Monday, April 21, 2008

A Beginner’s Foray into Barth’s Ecclesiology, With Response

My neighbor, Martin, is a bit of an odd duck here at Princeton Theological Seminary for two reasons: first, he is a Lutheran; and second, he holds a terminal degree in chemistry. Now, however, he is living the life of a diligent Masters of Divinity student and, at least at PTS, that means an introduction to Karl Barth. Knowing that I dabble in Barth, Martin sent me a few short comments that he had prepared for class to see what I thought of it. He has kindly granted me permission to reproduce his comments here, along with my response. Coincidentally, and for anyone who is following along at home, Martin’s comments arise from reading Church Dogmatics 4.2, 693-5.

Martin's Comments:
In 1 Peter 5:1-4, Barth’s statement that the “unity and universality of the Church’s ministry will always be, not a beautiful ideal, but the absolute law of the community, and therefore that which must be maintained as the conditio sine qua non of its life” (695) is best supported by 1 Peter 5:3, where elders are commissioned to be examples to the flock. In light of 1 Peter 4:7-11, the implication is that the individual members of the flock are to serve one another, and that the elders are to be exemplars of this service, but also of the attitudes described in 5:2-3 and 4:7-9.

Barth nuances his argument by saying that “the service of the community is a differentiated service” (694) and his description of the church is inspiring (in contrast, for instance, to clergy-focused visions of the church like that painted by Pope Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Flock of the Lord) (1907)), but just what does he mean by “the Church’s ministry”? Providing services associated with what Luther described as “the kingdom of the right hand” like preaching (public evangelism) and administering the sacraments? If so, I fail to see why the responsibility for providing these services should be foisted upon every church member instead of delegated to those in whom the church has recognized gifts for this ministry and called to provide service of this kind. But I doubt that Barth means only word and sacrament service. If he imagines something more expansive, what boundaries does he have in mind? If he simply means that every church member should be involved in offering goods and services to others, is he proposing that church elders attempt to oversee the markets in which these goods and services are exchanged? Or should Christians withdraw from “secular” markets and participate only in a Christian command economy overseen by church elders, as in Hutterite colonies?

Furthermore, Barth’s apparent infatuation with the universal rather than the particular (see, e.g. the final sentence of the main paragraph on p. 694) makes me skeptical of the efficacy and benefit of his words in pastoral work. In contrast, the eautous / allelous language of 1 Peter 4:8-10 keeps the focus of service appropriately on the local and particular, evoking fruitful and incarnate images of service that can be offered by/to real people in real places at real times. According to 1 Peter’s model, then, the church is built together as a natural consequence of a local, deontological ethic, rather than as the result of a centrally administered Five Year Plan, and becomes a spiritual house in which God dwells and from which the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in word and act.

My Response:
Martin,

Thanks for letting me look over this. Your concerns are well stated and thoughtful, although - in my humble opinion - they do not finally stick. But, I can only say that because of other things I have read in Barth that clarify what he is saying in the section of CD 4.2 with which you are working.

The fundamental point of Barth's ecclesiology is that the church is sent as God's witnesses into the world. This is what he means what he talks about ministry and service. This includes, of course, the maintenance of the sacramental and communal life within particular churches, but it is also much more than that as the church moves outside of itself. This factors into ordination. All Christians bear this same vocation of witness, and so Barth does not want to divide the church up into a serving / ministering clergy and a receptive laity. The status of clergy, then, is reduced to a particular function within the community and as part of the community's witness to the world. This is a radical Protestant rejection of the Roman sacrament of ordination. It is also what gives rise to the more "universal" feel of Barth's ecclesiology in contrast to his usual penchant for the "particular" - he handles ecclesiology more universally because he thinks that each particular church has the freedom to structure itself in a way befitting to its mission of witness in its particular context. However, this does not mean that his ecclesiology is “abstract,” for it proceeds with constant reference to Jesus Christ.

If you want to study Barth further on these things, the place to turn is Church Dogmatics 4.3.2.

Grace and Peace,

Travis M.

6 comments:

Scott said...

You said in response to Martin:

All Christians bear this same vocation of witness, and so Barth does not want to divide the church up into a serving / ministering clergy and a receptive laity. The status of clergy, then, is reduced to a particular function within the community and as part of the community's witness to the world.

Well stated.

[Barth] handles ecclesiology more universally because he thinks that each particular church has the freedom to structure itself in a way befitting to its mission of witness in its particular context.

This is a good summation as well.

You have provided good encouragement to your neighbor.

jonmackenzie said...

What is a terminal degree in Chemistry?

I hope it's not as fatal as it sounds...

Luke said...

A Church is, to me, the decision one is confronted to take in face of Jesus. What happened to Paul at Damascus. In a sense, it is something subjective, because is something needing personal adhesion. But it is also an objective fact, because Jesus saved the world objectively. This is the possibility for the personal faith and adhesion. In this sense, the whole world is Church.

All other considerations about clergy and serving may be interesting from a practical point of view, but do not enclose, in my opinion, an special theological content.

Jason said...

Luke, I'm not sure that to say that the whole world is included in Christ quite allows us to say that the whole world is Church, even objectively. It seems to me that the Church is the embodied witness of humanity's Yes to God in Christ. So, I might say that all are included in the totus Christus, but only those who by the power of the Spirit participate in Christ's "Yes " are members of the ecclesia.

Travis, thoughts?

WTM said...

Scott, thanks!

Jon, I believe he holds a Phd.

Luke and Jason, I would tend to agree with Jason. The church is that community which hears and responds positively to the self-witness of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and which in turn bears witness to Jesus Christ. In this sense, we might say that the church confronts us with the need to make a decision concerning Christ, as you (Luke) began your comment. But I don't see any way in which speaking of the whole world as the church is theologically meaningful. Perhaps you can enlighten me!

Luke said...

Perhaps I am wrong, and you are right and, if we make an effort, we can get closer to truth.

When stating the world is Church, I pretended to transmit an idea I found in Jüngel and Paul. The argument says: without Jesus coming, we would have not any idea about what God is in the particular Christian way. A today’s very common argument states that the idea of God is already in human heart, and the question is posed because of human fragility in front of insecurities. But the message of Jesus does not share this point. Without him, no question of God is posed. So, he is a novelty to humanity. In this sense, because of his presence everything bends in front of him. That is what I understand for the world being, objectively, Church.