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Christianity’s Decline? What the Pew Research Doesn’t Actually Tell Us

May 18, 2015
Praying in Empty Church --- Image by © Corbis

The big news in American religion last week was the release of the new study on the nation’s changing religious landscape from Pew Research. As a student of religion perhaps the most remarkable thing to see these past several days is not to much the contents of the report itself (based on surveys that show the change in self-identified religious affiliation from 2007 to 2014) but the variety of interpretations to it.

Some headlines are ready to call Christianity’s time-of-death, while others observe that this is merely the latest data speaking to trends that began a generation ago (i.e. the decline of membership in the mainline denominations).  Others point gleefully to the fact that now evangelicalism is also declining (as a share of the total population), disrupting the narrative that the shifting landscape is entirely explainable by conservatives fleeing “liberal” denominations for the more conservative.  And evangelicals look at the same data and declare their own victory: they are declining less than everyone else, and in terms of total membership numbers are actually still growing (somewhere between zero and 5 million in seven years, accounting for the poll’s margin of error).

Quite a bit has been lost in the analysis, and it’s because we aren’t reading Pew critically enough.  Let me point out three observations as I see them.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape(1) First, the story told by the phone survey of more than 35,000 adults is not that Christianity is in rapid decline.  I think this is the most important and most overlooked aspect of this story. The survey asked respondents the specific Christian denomination with which they self-identify (in other words, it’s not based on any church’s membership records).  There is a sharp increasing in the “Nones,” those reporting no affiliation (from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent just seven years later).

This is, of course, not to say that these men and women do not regard themselves as Christians (though definitions of just what that means will vary, for some being more theological and for others more sociological).  It only says that they are not connected with any denomination or worshiping body, nor do they regard themselves as part of a specific religious tradition even if they don’t go to church.

There is no choice of “Christian – Other,” or “Christian – Unaffiliated,” then. The survey is not about religious belief or practice so much as it is about institutional affiliation. Men and women who have no such ties fall into the “Nones.”

From the report:

The unaffiliated are generally less religiously observant than people who identify with a religion. But not all religious “nones” are nonbelievers. In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people. Forthcoming reports will describe the Religious Landscape Study’s findings about the religious beliefs and practices of “nones” and other groups.

The total of all Christian bodies has fallen from 78.4 percent of the U.S. population to 70.6 percent in just seven years, and that’s startlingly rapid. But respondents were not asked if they identify as “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” … or “None.” This 70.6 percent is simply the aggregate total of all the individual denominations listed.

What the report indicates, in other words, is not a decline in Christianity but a deinstitutionalizing of Christians.  Many of these certainly would not self-identify as Christian at all – but that’s not what the survey asked.  Presumably, many of them would regard themselves as believers who have no institutional home.  My conclusion, then, is that more Christians than ever before are living an autonomous faith.

What are we to do with that fact, as churches?  That’s a separate (and very important) question.  But thinking through that problem begins with recognizing that many of the “Nones” are not nonbelievers, but disenfranchised.

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(2) The news isn’t good for the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations (that’s us in the larger Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and American Baptist bodies), and that’s nothing new. These groups have been losing members for decades, helping to fuel the explosion of North American evangelicalism for a generation. Evangelicalism, as defined by Pew (more on that below), is still strong.

By and large, the “mainline” churches are the bodies that debated women in ministry in the 1970s and went the inclusive route, and they are the churches that have been debating gay ordination and marriage issues for over a decade — and again, are largely going the inclusive route. Some cynically theorize that this is an attempt to retain members — to make the mainline churches more inclusive, and thereby stem the loss of progressive Americans — and some conservatives will point to data from groups such as the Pew Forum as evidence that this strategy has backfired. These denominations continue to suffer membership loss because their actions have brought about a conservative egress, and in many cases whole denominational splits.

Church CongregationIt should be said that on the ground the people advocating for these changes in polity and practice are not seeking to “liberalize” their churches but (I hope in most all cases) rather to be faithful to the gospel as they understand it. I, for one, am much more interested in my own church’s fidelity to Jesus Christ than in its ability to retain numbers, and I worry about evangelicalism’s common preoccupation with the latter — as if its fidelity to Christ was measured by a populist appeal.

(It’s also worth noting here what one television commenter suggested, though I don’t have data at hand to support the claim: evangelical Christians on average have more kids than their “progressive” counterparts in the mainline, suggesting that at least a portion of the difference in membership would be accounted for by average family size. Kids, however, were not among the respondents to this survey — so this theory would depend upon more evangelical kids staying with their faith into adulthood. It might take more than seven years to be able to measure that well. All in all, I’m not sure that is something the data bears out.)

~ ~

(3) Finally, (and I’ll be blunt here): “Evangelicalism” is not a thing. When Pew uses the term is doesn’t mean what theologians and every-day practicing Christians probably mean, and as a sociological category it is almost entirely worthless.

When we speak of “evangelical Christianity” we tend to think of things like an emphasis on Scripture, an emphasis on conversion (being “born again”) and piety, less formal institutional practices (including worship), etc. For the Pew survey, these characteristics are largely irrelevant (though researchers might say otherwise). Instead, “evangelical” is a pseudo-historical designation that differentiates bodies within the same broad tradition based on which one is older (the “mainline” being the one that had smaller groups break away from it).

This appendix lists all the denominations and bodies that are categorized as “evangelical” or as “mainline.” (Take a moment and look it over.) It’s not necessarily intuitive as to why a given body makes one list rather than the other, and it has nothing to do with anything like theological beliefs or religious practices. As I understand it, the “mainline” denominations are taken to be those who were historically first in this country, and (at least until recent years) the largest; the “evangelical” denominations are those who broke off from the larger denomination at some point. (The Pew Forum states that they classify these based on things such as the use of “born again” language, which is demographically squishy at best. Is there a Christian in the world who would read John 3 and not lay some measure of claim to that language?)

BaptistsSo the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “mainline,” and the Presbyterian Church in America is “evangelical.” The American Baptist Churches USA is mainline, but of course the Southern Baptist Convention is evangelical (and now vastly larger). The Disciples of Christ (a Restorationist group) is mainline; but the Church of Christ (also Restorationist) is evangelical.

How about the Society of Friends (Quakers)? They broke away from the Church of England before immigrating to the United States — so here, they are mainline. (Friends also have an evangelical break-off from a subsequent split.)

The distinctions are largely arbitrary — theological, practically, and even historically speaking. In many cases, the classification may come down to whether a church split happened on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean or the west.

Consider the differences between my own PC(USA) and the PCA: the mainline denomination ordains women, and tends to take a more progressive stance on social matters and on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise in their history, their governance, and their core convictions the two bodies are the same — and perhaps I can even venture to say that they have much more in common than not (we are all still “Presbyterians,” after all).

Are my PCA brothers and sisters any more “evangelical” by any coherent definition of that term? In both practice and belief, they have more in common with the mainline Presbyterian body than with, say, the Southern Baptists.

As we would expect, many respondents gave a vague self-identification (e.g. “I know I’m a Methodist, but I don’t know what denomination”) which required Pew to sort them based on other factors. This includes race, as well as whether a respondent self-identifies with the language of being “born again.”

In other words, if you don’t know whether you are a mainline Baptist or an evangelical Baptist, but you like the sound of being “born again,” you are marked down as evangelical. Overall, 38 percent of Protestants offered a vague denominational identity and had to be sorted in this way.

The Religious Landscape Study includes a question asking Christians: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” In response to this question, half of Christians (35% of all U.S. adults) say yes, they do consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians.

The results of this question demonstrate my point: only 83 percent of those that Pew would call “evangelical” based on their denominational preference said “Yes” — while a not insignificant 27 percent of “mainline” Protestants also said “Yes,” they describe themselves as “born again” or “evangelical.”

The definition of evangelicalism has always been fuzzy, and so it’s no surprise that Pew had to come up with some creative methodology — one that does not fit roughly 20 percent of Protestants in this country — in order to make their macro-level categories work.

The categorization of survey respondents into “mainline” or “evangelical” bodies is therefore somewhat haphazard, and historically (and practically) dubious. What this means is that the Pew report is useful for some things — tracking affiliation with specific denominations, for example — but it does not show the larger trends that mainliners, evangelicals, and atheists think it does. It’s useful for seeing the population shift from this version of Methodism to that, or away from institutionalized Christianity altogether. It’s helpful for seeing geographical and ethnic distribution. But it simply does not reveal anything useful about the decline or strength of “mainline” and “evangelical” Christianity.

The Karl Barth Timeline

May 5, 2015

Karl BarthThe following timeline was originally published in 2011 at my (now closed) blog Via Crucis, and only long after closing the doors on that site did I realize that this hopefully still useful bit of data wasn’t publicly available any more. So I reproduce it again here, in the hopes that you might find it useful.

The timeline includes publication dates for Barth’s major works, as well as significant biographical milestones.

TITLE GERMAN ENGLISH
Barth’s birth (Basel, Switzerland) 1886
Barth enters parish ministry in Safenwil 1911
Barth marries Nelly Hoffman 1913
Barth’s break with Protestant liberalism 1914-16
Romans (I) 1919
Barth leaves the parish for Göttingen 1921
Romans (II) 1922 1933
Instruction in the Christian Religion
(The Göttingen Dogmatics)
1924 1991 (Vol. I)
Barth leaves Göttingen for Münster 1925
The Word of God and the Word of Man 1924 1928
Christian Dogmatics: Vol. I (Münster) 1927 N/A
Commentary on Philippians 1928 1962
Barth leaves Münster for Bonn 1930
Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum 1931 1960
Church Dogmatics I/1 1932 1936
Theological Existence Today 1933 1933
The Barmen Declaration 1934
Nein! (Pamphlet war with Emil Brunner) 1934 1946
Barth leaves Bonn for Basel 1935
Church Dogmatics I/2 1938 1956
Church Dogmatics II/1 1940 1957
Church Dogmatics II/2 1942 1957
Church Dogmatics III/1 1945 1958
Protestant Theology In the 19th Century 1947 1959
Dogmatics in Outline 1947 1949
Church Dogmatics III/2 1948 1960
Church Dogmatics III/3 1950 1960
Church Dogmatics III/4 1951 1961
Church Dogmatics IV/1 1953 1956
Church Dogmatics IV/2 1955 1958
The Humanity of God 1956 1960
Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 1959 1961
Church Dogmatics IV/3.2 1959 1961
Barth retires from teaching 1962
Barth’s trip to America
(lectures in Chicago, Princeton)
1962
Evangelical Theology 1962 1963
Church Dogmatics IV/4 (Fragments) 1967 1969
Barth’s death (Basel, Switzerland) 1968

N/A = Not yet in English

Titles are given in English, of course, even where the volume hasn’t been translated yet. The 1924 dogmatics from Barth’s lectures in Göttingen were published as Unterricht in der christlichen Religion, and the 1927 Münster dogmatics — which Barth famously regarded as a false start (see the Preface to CD I/1) was published as Die christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf.

Also note that Barth’s Dogmatics originated as course lectures, and were in development and presented to students in the years leading up to the publication.

Any corrections or important additions are most welcome.

Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 2

February 11, 2015

Yesterday I looked at Chapter 1 of Jason Radcliff’s recently published dissertation, Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition. I noted that while the Protestant reformers departed from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches by seeing the authority of the fathers as fallible and secondary to scripture, they nonetheless saw themselves as more faithful to the early fathers than medieval Catholicism. Later Protestantism, however, left the fathers behind in two directions: rejection by the liberals and indifferent ignorance by fundamentalist evangelicals. This situation, along with the postmodern shift of the 20th century, set the stage for a “rediscovery” of the fathers among evangelicals in the last couple generations.

Radcliff sees this rediscovery, treated in Chapter 2, taking three main forms. First is conversion to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Radcliff tells the stories of John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Thomas Howard’s conversion from evangelicalism to Episcopalianism and then Roman Catholicism, and Peter Gilquist’s leadership of a group conversion of evangelicals working in Campus Crusade for Christ to the Antiochene Orthodox Church. In each case there was a sense that evangelicalism is, in Howard’s words, “not enough.” Radcliff offers this criticism on these conversions:

The desire to appropriate classical Christianity into the contemporary church is commendable; however, to feel the need to convert to another denomination because “evangelical is not enough” is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, conforming to an external notion of ecclesiology and commitment to external definitions of Christianity. The evangelicals who convert often conclude that appropriation of classical Christianity necessarily entails conforming to the practice of the early church, much of which may have had more to do with culture than solely theological commitment. Thus, they consider it impossible to retrieve the life and work of the The Fathers within their own Protestant traditions. This is ultimately a convoluting of the distinction between faith and order and it contains elements of legalism. (37-38)

I think Radcliff might have included those who have converted from non-liturgical evangelical churches to Anglicanism or other mainline liturgical churches under this same heading. I have several friends who have done so for the same reasons (“evangelical is not enough”) and are, I think, open to the same criticism.

Another form evangelical “rediscovery” of the fathers has taken is that of the emergent/emerging church movement. Radcliff takes a look at the writings of several leading figures of this movement, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Shane Claiborne and Scott McKnight (who has recently converted to Anglicanism, btw), and concludes that while the movement has certain commendable common themes, it has no real center of gravity. It is a fairly subjective and personality driven hodgepodge that features some fairly idiosyncratic appropriations of various patristic themes and practices. He notes that most of its leading figures come from evangelical mega-churches who “want to move far away from seeker-sensitive and mega-church models towards, seemingly, any other model” (43). The idiosyncratic nature of the movement often finds its leaders badly misunderstanding patristic theology (Radcliff finds help from D. A. Carson in making this point). Radcliff does end on a balanced note in his treatment of the emergent/emerging movement:

While Emergents often misread the classical Christian tradition owing to their eclecticism and subjectivism, their genius is in the application of The Fathers. Emergents want to retrieve helpful elements (albeit as they see it) [note: Radcliff is a poet and he doesn’t know it] and directly apply them to church life today. Herein, they are at the forefront of a return to The Fathers and their example will, no doubt, continue to lead many towards further retrieval of classical Christianity. Ultimately, however, they are unfair to The Fathers themselves on account of their tendentiousness. (p. 45)

Finally, Radcliff treats the theological retrieval programs of Robert Webber’s ancient-future Christianity and Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy. He sees these strains as helpful and close to what Torrance sought to do, but falling short because they tended to view the fathers through basically Augustinian lenses. Radcliff is on ground heavily contested by the recent work of historians like Lewis Ayers and theologians like Stephen Holmes, both of whom have launched an attack on the idea that there is any intelligible theological divide between east and west in the Nicene and post-Nicene period. Much of Torrance’s treatment of patristic theology and the “Augustinian tradition” or even “Latin heresy” that he claims prevailed in the west is called into question by this recent discussion. So far Radcliff hasn’t waded into that water – we’ll see what the future chapters hold. With that criticism over Augustinian vs. Greek lenses suspended, we can see Webber’s and Oden’s projects as helpful allies of Torrance’s in an evangelical retrieval of patristic theology.

In my church world, I see most people continuing the willful ignorance of the fathers, while some convert to liturgical churches. The emerging/emergent thing continues kind of, but I’m not sure how much actual engagement with the early fathers goes on in it (I’m friendly to it, but exist mostly outside of it so I don’t know that much about what goes on over there). Academically, I’m favorable to Radcliff’s presentation of Torrance as a resource for helpfully appropriating the fathers, but I’m not sure how helpful he is, given his dense writing style, for helping evangelical churches like mine to get back in touch with the patristic tradition.

That leaves me with a pressing question: how do pastors like me, working in seeker-sensitive mega-churches, get our people more in touch with the riches of the early church (and the Reformation for that matter)? I fully agree with Radcliff that conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy ought not to be necessary (and I’d add liturgical mainline denominations – I love those churches, I just think evangelicals can discover the fathers without going anywhere), but the crises of many evangelicals’ faiths argue otherwise. So what do we do? Offer Sunday school classes on the fathers and reformers? Weave their thinking into our sermons more? Weave the ancient creeds into our worship? I think all of that would help, but I also agree with Radcliff that a more central Christological and Trinitarian focus needs to stand behind it all. I’m still wondering how to make that happen though. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Book Review: THOMAS F. TORRANCE AND THE CHURCH FATHERS by Jason Radcliff – Part 1

February 10, 2015

IMG_0170-0As I prepare for a final editorial pass through my own dissertation on T. F. Torrance’s doctrine of scripture and theological hermeneutics prior to sending it for publication, I’m reading through a few recent books on Torrance. First up is Jason Radcliff’s Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition.

I’ve read through the first two chapters at this point, which together serve as an extended “state of the question” section, taking up about a quarter, quite a bit for contextualizing considerations. But its totally worth it. These chapters deal with an issue running through a lot of conversations I have with other young pastors and seminarians coming out of evangelical churches – how did we lose touch with the early church and what do we do about now? Radcliff offers an insightful historical account of the problem and lays out a helpful taxonomy of contemporary responses. I’ll deal with the historical background in today’s post and the contemporary responses tomorrow.

Chapter 1 tells us how we got here by analyzing how various traditions have understood the consensus patrum, that is, the theological consensus of the early church fathers. Radcliff offers a fairly standard account of the differences between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and early Protestant postures toward the fathers. He helpfully points out that while Luther and Calvin drew a sharper line between the authority of scripture and that of the fathers, they nonetheless saw the Reformation as more faithful to the teaching of the fathers than the medieval Roman Catholic church. This is a needed corrective to the kind of thing I keep hearing at my church and even from seminarians (before they take my church history class) about how Catholicism taught scripture and tradition while the Reformation was about scripture alone, as if the reformers rejected or intentionally ignored the fathers. No, the fathers were a major resource for Luther and Calvin et al, second only to scripture. The Reformers stood in the humanist tradition of ad fontes, returning to the classical sources of ancient society, and thus sought to approach the supreme authority of the scriptures through the secondary authority of patristic tradition, willing to disagree with a given father’s interpretation if needed on the basis of scripture, but generally deferring to the patristic consensus over later accretions.

The problem of the reformers and their immediate successors (Radcliff examines Turretin as an example) was that they saw the patristic period as a “golden age” of the church, seeing the fathers as early advocates of Reformation theology, but were unable to establish an objective program for appropriating these early sources. The result is that Protestant theology has wandered away from the fathers in two directions. Protestant liberalism, on the one hand, has seen the development of doctrine as progressive in such a way that the distant past is basically irrelevant to the truth of the present which is free to move on and leave the past behind. Liberalism has thus willfully departed from the fathers. Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, on the other hand, have willfully ignored the fathers out of fear that attending to them with too much interest or loyalty would compromise the doctrinal sin qua non of evangelical theology, sola scriptura. This situation, as it evolved for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, set the stage for a dramatic “rediscovery” of the fathers in the last generation or so of evangelicals. Radcliff wants to situate his study of Torrance’s theology within this recent return to favor of patristic theology among evangelicals. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at chapter 2, which lays out a few different ways evangelicals have returned to the fathers.

For now, what do you think of this situation? How have we evangelical Protestants lost Luther and Calvin’s love and respect for the early fathers? (Hint: it might be related to the reason we don’t really interact with Luther or Calvin any more.) How do we reincorporate these riches back into our churches? Are liturgy and eucharistic theology the keys, as Peter Leithart and others have suggested, or can us low-church evangelicals keep our contemporary worship and integrate our patristic and Reformation heritage in other ways? What are your thoughts?

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

KARL BARTH & THE GOSPELS

June 21-24, 2015

Speakers:
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

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