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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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A Gloomy Church is No Church

Christ is risen!barth prayer.jpg

(Christ is risen indeed!)

The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ.  In the light of this, the church – God’s people, not the buildings in which we happen the gather – cannot be gloomy.  The Easter joy is contagious and pervasive. Recently my congregation sang the classic Brian Wren hymn that contains these lines:

“Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!”

Pain is not absent after Easter, but it is also not finally victorious.  We can “tell its grim, demonic chorus” – with a shout of alleluia! – that Christ is risen, and nothing else can ever be the same.

In his wonderful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Karl Barth reflects that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom has already been accomplished:

“In Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose. Therefore, the last day, the judgment, the resurrection of the dead, all this is already fulfilled in him. It is not only an event to be awaited, it is behind us. We must understand that in him it is also a past event. When the church speaks of Jesus Christ, when it proclaims his word, when it believes in the gospel, when it goes out to the pagans to make known the gospel, when it prays to God, remembers Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those are not ordinary historical events to which we would give a mere religious significance (telling ourselves: that is all very well, but indeed it means nothing). No! They are not nothing. They are all that has happened and is behind us. We proclaim the word made flesh, and we announce the kingdom of God which has come. When it is not jubilant, when it is not sure of its significance, the church cannot be insistent and is not insistent. A sad and gloomy church is not the church! For the church is built upon him who has been made flesh, upon him who has come to say the last word (not the next to last). This last word has already been uttered. We live upon this event. There is nothing more in it to be changed. We cannot turn back time, whose beginning is Christmas and Easter.”

There is much anxiety about Christianity in the West.  Fear and despair abound among laity and church leaders alike.  It is easy to understand how gloom, like a slow-acting poison, might seep in.

But let us remember, with Barth, that in Christ, all has been accomplished.  Let us with joy recall that at Pentecost the Spirit gave birth to the church, and we have been promised that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against her. (Matt. 16:18)  We thus greet gloom and doom with the fierce smile of a competitor who knows the game is rigged in our favor.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same!

Let us show it in our words and actions, in our attitudes, in our boldness and daring to be the church, to claim our story, to be true to Christ and thus filled with the Spirit whose abiding fruit is joy unmixed with gloom.

 

Source: Karl Barth, Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 37.

 

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Is Feminist Theology ‘Dead’?

It is, along with feminism, according to Professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University.  I like Prothero.  His American Jesus is one of the most interesting books I’ve encountered about American religion.  But I think he may have spoken too soon here.

There are a variety of feminisms and thus a variety of feminist theologies. Are all of them dead? And if so, did they all die at the same time? My own thinking is that the current trends of feminism in academic circles (represented by works such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) have left behind the equality-centered and issue-driven feminism of previous waves of feminists such as Steinem.

There is an odd kind of totalitarianism among academic feminists, though. In my course work, it often seemed that some women in the class were simply not content until we looked at everything from a “feminist” point of view. The most egregious example of this was in a class I took on Christianity and Masculinity, in which the female graduate students began to complain that we were “not talking enough” about women’s concerns. Eesh.

In some respects, I often found academic feminism to be silly because, in my experience, it consisted of elite, privileged (and often white) women sitting around and wallowing in their own oppression. If you’re in an ivy-league PHD program, odds are you haven’t suffered massive injustice! And if you want to do justice, go work for Habitat for Humanity, because teaching a bunch of other women to see themselves as oppressed doesn’t really do much to make the world a brighter or more truthful place.

Nevertheless, feminist theology has some important contributions to make. Male theologians need to be called out for their unrecognized bias on occasion. As a pastor, my own view is that feminist theology stops being theology altogether when the identity “woman” becomes more important the One worshiped – the Holy Trinity, God in three persons. The gospel, after all, is not a call to self-actualization but a call to die to self and live to God.

Read Karl Barth – it’s all about Jesus!

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Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

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A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church

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Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church.  I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.

As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding.   I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election.  I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:

As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)

To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless.  At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful.  At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.

But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church.  I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists.  Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.

Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault.  We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people.  If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained.  Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service.  Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.

P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.

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