Easter: Where the Gospel Narratives Stammer

“Trembling and bewildered,the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).

In Karl Barth’s thought, both the Old and New Testaments are witness to the revelation in which “God is present to man as the coming God.” (CD I.2, p 113) The Old Testament witness is expectation (looking forward to this revelatory event in which God comes); and the New Testament witness is a recollection of that revelation (looking back). In other words, the Bible is (from cover to cover) eschatological; God is coming and has come.

With one gigantic exception: Easter.

At Easter, God. Is.

Easter is the point in the Gospel narratives where human language reaches its limit.  Barth explains, “In the slender series of New Testament accounts of the disciples’ meetings with the risen Lord we are dealing with the attestation of the pure presence of God.”  While the rest of the Bible is about the coming of God, Easter is an event where the pure presence of God is manifest.

Everything before Easter was expectation. Everything after Easter was recollection. The resurrection stories (Easter to Pentecost) stand in the middle, as an event where God’s eternal time has stepped in to our time. The Easter story is the “recollection upon which all New Testament recollections hang, to which they are all related, for the sake of which there is a New Testament recollection at all” (p. 114).

It’s no wonder that the earliest recollection we have of Easter (Mark 16:1-8) in a rather artless way scarcely tells us more than the fact that the tomb was empty, and ends on this note: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).  Here, says Barth, the New Testament witness “comes up against its object, which in itself contains the Word of revelation.”

How can human words do God’s pure presence justice? As Barth puts it, there is “little wonder human language stammers at this point.” (p. 115).

Losing My Religion (Karl Barth style)

Religion. We can hate it (or love it), but we cannot escape it.  It would seem that religion is part of the human condition, for better or worse.

A number of weeks ago (actually, around the same time that Jefferson Bethke’s poem on the subject of “religion” went viral), I read Karl Barth’s famous section on the subject, titled “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion” (chapter 17 in his Church Dogmatics). Barth’s thoughts on religion are complicated and difficult to digest (I’m still working on it!). However, I have a few observations/quotes I’d like to share.

1) When Barth speaks out against religion, he probably doesn’t mean what you think he means. Barth was a friend of the church, who sought to support the proclamation ministry of the church via his Church Dogmatics (CD). He had zero interest in condemning the institutional church (although he would critique it wherever its “talk about God” needed refining). Barth’s anti-religious remarks should be heard in that light. He does not argue for being “spiritual but not religious,” or make a case for Christianity as a “relationship rather than a religion.” Not even close.

2) The “revelation of God” is Jesus, the Word made flesh. We tend to think of revelation as primarily a book, the Bible. Barth views the Bible as a witness to the real revelation, the true Word – Jesus (John 1:14). This Word reveals to us that no religion “contains” that revelation but is rather grounded in unbelief. A typical Barthian quote to that effect:

If a man tries to grasp at truth of himself, he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but in religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God Himself intercede for God: But in religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief.” (I.2, pp 302-303; emphasis mine)

3) In that vein, God’s revelation tells us the truth about what human religion amounts to: unbelief. The New Testament “is not a book of religion. From first to last it is the proclamation of the justifying and sanctifying grace of God. It is therefore a revelation of the unbelief which is in all religion.” (I.2, pp 312) Barth continues:

“Sin is always unbelief. And unbelief is always man’s faith in himself. And this faith invariably consists in the fact that man makes the mystery of his responsibility his own mystery, instead of accepting it as the mystery of God. It is this faith which is religion. It is contradicted by the revelation in the New Testament, which is identical with Jesus Christ as the one who acts for us and on us. This stamps religion as unbelief.” (I.2, p 314)

4) Christian religion does not get a pass. It would be easy to read Barth and see how his critique of religion was against all “other” religions, giving Christianity a pass as the true religion.  But when Barth turns to discussing true religion he first points out that “we can speak of ‘true’ religion only in the sense in which we speak of a ‘justified sinner.'” (I.2, p. 325) Perhaps we could put it this way: Christian religion is forgiven unbelief. With that in mind, we should have an attitude of humility when it comes to religion:  “It is our business as Christians to apply this judgment [that religion is unbelief] first and most acutely to ourselves: and to others, the non-Christians, only in so far as we recognize ourselves in them.” (I.2 p 327)

That’s all for now. I’ve actually just finished CD I.2 and hope to do a couple more posts on other subjects that came up. Stay tuned….

A Jesus Reading of the “Love Chapter”

One of my biggest personal take homes from Karl Barth has been a refreshing re-orientation around Jesus, the Word made flesh who is the ultimate revelation of the God who is love. Jesus has to be at the center of any worthwhile Christian theology. In this vein, Barth mentions in passing that 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous love chapter) is “best understood if for the concept ‘love’ we simply insert the name Jesus Christ.” (CD I.2, p 330)

I couldn’t help but use this as a devotional experiment. The result would (in part) go something like this:

Jesus Christ is patient, Jesus Christ is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud.  He does not dishonor others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs.  Jesus Christ does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Jesus Christ never fails. (verses 5-8, revised from the NIV)

Try it out!

The Church’s Identity Crisis

I just discovered an article written by Jürgen Moltmann titled “The Cruficied God,” published April 1974 in Theology Today (just before the publication of his famous book by the same title). Moltmann argues strongly that “there is no true theology of hope which is not first of all a theology of the cross.” (p. 8) To Moltmann, the church’s very identity is at stake when we talk about the cross. Get the cross wrong, and you may have spirituality or theism or even religion… but you don’t have Christianity.

Behind the political and social crisis of the church in modern society, there stands the Christological crisis: From whom does the church really take its bearings? Who is Jesus Christ, really, for us today? In this identity-crisis of Christianity, the question of God lies hidden: Which God governs Christian existence — the one who was crucified or the idols of religion, class, race and society? Without a new clarity in Christian faith itself, there will be no credibility in Christian life. (p.6,7) 

I have a feeling that these words are just as relevant today as then. Where do we, the church, find our identity? In the idols of this world? Or in Christ, the crucified one?

Moltmann is a German Reformed theologian who (having served as a Nazi soldier) offers an interesting perspective on the subject of “faith after Auschwitz:”

How is faith in God, how is being human, possible after Auschwitz? I don’t know. But it helps me to remember the story that Elie Wiesel reports in his book on Auschwitz called Night. Two Jewish men and a child were hanged. The prisoners were forced to watch. The men died quickly. The boy lived on in torture for a long while. “Then someone behind me said: “Where is God?’ and I was silent. After half an hour he cried out again: ‘Where is God? Where is he? And a voice in me answered: ‘Where is God?. . . he hangs there from the gallows….

A theology after Auschwitz would be impossible, were not the sch’ma Israel and the Lord’s prayer prayed in Auschwitz itself, were not God himself in Auschwitz, suffering with the martyred and the murdered. Every other answer would be blasphemy.  (p 9,10)

Read the complete article here (about 13 pages printed, and well worth the read!). I’ve not yet read The Crucified God, but have a feeling that if this article is any indicator of its content, the book too is a must-read. The complete text is available on Google (though I’ll probably go for a print copy). Another of Moltmann’s works, The Trinity and the Kingdom, is already in my queue to read directly after Barth’s CD I.2.  You can hear Moltmann himself sharing his personal story (in English!) recently here. Good stuff!

Quotable Barth: Our “Paper Pope”

This is how Karl Barth describes the shift towards Biblicism that took place in much of Protestantism after the Reformation:

The Bible was now grounded upon itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the holy Ghost. It became a “paper Pope,” and unlike the living Pope in Rome it was wholly given up into the hands of its interpreters. It was no longer a free and spiritual force, but an instrument of human power. (CD I.2, p 525)

Here is where Barth finds the great sin of Biblicism. Rather than submitting to the Word made flesh revealed in the Bible (i.e. Jesus), we have all-to-often submitted simply to the book, to the Bible. Which ultimately takes the authority away from Christ and places it into the hands of the interpreter of Scripture.

I hope to blog more about Barth and Biblicism in the near future (as Barth will actually be addressing the subject more directly in chapter 20, which I am about to start). Christian Smith’s eye-opening book,  The Bible Made Impossible (which I read in December), is a devastating critique of Biblicism… and actually offers Barth’s Christocentric hermeneutic as as a way forward.

Is the Canon Closed?

Sort of. Not exactly. Or so I take it from Karl Barth.

This is an issue that tends to be taken for granted in most American Evangelical churches…. where a typical doctrinal statement says something about how the “Sixty-six books of the Bible are the inspired and infallible Word of God.” But Barth maintains that throughout church history it has been an open question worth repeated conversation and confirmation.

“In the past there has already been more than one proposal to narrow or broaden the human perception of what ought to count as canonical Scripture, and if the proposals never came to anything they were at least seriously considered. The insight that the concrete form of the Canon is not closed absolutely, but only very relatively, cannot be denied even with a view to the future.” (CD I.2, p 476)

In fact, Luther’s criterion for testing Scripture was whether it “sets forth Christ or not.” And other Reformers (like Calvin and Zwingli) are among those Barth cites as openly engaging the question of the canon (and had reservations about particular books of the Bible). They engaged in a question that many churches today would consider out-of-bounds.

Barth still says that the canon is driven by consensus in the church… and that until consensus changes, “we have steadfastly to accept the force and validity of decisions already taken both in respect of the faith and also of the Canon.” (p. 479) After all, the canon of Scripture wasn’t chosen by the church… it forced itself on the church by it’s own inspiration. But that doesn’t mean that the conversation is to be considered closed.

What say you? What is the canon? Is it to be considered closed? Why? Why not?

How I Caught the Barth Bug

As I mentioned in a previous post (I know, ages ago), I’ve begun a journey into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD). It started innocently enough last fall with an electronic version of the first volume (I.1), which turned into a pre-Christmas petition that the CD set be my present (and it was! best theology nerd Christmas present ever!). At this point I’m just over halfway through the second volume (I.2), and hope to have it completed in the next month or so. Barth is by far the most difficult reading task I’ve ever undertaken. His thought is meaty… and he quotes many original sources in Latin and Greek (yikes!).

I’m intending to do a series of posts exploring Barth’s thought and its initial impact on me. Mostly, this will be simple “take homes” that I’ve found helpful or wrestled with (in hopes that processing this way will help me internalize them). If you, one of my two blog followers, get something out of this, even better. 🙂 We’ll talk about his Christocentric hermeneutic; his take on the idea of “religion” (“the revelation of God is the abolition of religion”… what’s that all about?); and (I hope) much, much more. This hinges, of course, on whether I “get around to it,” and we have every reason to be skeptical, as I rarely follow through on such intentions.

By way of introduction, I wanted to start off by briefly explaining why I started reading Barth. Which means, of course, talking about Bonhoeffer.

A year ago, bothering with Barth would have been the last thing on my mind. I would have recognized the name, and could probably have told you that he was a 20th century Neo-Orthodox theologian (though I’d have been a little rusty as to what that meant). That’s about all the Barth I was exposed to in my Evangelical/Pentecostal Bible College training: A sidebar in a Doctrine textbook, and maybe a partial segment in a Church History course. Barth was not worth the serious attention of a committed evangelical called to preach the Word.

My friend Wyatt had already beaten me to Barth… but I really caught the Barth bug last spring via Eric Metaxas’ biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), previously reviewed on this blog here. This is an incredible book telling the story of a young German academic and pastor who stood against Hitler (in a variety of ways) during the rise and dominance of the Third Reich in Germany… and whose theology was shaped most profoundly by (drum roll, please!) Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer first encountered Barth through his writings. According to Metaxas,

[Barth’s] groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles, that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that. (p. 60)

Metaxas continues:

Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him. (p. 61)

I’ll comment more on Barth’s understanding of revelation in a future post (or two), as the subject  is one with which Barth is most preoccupied with in CD I.1/2.  Barth’s “Deus Dixit” (God speaks) stood in stark contrast to what Bonhoeffer perceived to be dry liberalism at institutions like Union Seminary in New York.

Barth and Bonhoeffer met multiple times between 1931 and 1933, while Barth was teaching at Bonn and putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Church Dogmatics.  At that time Adolph Hitler was ascending into power, and Barth was among a group of Confessing believers who still believed the national leader could be reasoned with. In 1934 Barth penned most of the Barmen declaration, rejecting the influence of Nazism on German Christianity. Upon its completion (which was, according to Barth, “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars”), the declaration was mailed personally to Hitler by Karl Barth himself.

It is against this backdrop of crisis for the church that CD born. Far from being a detached philosopher, Barth was rubber-meets-road thinker whose theology was very relevant in a time when the church of God was having to fight for its unique identity.

Metaxis summarizes one of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral take-homes from Barth this way:

Anything good must come from God, so even in a sermon that was poorly written and delivered, God might manifest himself and touch the congregation. Conversely in a sermon wonderfully written and delivered, God might refuse to manifest himself. The “success” of the sermon is utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and “grasps” us, or we cannot be “grasped.” (p 81)

Or as I would put (not so eloquently): “I don’t have to get everything right for God to do His thing.” In all, Barth is mentioned 85 times in this biography, as a theologian, a leader in the Confessing Church movement in Germany (though his involvement was from afar after 1935 when he was forced out of the country for refusing to swear allegiance to the Führer), but most of all as a sort of mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was an outstanding pastor and theologian in his own right).

I found that every mention of Barthian ideas in this book seemed to resonate with me. Barth presents a credible and vibrant theology for ministry that neither retreated to fundamentalism nor capitulated to modernity (as many theological liberals did). I had to get to know this Barth more….

Initial Reflections on The King Jesus Gospel

Have you ever heard someone complain of a church that “they just don’t preach the Gospel enough”? I have. And since I’ve been around Christians for a very long time, I know exactly what is meant by such a statement: That the church in question has not regularly, publicly, and explicitly explained what an individual must do to “get saved.”

Because “how to get saved” is the Gospel, right?

In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight argues that Christians (particularly American Evangelicals, though this extends well beyond this segment) have been driven by a Salvation Culture instead of a Gospel Culture. We’ve assumed for too long that the Gospel is all about how an individual “gets saved” and have then read the Bible through that lens. This makes the Gospel this “basic message” that persuades people to become Christians, usually including a bare minimum of Biblical factoids. Your sinfulness separates you from God; Jesus died for you, taking on the punishment due for your sins; respond to Jesus’ sacrifice with faith to be made right with God. 

All these things can be established using Scripture. That’s not the point. No one is calling into question justification by faith, or the importance of salvation. The question is: Are these things the Gospel? 
Years ago I was one of the leaders of a student-led worship ministry at a local church, called “The Summit.” What was the Summit, you ask? Well basically a group of young people including myself decided we needed more church (since, you know, twice Sunday plus Wednesday wasn’t enough in a given week!). So we started something Saturday nights. Seriously though, we were hungry for more of God and wanted to engage him in extended periods of worship. We were all about exalting and knowing Jesus, week after week.  I got to test the waters in leadership and in teaching with a group of young people that was regularly around 30-40 bodies strong (at peak times as many as 70), with individuals representing a variety of church flavors. I was just out of high school.
One week we were advised that there was a Mormon in attendance. A Mormon! Definitely not saved! So as a leadership team we knew what this meant. This week, we had to do something we didn’t normally do: Preach the Gospel (in addition to the planned talk). If we didn’t, this person’s blood was on our hands. Anyways, I drew the short straw, so it was up to me to give the Gospel-spiel. And let me tell you, it was not pretty. I had received training that outlined the bare minimum of info that had to be included in a Gospel telling (something like what was outlined above). I think I squeezed it all in, despite my awkwardness. It was sincere too. 
But it was also flat and storyless. I began to question how much I really related to it. I’m sure the Mormon didn’t. And even though I (probably, mostly) got the facts right, I’m not sure the Gospel got through.
What if the Gospel is about a bigger story? Bigger than resolving my sin problem. Bigger than me being justified by faith or getting into heaven. Bigger than me getting to be God’s friend.
McKnight makes the case the Gospel is about the grand sweep of the Bible, the good news that the story of God and Israel (and by extension, the whole world) has found its fulfillment in Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It’s a proclamation about a person. Jesus preached and embodied this Gospel. The apostolic fathers preached this Gospel. Even the first Creeds tell this gospel. 
And yes…of course…. this Gospel includes a call to respond. How could it not? A declaration that Jesus is “the King” has implications for my life and yours. And for our world. Indeed, the result is salvation. 
The problem is that we’ve had the cart (salvation) in front of the horse (gospel).  We have been focused primarily on “getting people in” and have crafted our message with that primary goal in mind.  As McKnight argues, we’ve been preaching a weak Gospel and getting weak results.
Our need is to return to Scripture and allow the original “King Jesus Gospel” to capture our imagination. McKnight’s book is a great start, and deserves a wide and thoughtful reading. 

Some Jesuses Should be Rejected (Reflections on Love Wins)

Yeah I read it. Finished it about a week ago, but needed some time to chew (not that anyone has been expecting a real blog post, since its been a couple years). Quite a lot of people (many of whom I respect) have been fairly critical and/or dismissive of it. I’ve “overheard” conversations (mostly online) that range from “Did you hear that Rob Bell isn’t a Christian anymore?” to “I’ve known he had fallen into heresy a long time ago.”

It probably didn’t help that Bell seemed evasive when people have tried to “nail him down” on this or that propositional biblical truth during his media blitz. I get it, Rob. Your answer to the “Do you believe in Hell?” question is that you see hell all over the place. And your answer to charges of departure from orthodoxy is that “orthodoxy is a wide diverse stream” with room for differences on things like, say, eternal destinations. Pretty sure today’s “keepers of orthodoxy” aren’t buying that one. Even I cringed in frustration at moments. The FAQ’s on his church’s website were much more direct. 

I’ve personally spent more time in the twitter-blogosphere reading what everyone else thinks about Love Wins than I actually spent reading the book. The conversation has been interesting. But my time actually reading the book was much better spent. I’d much rather read Bell going a bit overboard in the “love of God” department than a lot of the reactionary orthodoxy out there.

So, here goes. My initial reaction: This is the best work that Rob Bell has put out. Brilliant. Love Wins presents the “good news” in a way that could be heard as “good news” by people I care about.  Not because he “compromises truth so as to make Jesus palatable to people on the fringe” (a common thread I hear). More like he paints a picture of God that is beautiful. Attractive. He introduces the reader to a Jesus worth following. With a vision for living that embraces the fullness of God’s purpose and that pushes back against the hellish realities of our world.

That said: Rob Bell would probably make a pretty bad systematic theologian (and I do like systematic theology; call me a nerd). Which makes me glad that he really doesn’t try to be one.  He’s really good at painting word pictures. And telling stories.  Love Wins is filled with both. But in the theology department, Bell majors in deconstructing, not systematizing.

Some of the theology he deconstructs is bad, and needs to be seen for what it is. As he puts poignantly in Love Wins, “Some Jesuses should be rejected.” (p. 9) Not just heretical pictures of Jesus. Also the “Jesuses” of authoritarian religion or abuse or church-sanctioned war and persecution. Mean Jesuses and casual “Jesus-is-my-homeboy” Jesuses. 

On the flip side, some of the theology Bell deconstructs is more or less good, but could use some analyzing, second guessing or re-articulating. This isn’t all bad.  Sometimes even “orthodox” theology paints a pretty poor picture of God. Take the suggestion that “Jesus saves us from God,” which Bell reacts against in the “trailer” for the book. Not an uncommon sentiment, given how the Gospel is often preached. You know, the “bad news, good news” approach, which goes something like this: “You are a sinner and God is holy, therefore respond to Jesus’ sacrifice with faith or else: hell for eternity.”

Wait. Isn’t that the simple Gospel? Isn’t that what substitutionary atonement is all about?  To which Bell might say something like, “Well, sort of. Problem is, when you have to always say it this way, you are telling a pretty poor story about God. Let me tell you a better one.”

Traditional articulations sometimes come off as being about a “God the Father” (the hard-liner) who was really peeved off at our rebellion and sin until Jesus (the “love” part of God) came to save the day. When this happens, not only are we looking at a “poor story,” we’re faced with an inconsistent (and unbiblical) type of God-talk.

Which brings me to (what I perceive to be) the center of any truly Christian theology. And why, with this as my focus, I’m not particularly bothered by Love Wins.  Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Jesus. The center. Our entire understanding of God, framed around what we know of Jesus and his mission. Biblical texts interpreted through Jesus-colored glasses. Life. Human history. Centered on Jesus.

So, any picture of God which tells a story that is incompatible with the love of God poured out through Jesus can use to be reevaluated. No need to get prickly because this reevaluation steps on my toes or doesn’t jive with the story as I’ve heard or told it.

I’m not going to get into where I agree or disagree with Bell point by point (maybe later).  Or the dicey question of whether Bell is a “universalist” (Greg Boyd did a solid job on that question on his blog).  I do share some of the more moderate concerns out there (most recently, this one). Could Rob’s picture of Jesus (and heaven, hell, etc) use evaluating? Certainly. But is he preaching one of those “Jesuses” that should be rejected? I don’t think so. 

I think it more likely that people will encounter the real Jesus —  the Biblical Jesus, the risen Jesus, the welcoming Jesus, the turns-your-world-on-its-head-Jesus — though this book, than will be led in to deception by any of its shortcomings.  

That’s all I got for now. Rob Bell can still be in my club.