is appropriate to this benefit. Our present theme is this true and essential gratitude. The divine benefit demands this. And it alone can do so. It alone is the indispensable, perfect and free blessing poured out upon man. It alone promises the grace which maintains and saves man. It alone spells the salvation which alone can and does help the creature living on the edge of the abyss of destruction. Hence it alone merits thanks in the strictest sense of the term. Because God alone can be and is a Benefactor in this sense, the One in relation to whom man can and will transcend the limits of his intrinsic possibilities (which is what happens when he thanks God), therefore God alone deserves thanks. Thanksgiving is wasted, indeed, it rests on error and can only lead to further error, if it is not directed tot he one benefit of this one Benefactor, even in the grateful acceptance of benefits from creaturely benefactors. As thanksgiving which is part of an absolute obligation and is permanently binding, it can be directed to this one benefit alone and therefore to this one Benefactor alone.

Church Dogmatics III/2, 169