As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2. From my slight exposure, I love Barth. I dig his project. I dig the postliberals that follow his lead. I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously). But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.
I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology. But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians. I identify with both camps. In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right). And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true). I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper. I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.
But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head. Election is now, in his words, an election of grace. In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical. But my oh my, is he convincing. Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be. But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God. Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox). But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself. In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation. Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us! We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).
I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong. I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides. But it’s a work in progress.
Now, a little of why I love Barth:
Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)
I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality. In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.
At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me. Or you. Thanks be to God!
In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?