Monday, April 28, 2008

In Honor of Nazianzen's Poetry: A Reflection in Verse

The following was written by Chris, a friend of mine for many years – spanning from when he moving onto my floor of Fischer dormitory at Wheaton College as a freshman during my second year, up to the present time, which finds him finishing his MDiv middle year here at PTS. Chris has been spending time this semester in a PhD seminar of which I am a part, studying the Cappadocian theologians under the direction of Dr. Ellen Charry. One of Dr. Charry’s pedagogical strategies is to have her students prepare a short reflection before each class to help prime the pump for discussion. This is what Chris wrote for the last meeting of our class, which occurred on April 21st. I post it today in memoriam for that lively, engaging, informative, and always fun class.

In Honor of Gregory Nazianzen's Poetry: A Reflection in Verse
Ignoring these poems might prove detrimental,

'Cause it seems that their content is not incidental,

But rather expresses some critical stuff—

So let's show some respect: the poems aren't fluff.

For example, let's take some time to acknowledge

The poems' concern for the theme of self-knowledge.

Nor should this focus seem simply selfish, or odd:

For knowledge of self leads to knowledge of God.

So if the poems can seem a bit self-concerned,

With autobiography tops and other things spurned,

Read him with charity, and keep your comments un-snide—

He is searching for God by turning inside.

His poems are conversations he has with his soul,

Which apparently helped him feel better and whole,

And spending some time on the inside helped show 'em

His external needs—could do worse with a poem!

And remember that art can give to ideas their wings,

That dogma is not simply a collection of things

That people think—it is more than conception.

Thus the Church has had poets e'er since its inception,

To lift up the soul, by beauty, to God,

To lift us to heaven, who stand on the sod.

So, then, my friends, all you aspiring PhDs,

Heed now Gregory's model—it behooves you to please

Take my suggestion into cónsideration:

How 'bout writing in verse your whole dissertation?

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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Barth’s “Rules for Older People in Relation to Younger”

A Late Friendship: The Letters of Karl Barth and Carl Zuckmayer (Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 45.

  1. Realize that younger people of both sexes, whether relatives or close in other ways, have a right to go their own ways according to their own (and not your) principles, ideas, and desires, to gain their own experiences, and to find happiness in their own (and not your) fashion.
  2. Do not force upon them, then, your own example or wisdom or inclinations or favors.
  3. Do not bind them in any way to yourself or put them under any obligation.
  4. Do not be surprised or annoyed or upset if you necessarily find that they have no time, or little time, for you, that no matter how well-intentioned you may be toward them, or sure of your cause, you sometimes inconvenience and bore them, and they casually ignore you and your counsel.
  5. When they act in this way, remember penitently that in your own youth you, too, perhaps (or probably) acted in the same way toward the older authorities of the time.
  6. Be grateful for every proof of genuine notice and serious confidence they show you, but do not expect or demand such proofs.
  7. Never in any circumstances give them up, but even as you let them go their own way, go with them in a relaxed and cheerful manner, trusting that God will do what is best for them, and always supporting and praying for them.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 5

Critical Engagement

Congar’s understanding of the relation of Word and Spirit in church and Eucharist is certainly both intricate and perceptive. It especially bears fruit in the multifaceted if fragmentary way in which Congar thinks of the Eucharist. Congar certainly has much to teach on these matters. However, there are also certain deficiencies in Congar’s work, especially when considered from a reformational point of view. By way of conclusion, a number of internal and external critiques of Congar’s treatment are offered below.

First, Congar’s treatment of the role of the Holy Spirit in Christology raises some interesting questions. As was seen above, Congar understands Jesus Christ to be the Son of God objectively on the basis of the hypostatic union and subjectively or for us and our salvation on the basis of the Holy Spirit’s actualization and realization of that objective reality in different ways and at different stages in Jesus’ earthly life. The two primary events that Congar identified of this actualization and realization by the Spirit in Jesus’ life were his baptism and resurrection. This formulation raises a number of questions that Congar does not directly address. Do the first thirty or so years of Jesus’ life have any saving significance? Congar seems to imply that they do not if Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan represents the commencement of his saving activity. More pointedly, does the incarnation itself have any saving significance? Again, the implication is no, except insofar as it is a precondition for what would follow. The problem here is that, by treating the incarnation as a mere precondition, the important link between the person and the work of Christ is severed. Precisely because Christ’s work of “atoning reconciliation falls within the incarnate constitution of his Person as Mediator,”[1] we cannot think of these two as separated. Indeed, it is because Jesus Christ is himself God that the very depths of our being are cleansed by his work.[2] To the extent that Congar’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s actualization and realization of Jesus Christ’s identity as the Son of God undermines this important connection between Christ’s person and his work, Congar undermines the very possibility of affirming that Christ’s work is accomplished effectively for us and our salvation.

Second, Congar makes an important move in recognizing that “[t]he one real priest is in heaven.”[3] Jesus Christ must be understood as the decisive subject of the Eucharist if the Eucharist is to be understood as anything more than an entirely human exercise of memory. However, Congar does not carry far enough this notion of Jesus Christ as the one true priest who is in heaven. Congar is certainly careful to note that just as Jesus Christ is the one true priest, there is only one true Eucharist that becomes present in the church’s celebration of the Eucharist, but Congar identifies this one true Eucharist as the Last Supper.[4] Schmemann places this one Eucharist in heaven and understands it in terms of time. The Eucharist “is served on earth, [but] it is accomplished in heaven, in the new time of the new creation” and, with an emphasis that Congar would appreciate, “in the time of the Holy Spirit.”[5] Not only does this do justice to the eschatological aspect of both Eucharist and Holy Spirit, it also does justice to the notion of Christ’s heavenly and eternal priesthood. Too often Congar seems to limit Jesus Christ’s importance to the acquisition of salvation and the institution of the sacramental church. Relocating the one Eucharist from the Last Supper to the eschatological banquet would help to balance his treatment.

Third, Congar makes an important point when he notes that in the Eucharist Jesus Christ becomes the church’s offering to the Father.[6] However, Congar makes no mention, as far as this study has been able to ascertain, of the complimentary and perhaps more fundamental notion that the church becomes Christ’s offering to the Father. It must be maintained that in the Eucharist the church worships the Father in and through Christ and that Christ worships the Father in and for the church. Thomas Torrance hits on both sides of this equation when he writes that Christ “unites us an our worship with his own” and that “we worship the Father through the priesthood of the Son.”[7] This notion of Christ including the church in his worship again moves toward correcting Congar’s tendency to downplay Christ’s eternal priesthood. It is only as Christ makes the church part of his offering to the Father that the church can plead the blood of Christ as the decisive thing about its worship of the Father.

Fourth and finally, John Webster notes that ressourcement theologians, including Congar, “commonly write the history of Christianity on the understanding that the distinction between ‘apostolic’ and ‘post-apostolic’ ought not to be pressed.”[8] Webster’s worry is that the church might loose the capacity to encounter the Gospel as something that addresses the church from outside of itself. Instead, the institutional structures and hierarchy of the church might become so equated with the Gospel that such encounter is passed by as unnecessary and even unwanted. This equation of post-apostolicity with apostolicity is the interpretive mechanism that lays the foundation for Congar’s notion of a new priesthood from above that allows for the church’s upward movement of spiritual self-sacrifice to be met with the downward movement of God in distributing the benefits of Christ’s saving work.[9] But, if one understands the post-apostolic period as the continuing elucidation and proclamation of the Gospel in light of the norms set down by the apostles in Scripture, and if one then understand the apostles themselves as the authoritative witnesses to Christ, one is able to find room for numerous expressions of the church whose institutional structures take shape according to the needs of contemporary context, although always tied to the practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. Webster gathers up these matters and puts a fine point on them when he states that “the church is not only a Spirit-produced set of expression of the mystery of salvation, but a company which looks back to the apostolic testimony set before it in Scripture and finds itself placed beneath its judgment.”[10] Karl Barth was on to something along these lines when he wrote of the relation between Christ and the church that while “Jesus Christ is the community,” the “community is not Jesus Christ.”[11] This distinction locates the decisive thing in the work of Jesus Christ in the community rather than in the work of the community as the institutionalized continuation of Jesus Christ’s presence and saving effect.

May all Christians everywhere find nourishment, union and peace in the Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ as, firmly planted in the needs of the present, the church looks behind and ahead to Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of its faith, and proclaims the message of salvation wrought once and for all in him.


  1. Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1992), 63.

  2. Cf. Ibid, 62.

  3. Congar, Gospel Priesthood, 183.

  4. Cf. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:233.

  5. Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Translated by Paul Kachur; Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 218.

  6. Cf. Congar, Revelation of God, 178.

  7. Thomas F. Torrance, “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist” in Theology in Reconciliation: Essays towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996), 111.

  8. John Webster, “Purity and Plentitude: Evangelical Reflections on Congar’s Tradition and Traditions” in Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church (Edited by Gabriel Flynn; Louvain Theological & Pastoral Monographs, 32; Dudley, MA: Peeters Press, 2005), 60.

  9. Cf. Congar, Revelation of God, 186.

  10. Webster, “Purity and Plentitude,” 60.

  11. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 655. Indeed, Barth takes much care to ensure that we do not simply collapse Christ into the community. To this end he discusses two forms of Christ’s existence. The primary form is his existence in heaven, and the secondary form is his existence in the community. Furthermore, the secondary existence is dependent upon the primary, which ensures that the secondary is possible. The relation of these two forms of Christ’s existence is the basis of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Cf. Ibid, 652-653.