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Announcing The 2015 Karl Barth Conference

June 16, 2014

This year’s Karl Barth Conference is in full swing on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, on the theme “Karl Barth, the Jews, & Judaism.”  You can watch the plenary action today and tomorrow via PTS’s live video stream.

Meanwhile, attendees have received the first announcement for next year’s conference, including the theme and an impressive line-up of speakers.  Here it is (courtesy of Amanda Mac on Twitter!) -

The 2015 Annual Karl Barth Conference


June 21-24, 2015

Richard Bauckham
Beverly Roberts Gaventa
Eric Gregory
Willie Jennings
Paul Dafydd Jones
Bruce L. McCormack
Daniel L. Migliore
Jürgen Moltmann
Fleming Rutledge

Karl Barth’s ‘Failure’? Modernity and the Capacity for God

May 16, 2014

Karl BarthMatthew Rose’s new essay in First Things — titled “Karl Barth’s Failure” (June 2014) — is prompting no shortage of objections from the younger Barth scholars online.  (See the very fine posts by Kevin Davis, David Congdon, Bobby Grow, and David Guretzki.)

I just have a word or two to add to this conversation.  It pertains to the idea that human beings are created with an innate capacity for God (capax Dei).

As Rose narrates it, “modernity” (viz. Descartes, Kant, Hume, et al) posed a serious epistemological problem for the Christian faith which Protestant liberalism sought to resolve.  After being reared in this school Barth subjected it to “pitiless critique,” rejecting religious experience as the foundation of the knowledge of God and returning instead to the necessity of divine revelation. This revelation is located in the (historical) particularity of Jesus Christ, and apart from Jesus no knowledge of God is possible.

This much of the account is certainly correct, in its broad brushstrokes.  Rose concludes that in (rightly) rejecting the anthropocentric values and conclusions of modernity, Barth himself finally could not escape its basic commitments.  He remained a modern, which Rose seems to find scandalous.  But, as David Congdon demonstrates, this is neither a surprise to Barth scholars nor at all a bad thing — at least for those committed to the sola fide and solus Christus of the Reformation (though I think Kevin Davis is right to point to Barth’s biblical exegesis as his source for these commitments).

Rose suggests that Karl Barth

made a tactical alliance with the Enlightenment on a key point: We are incapax Dei, lacking in speculative powers capable of reaching divine heights. Barth used this pact, however, to secure his claim that knowledge of God can come only from God himself. Barth was no reactionary. His arguments were almost always careful attempts to repurpose modern ideas for Christian ends.

… Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it. In denying what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan called the “native infinity” of human understanding, Barth capitulated where he most needed to take a stand. He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility. Nor did he understand that rejecting the secularity of reason was Christian philosophy’s great act of piety, not hubris. And his bargain with Kant—turning the limits of reason into an opening for revelation—could only corrode the foundations of Christian faith.

Barth is a self-consciously modern theologian, even in the midst of his critique of much of what modernism stands for (in particular the “turn to the subject” and the theological consequence of anthropocentrism).  But his conclusion that the human person is not capable of the divine is not a tactical allegiance with the Enlightenment: it is the result of how he reads the Bible, as well as his commitment to the Protestant Reformation.

I’ll go even further than this: Barth’s rejection of the human person’s innate capacity for God is consistent with the classical tradition and well-ordered doctrines of creation and sin.  The greatest difference is that Barth presses these doctrines to their final conclusions, refusing to avoid the full implications of creaturely limitation and of sin for revelation and epistemology.  What appears to be a capitulation with the values of modernism, then, is in fact a commitment embedded within the Christian theological tradition and now cast into sharp relief by modern philosophy: the human person is unable to secure knowledge of God by means of her own speculative reason.

The old Lutheran-Reformed debate had considered whether the finite (humanity) is capable of accommodating the infinite (divinity) — the maxim finitum non capax infiniti served as a logical basis for the Reformed doctrine of the extra Calvinisticum, for example, which Lutherans rejected categorically.  But note what are Barth’s real concerns regarding the human capacity for God:

[God] converses with us as those who are capable of hearing, understanding and obeying. He deals with us as the Creator, but as a person with persons, not as a power over things. … And this is by no means obvious. It is miraculous, and this not merely nor primarily as a miracle of power, as the mystery in which the principle finitum non capax infiniti is abrogated. Naturally this is true too. But the abrogation of this principle is not the real mystery of the revelation of the Son of God.

The real mystery is the abrogation of the other and much more incisive principle: homo peccator non capax verbi divini. God’s power to establish intercourse with us is also called in question of course, but in the long run not decisively, by the fact that He is infinite and we are finite, that He is Lord of life and death and we live as those who are limited by death, that He is the Creator and we are those who have been called out of nothing into being and existence. Godʹs ability is decisively called in question, however, by the fact that we are God’s enemies. (CD I/1, p. 407)

The more decisive question for Barth is not whether men and women are capable of knowing God (for this lack is something God can overcome in a sheer act of creative power), but whether sinful men and women are so capable.  In and of herself the human person is not merely limited by her created faculties; she is actively opposed to God.  And her hubristic attempts to attain to the knowledge of God by her own means is nothing less than sin.

Explicit elsewhere in this passage (and throughout Barth’s corpus) is the actual locus of God’s revelation — not a generic “disclosure” as God’s speaking from the sky, or “a side door through which God permits us an obstructed view of himself” (Rose), but the Incarnation.  Is humanity capable of that?  Is human nature able to bear not merely the divine image but the very presence of God himself in history?  Even fallen humanity? Barth’s answers to these questions make it clear that the Incarnation is always and only a divine possibility, and never a human possibility (contra Protestant liberalism).  Thus it is that human beings do have a real access to God — to both revelation and reconciliation, which in Jesus Christ are one and the same.  But we have it strictly by means of God’s grace, a divine act that overcomes not merely human finitude but human opposition.

In contrast, Rose’s driving concern is not so much with the Incarnation as it is with the knowledge of God — knowledge which the classical tradition suggests can come to men and women by other routes. What worries him is that if human beings are incapable of the knowledge of God, there will be no place left for theology to go but the way that Protestant liberalism went: into a sort of baptized, humanist speculation.  Such a theological project (and I think Barth would agree with Rose here) is doomed to end in failure.  The question, then, is whether this is true of Barth’s own work and its enduring, modernist commitments.

Karl BarthThe real heart of the matter in Rose’s reading of Barth is the latter’s doctrine of revelation. According to Barth revelation is secured by God, originating on the divine side, and shown to human beings in such a way that it never becomes a fixed possession, a human possibility now susceptible to the tools of modern historical criticism.  Barth’s epistemological point is not that human beings are incapable of being recipients of revelation (and thus of knowing true things about God), but that this revelation is not based in the creature and her rational or even her existential capacities.

With this in mind (and it should be noted that this is a theological judgment, not one emerging from prior philosophical commitments), we can see why Barth’s condemnation of natural theology is so important.  And we also see how it was that Barth could limit the divine self-disclosure to Jesus Christ.  The event that is Jesus Christ is, on the one hand, theologically remote — and modernism is right to tell us that we don’t have the immediacy of access to history that we once thought we did.  On the other hand, Jesus Christ is not merely history but is present to us today through his Spirit — and so the encounter with him, and the knowledge of God that he alone makes possible, is available to us by faith alone.

In both cases — Jesus’ historical remoteness and Jesus’ presence in faith — the human person is prevented from claiming revelation as her own and subjecting it to her critical judgments.  The older claims in favor of the human person’s capax Dei not only neglected the reality of history and distance, but failed sufficiently to account for the effects of sin on human knowing.

This is far from the claim that the knowledge of God is impossible, or that it is bound to “secular” reasoning.  Ironically, Barth’s theology secures revelation against modernism’s corrosive influences by the use of modernism itself!  Put another way: Barth has made use of modern philosophical commitments in order to expose and shore-up a weakness in the classical tradition.

This is Karl Barth’s enduring theological genius. Were we to grant that the knowledge of God is a human possibility, the only options are either (1) to grant that revelation is now at our disposal and thus subject to the inquiries of human reason (inerrancy and modern biblical criticism), or (2) to reject modernism as a whole and return to a pre-critical theism (which I think is both naive and impossible).

Rose’s account of Barth and modernism thus seems to have all the right pieces, but when they are assembled the picture that he describes is a caricature.

Book Review: The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth

May 7, 2014

The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth The genre of the “handbook” is at once both exciting and terrifying: it offers an easy point of access for newcomers to quickly become familiar with a subject that is otherwise daunting, while at the same time it threatens to take these complex subjects and render an overly-simplistic caricature. What, then, of Karl Barth? His massive Church Dogmatics, the rest of his very productive career, and the almost universally recognized importance of his work to modern theology present a foreboding mountain to climb. But would a summary of his major concepts, whittled down to a slim paperback, do more harm than good?

Fortunately editor Richard Burnett (who wrote the excellent book Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis) and the large team of contributing authors are keenly aware of this problem, and do a fine job at overcoming the limitations of the genre in The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Burnett and Westminster John Knox Press have assembled not just a “who’s who” of contemporary Barth scholarship but indeed a veritable Justice League of scholars. Just about everyone who one would like to have contributed to such a project has indeed done so, which itself is no small accomplishment. Not only that, but the specialists one would want to have writing about each topic in these pages — such as Wolf Krötke on Sin, Christophe Chalamet on Wilhelm Herrmann, or Paul Dafydd Jones on Christology — have written on just those topics.

The result is a fine volume that, while certainly no substitute for reading Barth first-hand, proves itself remarkably reliable for understanding key concepts within Barth’s broader project. The book is organized alphabetically by terms, making it a sort of dictionary to Barth’s thought. It’s not the sort of resource one would try to read cover-to-cover, but it ought to be the first place that students turn when they want to know what Barth has to say about a given doctrine or concept — and are not sure where in the 14-volume Dogmatics to begin, or how to far to read, or how to escape overlooking another very important treatment of that topic buried in a different volume.

Students of Barth have for decades relied upon more seasoned veterans not only to understand the “big picture” of his theological project, but even for the simple matter of locating key treatments within Barth’s magnum opus. The Church Dogmatics is rigorously systematic and ordered, certainly — but, like a composer of a great symphony, Barth returns to key themes again and again. The handbook is of great use here, for the veterans who have made this or that element of Barth’s theology their specialty can tell us in a few short pages where to look (each entry ends with a short list of pages from the CD, along with a bibliography of secondary sources on the topic) — and for what things to be on the lookout for when we get there.

Karl BarthAs a way of orienting oneself within Barth’s corpus and his world of creative theological thinking, then, The Westminster Handbook makes itself quite useful — more useful, in fact, than I initially feared it might be.  There are 98 entries (plus a solid bibliography of secondary literature), ranging from around a page and a half for smaller topics (e.g. Harnack, Hell, and Heresy) to several pages for the larger (e.g. Reconciliation, or the Perfections of God).  With two columns per page, that’s still a good deal of text for the shorter entries.

Entries range from traditional doctrinal loci (Atonement, Justification, Faith), to significant issues (Liberalism, Science, Point of Contact), to significant persons (Bultmann, Schleiermacher, Thurneysen).  No major lacunae jump out from the list of entries, though readers less familiar with Barth’s work may find it challenging to locate material using terms of which Barth himself did not make a great deal of use.  So, for example, an experimental hunt for what Barth has to say on “discipleship” or “formation” turned up no obvious point of entry.

This is the sort of text that is only as useful as the quality of its entries; in other words, do these authors “get Barth right” on these various topics?  In this regard the book appears to be a resounding success, which is no surprise given the breadth of expertise represented on the contributor list.  If there is any drawback of this presentation, it is that the Handbook‘s presentation of key terms may appear to present a more comprehensive portrait of Barth’s theology than it actually does. The cumulative presentation does very well in the details — each “piece” of the puzzle is crystal clear — but the larger portrait of Barth’s project and his theological instincts will be less obvious by virtue of the nature of a dictionary-type project.  The Westminster Handbook will thus make an excellent companion to the various introductions to Karl Barth’s theology (such as Busch’s The Great Passion, or Webster’s Karl Barth), but will by no means replace them.

Finally, the Handbook may prove so helpful that it allows the lazier student to avoid reading Barth himself — to simply take the expert summary and go home, treating the book like a Cliff’s Notes rendition of Barth’s theology and being unwilling to expend the energy necessary to read and understand the very work under consideration. This would be to the student’s own tremendous loss: Barth is as rewarding as he is difficult. But of course this is no fault of the book.

The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth includes contributions from Clifford B. Anderson, Michael Beintker, Eberhard Busch, Timothy Gorringe, Garrett Green, Kevin Hector, I. John Hesselink, George Hunsinger, J. Christine Janowski, Paul Dafydd Jones, Joseph L. Mangina, Bruce L. McCormack, Daniel L. Migliore, Paul D. Molnar, Adam Neder, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Gerhard Sauter, Katherine Sonderegger, John Webster, and many others.

Published by: Westminster John Knox Press
SRP: $35.00
Pages: 272
ISBN: 978-0664225308

Order from Amazon

Book Watch: Karl Barth in Conversation

March 14, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation
edited by David W. Congdon and W. Travis McMaken

Released: February 18, 2014
Publisher: Pickwick Publications (Wipf & Stock)
Paperback Price: $29.60 if you buy it here.

Publisher’s Description:

“Karl Barth was an eminently conversational theologian, and with the Internet revolution, we live today in an eminently conversational age. Being the proceedings of the 2010 Karl Barth Blog Conference, Karl Barth in Conversation brings these two factors together in order to advance the dialogue about Barth’s theology and extend the online conversation to new audiences.

With conversation partners ranging from Wesley to Žižek, from Schleiermacher to Jenson, from Hauerwas to the Coen brothers, this volume opens up exciting new horizons for exploring Barth’s immense contribution to church and world. The contributors, who represent a young new generation of academic theologians, bring a fresh perspective to a topic—the theology of Karl Barth—that often seems to have exhausted its range of possibilities.

This book proves that there is still a great deal of uncharted territory in the field of Barth studies. Today, more than forty years since the Swiss theologian’s death, the conversation is as lively as ever.”


“This book is an exciting and important contribution to Barth studies. It breaks open the potential cul-de-sac of Barth scholarship to new conversation partners and thinkers. The result is a fascinating collection of essays that brings out new accents on Barth’s work and offers constructive insights for the future of theology. . . . Let us hope this book sets an agenda for the future.”
—Tom Greggs, Professor of Historical and Doctrinal Theology, King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

“In this welcome collection of colorful and stimulating input from young scholars, we get to eavesdrop on some new ‘conversations’ surveying a diverse range of themes, and in the wake of the fresh questions raised, we are invited to hear again what Barth and others have heard and misheard.”
—Jason Goroncy, Dean of Studies, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, New Zealand

“This is a fascinating and instructive set of essays by a group of talented young theologians. These studies offer fresh perspectives on the thought of Barth and his dialogue partners and suggest new pathways for further exploration. Here we see both the ongoing power of Barth’s theology to stimulate new conversations and the creative potential of a new generation of Barth scholars.”
—Adam Neder, Associate Professor of Theology, Whitworth University, Washington

Why We’re Excited:

Three things: (1) It offers fresh avenues for thinking-with Barth; (2) it grows out of a blog conference (of all things!); (3) it has a chapter contribution from one of us at Theology Out of Bounds (spoiler alert: It is me).

Bonus: For those looking for an entry point into Barth’s theology, an appendix by David Guretzki provides a primer on “Becoming Conversant with Barth’s Church Dogmatics.”


You can peruse the table of contents here and get a sneak peak of some of the material here—but I’ll leave you with a teaser from my chapter bringing Karl Barth into conversation with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men:

There was a pregnant silence. Joel took the opportunity for a question. “What did you think of Carla Jean Moss and Loretta Bell—the women of the film?”

“They do appear to offer another word,” Barth answered, “but this is no country for them, either. Mrs. Bell has a kind of serenity. That she has found a safe place of peace in the midst of the conflict may be to her credit, but we all know it is a false peace, which comes home to her on the increasingly despondent face of her man. She is simply ahead of him in her resignation to what is out there.”

“And Mrs. Moss?”

“She is the only one who will not play Chigurh’s game. She will not submit to his gods of fate and chance, allowing him to avert responsibility for her death with his coin toss. She won’t bow to his principles. She holds on to some kind of shred of belief in something better—which she doesn’t seem to know.”

He paused. “Of course, he wipes his shoes of her blood too. Nonetheless, it is as if hers is the only death not fated, but chosen. She is the closest thing this film has to a Christ figure.”

“But not really,” offered one of the Coens.

“No.” Barth took a breath and continued. There was no stopping him now.

Reading Calvin’s Institutes: Introductions

February 13, 2014

Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin)This week I am embarking on a long-term reading project: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is, of course, one of the great texts of the Christian theological tradition, and while in the past I’ve spent a good amount of time on Calvin’s chapters on Scripture, justification and atonement, and Christology, I have to confess that my exposure to the rest of the Institutes has been of the “hunt and peck” variety. So I’m reading the whole work cover-to-cover — four parts published today in two volumes.

I’ll be casually blogging as I go, reading Calvin slowly and under no compulsion to conquer a certain amount each week. I’d love to have some discussion — especially from those familiar with the bigger picture of Calvin’s work and historical context. And if you’d be willing to read the Institutes along with me, there might be a cookie waiting for you at the end. (Legal Disclaimer: There will be no cookies.)

For reference, I’m using the edition edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, published by The Westminster Press (Louisville, KY) in 1960 and reissued by Westminster John Knox Press in 2006. (An older translation done by Henry Beveridge in the 19th century is widely and more inexpensively available, as it’s in the public domain. In fact, it’s on CCEL. McNeill-Battles is much to be preferred both in terms of quality and readability.)

The Institutes of the Christian Religion was completed in 1559, five years before Calvin’s death at the age of 54. This was the fourth edition of a project that Calvin began more than 20 years earlier, and which he had continued to revise and expand.

We begin with Calvin’s own prefatory matters: the Institutes opens with brief comments to the reader (pp. 3-5), in which he writes of the somewhat surprising success that the book had found in the 23 years since its original publication. It’s that reception that prompted him to treat the subjects contained within in some greater detail. “Although I did not regret the labor spent,” he confesses, “I was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth” (3).

John CalvinCalvin suggests here that the Institutes in its final form exists for two main purposes. First, it stands against those who have falsely accused him of defecting from the cause fo the Reformation to the papacy. The work is to be a true account of John Calvin’s thought and teachings — and so we should expect it to include key theological principles of the Reformation. But this was not the reason why it was written.

Second, and more significantly then, the work was produced to serve as a tool for the instruction and preparation of “candidates in sacred theology” — which I take to be both those studying for ecclesiastical orders and those studying for letters to teach in the universities — “in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling” (4). Calvin intends the Institutes to be a manual for learning theology, arranged systematically for comprehensiveness and ease of reference. To that end, I think it wise for us to pick it up and read it to learn theology afresh with Calvin today.

Finally, we should remember at every point that Calvin abhorred excessive speculation and did not believe “sacred theology” to be a discipline with autonomy from biblical studies. Calvin sought ever to be a biblical theologian, and his hope for the Institutes is that it will point us to Scripture — to see that what he has said is true, and to understand the work of God still more deeply than any human-made theological treatise can get at. Thus this great work of systematic theology was intended to be read along with Calvin’s many volumes of commentaries on Scripture, and of course foremost with Scripture itself.

This brief preface is followed by an equally brief “Subject Matter of the Present Work” (pp. 6-8), published with the French translation in 1560. Calvin states that Holy Scripture “contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom” (6). The purpose of a theology such as this, then, is to serve as a guide: to point in the right direction and keep the path clear, so that those who are called by the Holy Spirit may not lose their footing. It is the duty of those who have walked the path and learned the landmarks to point them out to those who are coming along. And yet any praise for the helpfulness of the work must be rendered to God.

The subsequent Prefatory Address to King Francis I is a bit longer, so I’ll save it for the next post.

“I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn
and learn as they write.”
(Augustine, Letters cxliii.2)

Outline of the Institutes:

Book I: The Knowledge of God the Creator (18 chapters)

Book II: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel (17 chapters)

Book III: The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow (25 chapters)

Book IV: The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein (20 chapters)

Book Review in Ecclesiology: John Flett’s The Witness of God

February 5, 2014

A book review I previously worked toward on this blog has now been published in volume 10 of Ecclesiology. I’m grateful to the journal for allowing me to share it with you below, but by all means get a hold of the entire volume if you can–there’s good stuff in there.

John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 328 + xv pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-6441-3 (pbk). $36.00. (Emphasis added for blog).


Despite the fact that the twentieth century missiological renovation known as Missio Dei picked up its traction at the 1952 International Missonary Council in Willingen through the work of Karl Hartenstein, because of personal connections and thematic resonances the movement’s initiation is commonly attributed to Karl Barth’s paper at the Brandenburg Mission Conference twenty years earlier, in 1932.

John Flett’s The Witness of God does not dispute this relationship, but argues by way of an historical and theological analysis that from the beginning there was a growing disconnect between them which is overlooked to the detriment of one more than the other. So it is that with a qualified affirmation of Missio Dei and a provocative identification of its shortcomings Flett provides a compelling presentation of the ways that Barth’s theology might yet be delved for its best correctives and most constructive missiological-ecclesiological benefits.

In the Introduction and Chapter 1 The Witness of God begins by sketching the ‘problem’ of Missio Dei and tracing its origins before proceeding in Chapters 2–4 to detail the historical relationship between Barth and the movement. Having established significant discrepancy between them it then works its way forward in Chapters 5–7 by leveraging Barth’s more prominent theological
gains toward a constructive revisitation of Missio Dei to close the book in Chapter 8.

In the first half’s historical analysis Flett weaves conference reflections and personal correspondences together to form a genealogy of Barth’s severance from Missio Dei that is as interesting as it is convincing. In the theological analysis the focus narrows and lands most squarely on natural theology and the issue of a ‘point of contact’ in Chapter 5, the Triune shape of Christian life and mission in Chapter 6, and the integration of salvation and missionary vocation in Chapter 7. This book has hints of repetitiveness but, like Barth’s own work, Flett covers a lot of ground within these spiralling themes and in the process builds up a rather forceful and compelling proposal.

Missio Dei alerts us to the recognition that Christ reveals not just communion but also mission in the Triune life. Flett thinks this point has missiological and ecclesiological power to it, but finds this considerably diminished when God’s being and act are held apart too widely. He suggests that Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is ‘illustrative of the problem,’ in that his argument for
‘the divinity of the Son and Spirit’ ended up ‘ascribing the economy only epistemological significance’ (p. 19). It might be contested whether this accusation is truer of Augustine or of his legacy, but it does illustrate well the impetus of Flett’s argument:

With an inordinate gap between God’s inner life and external operations we tend to render the latter loosely derivative and secondary, and with the overblown bifurcation of the immanent and economic Trinity the tearing asunder of church and mission is not far behind. We might take missiological insights from the doctrine of God and still fall back on anthropological insights to do the leg work for practical theology.

In Flett’s view, what Barth enables us to do is to let Christ’s revelation of God’s activity so inform our understanding of God’s being that it challenges us to integrate more closely the being and act of the church. Some will be deterred by the shades of actualism here, but these need not detract from the thrust of Flett’s analysis of both Barth and of contemporary missiology and ecclesiology. Those careful to avoid rendering the earthly mission constitutive of God can still benefit from considering the extent to which this mission is fitting for him and thus imperative for us.

Flett suggests that with an anaemic Trinitarian theology we tend to make missions an optional aside or else clamour to fulfil the imperative under our own steam (p. 229). Holding God’s being and act apart, we either put the inner life of the church and the eccentric impulse of mission into competition or we conflate them to the detriment of one or the other. In Flett’s view, faith in a
missional Trinity enables a coherent protest when the vita contemplativa is inordinately exalted over the vita activa or when proclamation becomes a matter merely of ‘propagating those cultural elements’ deemed ‘essential to growth’ (pp. 21, 178).

It might be contested whether one can get much practical traction out of the intricacies of doctrinal arrangement, but the challenges for church practice drawn out in this book do seem apt to hit close to home. One example is when Flett calls into question the frequent delegation of missionary work to para-church organizations, suggesting that this may be symptomatic of one of two forms of ‘monstrosity’ named by Lesslie Newbigin: The ‘unchurchly mission’ or the ‘unmissionary church’ (p. 71). Flett wisely stops short of criticizing para-church trends across the board (after all, such missionary organizations tend to link denominations that might otherwise be divided), but he does give appropriate pause for critical reflection.

Following up on this, one thing that begged for more elaboration in this book was Newbigin’s quarrel with ‘missionary zeal which is forever seeking to win more proselytes but which does not spring from and lead back into a quality of life which seems intrinsically worth having in itself’ (p. 278). Given Barth’s attention to this in The Doctrine of Reconciliation we might have seen further delineation of the relation between the church’s mission and its common life.

In Chapter 5 Flett confronts us with what may have been the most explicit point of departure between Missio Dei and Barth; the issue of natural theology. When Barth famously warned against Emil Brunner’s recommendation of a ‘point of contact’ between the preaching church and the receiving culture, Flett reckons that missiologists were confounded by what they took to be an opposition to mission itself. Barth’s point was that no cultural element could be asked to mediate the gospel, but they heard in this a diminishment if not a denouncement of translation and gospel-communication altogether.

By arguing that there is no ‘point of contact’ but Jesus himself, however, Flett thinks Barth issued a still-relevant warning against the tendency to place a hyphen between some part of culture and the Christian faith and then to make that hyphen a ‘shibboleth of orthodoxy’ (p. 117). In this construal, he argues, the interim between Christ’s ascension and return is understood in terms of Christ’s absence rather than His presence and the crux of the mission becomes the cultural media and not the living Christ (p. 135). The result is more often than not the subtle replacement of witness with propaganda (p. 63).

Flett finds a corrective for this in Barth’s emphasis on the prophetic office of Christ at the end of Church Dogmatics, which he says highlights the Church’s call to be caught up in God’s gracious movement to the world not only as its recipients but inherently as its attentive participants as well (pp. 201–203).

In this book John Flett argues that the church’s mission and its common life are part of one gracious motion of God that goes back to eternity past and continues to eternity future. This is a motion carried out in time primarily but not exclusively by the Son and the Spirit, since they summon and enable our participation in mission by the mercy of God. These are evocative rubrics for ecclesiology today and for that reason The Witness of God makes for a very worthy read.

Wright and Torrance: Different Framings of the Gospel

December 18, 2013

In the video below, N. T. Wright discusses his new book on Paul’s theology. He strongly asserts that the ministry and death of Jesus Christ have to be understood within the history of Israel and the promises God made to Abraham, Christ himself being the fulfillment of those promises, the righteous Israel that restores humanity and thereby creation in light of the primeval fall. That much I think ought to be noncontroversial. Have a look.

What is wonky about this is the unapologetic plan-B-ness of Wright’s understanding of Abraham, the nation of Israel that comes from him and therefore Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s intentions with that nation. Wright paraphrases “that rabbi who said in I think the 3rd or 4th century” that basically prior to creation God said to himself he’d make Adam and if Adam blew it he’d make Abraham to fix what Adam broke. Now, my point in this post is not to argue counterfactuals about whether Christ would have come even if the fall hadn’t happened but to do deal more generally with the way Wright treats the relation between history and God’s will. Wright reads God’s intentions in linear temporal sequence such that what comes before must be the cause of what comes later. Abraham is understood in light of Adam; God’s promises to Abraham answer to the creational intentions gone awry in Adam. Jesus is then understood in light of Abraham; God’s work in Jesus answers to the promises made to Abraham.

This way of situating the gospel of Jesus Christ has significant merit. It helps restore to the church the Hebraic setting of all the New Testament writings, certainly including Paul. This is a significant gain. But it unhelpfully sets itself against an unnamed (at least in this interview) alternative framing of the gospel, presumably that reflected in Luther’s questions about how God can be found by sinners to be merciful which led to the bedrock Protestant conviction of justification by faith.

T. F. Torrance offers a helpful alternative to this binary opposition of frameworks by understanding all of Israel’s history from Abraham’s call forward as a particular kind of prehistory to Jesus Christ. To state it briefly, Torrance sees the history of God’s covenant with Israel prior to Christ as having the purpose of supplying a cultural matrix of thinking, speaking and religious liturgy that would make Christ’s eventual coming intelligible. This then allows that Christ be understood in light of Israel’s history a la Wright, but also allows, which Wright seems to not, that Israel’s history be understood in light of a necessarily post-resurrection insight into who Christ is in his relation to God and in the outworking of God’s plan of salvation as it relates to all creation. It is worth letting Torrance speak for himself here at length:

If we are to know [God] and speak about him in a way that is appropriate to him, we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him. Let us consider God’s historical relations with the people of Israel in just this light. And let us think of it, for a moment rather anthropomorphically, in this way. In his desire to reveal himself and make himself knowable to mankind, he selected one small race out of the whole mass of humanity, and subjected it to intensive interaction and dialogue with himself in such a way that he might mould and shape his people in the service of his self-revelation. Recall Jeremiah’s analogy of the potter at work with his clay, which is so apt here. He takes a lump of clay, throws it down upon the potter’s wheel, and proceeds to rotate it under the steady pressure of his fingers until it is moulded into the kind of vessel suitable for his purpose. But when the clay proves to be lumpy and recalcitrant he breaks it down and remoulds it in accordance with his design, and he does that again and again until he has formed and fashioned a vessel to his liking which will serve his purpose well. That is how the prophets, and St Paul also, regarded Israel, as clay in the hands of the divine Potter which he subjects to his will, yet not in the mechanical way of a human potter with his impersonal handiwork but in the way in which a father imparts distinctive characteristics to his offspring. Thus God established a special partnership of covenanted kinship with Israel, so that within the intimate structure of family relations he might increasingly imprint himself upon the generations of Israel in such a way that it could become the instrument of his great purpose of revelation.

Far from being restricted to the people of Israel itself, that was a purpose which God had for all mankind, for he took Israel into his hands in this unique way in order to provide the actual means, a whole set of spiritual tools, appropriate forms of understanding, worship and expression, through which apprehension of God could be made accessible to human beings and knowledge of God could take root in the soil of humanity (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 6-7).

Torrance establishes a two-way framing here, framing Christ within Israel’s history and framing Israel’s history within God’s logically prior decision to send Christ. This more dialectical framing upholds everything Wright offers us but without castigating the patristic and Reformation formulations of Christology Wright feels compelled to castigate in order to establish a Hebraic Christological context. The early fathers’ insights about who Christ is within the inner relations of the Godhead are given space to speak to us today, as are the reformers insights about who Christ is within God’s plan and work of salvation for us, all while encouraging the work Wright wants to do of highlighting questions of who Christ is within the history of Israel which is the preoccupation of the New Testament writers.

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