Monday, June 30, 2008

Barth: problematizing the adjective “Christian”

What, then, is meant by such phrases as “Christian” view of the universe, “Christian” morality, “Christian” art? Where are “Christian” personalities, “Christian” families, “Christian” groups, “Christian” newspapers, “Christian” societies, endeavors, and institutions? Who gives us permission to use this adjective so profusely? Especially when we must know that to confer this adjective, in its peculiarly serious import, is withdrawn altogether from any authority we have. This, if you like, unimportant misuse of language: does it not become evil to anybody who reflects at all? Is it not just a presumption that can allude to a most general thing as though existing . . . Ought not a serious consideration of the office of the Holy Spirit to the pardoned sinner to have this small result, at least, namely: to make it more difficult in the future for such an adjective as this to drip from our lips and our pen?
—Karl Barth, The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics, trans. R. Birch Hoyle (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 37-38.

Scrabbled Reveries: a poem

Years ago, I used to write poems on a regular basis. The following poem—a playful exercise in anagrams—is one I wrote for a poetry writing class at Wheaton College in 2003.

Scrabbled Reveries

She opens the board and the room disappears.
The cascade of wooden squares eclipses
empty loveseats, unwashed coffee mugs,
Sunday newspapers stacked
unread except for completed crosswords
and cluttered wordfinds. As she empties
the loosened pouch, she does not see
scattered A’s or lonely S’s, nor
does she watch each piece fall with casual
distance. Instead, a stray BLUE ANT
crawls across the ABLUENT detergent,
and the long LINE of HAY stacks
stands opposed to the HYALINE sky.
The tall QAT with its PURE leaves
rests quietly on the kitchen PARQUET,
while the intricate woodwork is covered
with popcorn kernels. The room
in which she SITS surrounded by a RACY
matrix of letters becomes her SACRISTY,
replete with the necessary game-playing
vessels of box and board. She comes dressed
in the official vestments of sweatpants
and T-shirt, discolored by spilled snacks,
the marks of a long tradition. Her eyes, gamboling
between letters, BITE off EDENIC morsels
after offering the BENEDICITE in the advent
of anagrams. Sitting quietly at the table,
her mind dresses each word in a raiment of flesh.
Words become her companions. At last, she feasts
on her Last Supper of triple-word-scores
and eight-letter bingos, and in the emptiness
of night, she revels in her power to bring
the order of language to a chaos of squares.

—D. W. Congdon, 4/15/03

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Moltmann on the last judgment

On Jan. 23-24, 2007, Jürgen Moltmann spoke as the featured speaker at the Trinity Institute’s 37th National Theological Conference on the topic of “God’s Unfinished Future,” part of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Continuing Education Plan (CEP). In the first lecture (mp3), Moltmann provides a summary of his eschatology as it relates to the doctrine of divine judgment. His focus is on the last judgment and its relationship to salvation.

Moltmann rejects the God who allows the free human person to determine her final destiny, because it actually undermines the entire nature of the last judgment as a judgment of God. But he also rejects the wrathful God of Protestant Orthodoxy, because it abstracts the deity of God from the concrete reality of the Crucified One. He asks the question: “Who has the keys of hell and death in his hands? We human beings? No. God? No. It is Jesus Christ, who was dead but is alive.” Against these two options, therefore, he argues that the one who judges humanity is not God in the abstract but rather Jesus Christ. The one who judges us is neither the autonomous self nor the wrathful God, but instead the one who was crucified “for us and our salvation.” As Eberhard Jüngel puts it, the last judgment is an act of grace.

Moltmann thus implores: “I think it is high time to Christianize our traditional images and perceptions of God’s final judgment and to evangelize the present effects on our lives and worldviews, so that we may greet the coming judge of the world with joy.”

Amen to that.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Is mysticism the way to pluralism?

Not according to William Harmless in his new book, Mystics, reviewed in Books & Culture by Nathaniel Peters:

The word mystic does not bring to mind edifying images for most Christians these days. It smacks of a vapid, Southern California mindset, readily exploited by marketers of tea and juice and such. For the more historically minded, mystic might suggest the wild-haired, unwashed visionaries off in the wilderness—not, in other words, something of much concern to everyday believers as they balance their finances or play catch with their kids.

But true mystics are far from amorphously spiritual. As Bernard McGinn has put it, “no mystic (at least before the present century) believed in or practiced ‘mysticism.’ They believed in and practiced Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism), that is, religions that contained mystical elements as part of a wider historical whole.” McGinn’s work serves as the starting point for William Harmless, a professor of theology at Creighton University, whose new book Mystics is a walk through the lives and teachings of eight great mystics: Thomas Merton, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, and Evagrius Ponticus from the Christian tradition, as well as the Sufi poet Rumi and the Buddhist divine Dogen.

. . . Harmless says that his goal is “to take up and to take on the widespread claim that ‘all religions are all the same at the top,’ that ‘mystics are all experiencing the same thing.’ … I hope I’ve shown here … that such claims are simply nonsense, that those who make them have simply not done their homework.”

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Christian Wiman: resurrection is empty without the cross

Books & Culture has an interview with poet and essayist Christian Wiman conducted by Aaron Rench. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, which gives him a place of central importance in the life of American poetry today. He has a collection of essays out entitled, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, which I recommend. You can read one of them, “The Limit,” here. He also has a number of poems available online.

The interview covers a number of important topics. He discusses the problem of poetry’s conflicted relationship with modern society, the “reek” of overambition, and his own complicated relationship with Christianity. In one of his answers, he states: “I do think a life in poetry is a calling, but for a long time I was unwilling to admit that the call might come from God.” But the most profound response comes in his discussion of art and sentimentality. Rench’s question is in bold, followed by Wiman’s response.

In the chapter on poetry and religion you start off by saying, “Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine.” Would you say this is why art resists sentimentalism?

Well, the adjective is important there: greatest. I was trying to point out how the highest moments of art can at once enact our deepest sufferings and provide a peace that is equal to them, and how this is similar to (though lesser than) what I understand to be the deepest truth of Christianity. The peace does not eliminate the sorrow or the tragedy: great art acknowledges intractable human suffering, and Christianity's promise of resurrection is empty without a clear, cold sense of the cross.

So yes, art does resist sentimentality, as does, at its best, Christianity.

That said, there are all kinds of art, and all kinds of Christianity, that include sentimentality—and are not necessarily vitiated because of that. I love many novels, poems, and pieces of music that have obvious sentimental moments or characters in them, and it seems to me that the daily life of a Christian can’t be lived with the kind of austerity I’m describing above. Some people, those inclined to severity and sternness, actually need more sentimentality in their lives, and others who are over-inclined to frivolity and vapid cheerfulness need to be dropped more often into the depths of their beliefs. Art is a good means for achieving both of these.

In this response, Wiman identifies the absence of a theologia crucis as the basis for modern American Christianity’s rampant sentimentalism. Beyond the saccharine lyrics of CCM and the books by people like Bruce Wilkinson, we might expand sentimentalism to include, for example, the prosperity gospel found on TBN and the comfortable, bourgeois character of American evangelicalism in general. All of these things are manifestations of a resurrection “without a clear, cold sense of the cross.” As a result, they are “empty.”

I’ll close by offering one of his more explicitly “religious” poems (for lack of a better description), “Every Riven Thing”:
Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing He’s made
Sing his being simply by being
The thing it is:
Stone and tree and sky,
Man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing He’s made,
Means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
Trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing He’s made
There is given one shade
Shaped exactly to the thing itself:
Under the tree a darker tree;
Under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
The things that bring Him near,
Made the mind that makes Him go.
A part of what man knows,
Apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing He’s made.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On listening to the still small voice of poetry

[P]oetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I’ve always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom. . . .

In “Education by Poetry,” one of his finest essays, Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. . . .

In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become “so violent,” both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

The pressure of reality is indeed fierce, and yet poetry supplies a kind of counterpressure, pushing back against external forces that would overwhelm and obliterate the individual. Poets give a voice to the world in ways previously unacknowledged. We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society’s explosions.

—Jay Parini, The Chronicle Review

Review: Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts

Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, London: SCM Press, 2006, pp. 320. $29.99 (hardcover)

Jaroslav Pelikan’s passing in May 2006 after struggling with lung cancer was a huge loss to Christian scholarship. Pelikan was a prodigious scholar of church history, and thus it is only fitting that after decades of historical work, his final publication is a biblical commentary on the one book dedicated to the life of the early church. That said, this is a most unusual commentary—quite clearly the product of Pelikan’s distinguished academic career and his personal “return” (as he put it) to the Orthodox Church in 1998. While brimming with rich historical and theological knowledge, this first book in the Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible series has a number of major limitations.

In his preface to the series as a whole, R. R. Reno says that the commentary series “advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture” (13-14). Pelikan has taken this assumption to heart. He orders his commentary of the Acts of the Apostles according to eighty-four loci communes (three per chapter), some of which are taken directly from the Nicene Creed. A brief survey of the table of contents reveals that this is not just a theological commentary, but a truly catholic and orthodox (in both senses of these words) commentary. So, for example, the commentary covers, inter alia, the following topics: “Mary the Theotokos,” “The Twelve and the Primacy of Peter,” “Incarnation and Theosis,” “Canon Law—Its Legitimacy and Its Limits,” “Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Dogma,” and “The Component ‘Parts of Penance.’”

It is difficult at times to know whether one should really call this book a commentary by Pelikan, since throughout he allows the church fathers to provide the commentary. As a historian, and not a biblical scholar or theologian, this is understandable. In a way, Pelikan functions less as a historian and more as a medium, channeling the voices of the past as they bear upon the text. Some of the key figures include Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. And so we read statements like, “one could observe with Chrysostom” (124), or, “as Clement of Alexandria argued” (131-32). The living presence of the tradition is this commentary’s greatest strength. By allowing the doctors of the church to speak freely, Pelikan reminds us of the profound insights of the ancient church and helps to liberate us from what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

Of course, this book is thoroughly Pelikan’s work, and some of the sections of theological commentary demonstrate his theological and historical insight. His discussion of the Holy Spirit (48-53) brilliantly connects the Spirit to the idea of fullness (e.g., fullness of time, fullness of joy, fullness of grace, fullness of the Spirit). His best reflections are also the most unexpected. He examines the role that humor plays throughout the book of Acts while looking at the story of Rhoda from Acts 12:13-16 (148-50), and in another section he looks at the use of nautical imagery (286-89). In a comment on Acts 21:13-14 (226-30), Pelikan offers an analysis of the “religious affections” in Luke-Acts, in which Augustine and Schleiermacher both make an appearance. Perhaps the single best section is entitled “De amicitia: The Divine Gift of Friendship” (283-86). Here Pelikan presents a constructive theology of friendship in theses which range from the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas to the way friendship is grounded in Christ and imitates the God who befriends humanity. In a particularly poignant section, Pelikan reflects on “the predicament of the Christian historian” (279-83), who is caught between scientific objectivity and religious fidelity. The book closes with a fine discussion of the kingdom of God (292-95).

Pelikan’s commentary, however, has some serious limitations. The problem is best summarized by Pelikan himself in a comment on Acts 8:30-31: “It is the consensus of Orthodox and Catholic teaching that the continuing apostolic witness of the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as this has been set forth in tradition, liturgy, and creed, performs the same function for the interpretation of the ‘Scripture’ (now consisting of both the Old and the New Testament) as it did for the ‘Scripture’ when this consisted of only the Old Testament” (116). The problem is that Pelikan has interpreted “theological commentary” to mean “commentary in accordance with the dogmas of the ancient church.” He thus follows Reno’s advice in a hyper-literal fashion: the Nicene tradition determines his exegesis. According to the index, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has more entries than anything or anyone else other than Christ himself (310).

What all this means in practice is that Pelikan has limited and conformed his exegesis to fit the strict parameters authorized by the Tradition. This results in numerous examples of blatant eisegesis, and it also threatens to make this commentary all but irrelevant to pastors and constructive theologians. As a good Orthodox Christian, Pelikan has no interest in being creative. His only concern is to be faithful to the past, and thus faithful to the church. Not surprisingly, he introduces the book by stating up front that “this commentary, then, is based on what may turn out to be the most radical presupposition of all: that the church really did get it right in its liturgies, creeds, and councils—yes, and even in its dogmas” (28). In the transition from “apostolic church” to “church catholic,” he claims, “the church somehow continued to be ‘apostolic’” (28).

That this presupposition is by no means obvious to most Christians today is surely an understatement. As a result of this ecclesial loyalty, Pelikan fails on numerous occasions to be faithful to the text. The most inexplicable example is the fact that Acts 1:8—the one-sentence summary or thesis of the entire book—receives no mention at all. Pelikan actually avoids the topic of witness and mission altogether, other than a very brief analysis of the word “witness” (56). Amazingly, in a commentary on Acts, there is no section devoted to the missionary task or the apostolic mission, and there is no entry for “mission” in the index. This exegetical failure is less surprising when one realizes, in light of Pelikan’s introduction, that this commentary is really a sustained argument that the institutional, post-Constantinian church is fundamentally consistent with the apostolic church as documented by Luke. Unfortunately, this results in some strange readings and distortions of the biblical material.

Some of the most jarring interpretations include the following: commenting on the light which blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, Pelikan proceeds to talk about Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox doctrine of the divine energy, represented here, he argues, as light (234-36); in an example of exegetical gymnastics, he moves from talking about the pagan beliefs that Paul and Barnabus encountered at Lystra to a discussion of the Greek doctrine of theosis (162-64); at the end of a discussion about the unity of humanity before God, Pelikan slips in a comment about the Holy Spirit “establish[ing] national churches” (133); and, finally, the most jarring example of eisegesis occurs in his presentation of the Mars Hill episode, which Pelikan introduces with the title: “Apophatic Theology: Negation as the Affirmation of Metaphysical Transcendence” (193-96). Moreover, throughout the book, he refers to the “college of apostles,” while Mary is always “Mary the Theotokos,” or the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” In short, it is clear that Pelikan is perfectly comfortable reading history back into the text, because for him, Scripture and Tradition are equally authoritative: each interprets the other. What is not acceptable, it seems, is any critique of the church on the basis of Scripture. The Bible upholds and must not challenge the status quo. He even goes so far as to call the imperial enforcement of dogma by Caesar “innovative” and “revolutionary” (184).

The book also lacks an accurate index. Throughout the book John Chrysostom appears in almost every chapter, yet the index only lists him twice. It became clear that the book missed a number of entries when the name did not appear in the body of the text itself and was only referenced in a footnote. For example, the Belgic Confession is mentioned on page 159, footnote 11, but receives no entry in the index. In a book which relies so heavily upon historical sources, a faulty index is a huge disservice to the reader. Hopefully, this will be corrected in future printings.

Despite its shortcomings, Jaroslav Pelikan has left us with a work of impressive scholarship and ecclesial fidelity. His commentary on Acts is a promising start to what I expect will be a landmark commentary series. In this rich and detailed text, Pelikan has given new meaning to the words of Chrysostom, “Paul is sailing even now with us” (288).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Princeton Theological Review: Theological Exegesis

The latest issue of the Princeton Theological Review is now available online. The spring 2008 issue is on the topic of theological exegesis. It features eight articles, four of them on theological exegesis in general, and four others on the life and legacy of Brevard Childs. You can download the issue here as a .pdf. The table of contents includes:
  • Daniel Treier, “In the End, God: The Proper Focus of Theological Exegeis”
  • Murray Rae, “On Reading Scripture Theologically”
  • Angus Paddison, “Theological Exegesis and John Howard Yoder”
  • J. Scott Jackson, “Jesus Christ as Humble Lord: Karl Barth and N.T. Wright on the Philippians ‘Christ Hymn’”
  • Dennis T. Olson, “Seeking ‘the Inexpressible Texture of Thy Word’: A Practical Guide to Brevard Childs’ Canonical Approach to Theological Exegesis”
  • Richard Schultz, “Brevard S. Childs’ Contribution to Old Testament Interpretation: An Evangelical Appreciation and Assessment”
  • Philip Sumpter, “Brevard Childs as Critical and Faithful Exegete”
  • Daniel Driver, “Later Childs”
The quality of these articles is very high, making this issue a necessary read for anyone interested in the subject of theological interpretation of Scripture. Treier and Rae provide helpful introductions to the topic, while Paddison engages in a creative dialogue with Yoder. Paddison states, summarizing Yoder’s views:
There is, Yoder notes, a tendency for those with high views of the biblical text to have a low view of what they can learn from re-reading the text. The Bible for Yoder is important for the function it has in churches of discernment and performance, not for any presumed textual properties. Yoder’s motivations here are a combination of his well-advertised suspicion of methodology, a corresponding wariness of overly-wrought hermeneutical models, and a misgiving that talk of hermeneutics often marks little more than the evasion of following Jesus in his ways of non-violence. When one is rooted in a community that reads the canon as authoritative, it simply is not helpful, in Yoder’s view to reflect on why Scripture has authority.
In other words, Yoder refuses to separate the words of the Bible from the work of Jesus and our calling to a life of discipleship. Authority and action, inspiration and mission, go together. Paddison also responds to the criticism that Yoder eschews issues of realism and ontology in exegeting the New Testament. In the last of the four articles on theological exegesis, Jackson examines the respective interpretations of Phil. 2 by Barth and Wright and how that passage informs their christologies.

The four articles on Childs form their own separate section within the journal. They seek to honor the life and work of Childs as a pioneer in the field of theological exegesis. The current interest in this topic can be traced in part to his many writings and his massive interdisciplinary influence in the fields of theology and biblical studies. Dennis Olson, professor of Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, provides an initial introduction to Childs’ work. Schultz, a professor at Wheaton College, approaches his legacy from the perspective of contemporary evangelicalism. Both Olson and Schultz studied under Childs at Yale. Sumpter and Driver are second generation scholars who have been guided in their studies by students of Childs. I should note that Driver is my cousin (by marriage) and his article is the only one to look at the later works of Childs, which are often ignored by contemporary scholarship.

Finally, there are a number of book reviews at the end of the issue. The first one is by yours truly and examines Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts, the inaugural book in the Brazos series on the theological exegesis of Scripture. While I respect Pelikan’s work, I have some strong criticisms of this volume. It does no one any good to praise the work simply because of a desire to honor Pelikan after his death, which I suspect is the basis for so many oleaginous reviews.

On a personal note, this was my last issue as co-general editor of the PTR. It was a great end to two years of editorial work on this fine publication. We have left the journal in very capable hands, and I look forward to the fall issue on the life and legacy of T. F. Torrance.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Two new books by Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, has two new books out. The first is Original Sin: A Cultural History, in which Jacobs explores the history of this infamous doctrine from Scripture and Augustine to the modern era.

The second is Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life. This book is from the 2006 Stob Lectures that Jacobs gave at Calvin College entitled, “Testimonies: The Stories of the Christian Life.” You can view the two lectures through an online video feed. The first is entitled “Looking Before and After” and the second, “Despair, Presumption, and Hope.”

Sunday, June 22, 2008

2008 Karl Barth Conference

The third annual 2008 Karl Barth Conference began tonight with an opening talk by Daniel Migliore. The conference topic is “Karl Barth and Theological Ethics” and lasts until Wednesday morning. The conference boasts a group of excellent speakers. I will have much more to say about this event in a few days. Stay tuned.

The problem of evangelicals and art

In his online column for the January/February issue of Books & Culture, John Wilson discusses the Iron & Wine concert at Wheaton College that I mentioned earlier on this blog. I am pleased to find out that he listens to good music, including the Decemberists and Calexico. But I was disturbed by his conclusion. He discusses the song “Jezebel,” one of Sam Beam’s most beautiful songs, which he apparently had not heard prior to the concert. He then writes:

"Who's seen Jezebel," he sang, and the song built from that opening to the high point of intensity in the entire concert. Jezebel, in this telling, is a scapegoat, "born to be the woman we could blame." (Where have we heard that before?) But she's more:

Who's seen Jezebel
She was gone before I ever got to say
Lay here, my love, you're the only shape I pray to

So read the lyrics to "Jezebel" I found next day on the web (hence, of course, subject to error), from a 2005 EP that I haven't heard, Woman King, and that I'll now check out. What I heard Friday night—when Sam Beam's voice became more passionately intense than at any other point in the show—was this: "you're the only God I pray to." Maybe I misheard. (If you were at the concert, please correct or confirm my impression, though the point is pretty much the same in either case.) And as I sat, eyes still closed, musing while the last vibrations of the song faded away, I heard thunderous applause. What were they applauding? The sentiments of the song? Or maybe just the Iron & Wineness of it. Much as I love women, and Woman, and one woman in particular, I couldn't join in. But I won't stop listening.

The actual words that Beam sang are finally unimportant, though for the sake of this post, let’s just assume that he heard him rightly. The fact that Wilson could not applaud reveals a profound misunderstanding of art. For Wilson and many evangelicals, one can only applaud a musician with whom one shares a similar “worldview” or religious posture. Wilson cannot applaud because Beam’s lyrics (at least seemingly) subvert Christian belief.

This is a profound mistake and it has a long history. Evangelicals tend to see everything in propositional-didactic terms: the Bible is a storehouse of facts, the sermon is an education in doctrine and Bible, movies and novels are opportunities to teach morality, and music is reduced to the “worldviews” (currently, my least favorite word in the English language) expressed in the lyrics. Is it any wonder that evangelicals have consistently rejected, ignored, or misunderstood visual art, poetry, iconography, sacraments—things which do not lend themselves to propositional interpretation? Obviously, I am oversimplifying things, but evangelicals have long had a troubled relationship with art. And this column exemplifies the problem. So why applaud Iron & Wine? Well, should I dispense with Ingmar Bergman because his films challenge the existence of God and are at times clearly atheistic? Should I avoid Philip Pullman’s trilogy because he portrays the church as the enemy? Should I reserve my admiration for authors who depict Christianity favorably? Should I always listen to but not applaud musicians who reject God?

Wilson’s final line is typical: “I couldn't join in. But I won't stop listening.” Evangelicals are all about knowing what’s out there—reading the same books, watching the same movies, listening to the same music—but always approaching it from a predetermined position. Evangelicals have a really difficult time actually engaging the world, and by engaging I mean entering into a real dialogue on the basis of a “hermeneutics of charity.” Evangelicals already know what is right and what is wrong, and all they need to do is locate which box a particular artist or intellectual belongs in. (Wilson is better than this, but many evangelicals are not.)

The world for many evangelicals is basically black and white. But art is all about the gray, and herein lies the source of the difficulty: how can an evangelical really appreciate art when the evangelical posture toward the world is one that is anti-aesthetic? Evangelicals see things in terms of propositional and moral truth; but art is not primarily concerned with the propositional and/or the moral. Art is not teaching by a different means. If we think of the classic transcendentals, evangelicals are perfectly at home with Truth and the Good—with logic and action—but not with Beauty.

I am willing to grant that Wilson approaches art charitably—at least more charitably than most—but I am concerned about the way this column approaches Iron & Wine propositionally: he expects the music to teach something, and what it teaches is determinative for whether he can truly appreciate it. Perhaps I am being uncharitable to Wilson, but I am only trying to take him at his word. Instead of him saying, “I couldn’t join in, but I won’t stop listening,” I would rather have seen him say, “I joined in the applause, acknowledging Beam’s great talent and important voice within the world of contemporary art. And I will continue to listen, while engaging in thoughtful, charitable dialogue about his music.” Something more along those lines would have set a better example for evangelicals.

We need Christians who will listen, not only to the words on the page but also to the artists and the themes implicit in their works of art. In “Jezebel,” one might explore the way Christians throughout history have often sought to silence women or paint them in negative terms. Perhaps this is an issue relevant to Beam. But this may be going too far. Beam is a storyteller, and like the Decemberists, he tells stories in which he is not always the subject of the “I” in the song. I think it’s quite plausible that “Jezebel” is written from the perspective of an anonymous protagonist, someone who is in love with a woman whom he has lost to the “dogs.” Love is often described in terms of worship, and Beam might be playing off that idea—combining it with the figure of Jezebel to distinguish his song from the cliché.

The point is, we need to listen charitably and engage with an open mind, and not simply pass judgment. We need evangelicals who can empathize with and appreciate artists who do not share their same theological commitments. In short, we need evangelicals who are comfortable in the gray beyond the black and white.

Review: R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth

R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), ix + 246pp. $99.95

In his Jena diary, Hegel writes: “In Swabia people say of something that took place long ago that it is so long since it happened that it can hardly be true any more. So Christ died for our sins so long ago that it can hardly be true any more.” It is precisely this problem—the distance between Christ and us, between the “there and then” and the “here and now”—which Karl Barth addresses in his doctrine of the resurrection, according to Dale Dawson’s fine analysis. Dawson argues that the resurrection is not only the “pivot point of Barth’s theological discourse” (7), but also an inexhaustibly rich doctrine which answers the problem of Lessing’s great ugly ditch. The resurrection ensures that Christ is not trapped within his pre-Easter history but is fully present to people of all times.

Read my full review online at the Center for Barth Studies.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

2008 Karl Barth Blog Conference Index

The second annual 2008 Karl Barth Blog Conference has now finished. My thanks to Travis for holding another excellent theo-blogging event. The contributions were very stimulating, ranging from discussions of divine suffering to vestigia trinitatis to issues in methodology. Here is an index of all the posts in this year’s Barth Blog Conference:
Next year’s conference will examine Barth’s Römerbrief and his exegesis of Romans 1 with respect to natural theology.

Funniest opening line for a movie review

“There are good movies. There are bad movies. There are movies so bad they’re good (though, strangely, not the reverse). And once in a while there is a movie so bad that it takes you to a place beyond good and evil and abandons you there, shivering and alone.”

Dana Stevens, on The Love Guru (H/T Alan Jacobs)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann

NB: This essay was originally published in a smaller form as part of the 2008 Karl Barth Blog Conference. The conference focused on Eberhard Jüngel’s monograph on Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s Being Is in Becoming. In my contribution, I seek to explore Jüngel’s radical thesis that Barth and Bultmann are striving toward the same idea: that God, as an historical event, is God for us. Sergi Avilés, researcher in chief in philosophy and theology at Centre Borja, wrote a response to my essay.

Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann: Jüngel’s Gottes Sein ist im Werden as an Attempt toward a Rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf

1. The Mythology

The debate between Barth and Bultmann has long since passed into the realm of myth. Today, we all too often hear caricatures of each position: Barth was a theologian of the Word of God, while Bultmann was a theologian of humanity’s word; Barth upheld the objectivity and realism of Jesus Christ, while Bultmann collapsed everything into subjectivity and existentialism; Barth was captive only to God’s Word, while Bultmann was captive to Enlightenment rationalism and the idols of modernity. All too often, we are spoon-fed these fictitious figures in theology, though it is certainly Bultmann who receives the most abuse. He is the punching bag of conservatives everywhere for his project of demythologization, and specifically for his statements about the resurrection. Today, most people associate the name of Bultmann with a negative view about the resurrection, a negative view of the Bible, and a positive view of modern technology (i.e., the famous quote about the light bulb). We are thus led to echo Eberhard Jüngel’s question: “Why then are the most questionable interpretations of Bultmann preferred to an interpretation of Bultmann in good part (in bonam partem)?” (41).

While a much more complete analysis would need to look at the historical context for this debate in detail, here I only wish to sketch each theologian’s positions while reflecting on the way Jüngel mediates between the two sides in his seminal work, Gottes Sein ist im Werden (ET God’s Being Is in Becoming).1 My analysis will begin by briefly surveying the theological debate in Germany which precipitated Jüngel’s response. Then I will parse out Jüngel’s radical suggestion that “Barth accorded to his doctrine of the Trinity (1932) the same function which the programme of demythologising performs in the theology of Rudolf Bultmann” (34). I will conclude by arguing that this debate continues to have great significance for us today.

2. Braun and Gollwitzer

Jüngel sets his work in the context of a debate between Helmut Gollwitzer and Herbert Braun. Gollwitzer, who died in 1993, completed a doctorate under Barth in 1937 and was a highly regarded Barthian dogmatician. He was active in the Confessing Church, was a medic during World War II, and became a POW in the Soviet Union between 1945-49. He was also a Christian socialist and an outspoken critic of both capitalism and the Vietnam War. Braun, on the other hand, was a New Testament scholar, particularly on Qumran and the relation between the NT and its Jewish-Hellenistic context. He was influenced by Luther, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and falls within the broadly “existentialist” vein of NT interpretation. Hendrikus Boers notes that Bultmann commended Braun in 1960 “for consistently carrying through the intention of an anthropological, i.e., existentialist, interpretation of the New Testament.”2

The debate between Gollwitzer and Braun in the 1960s concerned the nature of God-talk. According to Jüngel, this is a later form of the same debate between Barth and Bultmann. Bultmann’s position is aptly summarized in the title of his 1925 essay, “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” (Faith and Understanding, 53-65).3 His focus is on the nature of human speech about God. Barth’s position focuses, rather, on the nature of the God about whom we must speak. As Jüngel puts it: “for Bultmann, speech about God is the proper topic for investigation, whereas for Barth, the question concerns God’s being” (2). Labeling the former theological tendency “existentialist” and the latter “dogmatic” is not inaccurate, but neither is it helpful, insofar as it gives the impression that the two sides are incompatible.

Jüngel spends the majority of the time in the introduction to this book criticizing Gollwitzer, and one might accurately call God’s Being Is in Becoming the response to Gollwitzer’s book, The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (ET 1965). The fundamental criticism that Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-Godself” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way:
Gollwitzer stresses that the mode of being of revelation . . . has its ground “not in the essence of God but in his will,” so that it is “not possible per analogiam to argue back from it to the essence of God in the sense of how God is constituted, but only to the essence of his will, i.e., from his will as made known in history to his eternal will as the will of his free love.” (5)
Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—“leav[ing] a gap in a metaphysical background to the being of God which is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (6). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will,” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will, he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.

While Jüngel sets up the Gollwitzer-Braun debate as a later form of the Barth-Bultmann debate, the rest of the work proceeds to argue that Barth’s own theology (1) rejects the split between essence and will found in Gollwitzer’s polemic against Braun and, consequently, (2) is far more in agreement with Bultmann than most theologians recognize. I will focus the rest of my attention in this essay on explicating the second part of Jüngel’s argument.

3. Demythologizing the Divide

According to Jüngel, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity performs “the same function” in theology that Bultmann intended his program of demythologization to perform (34). In saying this, Jüngel does not mean to suggest that there are no lasting differences between Barth and Bultmann, only that the differences cannot be understood properly apart from the important similarities between them. Their seemingly contradictory approaches stem from the same basic intention: to ensure that our talk about God is truly talk about God. I will first look at Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and then examine Bultmann’s program of demythologization as Jüngel interprets each.

3.1. Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity

As Jüngel understands it, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “concerns the being of the God who reveals himself” (36). The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to understand the God we encounter in revelation. In the event of God’s self-revelation, we encounter the Son, Jesus Christ, and through him the Father, and with him the Holy Spirit. God’s self-revelation is therefore a revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While revelation is an event that occurs in the economy of grace, i.e., in relation to human persons, the triune modes of being are not confined to the economy. What we encounter in God’s movement ad extra is the selfsame God who exists through all eternity. Revelation is, in other words, “God’s self-interpretation” (27).
[A]s the self-interpretation of God, revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of revelation and thus the interpretation of the being of God which is made possible by revelation as God’s self-interpretation. (ibid.)
In the event of God’s self-revelation, we discover that God is a being of unity-in-distinction, who exists as “the revealer, the revelation, and the revealedness” (28; CD I/1, 299). That is, in the event of revelation, we have to do with the very being of God. God’s eternal being is a being-for-revelation, a being-for-us. God encounters us in Word and Spirit, not as some secondary form of God, but as the eternal triune God in the unity of essence and existence, content and form, nature and will, being and act. The doctrine of the Trinity prevents the triune reality of revelation from becoming, as Barth says, “an economy which is foreign to his essence” (35; CD I/1, 382). Jüngel summarizes the implications of Barth’s doctrine well: “If revelation is God’s self-interpretation, then in revelation God interprets himself as the one who he is. . . . Therefore the dogma of the Trinity is the appropriate expression for the being of God. It protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33).

Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity thus serves a “critical and polemical function” in theology, a function which Jüngel argues “has not been considered adequately” (34). First, Barth’s doctrine rejects subordinationism. The heresy of subordinationism distinguishes the Son and/or the Spirit from the Father, making the former subordinate in some sense to the latter. Barth rejects this view of the Trinity because it undermines the single subjectivity of God by introducing a creaturely distinction between a “more” and a “less” within the Godhead. By differentiating between God and God, between the true part of God and the lesser parts of God (or perhaps the greatest parts of creation), subordinationism objectifies God—i.e., it compromises God’s lordship and makes the Trinity an object “we can survey, grasp and master” (CD I/1, 381). Subordinationism turns the God who confronts us as Thou into an It; it replaces second-person address into third-person analysis. According to Barth, however, “the One who reveals Himself according to the witness of Scripture does not become an It or He, but remains Thou” (ibid.). Any alternative to the Trinity as a single subject who, in all three eternal modes of being, is the true God and Lord is an objectification of God which gives the human person control over the divine being. It turns God into a creature to be examined rather than the Lord to be worshiped.

Second, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity rejects modalism. The heresy of modalism states that the three modes of God ad extra are in fact “alien to God’s being as God” (CD I/1, 382). That is, there is a true God behind and above the three moments of Father, Son, and Spirit that we encounter in revelation. If subordinationism makes the Father the true God behind the Son and the Spirit, then modalism goes one better and posits a divine essence behind all three persons or modes of God’s triune existence in the economy of grace. Also, like subordinationism, modalism involves “an objectifying of God,” in which “the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God who does not exist” (ibid.). Modalism is a denial of the God who encounters us in revelation in an attempt to discover some abstract deity which is available for human persons to manipulate and control. Modalism and subordinationism are, therefore, both efforts to master God, to place God at one’s disposal, either by undermining God’s single subjectivity in revelation or by going behind God’s revelation altogether to uncover some abstract entity.

Against both subordinationism and modalism, Barth argues that the burden of the doctrine of the Trinity is to articulate how God is both “our God” and “our God,” that is, both Lord over all and God with us (ibid., 383). The heresies seek to ensure that God is with us, but only by denying God’s Lordship; however, this means that it is no longer God who is with us but instead merely ourselves. The doctrine of the Trinity states instead that
[God] can be our God because in all His modes of being He is equal to Himself, one and the same Lord. . . . And this Lord can be our God, He can meet us and unite Himself to us, because He is God in His three modes of being as Father, Son and Spirit, because creation, reconciliation and redemption, the whole being, speech and action in which He wills to be our God, have their basis and prototype in His own essence, in His own being as God. As Father, Son and Spirit God is, so to speak, ours in advance. (ibid.)
The doctrine of the Trinity states that God’s being-in-revelation (Deus ad extra) corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity (Deus ad intra). The God who is for us and with us in Jesus Christ is the true God from all eternity. For this reason, we can address God as “Thou.” God is truly a personal God who meets and confronts us. The person of Jesus Christ is not a secondary form of God or simply a mode confined to the economy, but is rather the eternal God incarnate. And this means that God “is both to be feared and also to be loved,” feared because God is truly God and loved because God is truly our God.

Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity precludes any objectification of God. His theology is set in polemical contrast to metaphysics and mythology, both of which are attempts to define God from a starting-point in anthropology. Against these modes of talk about God, Barth insists that we speak from a starting-point in revelation alone, always mindful that in revelation we encounter who God truly is from all eternity.

3.2. Bultmann’s Program of Demythologization

Jüngel argues that Bultmann’s program of demythologization plays a similar role in Bultmann’s theology as the doctrine of the Trinity does in Barth’s. Unlike Barth, Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics rather than on ontology; that is, he is concerned with how humans interpret and speak about revelation. This includes both the interpretation found within Scripture, as an authoritative form of human talk about God, and our interpretation of Scripture. Both forms of interpretation are existentialist in nature, meaning that we, like the biblical authors, talk about God from a particular anthropological perspective: Scripture talks about God from within the perspective of a “mythological world picture”; we talk about God as modern persons who are thoroughly, if often unconsciously, shaped by a scientific understanding of the cosmos.

All such talk, however, can easily reduce God into an immanent reality, an object within the limited sphere of our understanding. To the extent that one’s anthropological perspective “objectifies” God, such talk is mythological in nature. For this reason, Bultmann often clarifies the word “mythology” with the term “objectifying representations.” For him, mythology is an objectifying mode of discourse about the divine. This is precisely how Scripture often speaks about God, because of its pre-modern, pre-scientific understanding of the world. Though Scripture seeks to speak about the transcendent, it often ends up objectifying the divine because it is rooted in a particular anthropological situation. Scripture thus treats God like an immanent object, a being within the world as understood by those who talk about God.

According to Bultmann, in his 1941 essay on “New Testament and Mythology,” myth “talks about the power or the powers that we think we experience as the ground and limit of our world . . . within the circle of the familiar world, . . . within the circle of human life . . . Myth talks about the unworldly as worldly, the gods as human” (New Testament and Mythology, 9).4 To be clear, myth does not intend to speak in this way. Though it seeks to speak about the transcendent qua transcendent, myth speaks about the transcendent as immanent: “[myth’s] real intention to talk about a transcendent power to which both we and the world are subject is hampered and obscured by the objectifying character of its assertions” (ibid., 10). In an attempt to illuminate the divine, myth ends up illuminating the existential perspective of those who speak about the divine. In other words, “myth gives expression to a certain understanding of human existence” which is foreign to our own (ibid., 98). Any interpretation of mythology must, therefore, also be existential in nature. That is, the myth must be “translated” into our own contemporary context in order for the message to be rightly heard. Applied to Scripture, “the task, then, is also to interpret the dualistic mythology of the New Testament in existentialist terms” (ibid., 15). Despite its best intentions, Scripture speaks about God in thoroughly human terms, from a very particular existential perspective. Scripture must therefore be “translated” into our own anthropological situation for us to truly hear the kerygma. Hence, the need for a critical hermeneutics, i.e., a program of demythologization.

Contrary to a common misunderstanding, demythologization is not the elimination of mythology. This misunderstanding is itself understandable, given statements like the following: “We can only completely accept the mythical world picture or completely reject it” (ibid., 9). While Bultmann assumes that we already reject the mythical world picture represented in the biblical writings, he does not mean that demythologization is simply a process of excising such mythological ideas from the pages of Scripture. Bultmann explicitly rejects this as an old form of demythologization prominent during the nineteenth century, in which “with the elimination of the mythology the kerygma itself was also eliminated” (ibid., 11). If, back then, “the mythology of the New Testament was simply eliminated, the task today . . . is to interpret New Testament mythology” (ibid., 12). The goal of interpretation is to enable us to hear the kerygma for what it actually is:
Demythologizing seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent, unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. Thus, negatively, demythologizing is criticism of the mythical world picture insofar as it conceals the real intention of myth. Positively, demythologizing is existentialist interpretation, in that it seeks to make clear the intention of myth to talk about human existence. (ibid., 99)
Despite its negative appearance, demythologization, as Bultmann defines it, is primarily a positive attempt to interpret Scripture for the sake of hearing the kerygma as modern persons. In other words, demythologization seeks to let the transcendent remain transcendent—i.e., to let God remain God—for those who no longer accept a “mythological world picture.” A common criticism of Bultmann is that he reduces theology to anthropology and makes the transcendent into the immanent. But this is precisely what he seeks to overcome. The program of demythologization does not reduce God to us, but interprets Scripture so that we, as modern persons, know that God is indeed for us.

3.3. Barth and Bultmann: Friends or Foes?

The theological “friendship” between Barth and Bultmann becomes clear when we see that both the doctrine of the Trinity and the program of demythologization intend, to use Barth’s terminology, to show that God is both “our God” and “our God.” In order to ensure that we are indeed speaking about God, each position is set in polemical opposition to both mythology and metaphysics, because both objectify God—they turn God into an object under our control. As Jüngel says, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33). The same can be said of Bultmann’s demythologization. In a 1952 essay, Bultmann further defines myth in a way that demonstrates the affinity between mythology and metaphysics:
[M]yth talks about this transcendent reality and power inadequately when it represents the transcendent as spatially distant, as heaven above the earth, or as hell beneath it. It talks about the transcendent powers inadequately when it represents them as analogous to immanent powers and as superior to these powers only in force and unpredictability. . . . Myth talks about gods as human beings, and about their actions as human actions . . . Myth thus makes the gods (or God) into human beings with superior power, and it does this even when it speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, because it does not distinguish these qualitatively from human power and knowledge but only quantitatively. (NTM, 98-99)
According to Bultmann, myth speaks about God as quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct. God becomes a human being “with superior power,” not a truly transcendent being. This kind of quantitative distinction between God and humanity constitutes the nature of metaphysics. In the three classical modes of metaphysical thinking, one talks about God by first talking about something else, namely, humanity: in via causalitatis, one begins with a creaturely reality and then posits a supernatural cause (God as first cause or unmoved mover); in via negativa, one begins with a human attribute and then negates it (God is infinite or immortal); in via eminentiae, one begins with a human attribute and then raises it to the level of infinite perfection (God as omnipotent or omniscient). In each case, the attribute ascribed to God remains part of the creaturely realm. One cannot truly speak about God by first speaking about creatures. On this point, both Bultmann and Barth agree as dialectical theologians who understand God first and foremost as the Wholly Other. And each person’s contribution is thus set in opposition to such mythological-metaphysical thinking.

What, then, is the abiding difference between these two theologians? We can begin by first identifying the points of agreement: (1) both theologians intend to speak about God as our God, as one who is both Wholly Other and wholly pro nobis; (2) both theologians reject mythology and metaphysics as improper modes for thinking about God and set their own theologies in opposition to them; and (3) both theologians seek to let us hear the kerygma, the Word of God, anew in our contemporary context. In other words, neither theologian divorces the objective from the subjective: Barth does not speak about the theological at the expense of the anthropological, nor does Bultmann speak about the anthropological at the expense of the theological. Barth intends, via his doctrine of the Trinity, to articulate how the relation between God and humanity in revelation is grounded in the eternal being of God. Bultmann intends, via his program of demythologization, to articulate how the relation between God and humanity in revelation is not merely a mythological relationship but is grounded in the kerygma. Both theologians, in other words, ground theology and anthropology in the event of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the mythological division between the two outlined at the start of this paper proves to be vacuous. As Jüngel states, “The difference between the theology of Karl Barth and that of Rudolf Bultmann is therefore not grounded in the fact that Barth’s theological statements leave out of account the anthropological relation given in revelation, whereas Bultmann, by contrast, dissolves theological statements into anthropological statements. Such descriptions label the theology of both theologians superficially and so fail to understand them at all” (73).

But a difference remains. In what follows, I will parse Jüngel’s understanding of the difference before offering some comments on whether there remains room for a greater “friendship” between these two theologians. Jüngel begins by stating:
The difference [can] be seen in the fact that Barth believes that a distinction must be made between God’s being-as-object in his revelation as “secondary objectivity” and a “primary objectivity” in the innertrinitarian being of God which makes possible this “secondary objectivity,” whereas Bultmann holds that the question of the possibility of revelation (which is grounded in God) is forbidden. (ibid.)
Jüngel is correct to notice a sharp difference here regarding the Trinity. For Barth, the question of divine ontology is necessary on the basis of revelation. For Bultmann, divine ontology is always an objectification of God. Two quotes are important for Bultmann: from Melanchthon, “To know Christ is to know his benefits, not to contemplate his natures and the mode of his incarnation”; and, from Wilhelm Herrmann, “We cannot say of God how he is in himself but only what he does to us” (NTM, 99). According to Bultmann, “we cannot talk about God or what transcends the world as it is ‘in itself,’ because in doing so we would objectify God or the transcendent into an immanent, worldly phenomenon” (ibid.). His basic point is that we only know God as God relates to us, as God encounters us in revelation. We only know God for us. To speak about God-in-and-for-Godself, as divinity in the abstract apart from revelation, is to return to “objectifying representations.” Why? Because if God truly transcends all human speech about God, then talk about God in se is inevitably talk about humanity—i.e., it is inevitably metaphysics, and thus mythology. While Barth is also opposed to ontology as the pursuit of a system of being within which one may include God (76), he is nevertheless convinced that we must do the work of theological ontology when revelation demands it. Bultmann, however, remains convinced that all divine ontology is finally mythology, in the sense that such ontology requires metaphysics to get it up and running (at least he understands it).5 We can see how the Braun-Gollwitzer debate is at heart a continuation of this basic distinction.

This difference might seem to be the end of the story, but it isn’t. In fact, the difference may actually be located somewhere else entirely. Jüngel goes on to complicate and illuminate the distinction between these two thinkers, and here I quote him at great length:
In order to reach agreement, it is necessary to perceive that in asking about the possibility of revelation, Barth does not seek to reach behind revelation by transcendental questioning, but rather sees himself induced to make his inquiry on the ground of revelation. But then he cannot leave out of account the fact that all further theological statements are anthropologically relevant. Nevertheless, for Barth, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is not the criterion of their truth. The criterion of the truth of theological statements is, for Barth, given in the fact that in all theological statements the freedom of the subject of the revelation remains safeguarded. Conversely, for Bultmann, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is the criterion of their truth because, for him, revelation is always an eschatological occurrence which as such becomes an event in an historical (historisch) “that.” It is a matter of the “paradoxical identity” in which an historical (historisch) “that” becomes historically (geschichtlich) meaningful as eschatological event. Bultmann insists on the “est” of this paradoxical identity, whereas for Barth, in accordance with the distinction between God’s “primary” and “secondary objectivity,” God himself has actually come into the picture, but “only” in his work which points to him as a sign. For Barth, even Jesus’ humanity is in this sense a “sacramental reality,” a parable. What finally separates Barth from Bultmann is the same reservation which Barth also has towards Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper: God’s presence in the parable of sacramental reality must not lead to an equation between God and our reality, if God is not to be objectified. The intention which bound Barth and Bultmann together in their common beginnings has thus remained unchanged in both. On the other hand, the ways of thinking which led both theologians to move away from each other are fundamentally distinct. The problem of the relation of Barth’s theology to that of Bultmann can only be set out with systematic adequacy through a contrast between “analogy” and “paradoxical identity.” (73-74)
This analysis—remarkable for its brevity and depth of insight—has much to commend it. Jüngel’s suggestion that the divide between Barth and Bultmann can be understood as a divide between the concepts of “analogy” and “paradoxical identity” or between a Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is one that remains almost entirely unexplored, and unfortunately I won’t be able to comment on it at any length in the present discussion. What concerns me here is the distinction that Jüngel articulates between the two criteria for evaluating the truth of theological statements. According to Jüngel, Barth’s criterion is the freedom of God, while Bultmann’s criterion is the anthropological relevance, i.e., its relation to us in the present-tense. Bultmann’s interest in the kerygma’s existential relevance leads him to posit a “paradoxical identity” between the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth and the eschatological kingdom of God. Barth’s interest in the freedom of God, by contrast, leads him to posit an analogical relationship between historical-creaturely reality and the reality of God. Analogy is here understood in the classical sense of “a still greater difference in the midst of such great similarity,” to use Jüngel’s definition from God as the Mystery of the World.

Both Bultmann and Barth are dialectical theologians who understand God as the Wholly Other, but Bultmann interprets the event of revelation as the primary reality of God, whereas Barth—on this point, closer to Gollwitzer—interprets the event of revelation as the secondary reality of God. As Jüngel rightly points out, this does not mean that God’s “primary objectivity” is somehow abstracted from revelation. On the contrary, Jüngel points out that Barth’s entire dogmatics is a “thorough exegesis” of the axiom that “God corresponds to himself” (36). God’s being-in-revelation corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity. Revelation is therefore God’s self-interpretation.

Jüngel’s analysis of Barth and Bultmann, however brilliant, does not quite go far enough. In the final, more constructive section of the book, Jüngel discusses Barth in relation to Gollwitzer. Here he presents some thoughts regarding God’s being-in-becoming which might help to bridge the differences between Barth and Bultmann outlined earlier in the book. Jüngel queries the logic in Gollwitzer’s attempt to affirm both that “God is in and for himself” and that “God is for us” (104-07). He discovers that Gollwitzer’s position falls apart, in that he has maintained a classical substance ontology for God ad intra while attempting to join this with a relational ontology of event for God ad extra. There is, therefore, an ontological split between the economic and immanent Trinity in Gollwitzer’s doctrine of the Trinity. This is precisely what Barth seeks to overcome.

Against Gollwitzer, and following the insights of Barth’s mature doctrine of reconciliation, Jüngel proposes that we think of God “in a thoroughly historical way” (107), so that God’s freedom is a freedom for revelation and reconciliation. On the basis of the event of revelation, “God’s being is originally event” (ibid.). Since this event is an historical event, God’s being is “historical being” (109). According to Jüngel, “we must in any event formulate God’s historicality” (ibid.), and this involves thinking ontologically about God on the sole basis of the historical event of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, insofar as we think about God on the basis of God’s self-reiteration and self-interpretation in revelation, God’s being is “not only able to bear historical predicates (despite their unsuitability) but also requires them” (110). God is “historical being,” because God’s being is grounded in and defined by the concrete event of revelation. This does not mean that God is constituted by the other with whom God enters into covenant fellowship. But it does mean that God from all eternity is constituted for the sake of the Christ event. God simply is an historical event. God is eternally historical in that God has eternally elected this man Jesus and thus made space within God’s being for this particular historical predicate. The Logos, as Barth says, is the “stop-gap” for Jesus (113). In saying this, Barth has removed every last vestige of metaphysics, so that, unlike Gollwitzer, there is no separation between essence and existence in the being of God.

The triune being of God thus has a double relationality: God enters into relation with another because God’s being “is a being related to itself” (114). This most certainly does not mean that God ad intra is “in and for Godself” while God ad extra is “for us.” On the contrary, both aspects of God’s being are pro nobis, the one in actuality (ad extra) and the other by way of anticipation (ad intra). And so, as Jüngel says, the doctrine of the Trinity “understands God’s self-relatedness in his modes of being, not as a kind of divine ontological egoism, but rather as the power of God’s being to become the God of another” (ibid.). In other words, both aspects of God’s relationality are in becoming; both are aspects of God as historical event. “God’s being cannot be considered in abstraction from the becoming proper to his being, just as, conversely, this becoming cannot be understood either as a ‘contingent illustration’ of the divine being or as something different from the divine being” (115). Jüngel follows this comment by remarking, almost in passing, that in this affirmation and the corresponding rejection of a phenomenology of the divine being, “Bultmann may stand nearer to Barth than to any philosopher” (ibid.).

I want to suggest that Bultmann and Barth—at least the later Barth—indeed stand together. They may not sing the same melody, but they at least sing in harmonious counterpoint. While it does not become immediately clear in Jüngel’s fine treatment of Barth’s theology, the basis for a rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf can be found in this short monograph—a reunion that is only strengthened by Jüngel’s later work, God as the Mystery of the World. The important concept in that work, which is crucial to this debate, is the notion of the “humanity of God,” an idea that Barth himself only takes up late in his career, most notably in the lecture from 1956. There he says the following, in criticism of his own earlier theology:
[I]t was pre-eminently the image and concept of a “wholly other” that fascinated us and which we, though not without examination, had dared to identify with the deity of Him who in the Bible is called Yahweh-Kyrios. We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . We did not believe nor intend any such thing. But did it not appear to escape us by quite a distance that the deity of the living God—and we certainly wanted to deal with Him—found its meaning and its power only in the context of His history and of His dialogue with man, and thus in His togetherness with man? Indeed—and this is the point back of which we cannot go—it is a matter of God’s sovereign togetherness with man, a togetherness grounded in Him and determined, delimited, and ordered through Him alone. . . . Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner. He who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which He does that is His deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity. (The Humanity of God, 44-46)6
According to Barth, “there may be godless humanity, but there is no God without humanity,” no “humanless God,” so to speak (137). To say God is also to say humanity, because the being of God includes the being of humanity as that which God elects from all eternity in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no God behind or before the God who exists as the covenant partner of humanity. As a result, God is most truly God when God becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth, and God is most truly divine when God goes into the far country and dies for the sake of humankind. As Jüngel would say, God’s being is located in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In short, God’s deity includes humanity, and God’s freedom is the freedom to be human.

Barth’s doctrine of the humanity of God offers the basis for a rapprochement with Bultmann. The earlier division between the criteria of God’s freedom and anthropological relevance is now so heavily qualified as to be almost nonexistent. God’s freedom is the freedom to be anthropologically relevant, not only in Jesus himself but in the ongoing proclamation of the gospel as an event of the Word of God. Bultmann’s “paradoxical identity” of the human Jesus with God is no longer an objectification of God, because this humanity is itself constitutive of what it means to be God. The deity of God includes this—and therefore all—humanity. If God is by nature an historical event, then human history is not located only in God’s “secondary objectivity.” The humanity of God is not found “‘only’ in his work which points to him as a sign,” as Jüngel says (74). God’s eternal being includes and can therefore be identified with the historical event of Jesus. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary objectivity, prominent in Barth’s doctrine of God, fades from view in his later doctrine of reconciliation. The point is that “God [can] not be conceived as God without humanity; conversely, God . . . always [has] to be brought to speech with the concept of humanity” (105). It is this idea “that Gollwitzer wants to prevent” (ibid.), but it is precisely here that Barth and Bultmann finally stand together in unison. The door to both mythology and metaphysics remains closed for both, so that, as Schubert Ogden states, “the only man and God we know anything about are, in the words of Emil Brunner, a ‘man-who-comes-from-God’ and a ‘God-who-is-turned-toward-man’” (Christ without Myth, 153).7 There can be no talk of “God’s being in and for itself” if this means God apart from or without humanity. Similarly, as Barth says, “we do not have to reckon with any Son of God in Himself, with any logos asarkos, with any other Word of God than that which was made flesh” (CD IV/1, 52).8 On the contrary, there is only “God for us,” the God who elects to live together with humanity, the God who is an historical event, the God who becomes human—the God whose being is truly in becoming.

4. Conclusion: The Debate between Barth and Bultmann and Its Contemporary Significance

The debate between Barth and Bultmann continues. The attempt here to argue that Jüngel’s analysis offers substantial grounds for a rapprochement between the two theologians does not mean there are not still serious disagreements. I am suggesting, however, that the mythology surrounding their divide has more to do with form than content: Barth is primarily a dogmatician, while Bultmann is primarily a biblical exegete; Barth focuses on theological ontology, while Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics; Barth rejects the view that Scripture is mythological, while Bultmann assumes this, based on rather different definitions of “myth.” Moreover, each theologian is inconsistent at times and, like all polemical thinkers, tends toward one side more than the other. So Barth often uses language that sounds like God has an abstract divine freedom rooted in a doctrine of God’s being in-and-for-itself, while Bultmann sometimes collapses theology into anthropology, even saying that Paul’s theology “is most appropriately presented as the doctrine of man,” when his position logically supports calling Paul’s theology a doctrine of God, as Ogden rightly notes (Christ without Myth, 148). The point is not that these two theologians always speak harmoniously but that the substance of their mature positions need not be viewed as contradictory. I argue, in fact, that Barth and Bultmann are essentially in agreement about the fundamental nature of the gospel message and what it means for God and humanity, even if they approach it from different angles and for different purposes.9

Just as important as the original debate—and its later instantiation in the conflict between Braun and Gollwitzer—is the ongoing significance of this historical dispute. Demythologizing the divide between Barth and Bultmann is not enough. We must continue to “think after” God’s self-revelation today in the context of contemporary arguments in which the being of God is at stake. The objectification of God remains a constant danger. Currently, we are witnessing a third phase in the dispute between (the early) Barth and Bultmann, this time between Bruce McCormack and those who disagree with his position on the logical relation between election and the Trinity in the now infamous essay, “Grace and Being.” The same basic issues are being addressed, viz. the nature of divine freedom and the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity. The main difference is that the existentialism of Bultmann and Braun is not explicitly a part of the discussion, though it certainly lurks in the background. I will make no claims here about what the original debate means for this current dialogue about the doctrine of the Trinity, except to suggest that moving forward will require that we first look to the past. These debates are by no means new, and it behooves us to familiarize ourselves with those who have gone before us.

David W. Congdon
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ


1. All citations will be taken from Webster’s English translation unless otherwise noted.

2. Hendrikus Boers, “Herbert Braun’s Quest for What is Essentially Christian,” JAAR 35, no. 4 (1967), 351.

3. Rudolf Bultmann, Faith and Understanding, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith (London: SCM Press, 1969).

4. Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); hereafter cited as NTM.

5. While I stated at the beginning that Gollwitzer also avoids ontology, he does so in order to preserve divine freedom. He avoids speaking about God’s being on the basis of revelation in order to preserve a divine being apart from revelation. Against Barth, he separates God’s essence and will, confining revelation to the latter; against Bultmann, he continues to speak about God’s essence in the abstract, behind and apart from the event of revelation. Gollwitzer speaks about God without us, the God who is free to not be for us but only for Godself. Barth and Bultmann are united in rejecting this position, as Jüngel shows, but while Barth does speak about the divine being in the event of revelation, Bultmann refrains from such talk, focusing only on the hermeneutical question, not the ontological one.

6. Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960).

7. Schubert M. Ogden, Christ without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper, 1961).

8. After citing this quote from Barth, Jüngel then quotes a lengthy passage from Hermann Cremer, in which he states: “Each distinction of this kind [i.e., between ‘ontological’ and ‘economic,’ ‘self-relation’ and ‘relation to the world’]—even of only a conceptual distinction—contains not merely no advancement or deepening of our knowledge of God, but works rather to the detriment of it, in that it then becomes almost impossible to hold fast to the fact that it is the essence—and, indeed, the whole essence—of God which in its revelation offers itself to us, and thereby opens itself to us. When God gives himself completely to us, and thereby becomes known by us, as he who is and will be completely for us, then there is nothing more beyond his revelation, even if eternity will not be long enough to exhaust everything that he is for us. But if in his actions he is everything which he actually is for us in his revelation, then he possesses no other attributes at all—neither ontological nor economic—than those which we perceive in his revelation” (120; quoted from Die christliche Lehre von den Eigenschaften Gottes, 19f.).

9. A monograph version of this essay would have to explore the relationship of Barth and Bultmann to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. I would make the case that in order to fully understand this debate, one has to first understand Heidegger (not to mention Hegel). Ogden says that if “one is to understand Bultmann’s work, he must first understand Heidegger’s existential analysis” (Christ without Myth, 46). While true, I suggest that something similar holds for Barth. Not many people still know that Heidegger went through a shift in his understanding of metaphysics in the mid- to late-1930s. The shift involved moving from a modified metaphysics to an anti-metaphysical position, to the “overcoming” of “the onto-theo-logical nature of metaphysics.” Whereas metaphysics is the objectifying attempt of Dasein to “ground itself” in a supreme substance, Heidegger comes to realize that being is not a static essence but a dynamic “happening.” In other words, being is in act. Being is an “arriving,” a “taking place.” As James M. Robinson states, “The ‘being of beings’ is formulated ‘the arriving of what arrives.’ . . . The essence of being and the truth of being tend to converge in Heidegger’s focal understanding of being as an event of unveiling or revealing. . . . ‘Being’ is not a fixed concept, but an occurrence that happens to us, something that dawns on us.” There is a substantial similarity between the philosophy of the later Heidegger and the theology of the later Barth. In fact, Heinrich Ott argues that the later Heidegger is more in line with Barth than with Bultmann, who represents the earlier Heidegger. Many of Bultmann’s pupils, including Jüngel, have questioned this thesis, but the suggestion is an interesting one. In any case, the historical development of Heidegger’s thought, and the differing reactions to Heidegger by both Barth and Bultmann, need to be investigated in order to properly understand this debate over metaphysics, mythology, and the doctrine of the Trinity. For more on this, see James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr., eds, New Frontiers in Theology, Vol. 1: The Later Heidegger and Theology (New York: Harper, 1963).

Jesus the communist

From David Cay Johnston’s interview with Whoopi Goldberg on WOW:
“Well, listen, you want to meet a real Communist, go read the New Testament where, you know, Jesus set a standard. If you want to enter the Kingdom of God, go and give all that thou hast.”

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“No longer any hope for a unified Communion”

One of the saddest stories I have seen in awhile was just published in the New York Times: “Conservative Anglicans Hold Rival Conference.” This “alternative” to the Lambeth Conference, the Global Anglican Future Conference (or GAFCON), is currently being held in Jerusalem in stark opposition to the pro-homosexual leaders in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. In conjunction with the conference, these conservative Anglican leaders have produced a “manifesto,” entitled The Way, the Truth, and the Life: Theological Resources for a Pilgrimage to a Global Anglican Future, which expresses the reason for the new council. In this document, the leaders of GAFCON state:
There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified Communion. The intransigence of those who reject Biblical authority continues to obstruct our mission, and it now seems that the Communion is being forced to choose between following their innovations or continuing on the path that the Church has followed since the time of the Apostles. We have made enormous efforts since 1997 in seeking to avoid this crisis, but without success. Now we confront a moment of decision. If we fail to act, we risk leading millions of people away from the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures and also, even more seriously, we face the real possibility of denying our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It seems clear that these leaders are clearing the ground for an alternative Anglican church. The split is all but complete. The question now is: which churches in the U.S. will follow suit? And what happens to the worldwide Anglican Communion? Truly, a sad day.