Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, Part 1: Forward and Preface

So far, I have had trouble figuring out things to blog about. I'm noticed that in some of the blogs I read (such as Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed and Richard Beck's Experimental Theology), the bloggers blog their way through books. So, I decided to give it a whirl. For this experiment, I decided to blog through Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences (from now on KBET), edited by Sung Wook Chung, a Korean theologian who teaches at Denver Seminary. Chung compiled essays from a number of reputable evangelical theologians with diverse perspectives, such as Pentecostal scholar Frank Macchia, Dutch Reformed scholar John Bolt, postconservative scholar John Franke, and narrative theologian Gabriel Fackre. Since its release in 2006, I have been interested in reading the book, but due to lack of extra time, I have yet to have a chance.

For those of you unfamiliar with Barth (1886-1968; pronounced "Bart"), he is widely considered to be one of the most important, if not the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Barth was Swiss and studied and taught in both Switzerland and Germany. While originally educated in theological liberalism, Barth reacted against this background while preaching at a church in Safenwil during World War I. Throughout his career, Barth wrote numerous works, such as his The Epistle to the Romans and his multi-volume work Church Dogmatics. Barth was also largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration, which critiqued the Nazis and their influence on the German church, shortly before Barth was kicked out of Germany by the Nazis in 1935.

While Barth reacted against liberalism, his theology has largely been seen as suspect by evangelicals who did not believe he went far enough in his critiques. Evangelicals often question his understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and revelation. Others evangelicals were bothered by Barth's mixed attitude toward pietism, which Donald Bloesch in the forward to KBET calls, "the seedbed of modern evangelicalsm" (xv).

In the forward, Bloesch argues that some contemporary evangelicals have come to appreciate Barth's theology as "a viable alternative to fundamentalism on the right and liberalism on the left" (xv). Despite this interest by some (including the contributors to KBET), various evangelicals, such as Francis Schaeffer, have seen Barth as "an adversary to true faith" (xv). These critiques have come due to his alleged universalism, accusations of "objectivism" (which Bloesch defines as "locating salvation completely outside of human striving and experience"), and his supposed overemphasis upon the person of Christ and neglect of the Holy Spirit (xvi).

Bloesch in particular critiques "Barth's questioning of the sacraments as means of grace" (xvi), something I wholeheartedly agree with. I see this as one of the, if not the most, troubling aspects of Barth's theology.

Bloesch, however, says there are various areas in which he learned from Barth's theology, such as "his emphasis on the gospel before the law, divine revelation over human reason, dogmatics before apologetics and theology over ideology" (xvi). Bloesch also praises Barth for his critique of the anthropocentric theology prevalent in the neo-Protestantism of his day, his ability to balance respect for Scripture with an critical appreciation for historical criticism, and his emphasis upon the mission of the church (xvii).

Chung notes in the preface that scholars not just in Europe and North America, but also in the pacific rim have recently developed a stronger interest in Barth. These thinkers see his theology as "more consistent with the historic evangelical faith than evangelicals have ever thought" (xix). Throughout KBET, various evangelical scholars who share this appreciation for Barth. Chung says the book "aims to be a balanced attempt to appraise Karl Barth's theology from a consensual evangelical perspective" (xx).

As a fan of Barth and an outsider to evangelicalism (but in a tradition that shared much with evangelicalism), I look forward to the preceding chapters. My next post will discuss Gabriel Fackre's chapter, "Revelation."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Christianity

For those of you who regularly read Scot McKnight's blog, Jesus Creed, you will have already seen this story.

Christopher Hitchens, world renowned atheist and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was recently interviewed in the Portland Monthly Magazine by Marilyn Sowell, a retired Unitarian minister (http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/arts-and-entertainment/category/books-and-talks/articles/christopher-hitchens/).

At one point during the interview, this interaction took place (Sowell's words are in bold, Hitchens in italics):

The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything that you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Do you mind if I ask you a question? Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?

The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—as you put it, “the ground of being.”

Times change and, you know, people’s beliefs change. I don’t believe that you have to be fundamentalist and literalist to be a Christian. You do: You’re something of a fundamentalist, actually.

Well, I’m sorry, fundamentalist simply means those who think that the Bible is a serious book and should be taken seriously.

Now, as a committed Christian, I obviously am not a fan of Hitchens per say. I am, however, as a person who perpetually struggles with doubt fascinated in a sense by people like Hitchens.

I find it fascinating that in parts of this interview, I agree more with an athiest, Hitchens, than I do with a "person of faith," Sowell. See especially Hitchens comment, "I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian." While I disagree with Hitchens belief that Paul is the founder of Christianity, he proceeds to use Paul's arguments 1 Corinthians 15 that without the resurrection, we might as well "eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor 15:32).

I also found Hitchens argument that Tillich's understanding of God as the "ground of being" is "under the heading of 'statements that have no meaning—at all.'" I laughed pretty hard at that.

I generally avoid referring to myself as a fundamentalist, but I guess under Hitchens definition, I fall into that category (and in a sense, so does he).

Later in the interview, Hitchens starts critiquing heroes of the faith like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr., which ticked me off, but I gotta say he has one of the best critiques of theological liberalism* around.

*I know the problems with the term "liberalism." "Liberal compared to whom?" is the question that should often be asked. I'm using it as a proper noun to refer to the (self-named) liberal theology of the 19th-20th centuries.