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The Absolutely Correct Perspective on Historical Theology

Yeah, I know, I’m terrible at keeping up with this blog. But to be fair, I’m now participating in another blog, which is way awesomer than this one, with a few friends from Aberdeen.

In any case, I’ve been speed reading through Church Dogmatics I/1 these days, and I came across this gem of a passage that I’d like to reproduce for your consideration. The context is Barth’s commendation that the doctrine of the Trinity, admittedly a theologoumenon from an entirely different time and place, still has meaning for us in the church today. Seriously, it’s a great passage:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that in which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints. Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every kind, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of and in this worldliness. The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For linguistically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel—simply because our own philosophy is different—it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of the earlier period were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy. Caution is especially demanded when we insist on differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause so far as we can. But antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning. (pp. 377-8)

And what lengthy blog-quotation would be complete without the obligatory: Thoughts?

How to Find Karl Barth’s Grave

A few weeks ago, Melissa and I traveled over to Basel for a couple of days while my parents watched the kids. Needless to say, as a 100% unquestioning, blindly faithful and uncritical devotee of Karl Barth, it was a transcendent experience, with highlights including a trip to Barth’s last residence up on the Bruderholz as well as dinner at his favorite restaurant, the Walliser Kanne (where, incidentally, I paid nearly 30 francs for what I’m told was Barth’s usual dish – Käseschnitte mit Ei – essentially some very expensive cheese on toast). In any case, going on a tip from a friend, we also made our way over to the Hörnli cemetery to pay our respects to the sleeping Barth clan. Seeing as it was a royal pain in the arse to find the exalted mound, I though it might be helpful to record some more detailed directions for future grave hunters (which, admittedly, is only to expand on the very fine work of this guy – ignoring for the moment his invocation of a certain “theodrama” mentioned at the end of the post).

Right. So here’s how you do it. First off, we took the 31 bus from Schifflände station in the city center, which lets you off right up in front of the Friedhof am Hörnli, the cemetery where Barth is buried.

Now, the technical location of the grave is section 0803, grave 0014 – but if you’re an idiot like me, these numbers are difficult to decipher, particularly if there’s no help available. Basically, the first thing you’ll have to do is find section 8, which is located here:

On the map of section 8, the grave is located here:

If you’re standing near the head of the section, you can see a white wall toward the back. Barth’s headstone is against this wall, about one quarter in from the left.

Success! – here’s a couple stunning pictures of the grave (again, pay no attention to the name that’s slightly cut off in the first one – it’s really not worth your mental energies to think about it).

So there you are – hopefully this will help you should you ever decide to do the right thing and get yourself over to Basel where you belong.

I’ll leave you with one last picture of myself eating the legendary Käseschnitte. It comes highly recommended, but be warned – eating such cuisine has been known to produce the urge to radically revise the doctrine of election.



On Being Orthodox and Modern

On Monday the Aberdeen Theology department was graced by a visit from the inimitable Paul Molnar, who is known in these parts for his tireless advocacy of divine freedom, his work on the theologies of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, and for his rock solid commitment to the absolutely, super-duper, don’t-even-think-about-not-thinking-about-it triunity of God (he’s also a Met fan, but we’ll just try to ignore that).

In any case, I found Dr. Molnar to be great fun, both for his intensity as well as for his totally refreshing New York sense of humor. I wish I could share with you some of his choice zingers from our lunch meeting, but (sigh) a handshake yesterday morning effectively sealed the contents of those conversations for the ages. If you do ever run into the guy, though, be sure to take him out for coffee and experience him for yourself.

On to the serious bit.

As someone who is trying to integrate the insights of a quintessentially modern theologian like Schleiermacher with those of Karl Barth, Molnar’s seminar presentation raised some specific questions for me. It seems to me that, for Molnar, Barth is at his best when he’s able to carry on constructive dogmatic work within the bounds of traditional orthodoxy. Of course, Molnar grants the occasional lapse (e.g., the presupposition of immanent divine condescension in the account of grace in CD II/1), yet by and large, he seems convinced that Barth remained generally faithful to the gospel correctly identified and upheld in the classical tradition (even as he pushed the conversation forward). Now, importantly, this appears to mean that, for Molnar, Barth accepted and worked with not only the formal insights of, for instance, the ecumenical councils, but also something of their substance. To be sure, in Molnar’s view, Barth was no mere repristinator, but nevertheless, if there’s a spectrum with “spirit” on the one side and “letter” on the other, I think Molnar would tick Barth more on the “letter” side of orthodoxy than, say, Bruce McCormack. Consequently, in Molnar’s mind, there really aren’t divergent streams or tensions in Barth’s thought; rather, there are simply those places where Barth said things rightly (i.e., Christianly), and others where he said things not so rightly. In all cases, however, this much is clear: Barth’s intentions were noble, i.e., he was aiming with all his might to stay in line with historic Christian beliefs, particularly concerning the doctrine of God. Such is my impression of Molnar’s Barth.

So, then, how to relate orthodoxy and modernity. As is well known, Bruce McCormack has proposed his own model wherein Barth plundered the key insights of orthodox theology, stripped them of their premodern metaphysical baggage, and then used these insights to push forward to fresher and more faithfully Christian dogmatic vistas. In this model, modernity serves Barth not only in exposing the shortcomings of classical ontology, but also in challenging particular doctrinal conceptions (e.g., concerning the immanent life of God). In other words, Barth is not only operating within a modern context; he’s actually hearing and in some cases granting the concerns of modernity as amenable to the task of doing faithful Christian theology. Accordingly, McCormack’s Barth seems to take the formal insights of classical orthodoxy and retool them using some of the material insights of modern Protestantism (all the while in careful attendance to Scripture, of course).

For Molnar, however, it seems to be just the opposite. His Barth takes on the formal concerns of modernity while retaining in force the material claims of classical orthodoxy. What made Barth a genius, therefore, was not his ability to be a modern theologian, but rather his ability to be a classically orthodox theologian who can speak powerfully and prophetically to modernity.

(I’m sure that if McCormack or Molnar were to read this, they’d likely accuse me of gross caricature – but recall that I’m trying to place them on a continuum, not on opposite poles.)

So this kind of puts me in a bind. I hate having to choose between orthodoxy and modernity. Are both approaches really so forceful as to dominate the other either materially or formally? Why not simply appropriate those insights, material and formal, from both modernity and orthodoxy which best serve our Christian witness? Have not our minds become a bit too systematic when we find ourselves being forced to choose, wholesale, the perspective of one particular approach as either the context or the substance for all our theologizing? I honestly think McCormack is onto something important when he suggests that being both orthodox and modern is a good thing; I’d just like to make sure that this relation is fitted with enough pliability to remain true to the Word of God. You know, semper reformanda and all that.

Right – so give me the answers. I gather you are all smarter than me, and I’m giving all you academics in particular a golden opportunity to flex your interpretive muscles and show me how I’m looking at this issue in ever so slightly the wrong way. So have at it!