Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Barth I.1 §8.1-2

In these sections Barth begins to discuss his doctrine of revelation, and jumps immediately into the doctrine of the trinity.  For Barth, the doctrine of the trinity is an essential part of any theology.

For Barth, the essential and most important question in theology is: who is God?  Yet for Barth, this question cannot be answered apart from two other questions, namely: what does God do? and what is the effect?  It is in these three questions and their answers that Barth finds the doctrine of the trinity.  Namely, God is the Revealer, Revelation itself, and the Revealing. 

Now, Barth is careful to say that the trinity is not strictly biblical, by which he means we find no explicit doctrine of the trinity in the Bible.  He does believe that the Bible prefigures the trinity, but does not develop this.  But he does say that the biblical attestation to revelation is the "root" of the trinity.  That is, for Barth, what the Bible says about revelation necessitates the doctrine of the trinity. Therefore, the doctrine of the trinity is church work, it is exegesis, it is analysis of what one finds in the biblical attestation to revelation.

Then Barth goes on to develop his doctrine of revelation.  He uses the following definition: "Revelation in the Bible means the self-unveiling, imparted to men, of the God who by nature cannot be unveiled to men." (CD I.1 §8.2 p. 315).  Barth then elaborates on this definition in three parts:

1) In the first part, Barth concentrates on the self-unveiling of God.  He does this by saying that God differentiates himself from himself, he takes a step toward the event of revelation.  As Barth writes:
"He himself must make a step towards this event; to the extent that this step obviously means something new in God, a self-distinction of God from himself, a being of God in a mode of being that is different from though not subordinate to his first and hidden mode of being as God, in a mode of being, of course, in which he can also exist for us." (CD I.1 §8.2 p. 316).
In this self-unveiling, God steps out of eternity into temporality in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is Revelation, is the self-unveiling of God.

2) In the second part Barth focuses on the last section of the definition, namely "the God who by nature cannot be unveiled to men."  Here Barth is emphasizing the hiddenness of God.  Even by taking temporal form, this form does not become the possession of humanity.  Even in concrete form, God is free to reveal or conceal as he wills. Even in this form, God always remains a mystery.  As Barth writes:
In it [temporal form] God cannot be grasped by man or confiscated or put to work... if this were so, the revelation in question would not be that of the God who by nature cannot be unveiled to man.  We should simply have one of those mysteries that one day unveil themselves to us and are mysteries no more.  The mysteries of the world are of such a kind that some day they can cease to be mysteries.  God is always a mystery." (CD I.1 §8.2 p. 321).
3) In part 3, Barth focuses on the middle term in the definition, "imparted to men." This term, for Barth, means that God's revelation is an historical event.  Yet, he does not label this "historical" as other historical events are "historical."  That is, this event cannot be grasped by humans.  It comes at specific times to specific people.  That is why Barth labels it as historical.  That revelation is historical means that it came to specific people at a specific time and place, and it cannot be repeated.

My mind is buzzing at this point and is too full, so I leave with one comment.

Barth moves very quickly to the doctrine of the trinity, almost as a presupposition of Christian dogmatics, without much argumentation or support, as if, given the text of the Bible, the doctrine of the trinity is a necessary and immediate consequence of reading the Bible.  Yet, Church history clearly puts that assertion to lie in the fact that Christians used many different formulations of the relationship of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the first four centuries of the church before formalizing the doctrine of the trinity in the fifth century.  Perhaps Barth will come back and argue and explain the trinity more fully later.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Rhetoric of Punctuation

Punctuation marks, those seemingly insignificant jots and tittles in our language, are often overlooked.  In usual discourse, we do not really need a period, or question mark to let us know what is going on in a sentence.  But, before you completely overlook them, take a gander at the following two letters.  Punctuation indeed can make all the difference in the world.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart.  I can be forever happy --will you let me be yours?



Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is .  All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless  and inferior. You have ruined me.  For other men, I yearn.  For you, I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we're apart, I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be?


(HT Roy Williams at Monday Morning Memo via my wife

Now, considering that Old and New Testament manuscripts did not have any punctuation at all, and that these have been added later by editors, are there places in the Bible that could carry different meanings if the punctuation marks are rearranged? 

This also made me think about the rhetorical task of delivery in the ancient world.  When we speak, we communicate punctuation through our tone of voice, pauses, etc.  Check out the following example of a teleprompter gag which also illustrates the importance of punctuation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Stories and Christians

This last week two profoundly successful authors visited Baylor and I was privileged enough to get to hear them speak.

On Tuesday night, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott spoke at Baylor amidst much controversy, well at least Lamott stirred controversy due to her views on abortion and assisted suicide.  Fortunately for you and me, I will not be commenting at all on these controversies, many others have done so ad nauseum. 

What I would like to comment on is the concept of Christians and storytelling.  Both Donald Miller and Ann Lamott are wonderful Christian storytellers.  They know how to use story to proclaim the gospel.  Though one would be hard pressed to find the narrowly-defined evangelical gospel in their stories, their stories preach the gospel nonetheless.

After their lecture, there was a screening of select clips from the upcoming movie about Donald Miller's first book Blue Like Jazz.  The movie is not a "Christian" movie. The director, Steve Taylor, did not intend the movie to be a "Christian movie," though both he and Miller are Christians and are in some way trying to proclaim the gospel.  Yet, their motivating force is story.  Tell a good story, and the gospel will come through.

At the screening, there was time for questions one in particular struck me.  One student asked how to pursue storytelling as a Christian.  Miller's response, as best as I remember it was twofold. 1) start with story, study story, find out what makes some stories work and others not work.  Start with story.  2) tell the truth: not the truth as you think it should be, not as Christian orthodoxy says it should be, but just tell the truth, speak reality, tell things as they really are, or really would be or could be.

I think Christian storytellers often get things backwards.  They start with message, then formulate a story around that message.  What is the result? Bad stories.  Instead, start with story, and if you have a message in you, it will come through the story.

Interestingly, the next day I was reading a blog by Dr. Kirk, and he was also discussing the importance of story for Christians and the fact that sometimes we are so concerned with message that we forget it is about story.  Here is an excerpt, but you should go read the whole thing.

The way that Winter explains Christianity’s failure in the entertainment industry parallels what I would say is its failure, overall, to understand itself. We have too often forgotten that our faith is a story. It’s not a statement.
We think that to tell about Jesus we have to give an atonement theory. The early Christians thought that to tell about Jesus they had to narrate his death: in Gospels, in a meal, in a baptismal ritual.
As Winter suggested, we should be the greatest story tellers of all. But before that will be true of us, we have to really start believing that the story’s the thing.
 So, I ask, are we concerned with the story, and are we concerned to tell the truth?  Do we try to tell the story as it is, or do we try to make our stories line up with some preconceived notion of what "Christian" stories should look like, some orthodoxy to the stories we tell, an orthodoxy that rarely plays out in our real stories? 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Barth I.1 §7.2-3

In these two sections, Barth discusses dogmatics as a science, and finally wraps up with a summary and a foreshadowing of the next section.

§7.3 is a short summary and looking ahead in which Barth summarizes his concept of the three forms of the Word of God, the Word of God proclaimed (preaching), the Word of God written (scripture), and the Word of God Revealed.  The task of dogmatics is to measure church proclamation by the criterion of dogmatics, i.e., the Word of God.  This will take place by testing church proclamation by scripture, which in turn points to the Word of God revealed, i.e., Jesus Christ.  Barth then prepares us for what is coming with an introduction to the importance of a doctrine of revelation, which will be the focus of §8. There is little new or surprising in §7.3, so I will leave off from that now and move to §7.2, which has much more fodder for discussion.

In §7.2 Barth reiterates his claim that dogmatics is a science.  Now, before I register my disagreement with this term, let me try to explain what I think Barth means.

Barth begins by discussing regular and irregular dogmatics.  Irregular dogmatics, according to Barth, makes up the majority of theology throughout Christian history.  There is nothing wrong with irregular dogmatics, and Barth says that he does not wish to disparage it (but he has given it the name "irregular" which in itself connotes some disparagement).  What I believe Barth means by irregular dogmatics is non-systematic dogmatics.  He refers to many theologians who engaged in irregular dogmatics, including, most notably, Martin Luther.  Irregular dogmatics is irregular in that it is thematic and incomplete, usually arising from a specific situation.  It does not seek to provide a complete discussion of the field of theology, but only bits and pieces as are needed at the time.  Irregular dogmatics usually takes the aphoristic style.

Regular dogmatics on the other hand seeks to be complete, academic, rigorous, and meant to be taught at a school.  Regular dogmatics is systematic in style, vs. the aphoristic nature of irregular dogmatics.   It is regular dogmatics that Barth claims to be pursuing in his Church dogmatics.  Regular dogmaticians of church history include the Reformation giants Melancthon and Calvin. 

Having dispensed with this topic, Barth begins to talk about why he would like to insist that dogmatics is a science.  In what way is dogmatics a science?  A few times Barth says that the "scientific nature of dogmatics lies in its special objectivity." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 278. Cf. p. 283). Now, the term objectivity is a red flag word for me, as I will explain below.  Yet, to be clear, what I think Barth means by this is that it is objective insofar as it is oriented to its object, that is, the Word of God.  The Word of God becomes the object of this enquiry.   For Barth follows up the previous quote (actually in the same sentence) as follows: "...special objectivity, namely, in its orientation to the question of dogma." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 278.)  Barth admits that due to education and culture, a person has certain "presuppositions."  Yet, according to Barth, these must submit to the Word of God, again he writes:
"Now it is obvious that everyone who works at dogmatics works more or less with specific intellectual presuppositions.  The only question is whether in addition to these he also knows the sign of the divine promise [i.e., Holy Scripture, in think?] which is set up in the Church and whether he is able and willing, in a way that admits no proof, to take this sign so seriously that in this context  its direction takes absolute precedence over all the directions he might owe to the humanities." (CD I.1 §7.2, p 283).
Therefore, for Barth, Scripture provides the objectivity, by overriding personal, educational, and cultural presuppositions.

Barth goes on to list three things that a dogmatics must do in order to be scientific.  1) it must be devoted to the problem of Church proclamation; 2) it must aim to serve Church proclamation by criticizing it and testing it by the Word of God; and 3) it must question the Church proclamation by its agreement (or non-agreement) with the Word of God. 

Now it is unintelligible to me how any of these three tasks of dogmatics make it scientific or not. 

Now to my disagreement with Barth.  I do not agree that dogmatics is a science.  What is the meaning of the word science and how should we use it?  I think science, at least as it has come to be used, has a very specific and limited meaning.  It refers to the very specific process of investigating phenomena through the scientific method.  This means coming up with a hypothesis, testing your hypothesis through a controlled experiment, eliminating variables, retesting the hypothesis again and again for verifiable results, and only after such a process, generating a theory.  Science is what happens in biology and chemistry, physics and genetics.  Theology on the other hand is not susceptible to the scientific method.  One cannot test and re-test the doctrine of the Word of God in a lab.

I think what Barth means by science, that is, a rational pursuit of knowledge of a given subject, is no longer a helpful way to refer to theology.  Now, as to the general usage of the word science in Barth's time, I am ignorant, but all I can say is that I do not think that it is helpful, or descriptively accurate to define dogmatics as a science in this day and age.

This moves me to my second point, and that is Barth's claim of "objectivity."  Is it possible for the Word of God, especially in the Bible, to overcome our "presuppositions"?  Can we become objective, can we escape our cultural, educational, and personal biases in order to become completely detached observers of any event, even the event of the Word of God?  I would say no.  One advance of the last half of the 20th century was the exploding of the myth of objectivity.  Nothing is objective. Nothing and no one can escape their point of view.  What little I understand about Einstein's theory of relativity seems to explode the myth of objectivity even within the confines of hard science.  We cannot escape our own perspective.  We cannot become purely objective. 

Take for instance, one of the most objective objects in the world, the camera.  A camera has no presuppositions, no education, it views the world as it is.  When a picture is taken, it takes in the light as it is.  Yet, even a camera cannot escape one thing, and that is the location from which it takes a picture, that is, its perspective.  Take for example the following picture.  From the perspective of this picture, this supposedly objective view of reality, it appears as if these four people are jumping out of this hat.  Now, I suppose that it is possible that this is the objective truth.  There could be a giant had in the desert with a trampoline inside providing us with this picture, but reality is likely the more simple explanation of forced perspective.  The camera is on the ground close to the hat, making it look big, while the four people are off in the distance behind the hat.  Even a camera cannot escape its point of view. 

Now, the exploding of the myth of objectivity does not mean that theology need not be rational or systematic.  But it does mean, that its conclusions must be modest, understanding that we all come from a unique perspective, and that unique perspective shapes how we see things.  More importantly, it makes it all the more important to try and understand our own perspective, our own views and context.  Knowing where you stand can help you understand what you are seeing.  If that camera knew that it were positioned on that ground close to the hat and that the people were off in the distance, it might not be tempted to think that there are people jumping out of a giant hat. 

Well this post has begun to ramble.  If you have made it to this point, I laud your patience.  I will leave it for now, but perhaps more musings soon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Barth I.1 §7.1

In this section, Barth tries to further define the problem of dogmatics.  He has been discussing the doctrine of the Word of God, and he does not cease to do so here, and that is because the Word of God is the criterion of dogmatics.

What, then, is dogmatics?  It is the measuring of church proclamation by the criterion of the Word of God.  That is, to what degree does church proclamation line up with the Word of God.

Barth continues with his primary sparring partners in this section, Roman Catholics and Modernists (liberal protestants).  Both, he claims, have replaced the true and proper criterion of dogmatics, i.e., the Word of God, with surrogates.  The Roman Catholic Church replaces this proper criterion with the teaching office of the church, and the Modernist with the "Christian Principle," (by which I believe Barth means the "point of contact" between humanity and the divine).  In the end, Barth claims that both the Roman Catholics and the Modernists fall into the same trap, they have domesticated the Word of God and are now left to fall on their own resources.  For Barth, it makes little difference whether the criterion of measuring church proclamation against the Word of God is the Pope or a liberal professor, the result is the same, namely human words that are not God's Words.

Hence, the need for a Word of God that has not become the property of the church.  A free Word of God that can stand over against the church, a Word that can not be grasped or manipulated by the church.  Enter the Bible.  In this section, Barth speaks most highly of the Bible, the necessity of the Bible, even the "absolute authority" (CD I.1 §7.1 p. 265) of the Bible.  Yet, one must not stumble here and assume that the Bible IS the Word of God, that the two can ever be simply equated.  The Bible is only a pointer, it points to the Word of God.

Barth sums up the discussion of the first half of this section nicely:
"the task of dogmatics is to deal with the problem of the equation of the Word of God and the word of man in its form as Church proclamation with a view to the confirmation of this equation, and it does this by measuring Church proclamation as man's word by the second form of the Word of God, i.e., Holy Scripture, in so far as this itself is in turn a witness to its third and original form, revelation." (CD I.1 § 7.1 p. 265).

Therefore, dogmatics measures how closely church proclamation points to the Bible, which in turn points to revelation, i.e., Jesus Christ.

In the second half of this section, Barth, in a sort of excursus, gives a treatment of the word dogma, especially in relation to his attack on the Roman Catholic system of dogmas.  For the Roman Catholic system, dogmas are doctrinal propositions that the church puts forward as "revealed truth."  Yet, Barth will have none of this.  The only revelation of God is his Word and all of the facets of that word that we have discussed.  It is, most fundamentally, God's revelation, i.e., Jesus Christ.  It is also from time to time found in the Bible and Church proclamation as God actually speaks through them in a specific event.  Yet, the Word of God is always a command requiring action on the part of the human.  This is where Barth finds no relation between doctrinal propositions and the Word of God (revealed truth).  The Catholic Dogmas (doctrinal propositions) are purposefully "neutral" truths, that is, they are not commands and do not require action.  They are meant to be objective statements of truth.  Yet, for Barth, they are so dissimilar to the actual event of the Word of God, that they cannot be considered "revealed truth." They are merely human words, not the Word of God.  While Barth specifically levels this attack against Roman Catholic dogmas, his attack would hold against all attempts to limit the Word of God to a set of doctrinal propositions.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Barth I.1 §6.4

In this section Barth tackles the relationship of the Word of God to faith.  What is faith?

Faith is a term that is constantly thrown about by heirs of the reformation.  It is a catch all term.  Sola Fides the modern evangelical cries, faith apart from works saves.  Yet, what is faith?

One of the primary motivations of the rise of the reformation was the medieval Catholic church's abuse of the practice of indulgences, that is the doling out of merit based upon certain spiritual practices.  Though this was certainly a complicated issue that had developed over centuries, it is easy to see why this system could be seen as salvation by works, and it is easy to see why Luther and his reformation counterparts were fervent proponents of salvation by faith alone. Yet, the modern evangelical conception of faith is far from that of Luther and the reformers. 

So, what is faith?  It is belief, trust.  It is the belief in Christ and his work to save humanity.  Yet, as viewed by many evangelicals what differentiates faith from a "work"?  Is faith not just the one, most important "work" that at person can perform, namely the "work" of believing. 

Take, for example, a common situation.  An evangelical preacher preaches a sermon, gives a call of response at the end of the service, and some people respond to that call by believing, and perhaps, some others refuse to believe.  In the modern evangelical mind, the ones that believed are "saved" and the ones that refused to believe are not "saved."  Yet, how is that belief different from a "work"?  Is it not a condition to be met for salvation?  Is it not an act on the part of the one believing that in a sense "earns" them salvation?  Not earn, in the sense of deserving, but merely by assenting to the message, have they not performed a "work" that has now gained them salvation?

Barth destroys even the possibility of viewing faith in this way.  That is because, for Barth, there is no human possibility of belief in the Word of God.  There is no "point of contact" between humanity and the divine that would make such a belief possible.  Rather, the Word of God creates this possibility in humans.  Therefore, it cannot be a work at all, for a work implies an act on the part of the human.  Yet, this is not even a possibility for Barth, it only becomes a possibility in the event in which the Word of God comes to humans.  It is pure gift, pure grace, no possibility from the human side to "believe," only the possibility of faith that Word of God creates as it comes.

Here I leave you with the money quote:
"He [the one who believes] has not created his own faith; the Word has created it.  He has not come to faith; faith has come to him through the Word.  As a believer he cannot see himself as the acting subject of the work done here." (CD I.1 §6.4 p. 244).
Interestingly, Barth is not creating something new here, nor is he just following Calvin, but rather, he is following Luther.  In this section, Barth does not quote Calvin once, but quotes Luther time and time again.  Barth, is very clearly in line with the reformation of Luther which was only subsequently fleshed out by Calvin. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Barth I.1 §6.3 You cannot own God's Word

Just in case you were wondering, after reading 200 pages of Barth's Church Dogmatics, whether God's Word remains free, just in case Barth has not been clear on this issue, he makes himself clear here. 

Barth has previously stated that the Word of God comes ubi et quando visum est Deo (where and when it pleases God).  He has torn down the notion that the Word of God can be contained in the Bible or in human preaching.  No human means, medium, or capacity can contain, hold, possess the Word of God.  Now, Barth comes to the most personal, and perhaps the most universal of all human phenomena: experience. 

Can we experience the Word of God.  Absolutely, Barth is unequivocal on this matter.  The knowability and possibility of experience of God's word is a presupposition of the church.  If we cannot know or experience God's Word, then what use is there of even speaking of God's Word, or of believing God's Word at all.  So, yes, we can experience God's word.  Yet, we cannot possess it, even in our experience. 

To make things clear, Barth refers to what he calls indirect Christian Cartesianism.  This is of course based on the french philosopher Renee Descartes.  Descartes wanted to find absolute certainty in life.  So, he began by doubting everything that he could possibly doubt.  In the end he doubted nearly everything, including his sense perceptions, for they could be the trick of some deceitful demon.  Yet, the one thing he could not doubt was that he was thinking about doubting everything.  The very fact that he was thinking was certainty in his own mind that he, in fact, existed.  Hence, "I think therefore I am." 

Barth has previously denounced direct Christian Cartesianism, railing against Schleiermacher and his heirs in their insistence on a capacity in humanity for divine relationship, that is, something in humans which allow them to commune with God.  Now, Barth will dismiss "indirect" Cartesianism, which means that God imparts to humans this capacity, but then, once imparted, that capacity for human-divine communion passes from God to the man or woman as his or her possession.  Barth will have none of this.  For Barth, while the Word of God does carry with it this possibility of human acknowledgment, and does impart this to certain men and women at certain times, this capacity never passes to humans as a possession.  No, it comes and it goes. 

Therefore, there is no such thing as human certainty about the Word of God.  There is no exercise similar to Descartes' in which the human can gain absolute certainty with relation to the Word of God.  If that were the case, the Word of God would then be at the disposal of men and women and would no longer remain free.  God's Word comes at his will in an event and an encounter with specific men and women at specific times, but the Word does not pass to humans.  It retreats again at God's will and remains free.

Here is the money quote for me.
"If a man, the Church, Church proclamation and dogmatics think they can handle the Word and faith like capital at their disposal, they simply prove thereby that they have neither the Word nor Faith." (CD I.1 §6.3 p. 225). 
Barth's theology in this doctrine of the Word of God is a remarkable defense against the common propensity of humans to have certainty in their wielding of the "Word of God" or of the "Truth."  Too often Christians have left their humility behind and stated this or that is the "Truth."  We have a name for these people, and it is Bible beater.  You know the ones, "God says this," "God says that," "The Bible condemns this," etc.  Yet, what they usually mean is "I think God says this or that," or, "according to my interpretation the Bible says this." What it also often means is "I don't like what you are doing, and therefore, God condemns you." For Barth, no one possess the Word of God.  The Bible does not even possess the Word of God.  The Word of God speaks as he wills.  Thus, perhaps, with Barth, we should all just say, we are seeking the Word of God, awaiting it in faith, standing on the promise, but we have no absolute certainty, only faith.