Thursday, March 18, 2010

Barth and Evangelical Theology: Part 3, “A Person of the Book?”

Kevin Vanhoozer, formerly of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School but now at Wheaton College, follows up Fackre’s discussion on Barth’s views of Revelation with a chapter entitled “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation.” As Vanhoozer notes, evangelicals have traditionally been bothered by Barth’s distinction between the Word of God (Jesus) and the words of men (the Bible).[1]

As examples of this skepticism, Vanhoozer summarizes the critiques of Barth by two major figures in early (post-fundamentalist) evangelicalism, Cornelius Van Til and Carl F.H. Henry, who both were concerned that Barth’s “neo-orthodoxy[2] was a modernist wolf in evangelical sheep’s clothing, an uneasy yoking of biblical insights and a non-biblical philosophical framework” (27–28).

Vanhoozer then deals with a second group of evangelicals in the 1970s, such as Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch (who wrote the forward to Barth and Evangelical Theology), who argued “that Barth had raised valid points about the dangers of ‘biblicism’ and refused to read him aas an indentured servant to existentialist philosophy” (33). Barth appreciated Barth’s desire to interpret the Bible “in the light of what it claims to be,” rather than by forcing a foreign framework upon it (35). Bloesch appreciated Barth for meeting “the challenge of higher criticism by showing that it needs to be ‘supplemented and fulfilled by theological criticism, which is carried on only by faith seeking understanding’” (35).

Barth deals with some of these issues in the preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans. Barth here says: “I have nothing whatever to say against historical criticism. I recognize it, and once more state quite definitively that it is both necessary and justified. My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation of the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary. Recent commentaries contain no more than a reconstruction of the text, a rendering of the Greek words and phrases by their precise equivalents, a number of additional notes in which archaeological and philological material is gathered together, and a more or less plausible arrangement of the subject matter in such a manner that it may be made historically and psychologically intelligible from the standpoint of pure pragmatism” (6). Barth does want to follow critics in their “preliminary work.” Barth then says, “When, however, I examine their attempts at genuine understanding and interpretation, I am again and again surprised how little they even claim for their work. By genuine understanding and interpretation I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis; which underlies the systematic interpretation of Calvin . . . ” (7).

I find myself in great agreement with Barth on these matters. I do have great appreciation for the historical-gramatical method (in which I was trained in college) and the historical-critical method (in which I have been trained in seminary), but at the same time, I have some criticisms of these methods. For example, John Collins, in his The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age, defines historical criticism as “a loose umbrella that covers a range of methods” which “have in common . . . a general agreement that texts should be interpreted in their historical contexts, in light of the literary and cultural conventions of their time” (4). I totally agree with Collins here, but then he says, “historical critics usually assume a hierarchy of meanings and regard the historical context as basic or primary” (4). Here is where I disagree with him: the Bible is not first and foremost a text for historical critics, but the text of the church![3]

Collins also argues that historical criticism brings people together. “It has created an arena where people with different faith commitments can work together and have meaningful conversations. The historical focus has been a way of getting distance from the text, of respecting its otherness. The neutrality and objectivity at which the discipline has aimed has allowed Jews and Christians to work together and has allowed feminists to make their case in ways that initially unsympathetic scholars have found compelling” (10). Now, let me preface my following comments by saying I am not against conversation—I think it’s important. I read scholars from which I differ in opinion and seek to learn from them. At the same time, of course people can work together when they distance themselves from the biblical text and try and look at it “objectively” (whatever that means). When something doesn’t mean anything to your life (or you seek to compartmentalize your life to the extent that something doesn’t mean anything in certain contexts) it’s easy to give yourself over fully to historical criticism. I question, however, how helpful it is for us to distance ourselves from the biblical text or that we can truly stand above the biblical text as “objective observers” (again, whatever that means). That’s why I enjoy Barth’s exegesis, which is done within the context of the church as faith seeking understanding.

Now back to Vanhoozer, who then deals with what he calls the “third wave” of evangelicals, those who interact with Barth through “Yale school” postliberals like Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. Frei and Lindbeck emphasize (like Fackre) the canon as “realistic narrative.” Lindbeck also coins the term “intratextuality,” by which he means “redescribing reality within the framework of the biblical narrative rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories” (38; see also Yale Ph.D Stanely Hauerwas’ critique of translation. Brad Kallenberg has a nice treatment of Hauerwas’ critique of translation in Ethics as Grammar). Some other “third wave” evangelicals (I assume Vanhoozer places himself in this category, but he doesn’t come out and say it) returned to Church Dogmatics to study Barth.

Barth says of the Bible, “The Word of God is God himself in Holy Scripture” (39). This stems from his concept that “only God can make God known” (39). This connects with Fackre’s discussion in my last post of Barth’s emphasis upon the freedom of God to reveal himself.

Vanhoozer distinguishes evangelical understandings of the Bible from Barth’s by saying, “For evangelicals, the Word of God is an object—the deposit of revealed truth in Scripture. By contrast, for Barth the Word of God is a subject whose speaking in and through Jesus Christ creates both the canon and the church” (39). The Word for Barth is thus a witness to the revelation of God in history (and for Barth, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity). This is important, for Barth does not see the Bible as an object to stand over and observe as a detached reader, but as a subject that reveals God as a living and active witness. As Vanhoozer later says, “Biblical interpretation is essentially the attempt to hear and obey the subject matter of Scripture, not to observe and master it” (46). Barth thus spends little time discussion hermeneutical theory, but shows his theories through exegesis of Scripture.

Barth, however, as I noted in my last post, rejected the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He does not do so because he denies the possibility of divine communication, but rather Barth “affirms that that God has spoken in Scripture and will speak again, he refuses to presume upon God’s speaking” (41). Scripture does not speak on its own, but as the Spirit works “in and through [Scripture]” (42). Scripture thus functions authoritatively as God works and speaks through a text written by humans who “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Vanhoozer, as an advocate of inerrancy, however, tries to make Barth fit an evangelical mold by saying Barth “is apparently free to treat the Bible, for all intents and purposes, as inerrant testimony to God’s self-revelation” (44), a questionable argument to say the least.

I do, however, whole-heartedly agree with Vanhoozer that “Evangelicals do Barth a disservice when, in analyzing his view of Scripture, they treat only his statements about the Bible and its indirect relation to the Word of God. To neglect Barth’s actual use and interpretation of the Bible is to fail to examine an enormous amount of evidence that casts his more theoretical (and rhetorical) statements in a markedly different light” (44). Evangelicals would then “do well to consider not only Barth’s theory but also his exegetical practice” (45).

Vanhoozer argues that the current context gives evangelicals a chance to reconsider Barth’s views on Scripture by holding up the examples of Bruce McCormack and Francis Watson.

Vanhoozer closes the chapter by arguing that philosophies of language, such as those by J.L. Austin, who emphasize speech-acts, can help evangelicals come to terms with the various apparent contradictions between Barth’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and evangelicals emphasis upon “a fixed and authoritative propositional revelation” (55). While I applaud Vanhoozer’s use of speech-act philosophy, I have mixed feelings about Vanhoozer’s discussion of propositional communication.

While I don’t agree with Vanhoozer on every point (just as I didn’t when I read his Drama of Doctrine), I applaud his survey of evangelical responses to Barth and his willingness to interact with it constructively. Just like Fackre’s chapter, Vanhoozer’s discussion of Barth’s concept of divine illumination can serve as a great help to members of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In my next post, I will interact with Sung Wook Chung’s chapter, “A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election.”

[1] I am aware of the problems with the use of the word “men” for humanity. I’m using it in reference to Barth’s work because his translator, the recently deceased Geoffrey Bromiley, uses men in the English version of Church Dogmatics.

[2] The term “neo-orthodoxy” was not Barth’s invention, but something applied by both fans and detractors to his thought.

[3] Collins does, thankfully, acknowledge ancient ways of reading Scripture, saying, “To understand the ancient context of a text requires some sympathetic analogy between ancient and modern situations” (5–6).

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Academy Award Reactions

I won’t comment on every category—just the major ones based on the movies I’ve seen. I didn’t get to see as many films as I did last year, so sorry if my response I decided to follow the model of my friend Drew’s Lost synopses and write this in stream of conscience as the show goes along.

Opening song a little weird. Neil Patrick Harris seemed winded while singing it. Martin and Baldwin were kinda funny. Was it just me or did George Clooney look like he wasn’t very amused?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: I haven’t seen The Messenger, The Last Station, or The Lovely Bones. Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon were both amazing in their roles, however and I think the Academy did well in picking Waltz.

BEST ANIMATED FILMS: I have yet to see Fantastic Mr Fox, Coraline, or The Secret of Kells. Between Up and The Princess and the Frog, I would pick Up, even though I am glad Disney decided to make more hand-drawn animation films. And they picked Up—I again approve of the Academy’s choice.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: I haven’t seen Paris 36, Nine, or Crazy Heart. Man, I just realized how few of the movies I have seen this year. It’s not as exciting.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: I don’t understand how to even comment on this category. Every year I try and guess who wins, I’m wrong. Cassandra claims she knew The Hurt Locker would win. I suspect she’s lying.

Loved the John Hughes tribute.

Ben Stiller bit was great. “Too nerdy” . . . lol.

Yay!!! Star Trek won an Oscar (for Best Makeup, but still).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Haven’t seen Nine or Crazy Heart. Based on what I’ve seen, I would vote for Mo’Nique . . . and she won. Based on the categories I know something about, I’m 100 % on my picks (all whopping three of them).

I’m mad at our local ABC station. THREE TIMES so far we have missed the first few seconds after commercial breaks (because they allowed local commercials to go too long) and not been able to understand jokes because of it.

Why won’t Kristen Stewart go away?

CINEMATOGRPHY: Definitely has to be Avatar . . . and I was right again. As I have told the bigtime Avatar fans, YES, the film is worthy of winning awards for Cinematography and some Visual Effects, but Best Picture, ABSOLUTELY NOT.

ORIGINAL SCORE: So hard to choose. I loved the music in Sherlock Holmes, Up, and Avatar. If I were to pick the music I liked most, it would be Sherlock Holmes, but I think Up will win. Up won. Michael Giacchino is quickly moving up my list of favorite movie composers due to his recent work on Lost, Star Trek, and Up. I look forward to see his future work.

VISUAL EFFECTS: As much as I love Star Trek and enjoyed District 9, my vote would be Avatar. Definitely worthy.

ACTOR: I haven’t seen Crazy Heart or Single Man, so I can’t comment on Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth. Out of the others, I would vote for Morgan Freeman (although I also loved Clooney in Up in the Air [my pick for Best Picture by the way]), but based on what I’ve heard about Crazy Heart, I’m assuming Jeff Bridges will win. Yep.

ACTRESS: I haven’t seen The Last Station or An Education. I’m guessing Sandra Bullock will win, which I can go with.

DIRECTOR: Is there behind the scenes information about the directors that academy voters know that we don’t? Cause I never guess this category correctly. I’m going to go with Catherine Bigelow. I heard James Cameron on NPR the other day saying he would be the first to cheer for her and he did, in fact, look genuinely happy about her winning.

PICTURE: While I think having 10 nominees is interesting, I still don’t like it. I think it cheapens a Best Picture nomination by having so many films nominated. I’ve seen 8 of the 10 films (haven’t seen Serious Man or An Education). I had been putting my vote with Up in the Air, but after the way things have gone tonight, how could it not be The Hurt Locker? And it is. I’m so glad Avatar didn’t win. As much as I enjoyed Avatar, it was not Best Picture worthy, as I’ve said all along. Groundbreaking? Yes. Amazing special effects and cinematography? Yes. But that’s not what makes a Best Picture winner. Thanks to the academy for not simply caving into ticket sales. I still thought Up in the Air was the best movie I saw in 2009. Amazing acting, great concept, very timely concerning the current economic downturn, and great moral to the story. Oh well—I’ve only picked the right Best Picture a few times.

What are your reactions?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Barth and Evangelical Theology: Part 2, “Revelation”

Barth is often referred to, as Fackre points out, as the “theologian of revelation.” His views on revelation, however, are the views which evangelicals, like Carl Henry, tend to find the most controversial.

Fackre, however, critically defends Barth’s views on revelation from what he calls an “evangelical narrative” perspective, “one that follows Scripture’s journey of the triune God from Genesis to Revelation—creation, fall, the universal covenant with Noah, the particular covenant with Israel, the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ, the birth of the church, the coming of salvation, the consummation of the purposes of God in the resurrection, the return of Christ, final judgment and everlasting life” (1–2; see Fackre’s The Christian Story for more on his narrative perspective).

While evangelicals tend to focus on a static view of revelation (the written Bible as revelation already written “once for all”), Barth has a “dynamic” understanding of revelation and the Word (by which he means not only the Bible, but primarily the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the word preached in the community of faith). So, Barth argues that the Bible becomes the Word of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. This has trouble evangelicals who want to argue the Bible is the word of God whether it’s being read in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit or not.

Fackre argues, however, that Barth does not deemphasize the acts of God in the Bible. Barth instead deals with both the “objectivity” of revelation with a christocentric emphasis on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, etc., of Jesus, as well as the “subjectivity” of revelation (the reception of the Word by the church), while still critiquing “liberal” subjectivism and those who appropriate his concept of the Bible becoming the Word of God in existentialist terms.[1] While Barth has a christocentric emphasis upon God’s revelation, Christ’s work cannot, as Fackre notes, “be separated from the entire sweep of the drama of God’s deeds” (4).

Barth emphasizes the Bible’s becoming the Word of God to protect the freedom of God to reveal himself not just to the inspired writers of Scripture, but to the church in every age. Barth thus maintains the “living and activeness” (my term) of the Bible, rather than the text as “dead word.” Barth holds this view alongside a strong criticism of natural theology (see his discussion with Emil Brunner concerning natural theology as an example). While Barth emphasizes the otherness of God, he does not believe God gives humanity a false portrait of Godself. As Fackre says, “What God does in the missions of the economic Trinity is who God is in the immanent Trinity” (5).

Barth later softens his rejection of natural theology some, but still believes any other “little light” must be tested in the light of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. Note that Barth places the person first rather than the text, thus avoiding a position of bibliolatry. As Fackre says, “Scripture must not be confused with the incarnate Word” (10). Barth thus argues that “all human attestations to the Word of the Prophet of God are broken human witnesses to truth” (12). Thus Barth is in agreement with the apostle Paul who though writing “inspired Scripture,” says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NRSV). This viewpoint allows Barth to critique modern conservative insistence upon verbal inspiration and inerrancy of hypothetical autographs and instead emphasize God’s sovereign work through the Scriptures to reveal Godself to the church.

Barth, as evidenced by his emphasis upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit and title Church Dogmatics for his multi-volume magnum opus, also emphasizes “the role of the church and its tradition in his theology” (11). Thus, Barth does not advocate individualistic readings of Scripture, an emphasis deeply needed in American churches. This emphasis on the interpretive community and the illuminating work of the Spirit is particularly needed in the Stone-Campbell Movement.[2]

Jesus Christ is for Barth the center of the Christian story. As Fackre says, “‘Revelation’ is Jesus Christ and brooks no contendors” (13). Fackre also notes, “[Barth’s] earlier language was sometimes interpreted as a fusion of this historical event with the moment of its reception, the ever-new ‘becoming’ of the Word of God. But his later writing seeks to avoid misunderstandings that bind the Word to the appropriation process” (13).

Fackre, however, also notes some problems he sees with Barth’s views on revelation. One I whole-heartedly agree with is Fackre’s critique of Barth’s dismissal of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Fackre also critiques Barth for at times neglects the “once for all” inspiration of the biblical text, which leads evangelicals to question whether Barth sees the Bible as authoritative. As Fackre helpfully points out in a rebuttal of this position, “Karl Barth’s practice is better than his theory, for his extensive and intensive exegesis of Scripture suggests a deeper and more sustained warrant for biblical authority” (21).

In the end, Fackre argues that Barth’s views on revelation helpfully point us to the center of God’s revelation (the Incarnation of Jesus Christ) and balances out an evangelical emphasis upon the inspiration of Scripture with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty and the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. Also, “Barth’s caution that no principles of our own making should obstruct attention to that one Word, as attested by Scripture, must be applied to his own doctrine of revelation” (25).

In my next post, I will comment on Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” which will continue much of Fackre’s discussion.

[1] I wish Barth had used different terms rather than “objective” and “subjective.” While some figures like John Franke helpfully see Barth as an important figure in the critique of modernism and turn to postmodernity, Barth still holds on to the modern dichotomization of objectivity/subjectivity.

[2] When I attended the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in 2006, John Castelein was asked by William Baker in a Q&A session with the key note speakers what he thought was most needed theologically in the SCM, and Castelein responded by saying there is a great need for an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bob Martin

My first semester at Johnson Bible College, I took Basic Christian Beliefs with a wonderful, gentle, and encouraging man named Bob Martin. He made quite an impression on me that semester. I remember the first day of class Bob told us, "You can call me Bob, not Professor Martin or Dr. Martin--just Bob. For the teacher student relationship is one between brothers and sisters in Christ."

Bob also told us that in his class, he would rather us get an F and grow closer in our relationship with God than get an A and not grow in our faith at all. While I did in fact get an A, I also grew closer to God and to the church because of that class. Bob introduced me to the theology of Karl Barth (among others) and embodied in his life, through his "rejoicing in the Lord," Barth's famous phrase: "The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all."

Because of the great experience I had that semester, I took his class on the Gospel of John during summer school in 2004. During those three weeks, I had the opportunity to spend more time with Bob and since that class, everytime I have seen him on campus at JBC, he has encouraged me in me studies. Bob was the first person who told me "You're a theologian." My love for God and for theology grew due to my relationship with Bob.

Last week at homecoming, I found out from Bob's grandson that he had been sick in the hospital. I got home from the office and found out on Facebook that Bob died today. I will miss seeing him on campus from time to time. I will miss hearing his stories about his time studying at Butler, his experiences in ministry, and his book recommendations. I hope that in the future, I can teach and study theology in a way that honors him.