Monday, February 27, 2017

John Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and participating in the reality of God becoming real

“It’s already done. You just have to find a way to make it real.”

This is John Lewis, Alabama congressman and civil rights icon, explaining his approach to effective social action in an interview with Krista Tippett, recorded during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage that Lewis led in 2013.

You might remember that back in the day (i.e. just before his inauguration), Donald Trump lashed out at Lewis for opposing his presidency and boycotting the inauguration. He tweeted that Lewis was "all talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!"

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Lewis was one of the most prominent leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He repeatedly put his life on the line for freedom and equality, on freedom rides and sit-ins. He was a chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And he led the first Selma march on Bloody Sunday, where he suffered a skull fracture at the hands of advancing Alabama State Troopers, who assaulted marchers with clubs, whips, and tear gas.

In his interview with Tippett, Lewis says that, in the long struggle that is non-violent social action: “I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward, that it’s already done. That it’s already happened.”

You have to “live as if you’re already there!”

When I first heard this, I was immediately reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. I realized that what Lewis was describing—what he had embodied so strongly—was an essentially Bonhoefferian approach to social action.

Bonhoeffer (as some will already know) was a German theological prodigy and Nazi resister. Ethics is widely considered his magnum opus, even though he never saw it to completion—having been executed, just before the end of the war, for aiding a conspiracy that sought to assassinate Adolf Hitler and topple the Third Reich. Ethics had to be pieced together, and published posthumously, from the notes and manuscripts he left behind.

In one of those manuscripts, “Christ, Reality, and Good. Christ, Church, and World” (DBWE, 47-75), Bonhoeffer insists that Christian ethics isn’t about being good or doing good. Rather, it’s about participating in God’s reality revealed in Christ, and in its becoming real in the world around us.

“Good,” he tells us, is not a quality belonging to discrete persons—to their particular wills, intentions, actions, or to the consequences of their actions. “Good is not the agreement of some way of existence that I describe as reality with some standard placed at our disposal by nature or grace. Rather, good is reality, reality itself seen and recognized in God.”

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
[CC BY-SA 3.0 de (
via Wikimedia Commons
In the person of Jesus Christ, God and world are brought together. In him both find their ultimate reality. And this reality “becoming real among God’s creatures” is what Christian ethics is all about. Where other ethics might speak of the relation between ought and is, or idea and realization, Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic speaks of “the relation between reality and becoming real, between past and present…or, to replace the many concepts with the simple name of the thing itself, the relation between Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

Those who seek to force the realization of unreal, and therefore unrealistic, ideals onto a stubborn and recalcitrant world are eventually overcome by discouragement and pessimism. On the other hand, those who abandon the chase after ethical ideals (the futile attempt to “[make] real something that is unreal”), and who instead pursue only “that which serves reality usefully and purposefully,” end up surrendering to the world as it presents itself. Sooner or later, they give up the fight.

According to Bonhoeffer, a truly Christian ethic follows a different path. It does not seek what is unreal (what ought to be), but what is real (what is). The reality with which it deals, however, is not “the vulgar concept of that which can be empirically established.” It is the reality of the world as it is found in Jesus Christ—the reality of the world “always already borne, accepted, and reconciled in the reality of God.” Following Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic means seeking to live according to this reality, and participating in its becoming real and visible in the world.

Those who follow this path will not cow to the world as it presents itself—surrendering to its stubborn pseudo-realities. And in spite of whatever discouragements they encounter, they will not finally succumb to pessimism. They will endure in faith, confident (as Lewis says), that what they are “moving toward, that it’s already done.”

Bonhoeffer challenges us: “With what reality will we reckon in our life? With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies? With the resurrection or with death?”

Sitting down at lunch counters, as though they had as much a right to be there as anyone, and riding desegregated buses through the American South, in brazen defiance of the so-called reality of white supremacy, John Lewis and other members of SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) were living according to the reality of God disclosed in Jesus Christ, and participating in its becoming real and visible in the world. They were choosing to reckon with the reality of God’s revelatory word, with divine grace, with the resurrection. They acted with confidence, because they knew that that what they were moving toward was already done, and they just had to find a way to make it real.

By Federal Bureau of Investigation
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, this was, and is, not an easy fight. The “so-called realities of life” war against the reality of God’s revelatory word. Even in their unreality, falsehoods like white supremacy, American exceptionalism, or the priority of profit over life, community, and ecology, have (at least for now) a very real and destructive impact in the world. It has always been a costly choice.

Yet in every generation we must choose. Will we live according to God's reality? Or according to the falsehoods and pseudo-realities that so often pass for truth at our press conferences and on our Facebook feeds? Will we reckon with "God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? With divine grace or with earthly inadequacies? With the resurrection or with death?”

May we reckon with the world as it is in Jesus Christ—“always already borne, accepted, and reconciled." And may we find a way to make it real.


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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Was Niebuhr a "Real" Theologian?

Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, chuckles at the old quip that has circulated for decades in Protestant circles: Though the Reinhold was more famous and prolific, his younger brother, Helmut Richard, was really the superior theologian. Of course, remarks Sifton (author of a book on her father's "Serenity Prayer"): That has been an inside joke within the Niebuhr clan all along.
A painting of Riverside Drive and Riverside Park at about 145th Street.
By Trude Waehner (ca. 1940s)
(Courtesy of Dr. Gustav Szekely, via Wikimedia Commons)

What are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr -- political activist and theorist, preacher, ethicist, and public theologian? Like the "Christmas" that is "in the air" in an interminably replayed holiday cult classic, Niebuhr's name has been in the air for the past several years -- bolstered in part by an ostensible rebirth of political "realism" in the Obama administration and by references to the great German-American thinker in newspaper columns. And just in time for these heady post-Camelot days, when a "reality" TV producer and casino developer has usurped the high priesthood of U.S. power, Niebuhr gets another shout out in a new documentary by Martin Doblmeier, set to air on PBS affiliates this spring.

(Despite Niebuhr's evident notoriety and pervasive influence, however, Doblmeier reports that, when he pitched the project to PBS reps, he sent a number of them scrambling to Wikipedia to play catch up.)

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. A film by Martin Doblmeier. (Journey Films, 2017).

I had the privilege to see a screening of the film recently at the First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the church where Niebuhr was a member when he died in 1971. It was a special event. Niebuhr's son, Christopher, a nearby resident, was present, and the filmmaker was in tow with Gary Dorrien, who holds the Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary (New York), to answer questions. It was just the right therapy for a room full of graying white liberals, shocked and disconsolate over the recent election. (Also worthy of note: Jeremy L. Sabella, a consultant for the documentary, is publishing this Eerdmans companion volume for the film.)

The film is quite good -- every bit as taught and gripping as Doblmeier's earlier work on Bonhoeffer -- and I highly commend it. Doblmeier did his research. The cast of consultants interviewed is extraordinary: Niebuhr Society President Healen Gaston. along with Niebuhr experts Ronald Stone and Robin Lovin; scholars with relevant cognate expertise for situating Niebuhr's work -- Andrew Bacevich, Andrew Finstuen, and Mark Massa; the firebrand public intellectual; the cool-headed New York Times curmudgeon, David Brooks; and Dorrien, who graced the audience with some punchy commentary in the post-screening Q&A. Civil rights icon Andrew Young, also featured in the film, attests to how carefully civil rights leaders in the early 1960s were reading Niebuhr's work. Author Susannah Heschel, daughter of the Abraham Joshua Heschel, offers delightful anecdotes attesting to Niebuhr's graciousness, warmth, and humor and his abiding fascination with Jewish thought. Contrarian bon mots from Stanley Hauerwas, who claims to "love" Niebuhr while disagreeing with virtually everything the man wrote, provides some welcome color, and even a bit of comic relief, to a fairly serious film bordering occasionally on hagiography. As an added treat, President Jimmy Carter, who himself has claimed (perhaps less plausibly than Mr. Obama?) Niebuhr's mantle, weighs in as well.

(The Amazon entry for the film lists Carter as an "Actor." Either they missed the mark by one President or perhaps they are somewhat infected by the #AlternateFacts ethos of our day.)

Somewhat disappointingly, this outstanding blog series is never referenced in the documentary. (But I realize Doblmeier had a limited budget and only an hour-long framework within which to work, so we'll give him a pass this time.)

This biopic celebrates Niebuhr's work as a pastor and seminary professor, a colleague of Paul Tillich and comrade of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Abraham Joshua Heschel (Billy Graham, not so much).
What is Truth? (Christ before Pilate)
by Nikolai Ge (1890)
(via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)
But what comes most to the fore is his vocation an activist, political philosopher, and overall voice of conscience for an U.S. electorate and political establishment often unsure and unsteady about their proper role in the world. We learn how Reinhold, the elder son of German immigrants, parlayed his early stint as a Detroit pastor into a platform for labor agitation in the face of Henry Ford's burgeoning capitalist empire; how he dabbled in socialist politics, even running for statewide office in New York, only to go more mainstream in embracing Roosevelt's New Deal; how he stridently challenged the indolence of isolationists and the naivete of ideological pacifists in the lead-up to World War II; How he was initially reluctant to get directly involved in the nascent Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s; how he served as a political adviser to the Kennedy administration; and, finally, how he became a trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

All this, again, raises the question: Just how theological was Niebuhr's work -- at least the main body of it? To what extent did specifically Christian theological and moral commitments shape his vocation as public intellectual? From what I've read, I'm inclined to answer the later question: "a very great deal." But the earlier question seems a little more ambiguous. To be sure, Niebuhr, who never earned a doctorate, did not write extensively, say, about the intricacies of trinitarian dogma; nor did he offer in-depth analyses of atonement theories; nor did he offer a thorough critique or defense of two-natures Christology. That said, I do have to point out that Niebuhr was a prolific and world-class preacher, who could engage biblical texts with extraordinary sensitivity and insight.

In the film, Cornel West (who studied with James Cone at Union) argues that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains "to this day" the most important foundational text in contemporary Christian social ethics. To be sure that book, which might well be Niebuhr's best, is a tour-de-force that remains as relevant today as it was eight decades ago. But I still wonder: What is so specifically Christian about it? To be sure, he offers a brilliant critique of the posibilities and limitations of religious idealism within the socio-political sphere, but to what extent might distinctively Christian confessional and theological commitments undergird or perhaps complicate his proposal?

In the film, Hauerwas, the Duke theological ethicist whose portrait (like Niebuhr's) also once graced the cover of Time Magazine, raises the issue in his own pointed way: For all his brilliance, Niebuhr (Hauerwas avers) lacked a proper ecclesiology -- a thick description and normative account of Christian community. Indeed, just where does the church fit in for Niebuhr, arguably one of the great modernist reinterpreters of Augustine's City of God?

For now, I leave it to the Niebuhr experts to address such questions. But I was struck by the answer Dorrien gave the audience: Niebuhr was, after all, a low church Protestant (not a high-church Anglican or United Methodist crypto-Catholic). Such folks are inclined, on principle, to keep their ecclesiologies minimal; and I think that answer resonated, by and large, with the audience, as was perhaps evident by the show of hands when they were asked how many of them had even heard of Hauerwas.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.11: The Infallibility of the Church

Eleventh Question: Is the church infallible or can it err about faith? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

We reach now what is in many ways the main event in Turretin’s ecclesiology. Given that his is an “elenctic” theology—a theology aimed at refuting an opponent; we would not be far wrong to call it a “polemic” theology—it is critical that he deal with this issue because “the question concerning the infallibility of the church is the most agitated of all which lie between us and the Romanists about the church and of so great importance that the papacy seems to rest upon it as its principal fulcrum” (18.11.1). In other words, if Turretin can win this argument, quite a few other dominoes will fall.

Turretin begins, as usual, by clarifying the issue. This is not about the invisible church, but about the visible; it is also not about the mas of believers, but about pastors; and it is also not about individual pastors, but the church’s pastoral office as a whole when gathered in council. What about the papacy? Turretin spends two pages demonstrating that various “Romanist” authorities can’t agree one where the infallibility rests, and adducing proof that many significant personages (e.g., Peter d’Ailly and Nicholas of Cusa, to name two who folks might still recognize) and councils who ruled that this infallibility does not rest with the pope. The payoff, of course: “Thus the Romanists among themselves are split into various parties about this infallibility of the church” (18.11.5)—doesn’t really sound like an infallible bunch, does it?

Here’s a quick run-down of the arguments Turretin adduces in support of his position:

  1. Imperfection of Regeneration—that is, salvation is never perfect in this life, so error persists in Christians and the church. This is the most systematically compelling argument that Turretin offers here.
  2. Promises—the promises of perseverance given to the church are conditional; no worries, God supplies the condition in the elect.
  3. Romanist inconsistency—they admit that there are unbelievers also mixed into the church; ergo…
  4. Individual fallibility—particular Christians can err and a group cannot be less prone to error than an individual; also, bigger groups aren’t more reliable than smaller because wherever two or three are gathered, etc.
  5. Scripture’s silence—you’d think Scripture would tell us about the infallibility thing if it were true.
  6. Experience—look at all these times that the church has erred! Under the OT, under the NT, various councils, etc.
  7. Predictions—look at all these biblical texts that predict the church’s apostasy! Hard to square that with infallibility. *whistles innocently*
  8. Examination of doctrine—this is perhaps the most compelling biblical argument that Turretin makes in this section. It packs a punch even if it is rather brief. He draws on 1 Jn 4.1, 1 Thess 5.21, and elsewhere to demonstrate that the biblical text expects Christians to compare all the teaching that they hear to what is handed down to them in Scripture. The payoff: “why should this examination and judgment be enjoined upon believers so earnestly, if infallibility had been given to the church?” (18.11.18)
  9. Uncertainty—the Romanists can’t even agree about this amongst themselves.

After providing these arguments, Turretin again descends into a discussion of councils and popes with the purpose of demonstrating that they have erred and fallen into heresy. But, Turretin assures us, we need not fear the shipwreck of our faith because the church is fallible: “the church is free from a fall, but the church errs” (18.11.26). In other words, the Holy Spirit maintains the church in its faith, but that does not mean the church never makes mistakes, is never more or less faithful, etc. The distinction between the visible and invisible church reappears to perform good service here: “It is one thing for Christ to be always present with the invisible church of the elect, to preserve it from fundamental error and from a total and final fall; another to be present with the visible church (and in particular with the representative) to provide infallibility to it in all its decrees. Christ promises the former, but not the latter” (18.11.27).

The reason Turretin thinks that believers need not worry about the church’s fallibility is because they possess an infallible guide and standard in Scripture. This was implied already in his 8th argument discussed above. “Although infallibility is not given by God to the church, it cannot on this account be said that God was wanting in things necessary to her, because it is not necessary to have a supreme and infallible tribunal among men upon whose decrees and response our faith should be suspended, since it is sufficient for her to have an infallible rule of faith and practice in the Scriptures, which as long as she observes, she will not wander from the right track” (18.11.32).

Turretin continues on to discuss the relationship between individual and corporate judgment when it comes to the interpretation of said Scripture, but this post has gone on for long enough. I leave you, then, with some excellent assorted tidbits from this section:

  • “Laws consist not in the words, but in the sense” (18.11.14).
  • “God so administers all the things he created as to permit them also to exercise their own motions” (18.11.24).
  • Idolatry is “spiritual adultery” (18.11.25).
  • “Faith is not perfected in us in a moment, but is carried forward little by little and by degrees exerts itself” (18.11.36).


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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Confessions of a Protestant Anglophile

I'm nothing if not untrendy. Think about it. Who begins a promising(?) new career as a contributing writer to a Karl Barth website with a series of posts on Walter Rauschenbusch , only to follow it up with a series on the brothers Niebuhr? Who -- having been weaned on The Good News Bible as a kid, then the The NIV Student Bible as a teenager, then the New Revised Standard Version in college and grad school -- in his adult years reverts to being (almost) a King James only guy -- not for any ideological or theological reasons, but out of sheer orneriness and love of anachronism?

World War I recruitment poster
(public domain, via Wikmedia Commons)
And who, in an age when the likes of David Duke(!) exult in a resurgence of white nationalism in high places (shudders); and in an age when Scotch-Gaelic culture remains way more trendy than the spawn of Albion's seed; and in a time when a majority of English voters have thumbed their noses at a stumbling European Union (perhaps our last hope for any international sanity) -- who, in such times, begins a new study of his English cultural heritage? (There are other important aspects of my lineage as well, including more Southern European and Mediterranean hues, but these aren't my concern at the moment.)

A lot of this rant has to do with my somewhat peculiar take on my religious identity as a member of the Episcopal Church. But more on that anon.

First, though, let me pause one moment to make one point painfully clear: Black lives matter. Full stop. (My fellow White Christians: Read some James Cone. Read some womanist theologians like Jacqueline Grant. Read the portions of U.S. Constitution now put in brackets -- the brackets don't erase history -- and weep. Barring that, just read the Gospel of Matthew, stop whining, and get over yourselves.)

Second, my attraction to the English part of my heritage should not be construed as any endorsement of a nostalgic Anglo-centrism. I'm not advocating some form of Department of Homeland Purity in the arena of religious culture. Indeed, as far as Anglican Christianity is concerned, the major growth today is in the two-thirds world (see this recent article). The second largest province in the Anglican Communion, next to England itself, is the Church of Nigeria.

Now that we're clear about those points, as I was saying....

Who, in an age when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York take the occasionof the 95 Theses' 500th anniversary year to apologize (sort of) for the Reformation, decides to write blog posts celebrating.... the English Reformation and its progeny -- with all its warts, all its deeply flawed historical entailments and entanglements, all it's collusions with and legitimizations of the blandishments of a secular monarchial authority, all it's legacy as a the religious wing of a once-global world empire? It ain't all Christmas crackers and boys' choirs, folks. It's kind of a messy history.

But what can I say? Protestant Anglophile? C'est moi!

Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders! Gott helfe mir?


And yes, though a member of the Episcopal Church for more than half my life now, I still identify as Anglican. I should like to make this point perfectly clear too: Although some Episcopalians would like, conveniently, to forget this fact, we are still members of the world-wide Anglican community. My friends in the conservative, "continuing Anglican" denominations can't lay exclusive claim to the tradition (nor do I, conversely, wish to deny their own claims to this heritage). For our part the Episcopal Church is still in full communion with the see of Canterbury, and we uphold the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral." We are an eddy -- in rainbow hues, if you will -- in the great historical stream that flowed from Archbishop Cranmer and the early Reformers.

So there you have it. Here, on this website, where Bultmannians and disgruntled Baptists skulk about, harboring suspicions of all things traditional, you will shortly be seeing from me, gentle readers, a few posts exploring my heritage as an English-speaking Protestant. There are some fantastic books that have been gathering dust on my shelf for far too long. There is a world-class Center for Renaissance Studies virtually in my backyard, along with the research library of a major state university, and I have a brilliant campus-minister spouse with lending privileges!

(Y'all calm down, just a little: Secretary DeVos -- or is that DuVos? -- is not going to torch all the Darwin books -- at least, not just yet. And incidentally, Darwin, who was a church deacon, is buried in Westminster Abbey. I've seen it with my own eyes. That's not fake news!)

So stay tuned, if I haven't lost you already.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Roland Boer on Ernst Bloch, Utopia, Revolution, and the Bible (oh, and Star Wars)

As I continue to slog through the vast amounts of German that I must read for my current Helmut Gollwitzer project, I’ve begun to spend my evenings trying to deepen my familiarity with the tradition of socialist engagement with religion and theology. Roland Boer, who is based in Australia and – currently – China, has proven to be a very helpful guide. He has published numerous works on this theme, and you can get a bit of a feel for him from his blog: Stalin’s Moustache.

In any case, I’m currently working through sections of Boer’s book on Lenin, where I discovered something of an aside on Ernst Bloch. This comes while Boer discusses Lunacharsky, whom he sees as an early forerunner of certain themes that reemerge in Bloch. As part of this, Boer summarizes one way in which Bloch interprets various of the biblical stories. The following paragraph jumped out at me, as you no doubt surmised by the fact that I took the time to write up this post and share said paragraph with you…

Roland Boer, Lenin, Religion, and Theology, New Approaches to Religion and Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 88–89.
In Bloch’s hands, utopia becomes the universal term for socialism, a desire and hope found in the myriad moments of the full range of human and natural existence, from glimpse in everyday life, through festivals and myths and literature, to the revolution itself. Yet, Bloch gives this search a decisive twist: If revolution is the act of the oppressed against their masters, then utopian glimpses of that revolution will be found in many stories of rebellion. One finds them in what are now narratives and myths of “sin,” of resistance to the white-guard god of the despots. In the Bible, these include the story of Eden, with its oppressive God who treats the first humans as children only to find that they rebel in league with an intriguing serpent; in the fatal conflict of Cain and Abel, where another face of God appears, the one who protects Cain with the well-known mark; in Jacob’s wrestling with God (El in this case, not Yahweh) in Genesis 32; in the rebellion of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11; in the Nazirites, those enigmatic figures who vow not to cut their hair, not to drink strong drink, and call the people back to their desert, Bedouin-like life in the wilderness; in the oppressive deity of Moses and Aaron, who seeks to punish the people’s constant murmur of rebellion in the wilderness; in the insurrections of Miriam, Moses’s sister, and Korah against that authority; even in the two figures of Moses, who is both liberator of the slaves and theocratic tyrant in the wilderness; in the protests of Job against his inhuman treatment by this same Yahweh; in the prophetic denunciations of economic maltreatment and religious hypocrisy; in Jesus’s stringent criticisms of the quislings who would accommodate the Roman colonizers; and in the fiery revolutionary protests of the Apocalypse against empire and its gods. At times, the bloodthirsty, vengeful God has the upper hand, but at others (admittedly less frequently) the rebels win out through cunning and ruse.
This provides a very stimulating suggestion of how to understand these stories that are very different than the readings that I grew up with. At the very least, it highlights the way these stories can be coopted by oppressive power by showing us what they look like through the eyes of the oppressed. It’s pure bonus that the last sentence reminds me of Star Wars. . .


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Hey! How about that? “Fortnight” was right for a change! It’s only been two weeks since the last link post. We’re back to your regularly scheduled programming here at DET. But before I get to what’s been going on the past two weeks here and around the theoblogosphere, there are two announcements that I’d like to make.

First, an essay of mine recently came into print. This is the final published version of the lecture that I gave to the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowshipin 2015, which can be viewed on YouTube. Of course, you don’t get the footnotes with YouTube, and I write some good footnotes (if I do say so myself). So give the link below a click and check the essay out for yourself:

W. Travis McMaken, “Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance's Criticism of Barth's Doctrine of Baptism,” Participatio 6 (2016), 1–31.

Second, it was recently announced that David Congdon has joined the line-up for the Jesus 1224 online conference! His topic is “Finding Jesus Outside Creedal Christianity,” and you won’t want to miss it. Besides, there’re lots of other interesting folks participating in this conference as well. Be sure to sign up.

Ok, on to the links! Here’s what we’ve been up to at DET:

And here’s some other good stuff:


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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Christ, Conscience, and Revolution: Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

Barth's political theology is impossible to pigeonhole.
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps this stems from his disgust with ideological straightjackets -- just a whiff of anarchism blowing through his writings, which such interpreters as George Hunsinger and Timothy Gorringe have noted.

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Barth's political iconoclasm seeps through his gloss on Questions 37 and 42, which deal with the traditional rubric of Christ's kingship. On the face of it, Calvin's wording might seem relatively innocuous, with an emphasis on the kingship of Jesus as spiritual, leaving more than a little ambuity about what that might mean in terms of how Christians relate to the temporal political realm:

Calvin writes:

But what kind of kingdom is it that you mention? -- A spiritual kingdom, contained in the Word and Spirit of God, which carry with them righteousness and life.

What does this Kingdom confer upon us? -- Just this, that by its benefit we are accorded freedom of conscience for pious and holy living, are provided with his spiritual riches, and also armed with strenght sufficient to overcome the personal enemies of our souls, sin, the flesh, the devil and the world (p. 65).

To be sure, there is a militant note here, especially toward the end. But one might well read the believer's struggle with the powers to be primarily as an inward, private affair. Perhaps considering the actual history of Reformed political engagements, Barth spins the questions in a more overtly political direction. He writes:

Christ reigns -- through the Word and through the Spirit. Everything that, we think has some "power" (political or otherwise) is at bottom no power at all. What has real power, real might, real dynamism? The Word, the Spirit; these are almighty. Any other kind of power is but subjected to this power (p. 66)

A traditional two-kingdoms Lutheran, I imagine, would have no problem affirming this gloss. The twist comes, for Barth, when Calvin draws out the ramifications of Christ's kingship to the lives of believers: What it means is that they have "freedom of conscience." and not just in spiritual matters but in a much broader and more public sense.

"Freedom of conscience" comes from the fact that Jesus is present. That is all. It comes from the fact that he alone has all power, because in his Word and in his Spirit we have the sum of all possible power. Thus it is that his own are accorded freedom of conscience. They have nothing to fear. Nothing can ultimately threaten their security (pp. 66-67).

As someone who grew up influenced by Dickens' portrait of Madame LaFarge and her comrades raging madly against the system -- the "worst of times," indeed! -- I at first found Barth's concluding twist a little surprising, even jarring:

I think it would be interesting to study more closely what are the historical and spiritual relations between Calvin and that good French Revolution. Who knows? Perhaps it is time for Christians to defend the French Revolution! (p. 67).

Perhaps this is a side of Calvin unfamiliar to many of us. But Barth's remarks seem even more pointed when one considers the context: He was lecturing in 1942, in francophone Switzerland, perhaps with a word of encouragment to the comrades in la Résistance across the border:

In any case, under the Vichy goverment it is necessary to side with the freedom of consciences (ibid.).


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