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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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No One is Scared of Nonviolence

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Why are we so quick to ascribe fear to our opponents in an argument?

Disagreeing with something, finding its logic faulty, asking questions, or generally thinking something may be unwise is not tantamount to fear.  This is a silly rhetorical device designed to empower whomever is deploying it, indicative of a kind of childish fantasy: if “they” are afraid of something of which I am in favor, or of me, or something I represent, I cause fear. Ergo, I have power over them.

But of course, disagreement is not of necessity based on fear.

I have in view a recent piece by Michael Hidalgo over at Relevant titillatingly titled, “Why Are So Many Christians Scared of Nonviolence?”

The author offers this overwrought opening salvo:

“There is something that terrifies and angers many Christians even more than the threat of violence: nonviolence.”

Christians of intelligence, good will, and deep faith actually do disagree on this.

Christians of intelligence, good will, and sincere faith actually do disagree on these matters.

The author prooftexts some of the early fathers to good effect, rehashing the usual arguments from Christian pacifists.  It’s not so much an original offering as a summation.  For what it’s worth, I should note that I respect the position and appreciate much of the literature it has produced.  I went to seminary at Duke Divinity School, and many of my teachers and fellow students were (and remain) ardent advocates of nonviolence.  I took Stanley Hauerwas my first semester and wrestled with these questions for the duration of my time in seminary, and in subsequent study.  I was never convinced, though I appreciate the positions of folks like John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated Christian nonviolence for quite different reasons).

What the author of this piece fails to realize is that, potentially, what angers some interlocutors who disagree with pacifism is not the position itself but the manner in which it is espoused.  I am not “afraid” of pacifism.  This notion, if I may channel the eminent philosopher Ronald Ulysses Swanson, makes as much sense as being afraid of vegans.  But I do find the way in which pacifism is sometimes defended to be arrogant, simplistic, and dismissive towards all who disagree – much like the tone of the piece to which I am responding.

Let me describe it another way, via analogy.  A much-respected retired UMC pastor once told me that his worst experience in ministry was serving a charismatic church; many of the people in the congregation spoke in tongues and manifested other pneumatological gifts.  He said it was his worst experience in over four decades of ministry because he could not lead, or even provide spiritual care to, a congregation who viewed him as a second class Christian because he did not share their experiences of the Spirit.

In a variety of conversations and interactions, I have observed that Christian pacifists – at least those of the neo-Anabaptist variety to whom I’ve been most exposed – can often treat Christians who do not share their convictions in a similarly non-charitable manner.

(See what I did there? I critiqued people without ascribing self-aggrandizing motives.)

Seminary was a funny place. Guys would walk around in Che Guevara t-shirts or sport a good old Soviet hammer and sickle logo on their earth-friendly coffee thermos, and no one would give them a second look.  But question Yoder’s pacifism, or suggest that a military response to 9/11 was appropriate and perhaps even just? Such an egregious breach of groupthink would bring your discipleship into question.

(Note Hidalgo’s call to “look at our hearts and ask where our deepest commitment and allegiance resides.”)ad hom ref

So maybe – just maybe – some of us have a strong reaction to certain presentations of Christian nonviolence because it presents opponents as sub-Christian troglodytes. Perhaps some anger is understandable when pacifists assume themselves to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground, the true biblical witness, and the narrow way of Jesus.  Maybe we should not expect for our arguments to receive the hearing we feel they deserve if they are dripping with snark, ad hominem, and straw men.

Note the amateurish psychology of the following analysis:

“Maybe that’s why nonviolence is so threatening. It asks us to be willing to give up everything—all our wealth, power, possessions and influence that lend us a sense of self-worth and security and certainty. Maybe that’s why we get so angry at the suggestion of nonviolence; we are terrified of losing what we have worked so hard to get.”

Methinks Pastor Michael is confusing nonviolence with monastic vows.

Though he presents nonviolence as a radical way of self-denial, a costly form of discipleship, in reality there are few places in the 21st century West where this is even a possibility. As Karl Barth and others have noted, nonviolence is a commitment which lacks virtue in the absence of a military draft, or the possibility of facing actual violence; this is particularly so if one’s nonviolence is chiefly lived out among such existential threats as MacBooks and lattes.  But I digress.

Just to reiterate: I do not fear pacifists.  No one does.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid that the state of moral argument among Christians is so egregiously dire.

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Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

by Drew 0 Comments

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

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Oliver O’Donovan on Context and Theology

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In one of the most interesting chapters of Oliver O’Donovan’s  remarkable Resurrection and Moral Order, we find a brief meditation on the relation of moral theology to culture.  Here he shows sympathy with Karl Barth, who ran afoul of the vast majority of German theologians that chose uncritically to make “the great new cultural fact of their time and place” the starting point for the theological task.  What follows is a discussion of Barth’s conflict with Brunner, with a sidebar to Tillich.  O’Donovan concludes:

It is hard to see how such an approach can become more than a work of ideology, in which the gospel is proved to be ‘at home’ in our favoured cultural setting, whatever it may be…What has now become painfully clear is that the theological tradition which springs from such thinkers [does this include Barth??] is unable to deal convincingly with those liberation-theologies which most blatantly subject the theological enterprise to the sectional perceptions of a single cultural group (‘black’ theology, ‘feminist’ theology, etc.).  It can show embarrassment at them, or it can be patronizingly interested in them; but it cannot now complain at being excommunicated, and assert the universality of theology, since all the time it has understood the theological task as a discreet exercise in cultural accommodation. (90)

O’Donovan, as you may have ascertained by this point, is not an easy read.  As little sense as it makes, it appears to me that he is including Barth alongside these other, clearly accommodated, theologians.  I’m happy, however, to be corrected by keener readers of O’Donovan.  It’s worth noting that this conversation takes place within his chapter entitled ‘Knowledge in Christ’, which is a meditation upon epistimology.  He is attempting to carve out a space somewhere between the classic defense of natural law in Aquinas (though he does no like the term ‘natural law’, preferring created order) and the  “Nein!” of Karl Barth.   Thus he ends up both appreciative and (con cajones) critical of these two powerhouses.  He seems to clearly stand with Barth epistimologically, though not ontologically.  In other words, he affirm’s Barth’s sole reliance on the Word of God for Christian knowledge, and yet he critiques Barth for not appreciating the usefulness of created order (redeemed at the Resurrection) to the theological and moral task.

The above quotation was from one of his small-print, “Barth-esque” sidenotes.   A sampling of what precedes this sidebar may help illumine the whole, and help us understand O’Donovan’s qualified appreciation of the created order to theology:

…revelation in Christ does not deny our fragmentary knowledge of the way things are, as though that knowledge were not there, or were of no significance; yet it does not build on it, as though it provided a perfectly acceptable foundation to which a further level of understanding can be added….the Christian moral thinker, therefore, has no need to proceed in a totalitarian way, denying the importance and relevance of all that he finds valued as moral conviction in various cultures and traditions of the world….But neither can he simply embrace the perspectives of any such culture, not even – which is the most difficult to resist – the one to which he happens to belong and which therefore claims him as an active participant.  He cannot set about building a theological ethic upon the moral a priori of a liberal culture, a conservative culture, a technological culture, a revolutionary culture or any other kind of culture; for that is to make of theology and ideological justification for the cultural constructs of human misknowledge. (89-90)

There seems to be an important distinction here between what is “useful” and what is of first importance to theology.  While theology can and should make use of the insights gained from various cultures, no single culture can ever be an uncritical basis of the theological task.  That distinction belongs, as we learn from Barth, solely to God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I quite enjoyed O’Donovan’s description of liberationists as those who “subject the theological enterprise to the sectional interests of a single cultural group.” My own feeling is that the experience of those various cultural groups is important to critical thinking about Scripture and tradition, and to theology.  As O’Donovan insists, theology does not have to be indifferent to these various perspectives.  For instance, my courses in black church theology and history taught me to appreciate the Black Christian experience in America as instructive for what it means to live “on the underside of modernity.” (The phrase is J. Kameron Carter’s.)  But such experience, valuable though it is, is rendered into sand when it is forced to be a foundation for theology (Matthew 24:27).  The Logos, after all, God in the flesh, is the only ground that theology can take without being merely another culturally-conditioned construct of “human misknowledge.”

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Barthian Snow

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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?

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Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

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