Friday, December 31, 2010

Karl Barth on the Church in Excess and Defect - The Small Print

This is from the posthumously published ethics section of CD 4.4, entitled The Christian Life, 136-8. The bold sections are large print given to set the stage; the normal text is Barth's small print:
The one form of the denial and apostasy is the church in excess, the presumptuous church which exalts itself and puffs itself up.

At this point one is naturally inclined as a Protestant to think especially of the Roman church. There may be something in this. But one should keep in view that the Roman church is not just a church in excess, involved in apostasy only on this side. One should also keep in view that, even if in less striking and classical form, the church in excess, in apostasy on this side, may be very clearly seen in the non-Roman Christian world, not only on its right wing among the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans, but also on the left wing, even down to the Baptists, though only on the margin.

[Ed: It's very interesting to me that Barth puts Lutherans with Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox.]


The other form of apostasy is the church in defect, the church which does not take itself seriously enough because it is only half sure of its cause...

At this point Protestantism of every denomination has reason to think first of itself. It might well be, of course, that in this sphere there has been and is too much of the church in defect because the grapes that the church in excess really wants are too high up for it, because it has experienced too much weariness and too many disappointments on the various ways to Rome, which attract it also and on which it has often gone quite a stretch. However that may be, too great a sense of the church is not as a rule the evident fault of Protestantism, but a painfully small trust in the authority and power of him who has called, gathered, and sent out the church as his community is its fault, - a pitiably feeble courage when it should be resolutely facing the world with the task that has been set for it. Yet the Romans would be well advised not to rejoice too soon or too loudly on this side, as though this opposite error did not in any way concern them. It could be that the lack of trust and courage which characterizes the church in defect is the most fertile soil for the development of the church in excess, that the overblown sense of the church in the latter is simply a complementary reaction to the lack of genuine trust and courage that is more hidden here but still present. There is sin, there, within the walls as well as outside them, although again only on the margin.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Philip Schaff compares Zwingli and Luther

This is just good fun. I doubt that one could get away with making these sorts of sweeping statements today, but they have a sort of intuitive weight that commends them. And of course, they are entertaining. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite bits with bold.

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume 8, The Swiss Reformation, The Protestant Reformation in German, Italian, and French Switzerland up to the Close of the Sixteenth Century, 1529-1605 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002 [orig pub. 1892]): §9, 34-6.
The training of Zwingli for his life-work differs considerably from that of Luther. This difference affected their future work, and accounts in part for their collision when they met as antagonists in writing, and on one occasion (at Marburg) face to face, in debate on the real presence. Comparisons are odious when partisan or sectarian feeling is involved, but necessary and useful if impartial.

Both Reformers were of humble origin, but with this difference: Luther descended from the peasantry, and had a hard and rough schooling, which lefts its impress upon his style of polemics, and enhanced his power over the common people; while Zwingli was the son of a magistrate, the nephew of a dean and an abbot, and educated under the influence of the humanists, who favored urbanity of manners. Both were brought up by pious parents and teachers in the Catholic faith; but Luther was far more deeply rooted in it than Zwingli, and adhered to some of its doctrines, especially on the sacraments, with great tenacity to the end. He also retained a goodly portion of Romish exclusivism and intolerance. He refused to acknowledge Zwingli as a brother, and abhorred his view of the salvation of unbaptized children and pious heathen.

Zwingli was trained in the school of Erasmus, and passed from the heathen classics directly to the New Testament. He represents more than any other Reformer, except Melanchthon, the spirit of the Renaissance in harmony with the Reformation. He was a foreruner of modern liberal theology. Luther struggled through the mystic school of Tauler and Staupitz, and the severe moral discipline of monasticism, till he found peace and comfort in the doctrine of justification by faith. Both loved poetry and music next to theology, but Luther made better use of them for public worship, and composed hymns and tunes which are sung to this day.

Both were men of providence, and became, innocently, reformers of the Church by the invisible logic of events. Both drew their strength and authority from the Word of God. Both labored independently for the same cause of evangelical truth, the one on a smaller, the other on a much larger field. Luther owed nothing to Zwingli, and Zwingli owed little or nothing to Luther. Both were good scholars, great divines, popular preachers, heroic characters.

Zwingli broke easily and rapidly with the papal system, but Luther only step by step, and after a severe struggle of conscience. Zwingli was more radical than Luther, but always within the limits of law and order, and without a taint of fanaticism; Luther was more conservative, and yet the chief champion of freedom in Christ. Zwingli leaned to rationalism, Luther to mysticism; yet both bowed to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Zwingli had better manners and more self-control in controversy; Luther surpassed him in richness and congeniality of nature. Zwingli was a republican, and aimed at a political and social, as well as an ecclesiastical reformation; Luther was a monarchist, kept aloof from politics and war, and concentrated his force upon the reformation of faith and doctrines. Zwingli was equal to Luther in clearness and acuteness of intellect and courage of conviction, superior in courtesy, moderation, and tolerance, but inferior in originality, depth, and force. Zwingli’s work and fame were provincial; Luther’s worldwide. Luther is the creator of the modern high-German book language, and gave to his people a vernacular Bible of enduring vitality. Zwingli had to use the Latin, or to struggle with an uncouth dialect; and the Swiss Version of the Bible by his faithful friend Leo Judae remained confined to German Switzerland, but is more accurate, and kept pace in subsequent revisions with the progress of exegesis. Zwingli can never inspire, even among his own countrymen, the same enthusiasm as Luther among the Germans. Luther is the chief hero of the Reformation, standing in front of the battle-field before the Church and the world, defying the papal; bull and imperial ban, and leading the people of God out of the Babylonian captivity under the gospel banner of freedom.

Each was the right man in the right place; neither could have done the work of the other. Luther was foreordained form Germany, Zwingli for Switzerland. Zwingli was cut down in the prime of his life, fifteen years before Luther; but, even if he had outlived him, he could not have reached the eminence which belongs to Luther alone. The Lutheran Church in Germany and the Reformed Church of Switzerland stand to this day the best vindication of their distinct, yet equally evangelical Christian work and character.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

5 Must-Read Recent Books on Barth, or, How to Spend Bookseller Gift Cards that You Received for Christmas

In the land of academics, it is currently Christmas break. Most students have turned in their final projects from the Fall semester, and are waiting to begin a new one. Furthermore, many theology ner...I mean...students, now posses gift cards for book-selling businesses given to them by well-meaning loved ones (note: if you really love a theology ner...I mean...student, next year you should get them a James Bond movie, or some good music). If you find yourself in such a position, here is a list to help you spend those gift cards.

This is something of an update to my earlier post, So, You Want To Read Karl Barth? Be sure to check that out if you haven’t already. These works are presented in not much of a particular order:
  1. Paul Nimmo, Being in Action: Wonder what Barth has to say about ethics? Look here first.
  2. Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: How does Barth conceive of how God and human beings relate and interact? What does “participation” in Christ mean for Barth? What light can an answer to these questions shed on Barth’s theology as a whole and as parts? Besides, it’s a quick read – ~100 well-written pages.
  3. Paul D. Jones, The Humanity of Christ: Maybe you’ve heard the (old, tired) assertion that Barth’s theology does not leave room for Christ’s humanity and, subsequently, our own. Read this book to discover just how wrong that notion is.
  4. Keith Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis: Did Barth change his mind about the analogia entis? No. Will this book prove it and help me understand what was at stake for Barth in this question? Yes.
  5. John Flett, The Witness of God: One of the oldest criticisms of Barth is that he paid too little attention to mission. This book shows that Barth gives it a great deal of thought, and that he represents a much more fruitful line of approach than does the 20th century missio Dei theology (which, coincidently, is not derived from Barth).

Bonus – a relatively oldie, but goodie: Christophe Chalemet, Dialectical Theologians: What is Barth’s relationship to 19th century German mediating theology? How does attention to what Barth learned from Wilhelm Herrmann illumine his relation to Bultmann? Read and learn.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Did Barth understand Przywara?

After another of the increasingly predictable discussions between myself and my Princeton/Wheaton/theo-blogosphere co-belligerent on this question, I thought another bit from Johnson was warranted. As always, bold is mine.

Keith L. Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia entis, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology (London; T&T Clark, 2010).
[D]id Barth truly understand Przywara’s theology in general and the analogia entis in particular?

To address this question, it will be helpful to summarize what we know of Barth and Przywara’s encounters…We know that Barth had positive feelings for Przywara personally, both from their letters to one another and from Barth’s remarks…to Thurneysen. It is clear as well that Barth did not have a negative preconception of the analogia entis before he read Przywara’s book and met him personally, because he had used the principle in his own dogmatic theology. We know that Barth read at least the first two parts of Przywara’s Religionsphilosophie carefully and discussed it at length during two seminar sessions; we know that he listened to a lengthy lecture from Przywara about Roman Catholic ecclesiology; we know that he sat with Przywara for a two-hour discussion of Przywara’s theology in his seminar; and we know that Barth and Przywara spent two evenings together in Barth’s home for one-on-one discussions of theology. If Barth had misconceptions about the analogia entis, therefore, Przywara had ample time to disabuse Barth of them. We also know that Barth had long since proven himself to be a perceptive and insightful reader of theological texts. His lectures on Zwingli, Calvin, and Schleiermacher at Göttingen stand as examples of his perceptive insight, and the same can be said for his book on Anselm and the lectures that would become Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, which were originally delivered in 1929-30 in Münster and continued in 1932-3 in Bonn. Throughout this period, Barth showed an attention to detail, an ability to recognize the contours of a theologian’s argument and the underlying motivation for it, and a willingness to let a theologian’s work speak for itself. He showed himself, in other words, not to be merely a polemicist who saw in text what he wanted to see.

On the basis of all of this evidence, therefore, it is clear that Barth was in position to obtain an accurate idea of what Przywara meant by the term analogia entis, what the implications of the principle were, and how it fit into Przywara’s larger theological project. It is also clear that Barth did not approach Przywara or the analogia entis in a polemical, or for that matter, a ‘demented’ way. He approached Przywara as someone representing another tradition, to be sure, and it is clear that Barth recognized points of disagreement between their views. He did not see Przywara as an enemy, however, but as a kindred spirit, albeit one with whom he could not always agree.

In short...we have every reason to conclude that Barth's eventual rejection of the analogia entis was based not upon a lack of understanding or upon an unfair approach to Przywara's theology or to analogia entis itself.
as Johnson notes, all these are merely preliminary conclusions that require bearing out on the basis of what Barth actually says about Przywara. Johnson spends a great deal of time doing just that over the course of his volume, which is just one more reason why it ought to be on your shelf.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Episcopal Letter-writing in the Early Fifth Century

This is an exchange recounted in Augustine’s letter, and I find it rather interesting. Maybe you will too.

Augustine, “Letter 98” in Letters 1-99 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001): 431-2.
[I]n bringing what you wrote to an end, you go on to say, “I ask you, then, please reply briefly to these questions, not so that you state what the practice of the Church demands, but so that you give reasons.”
To begin, it is hilarious – I think – that this other bishop would be so pointed in asking Augustine for reasons rather than an appeal to tradition. You could almost read this as an insult to Augustine. In any case, it shows that this other bishop knew Augustine’s texts and his habitual manners of responding to arguments and questions on the topic of baptism. Moving on to Augustine’s rejoinder…
Having read and reread this letter of yours and having considered it to the extent that the limitations on my time permitted, I was reminded of my friend, Nebridius. Since he was most diligent and keen at investigating obscure questions, especially ones pertaining to the doctrine of religion, he deeply disliked a brief reply to a profound question. And he tolerated very poorly anyone who made such a demand, and he stopped such a man with anger on his countenance and in his voice, if the person in question could be treated in such a way, since he considered beneath his dignity someone who asked such questions, because he did not know that on such an important topic so much could have been said and ought to have been said.

So, Augustine comes back with the smack-down. How dare this bishop ask for a ‘brief’ answer on such an important topic? This is similar to the all-too-frequent teacher’s frustration of having to field questions from students that would have been easily answered by the assigned reading, had the student done that reading. Obviously, the asker has no idea what they are doing, and they are therefore imposing on the answerer’s good will. But, Augustine isn’t done yet…
But with you I am not angry in the same way as Nebridius used to be in such a case. You are, after all, a bishop busy with many concerns, as I am. For this reason you neither easily find time to read something lengthy, nor do I find such time to write something of the sort. For he [Nebridius] was at that time a youth who refused to listen to brief answers to such questions and asked many questions in conversation with us; as a man of leisure he asked questions of a man of leisure. But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom, bid me to reply briefly on so important an issue. Look, I am doing the best I can; may the Lord help me that I may be able to do what you ask.
This response, taken as a whole, is kind of like Augustine saying: "This reminds of the time I knew a guy who got mad at people for doing what you seem to be doing, and rightly so - but, you're not actually doing the exact same thing, are you?" This expertly relativizes the demands laid upon Augustine, while also reasserting Augustine's authority, all the while maintaining a courteous tone...on the surface.

In any case, Augustine back-pedals a bit after laying down the hurt, balancing out his thinly-veiled consternation with his fellow bishop’s stipulation. He gives the bishop the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he asked for a brief answer in order to save time for both of them, since they are both very busy. But, even this counter-weight contains a barb. Look at the second to last sentence: “But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom…” Now, I ask you – does Augustine think the other bishop is really aware of this, or does Augustine think that the other bishop needs reminding of precisely who is imposing upon whom, namely, he upon Augustine? I can’t help but see here a thought similar to “Look, you asked me these questions, and if I stop to take the time to answer you, I’ll answer as I very well please.”

Now, I’m being very hard on Augustine here. A far more charitable reading could be ventured. But, this all strikes me as rather amusing – the subtle parry and thrust that accompanied (accompanies?) ecclesiastical interaction. It also reminds us that theology and theological debate are very human undertakings pursued by very human people. All those who assume this weighty task always require advancement in sanctification - even the greats, like Augustine.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two PTS Theology Blogs You Should Start Reading (with some miscellaneous reflections)

When I was about to make the transition from undergraduate study of theology to graduate study of theology (the latter being my MDiv stage), I asked my undergraduate advisor whether he thought I was any good. I’ve never forgotten his reply, which was to this effect: “I’m going to be honest with you, and over the next few years people will tell you what I’m about to tell you so often that it will cause you no end of frustration – you have potential.” He was right – I was destined to hear this many times, and it did become quite frustrating. However, he was right about something else – it takes a long time to move beyond the state of possessing potential to actually becoming a halfway decent theologian. My wife used to make a similar point: whenever I would refer to myself as a “theologian,” she was quick to remind me that I am merely a student of theology.

Of course, toward the end of one’s doctoral program – and especially in the process of writing one’s dissertation – one begins to make the transition from being a student of theology to being a theologian (although, even as a theologian one never ceases to be a student of theology), or from having potential to having actualized that potential in a satisfying way. Thus, it is as one in the midst of such a transition that I feel free to take upon myself the task performed by both my wife and my undergraduate advisor vis-à-vis others coming behind me on this path.

The purpose of this post, other than to serve as a vehicle of my above reflections, is to alert you to the existence of two blogs written by students of theology who have potential here at PTS. The blog titles are Behold and Sign on the Window, and they are well worth adding to your RSS aggregator. So, surf on over, read, and provide some encouragement and conversation to help them along the long road from being students of theology with potential to become (hopefully, some day) halfway decent theologians. Below are some recent highlights from these two blogs as a point of entry:


“What is Glorious About God?”

“God’s Divinity in-cludes God’s humanity”

“Tanner on the Assumption of a Political Privilege by Social Trinitarisns”

Sign on the Window

“Writing for and writing with: Hauerwas and disability”

“Late to the party: advice from a ‘second career’ MDiv”

“A pacifist response to military chaplains day”

(Note: the designation "theologian" is used here in the academic or professional sense, rather than the ecclesial sense wherein every Christian is a theologian.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

God Wants You To Be Happy – or, Announcing the Publication of Ellen Charry’s Latest Book

I served as Ellen Charry’s research assistant working on her latest book for an entire calendar year. When it came time to start thinking about possible titles, my suggestion was the first part of this post title: God Wants You to be Happy. It was felt at the time – the opinion being expressed definitively by the publisher – that this title was too “up market” (whatever that means) for such a serious treatise. Luckily, the final title of the volume is only very slightly less perfect than my original suggestion: God and the Art of Happiness.

First, let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way: this book is ~300 pages of dense theological text, divided into two parts. It is not for the faint of heart. The first part treats the history of doctrine for the question of happiness in the Western Christian tradition – I know of no other such treatment, so this part alone provides a valuable service. If my recollections serve me, the quality of the chapter on Augustine stands out for its excellence in a text that is excellent as a whole. The second part comprises Dr Charry’s constructive proposal, deeply conversant with the biblical text, for what happiness is Christianly understood – she designates this construction, “asherism.”

Despite being a demanding text, it remains accessible to the educated lay reader. This means that it will make the perfect Christmas gift not only for that theology student you know, but also for that pastor, elder, deacon, or other Christian who wonders what it means for a Christian to be happy and is willing to work a little at finding the answer. Published with Eerdmans, this book is priced to move from the shelf and into your hand, so go and buy a copy for yourself or someone you care about.

But, enough of the sales pitch (coincidently, I don’t promote a book with posts on this site unless I’ve read it and support it) – here is a brief description of the project.

The first sentence in the introduction identifies this book as a sequel to Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. That volume was concerned to show that throughout the Christian theological tradition, theology has been deployed in pursuit of a pastoral end, namely, the promotion of human flourishing. Indeed, the seeds of the present volume were sown in the earlier, as when Charry writes: “all the thinkers examined here held that knowing and loving God is the mechanism of choice for forming excellent character and promoting genuine happiness” (Renewing, 18: I have the high honor of having played a role in helping Dr Charry think through the relation of these two works, as well as digging out this quotation from the former for use in the latter). God and the Art of Happiness seeks to flesh out this claim.

Part of what informs Charry’s discussion is a desire to reclaim the mode in which theology was done prior to the modern period. As she describes things, the modern period saw attention turn “from the formative effects of doctrines on those who professed them to how well or how poorly doctrines performed intellectually” (Happiness, x). But, the pastoral undercurrent to theology did not die completely. In a paragraph that very helpfully locates her project within her current theological / academic environment, Charry writes:
Despite this shift in emphasis, the pastoral agenda of theology has not disappeared. It is quite evident in Schleiermacher and is present in Barth as well. Schleiermacher organized his Glaubenslehre to support piety. Barth’s pastoral agenda is equally thoroughgoing, though a bit more subtle. His Church Dogmatics is a corrective to Calvin’s Institutes - and behind him, Aquinas and Luther – structuring the law in a No-Yes order: first the law, then the gospel. With Calvin, the No resounded powerfully. Like Israel before him, who crossed his hands when he blessed his sons Manasseh and Ephraim to favor the younger Ephraim (Gen. 48:13-14), Barth also crossed his hands to argue for God’s great Yes to humanity before the dreaded No. I am offering this book as a contribution to that important crossing of hands – that is, for the sake of God’s great Yes. (ibid)

What is the vision of happiness that Charry promotes? It is intimately tied up with both Christ and salvation, both of which are anchored soundly in the doctrine of the Trinity. To use the language that Charry deploys in the introduction: “Salvation is the healing of love that one may rest in God. Asherism works out that healing process is a life of reverent obedience to divine commands that shape character and bring moral-psychological flourishing and enhance societal well-being. Salvation is an excellent pattern of living that is personally rewarding because it advances God’s intention for creation. It is realizing eschatology… [F]or Christians, happiness is being healed by Jesus with and for the wisdom of love” (xi-xii).

I’ll post more as I make my way through the final version of the text. For now I’ll conclude with a cryptic comment. Since my time working with Dr Charry on this project, I have been convinced that it would be her masterpiece. It certainly is of sufficient scope and quality to rank as such. However, I have recently learned that an even more ambitious project is in the works. So, we should not imagine – while we sit at Dr Charry’s feet to learn about happiness – that she has now concluded her task of helping us relearn theology’s artegenic quality: there is more to come!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gathering of Graduate Students of Theology in Boston / Cambridge

Some folks up at Harvard got in touch with me and asked if I would spread the word about an event they are planning. Since it looks like a good event, I figured that I would post about it here. The below is reproduced from their flyer - check it out and think about participating.


Theological Times
A Workshop Hosted by the Harvard Theology Salon and the Theology and Ethics Collaborative

Announcing the 2011 Gathering for Doctoral Students of Theology:
Boston, February 18-19, 2011

All current doctoral students of theology are invited to a workshop exploring ‘Why’s, ‘What’s, and ‘Who’s of theology and theological education.

The Harvard Theology Salon and the Theology and Ethics Collaborative will host a workshop this February in Cambridge and Boston for current doctoral students who consider themselves to do theology. This workshop will critically and self-reflexively explore “theology” as it is being practiced, taught, and creatively rethought. Our goals are three-fold: 1) to build a collaborative community of the next generation of theological scholars; 2) to discern and creatively imagine new directions for theology; 3) to better understand academic formation.

The Harvard Theology Salon formed in the Spring of 2009 as a grassroots initiative by and for doctoral students. Over the past two years, the Salon has met monthly to build community and to engage questions and issues of theological importance. The members of the Salon are excited to extend our community to doctoral students doing theology from a range of schools in the northeast through this open meeting.

What? What is theology? What is the study of theology? What are variations in how theology is understood? What are historical, social, theological or ethical roots or implications of these variations? What distinctions do differing institutions establish between theology and ethics, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, etc.?

Why? Why theology? Why study theology? Why do we study theology? What is at stake? How, if at all, does theology differ from related or other academic pursuits?

Who? Who studies theology? Who is a theologian? Whom do theologians or academicians of theology study? Who does theology, or who is affected by theology? Who is included or excluded by or in the study of theology?


Feb 18 - Feb 19, 2011
Workshop: Fri., 6p – Sat., 7p
Closing Dinner: Sat., 7p – 10p

Event Locations: Friday - Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA; Saturday - The Cathedral Church of St Paul, Boston, MA.

Register online (see the flyer there, too - much prettier). Questions answered at theologysalon [at] gmail [dot] com.

Workshop Fee: $35 (including all meals Fri. and Sat.; $25 excluding Sat.’s Closing Dinner)
Financial assistance for the costs of attendance is available.
We have committed to ensuring that all who wish to attend, will attend.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

2010 KBBC – Conclusion and TOC

Well, that's the 'end' of this year's KBBC - I've run out of posts! It took a while, but it has finally happened. Of course, you're all free to continue commenting and discussing the various posts - in fact, I encourage you to do so! Its never too late to learn something new.

Thanks to everyone for making this year's KBBC the most successful ever: special thanks to David Congdon for helping me organize it; individual thanks to every author and respondent for turning in quality work that generated much good discussion; and collective thanks to all of you – readers and commentators – who came by to read and participate. The KBBC is the premier event of the theo-blogosphere, but it is not so because of anything I do. My role is rather banal – I just try and get material in one place for a specified period of time. All of you who write, comment, and read are the ones who make it great year in and year out.

As has been mentioned before, a selected and expanded version of this year’s KBBC will be published as a book. Special thanks to Wipf&Stock publishers for being willing to take a chance on a project like this, and for being willing to recognize the potential of blogs to contribute constructively to the broader theological conversation. There are costs associated with publishing things in this day and age, especially volumes of collected essays such as this, and so we would not deny you the chance to participate in easing that burden: there are two ways to donate, (1) going through Paypal by using this link or the button in the right sidebar, or (2) using the Amazon widget in the right sidebar (after a bit this widget will be moved to the KBBC index page, accessed through the “KBBC” tab at the top of the page) to surf over to Amazon and build your KBBC library, for which we will receive a kick-back. Please consider contributing, even if only $1 USD, or less.

It is my sad duty to announce it is likely that there will be no KBBC next year. After all the work of putting this year’s together, and with the last of making a book out of it looming on the horizon – not to mention the dissertation and job hunt – I simply need to take a year off. My plan is to return the year after next with a more low-key KBBC that harkens back to its roots. Who knows – I may get inspired and put a conference together at the last minute. In any case, I hope that other blog conferences will be organized in the meantime – more stuff on Bonheoffer is certainly called for, and I for one would like to see someone put something together on Moltmann or Pannenberg or Rahner or Bultmann, or even something on people like Luther, Calvin, Thomas, Augustine, the Cappadocians, etc.

In any case, watch for updates on the book’s progress and, eventually, a call for proposals for the next KBBC. Here is this year’s TOC:

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2010)

Session 1
  1. Outline and Contributor Biographies
  2. Barth and Schleiermacher, Matt Bruce (plenary), Matthias Gockel (response).
  3. Barth and Bavinck, Andrew Esqueda (plenary), Joel Esala (reponse).
  4. Barth and Bonhoeffer, Matt Puffer (plenary), Andy Rowell (response).
  5. Barth and Tillich, Derek Maris (plenary), Tripp Fuller (response).
  6. Barth and Jenson, Peter Kline (plenary), Will Barnett (response).
Session 2
  1. Outline and Contributor Biographies
  2. Barth and the Coen Brothers, Jon Coutts (plenary), Brad East (response).
  3. Barth and Kegan, Blair Bertrand (plenary), Katherine Douglass (reponse).
  4. Barth and Pauline Apocalyptic, Shannon Nicole Smythe (plenary), Andrew Guffey (response).
  5. Barth and Hauerwas, Halden Doerge (plenary), Ry Siggelkow (response).
  6. Barth and Tanner, Scott Jackson (plenary), David Congdon (response).
Session 3
  1. Outline and Contributor Biographies
  2. Barth, Milbank and Žižek on the Atonement, Paul Dafydd Jones (plenary), Adam Kotsko (response).
  3. Barth and Badiou, Michael Jimenez (plenary), Geoffrey Holsclaw (reponse).
  4. Barth and David Bentley Hart, Keith Starkenburg (plenary), Han-luen Kantzer Komline (response).
  5. Barth and Taubes, Benjamin Myers (plenary), Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman (response).

Friday, December 03, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 4

Pauline apocalyptic and political nihilism: Jacob Taubes and Karl Barth
By Benjamin Myers

‘Here is a Messiah who is condemned according to the law.
Tant pis, so much the worse for law.’ —Jacob Taubes


The Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes (1923-87) is surely one of the most eccentric figures of twentieth-century philosophy. A political thinker of the far left, Taubes’ greatest intellectual debt was to the arch-conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt. An ordained rabbi, his work was driven by a lifelong engagement with Christian theology, in an attempt to lay bare the roots of modern political power. With Schmitt, Taubes believed that in today’s world everything is theological – except perhaps the chatter of theologians (ACS 34). He began his career with a doctoral dissertation on the secularisation of Christian apocalyptic – a response to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on the same theme – and ended his career, just weeks before his death, with lectures on the explosive political impact of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

At the centre of Taubes’ work is an attempt to rehabilitate radical Paulinism in the interests of a Jewish messianic politics. In this connection, Taubes returns again and again to Karl Barth, and he develops an independent and idiosyncratic appropriation of Barth’s theology. He regards Barth’s interpretation of Paul as ‘perhaps the most significant contribution to the general consciousness of our age’ (CC 177); Barth’s Römerbrief ‘gave voice to man’s self-estrangement long before philosophy had taken notice of it’ (CC 198). For Taubes, Barth’s political theology plunges us back into the world of Paul’s Jewish apocalypticism. Every worldly power is set under the enormous shadow of the impending judgment of God. The existing political order is not so much critiqued as utterly relativised; one’s hope lies not in any alternative political system, but in the fact that time will come to an end. The new messianic age sets itself against the totality of this world.

Although Taubes is not a Christian, he reads Paul as a Jewish messianic thinker and describes himself as ‘a Paulinist’ (PT 88). That Paul’s letters could be turned into the basis of formal doctrines of political authority, or as the justification of human projects to either stabilize or overturn the status quo – this Taubes sees as an astonishing betrayal of Paul’s apocalyptic vision. In contrast, Barth’s theology brings the ghost of Paul back into the world of modern politics. Barth reverses the trend in which Paul’s ‘nihilistic’ impulse was translated into doctrines of positive ‘social’ or ‘political’ engagement (CN 270). In other words, what the early Barth was widely criticised for – his apparent negation of everything human before the inexorable majesty of an alien God – Taubes sees as the point at which Barth’s theology reveals its real political potential. Barth’s devastating repudiation of Kulturprotestantismus should now be repeated as a repudiation of modern political order. With Barth, Taubes wants to recover the ‘totally illiberal’ Paul of the first century, the ‘fanatical’ Paul (PT 24), the alien and offensive figure who speaks not so much to our political concerns as against them.

To highlight the distinctiveness of Taubes’ appropriation of Barth, I want to explore the way both thinkers strategically mobilize Romans 13 as an apocalyptic-political text, before considering the way Taubes’ reading of Paul issues in his critique of law and, finally, his critique of theology as such.


While entire ecclesiastical traditions have assumed that Romans 13 propounds a positive doctrine of political authority, Barth’s Römerbrief immediately dismantles this assumption by arguing that Paul’s discussion of worldly rulers in chapter 13 is an extension of his passage about enemies in chapter 12. Paul’s fundamental attitude towards rulers is entirely negative: the rulers are a subset of the wider class of ‘evil’ and ‘enemies’ (12:20-21). This is the most important point of Barth’s whole interpretation of Romans 13; as soon as Paul’s view of rulers is understood under this dark aspect, much of Barth’s apocalyptic reading will ineluctably follow. For a start, any interpretation which claims a positive legitimation of authority cannot be admissible; it would contradict the whole message Romans. Worldly powers are ordained by God, Barth argues, only in the sense that they ‘bear involuntary witness’ to the true order of God, an order which stands over them in absolute judgment (RII 485). In relation to worldly authorities, the Christian is someone who ‘has so much to say against them that he no longer complains of them’; his behaviour as a good citizen ‘means “only” the judgment of God’ (RII 488).

To be constantly preoccupied with the problems and inadequacies of an existing political order is therefore no longer possible for the believer, who sees not merely the specific imperfections of all human endeavours but ‘their pure and complete negativity’ (RII 488). Even at its best, worldly power serves a strictly negative role: it sets up an absolute contrast to the righteousness of God. In this contrast between God’s order and worldly order – a distinction much more fundamental than the more familiar contrasts between good/evil and justice/injustice – the powers can be affirmed as ‘good’ only in the negative sense that they reluctantly and accidentally become shadows which preserve the lineaments of God’s apocalyptic righteousness (RII 488).

In a nutshell, Barth’s position consists in a dual negation, both ‘Nicht-Revolution!’ and ‘Nicht-Legitimität!’ (RII 477). Barth admits that his commentary has little to say against the politically conservative notion of legitimation; after all, Barth’s readers will hardly be tempted to draw conclusions about the legitimacy of the political status quo! The real danger, he thinks, is that his ‘emphatic insistence’ on negation will be misunderstood as a call to some ‘positive method of human behaviour’, a means of self-justification through ‘the Titanism of revolt and upheaval and renovation’ (RII 478).

Paul’s injunction to ‘overcome evil with good’ demands a refusal of any action in relation to worldly power. The overcoming of evil takes the form of a complete cessation of every human triumph. ‘And how can this be represented except by some strange not-doing [Nicht-Handeln] precisely at the point where human beings feel most powerfully called to action?’ (RII 481). The real vocation of political subjects is to bear witness to the action of God. Such witness is a self-effacing act, a penitent turning-away from their own ‘justifiable action’. It is in ‘not-doing’ that the human turns back to the apocalypse of divine action; in not-doing, one makes way for the righteousness of God, refusing to grasp at any human righteousness.

Subjection to the ruling powers (Rom 13:1), therefore, is a ‘purely negative’ act: ‘It means to withdraw and make way; it means to have no resentment, and not to overthrow’ (RII 481). This refusal to act on God’s behalf is itself the most devastating criticism of the social order in its entirety. It is a sheer refusal to entertain the worldly powers’ pretensions to an immanent legitimacy, and it is likewise a deprivation of the ‘pathos’ by which these powers perpetually nourish their own sense of importance. To be in subjection to the rulers is an act ‘void of purpose’, an act which springs solely from obedience to God as human beings leave room for God’s own righteous judgment (RII 483-84).

Where the first Römerbrief had insisted that Christians should find themselves on ‘the extreme left’ of the political spectrum (RI 508), by the second edition Barth is thus able to accept – though still himself a socialist – that it is largely irrelevant whether believers lean towards the political left or right, as long as neither position is taken with any final seriousness, and as long as both are understood as having nothing to do with the righteousness of God. Christian radicalism and Christian conservatism are alike resolved into the single posture of ‘the not-doing of our relationship to God’ (RII 489).


Jacob Taubes seeks to follow the broad lines of Barth’s ‘ingenious’ (PT 52) interpretation of Romans 13. The problem with most readings of the passage, Taubes notes, is that they fixate on the topic of obedience to worldly authority instead of grasping the text’s underlying apocalyptic logic. ‘If you stare at the topic of authority as if it were a predator, then it’s hard to see how to get out of there’ (PT 52). The real point of Romans 13 is to raise the question, ‘In what epoch are we living, what sort of present time is this’ (PT 53)? Paul’s answer is stark and arresting: ‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than we became believers’ (Rom 13:11).

For Taubes, then, Romans 13 functions in the same way as Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: ‘from now on, let those who have wives be as though [hos me] they had none...and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:29-31). Now that God has acted, all natural and social ties are completely relativised. Walter Benjamin’s proposal that the task of politics is to strive nihilistically for the world’s ‘total passing away’ is, for Taubes, a profound insight into Paul’s political vision. Paul is ‘nihilistic’ because he has seen the reality of God. ‘This is why you can’t make Lutheran deals with Romans 13, unless you give up the entire frame...Here we have a nihilistic view of the world, and concretely of the Roman Empire’ (PT 72).

Taubes recognizes that such apocalypticism is not ‘political’ in the usual sense of the term. Apocalyptic expectation ‘does not refer in the first instance, or exclusively, to the existing social order.’ It is ‘at first not concerned with changing the structure of society’, nor is it revolutionary, since it knows nothing of ‘replacing an existing society with a better one’ (OE 9). The Pauline community represents a new form of ‘pneumatic’ collective. All members of this community ‘have severed...their natural, organic allegiances’, so that they are bound together solely by the ‘inorganic’ life of the spirit (OE 64). Such a collective thus represents not an alternative form of society alongside others, but an alternative to society as such. It is the instantiation of a ‘new creation’ (Gal 6:15) in which the present order as a totality is set aside by the action of God.


In the same way, Taubes’ reading of Paul stresses that the continuing submission of believers to the law is a sign not of law’s continuing significance, but of its redundancy and ultimate powerlessness. Jewish Christians are to keep the law only because it is part of the fashion of this world which is passing away. Submission to law shows that the believer relies solely on the apocalypse of God in Christ. ‘As it is the task of Christ on his return finally to dispose of this world, a world which is already passing away, the believer should not act on his own authority to bring about [vorgreifen] the eschatological events and suspend the old order of things’ (OE 68). Paul’s injunction for each to ‘remain in the condition in which you were called’ (1 Cor 7:20) reflects this apocalyptic logic. At the same time, Gentile believers must resist law-observance at any cost; for them, submission to the law would be a rejection of Christ (OE 68). Thus law-observance by Jewish Christians and non-observance by Gentile Christians are alike founded on the same conviction: that nomos is the foundation of an old world that is passing away. One might sum up Taubes’ view in the Pauline formulation: neither observance nor non-observance counts for anything, what counts is a new creation.

In Taubes’ reading, Paul turns the law on its head, producing a ‘transvaluation’ of all worldly values. Christ’s death is the dissolution of law – or rather, it is the total relativisation of law under the light of God’s advent. ‘It wasn’t nomos but rather the one who was nailed to the cross by nomos who is the imperator!’ Compared to this insight, Taubes says, ‘all the little revolutionaries are nothing’ (PT 24). The crucified messiah is ‘a total and monstrous inversion of the values of Roman and Jewish thought’; this inversion represents ‘the inner logic of the messianic’ (PT 10). It is for this reason that Taubes regards Paul as the quintessentially Jewish thinker, the architect of a messianic politics. The point here is not that the messianic community embodies lawlessness: after all, Paul still commends observance to Jews just as he commends non-observance to Gentile believers. The messianic community is founded on a different principle altogether. It is generated negatively, one might say, by its sheer lack of any worldly legitimation. It is sustained not by anything in this world, since it lives from the other side of the end of time.

It is true that this militant critique of nomos owes more to Walter Benjamin than to Barth. Barth himself retains a positive doctrine of the dialectic between law and gospel – a law that remains operative precisely by being fulfilled. But Taubes’ interpretation does, I think, stand in broad continuity with the apocalyptic vision of Barth’s Römerbrief. Law represents demarcation and division; it draws lines within communities, nations, states and peoples. It forms and orders the world according to a system of antitheses – most fundamentally, the antithesis between Jew and Gentile. The problem with such divisions is not that they have been drawn in the wrong place (so that one could simply make the appropriate adjustments), but that they are rendered meaningless by reference to the real antithesis between God and world. Where the righteousness of God stands over the world, the entire structuring logic of nomos is obliterated – not necessarily because it is inherently blameworthy, but because its time has passed. To cling to the law while standing under the righteousness of God is like trying to retain your shadow in the midst of a solar eclipse. God’s righteousness dissolves the law not because it is against law but because it is infinitely more than law; it is an annihilating fulfilment.


For all his indebtedness to Barth, Taubes nevertheless subjects Barth’s theology to a Pauline critique – not so much for the content of Barth’s thought as for the bare fact that it is theology. Even though Barth wants to recover Paul’s apocalypticism, Taubes argues that a theological ‘abyss’ (CN 270) separates Barth from Paul. For Paul, the old age has already passed away, the time of the messiah is already upon us. Barth’s theology, by contrast, ‘unwittingly reveals the crisis of Christian theology in a world that does not pass away’ (CN 272).

The Christian movement was founded by an event that was understood to be cosmic and apocalyptic in its significance: the death of Christ destroys the present evil age and brings about a new creation. The mere fact of writing a theology testifies to the disappearance of this apocalyptic imagination. The world did not end as expected; the church resolved this problem by assuming its own institutional legitimacy, its position as one of the powers of the current age. Theology’s entire history is thus tragic, Taubes argues, since the establishment of a Christian tradition necessarily erases the footprints of its own apocalyptic origins. Taubes views Barth’s dogmatics as a particularly impressive symptom of this malaise. Having deftly sidestepped the history of theology in order to glimpse the world-negating apocalyptic vision of Paul, Barth later retreats back into the safety of the Christian tradition:
‘No religion can have the luxury of theology without paying a price for it...The history of the development of Christian theology is a tragic history because there is no “solution” to the conflict between eschatological symbols and the brute fact of a continuing history. One may admire the achievement of theology but at the same time be aware of the price involved in such an achievement’ (CC 196-7).

In a remarkable text from 1954, Taubes thus predicts that the Christian tradition will eventually domesticate even the wild apocalyptic energy of Barth’s Römerbrief. In order to assume a place among the powers of this world, the church produces its own self-justifying and self-legitimating tradition. More than anyone else, Barth has exposed the fact that the church denies its own proclamation when it becomes ‘a part of the powers and principalities that rule the world here and now’ (CN 272). But theology is no match for the church. Barth’s fate, Taubes predicts, will be his ultimate absorption into the self-justifying apparatus of the Christian tradition; he is doomed to become a ‘classic’ figure of that very tradition whose legitimacy he strove so hard to negate. Here Taubes compares Barth’s political theology to the fate of Augustine. In the City of God, Augustine set the power and virtue of the Roman empire against the righteousness of the heavenly city. Augustine was ‘the “nihilistic” critic of Roman virtue’ (CN 270), but his thought was soon absorbed into the fabric of churchly tradition, becoming a theoretical underpinning for the ideal of a Christian civilisation. His ‘nihilistic’ critique of Rome was translated into an invincible legitimation not only of empire but of a holy Roman empire, a worldly power directly authorised by God. And so Taubes asks: ‘Is it too bold to imagine that Barth’s theologico-political tracts might have a similar destiny, finding their place on the shelf of “Great Books” of a Western civilisation that Barth has constantly rejected?’ Might Barth in the end share ‘the tragi-comical fate’ of Augustine’s City of God (CN 272)?


Whatever one might think of these criticisms, one can scarcely deny that Taubes’ remarks have proved to be uncannily prescient. Barth’s work is widely read today as a sort of theological classic, a particularly impressive achievement within the larger trajectory of a Christian intellectual tradition whose basic legitimacy is taken for granted. Indeed, Taubes’ half-joking prediction that Barth would become one of the ‘Great Books’ of western civilisation has been fulfilled in the most remarkably literal way: in 1990, Barth was included in a new volume of Encyclopedia Britannica’s series of the Great Books of the Western World. Barth’s apocalypticism is thus celebrated as a cherished contribution to the ongoing project of western intellectual tradition. Things are not much better in the current discipline of theology, where Barth’s thought is routinely invoked as a self-legitimating standard of orthodoxy; while many of us – young scholars like myself especially – are tempted to turn Barth’s work into the fodder of cultural respectability in the form of academic publishing and the careerism that drives it. In short, Taubes challenges us to consider whether Barth’s theology – including his critique of worldly power! – might not itself be undergoing a hideous metamorphosis into one of those very principalities and powers by which the interests of the status quo are protected over against the righteousness of God.

But even if there is good cause for reserve about the contemporary use of Barth’s theology, it’s also true that his work retains the seeds by which its own cultural legacy might yet be subverted. After all, Barth’s theology strikes continually at the church’s pretensions to institutional self-justification, what Donald MacKinnon has called the ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’ by which the mere existence of the church is equated with its divine authorisation. Just as Taubes’ messianic vision issues in a ‘nihilistic politics’, so Barth testifies to what might be described as ecclesiological nihilism – a refusal to see the church as one of the powers of the world, or to view the church immanently, apart from its relationship to the coming kingdom of God.

The apocalypticism of the early Barth continues to animate the dogmatics, not least in the motif that the church is defined solely by witness. The church’s kenotic vocation is to witness to a divine act that remains absolutely distinct from the church itself. One of the most remarkable features of Barth’s prolegomena to Church Dogmatics – though it tends to attract little attention – is the denunciation of both Catholicism on the right hand and Protestantism on the left. Far from looking to the self-validating practices and beliefs of any specific Christian community, Barth begins by insisting that the church as such – in both its great western traditions – is part of the world’s rejection of revelation. The problem, Barth argues, is that these traditions have succumbed to the arrogant illusion that the church stands ‘in an immediate relationship to the direct, absolute and material authority of God’. Both the Catholic and the liberal Protestant are thus always ‘on the way to a pantheistic identification of Church and revelation’; their assumed legitimacy is a flight from the righteousness of God. In this way the church itself becomes another demonic principality, ‘a representative, like all other worldly constructs, of the darkness in which the world will necessarily lie if God has not been revealed’ (CD I/2, 544-45). To live by the righteousness of God is to live solely by the vocation of witness. Whenever the church bears witness to God, it brings charges against itself. Its witness to divine action is simultaneously an acknowledgment of its own absolute poverty.

For Barth, therefore, the church possesses no security in the world. It has no proper work to do in the world, only that ‘peculiar not-doing’ (RII 481) which is encapsulated in the concept of witness. It exists ‘between the times’, a refugee with no proper place in the world. Its existence (in so far as it exists at all) is altogether contingent, unnecessary, gratuitous – upheld by an anarchic, unprincipled grace.

According to Taubes’ political stance, we are to ignore the powers of the world and instead to ‘engage with all the questions and afflictions which are left by the established order of the world,’ thus taking the side of ‘those who are cast out and despised’ (OE 39). The principalities’ and powers’ triumphant march through the world leaves behind an unsightly trail of refuse. It is this useless remainder that forms the site of a messianic politics. In the same way, for Barth the church’s peculiar existence stems from the fact that it is ‘left over’ in the world, that it has no proper place or work in the world, no nomos that could bind it to the world, nothing except the hopelessly vulnerable and superfluous gesture of witness.

If Christian theology is to be undertaken at all – Taubes is, I think, right about this – it can only be as an expression of this appalling superfluity, a confession that the church is not essential to the world but is something ‘left over’. The genius of Karl Barth lies in the fact that he perceived this clearly, yet went on writing church dogmatics all the same – not in order to make the church stronger, but to show that the church has nothing in the world except its witness to the righteousness of God.


ACS: Jacob Taubes, Ad Carl Schmitt: Gegenstrebige Fügung (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1987).

CC: Jacob Taubes, From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, ed. Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)

CD: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark 2009)

CN: Jacob Taubes, ‘Christian Nihilism’ (review of Karl Barth, Against the Stream), in Commentary 18 (September 1954), 269-72.

Gould: Joshua Robert Gould, ‘Jacob Taubes: “Apocalypse from Below”’, Telos 134 (2006), 140-56.

OE: Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

PT: Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004)

RI: Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief (erste Fassung): 1919 (Zurich: TVZ, 1985)

RII: Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans [1922], trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933)

Response - Sovereign is He Who Does Not?: Or, Barth Against Bartleby by way of Carl Schmitt
By Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman

Taubes’s Barth is the theologian of krisis who sets off the bomb on the playground of his liberal fellows. For Taubes the Barth of the Römerbrief is nothing less than the Paul of Romans redivivus. He reads Romans II as, and for the purposes of retrieving an apocalyptic politics and reviving a messianic ethics. Romans II thus becomes the megaphone through which Taubes amplifies his own Paulinist “Nein! ” to modern Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians alike too easily accept a comfortable cultural synthesis (Kirchentum-Deutschtum-Judentum). Against such bürgerlich ethical monotheism Taubes opposes Barth’s radical rereading of Romans 13. Barth reads chapter 13 is an extension of, rather than an exception to Romans 12. For him, “The rulers are a subset of the wider class of ‘evil’ and ‘enemies’ (12:20-21)” (2). Romans 13 is longer a programmatic summary of political obeisance as in the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. “Subjection” to the lawful rulers now becomes subversion of the law’s rule. Subjection subverts by no longer taking the present political order with “any final seriousness” (3). Such subversion via subjection takes the form of a double negation: “Nicht-Legitimität” and “Nicht-Revolution,” (RII 477). And this double-not issues in a third: “Nicht-Handeln” (RII 481). Neither legitimization nor revolution; only non-action. This threefold not is what Taubes calls Barth’s “political nihilism,” his “Great Negative Possibility” of “not-doing” (RII 477).

Myers accepts Taubes’s account of Barth’s political nihilism more or less at face value, demurring only by saying that his Taubes’s own critical messianism “owes to Walter Benjamin than to Barth” (4). He therefore claims that, “Paul’s injunction to ‘overcome evil with good’ demands a refusal of any action in relation to worldly power” (2). Myers marvels at Taubes’s “uncannily prescient” prediction of Barth’s “hideous metamorphosis” into a classic of the Christian tradition and a great book of Western civilization (6). This, for Myers, is the real danger. “Ecclesial fundamentalism” rather than political activism is the contemporary temptation to “titanism.” Taubes’s nihilistic reading of Barth thus provides Myers with a cautionary tale against orthodoxy and virtue as forms of cultural respectability or worldly power. He therefore commends a further “ecclesiological nihilism” (6). Doctrine and congregation can only be a placeless remainder, a superfluous witness. He surmises, “The genius of Karl Barth lies in the fact that he perceived this clearly, yet went on writing church dogmatics all the same” (7). With this the author of Barmen becomes a theological Bartleby, the scrivener of Basel who sits in his study blithely penning dogmatics while the children of Israel are firing the furnaces of Auschwitz. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Eberhard Busch has shown, from the earliest pre-Barmen days to the last days of the Final Solution Barth busied himself resisting the Nazis and rescuing Jews. Myers’s nihilistic conclusions are untenable. They can account for neither the not-doing discussed by Paul nor that done by Barth. The great negative possibility of not-doing must be explained otherwise.

Myers fails to take notice of just what the “not-doing” of Romans 12-13 is and does. Romans 12 reprises the Sermon on the Mount and reiterates its command to love the enemy. This is a particular theopolitical not-doing: not harming enemies and not doing evil in order to do good. This new commandment suspends the primordial nomos of natural sociability: help friends, harm enemies. As Taubes realizes, Jesus of Nazareth is Christos Kurios and his nomos of love for enemies is nothing short of a declaration of war against the imperium of Rome and the sovereignty of every Caesar who follows (PT, 13). The theological suspension of the law’s rule necessarily is a political subversion of lawful rulers, a point not lost on Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, as for Taubes, the friend-enemy distinction thus defines “the political” itself and determines the course of politics (CP, 7). Political sovereignty is the power to consolidate the nation-state (Volkstaat) through the friend-enemy distinction and the state of exception. As the first sentence of Schmitt’s own Political Theology announces, “Sovereign is he who decides the state of exception” (PT, 5). Sovereignty not only is the power to promulgate but also to suspend the law, in extremis to declare war. War is the ultima ratio of the political. As Charles Tilly grimly remarks, “War makes the stat and the state makes war.” Sovereignty is nothing other than the state’s decisionist power to declare the exception, “to demand from its own members the readiness to die and unhesitatingly to kill enemies” (CP, 46). This precludes the Christian command to love the enemy from any application within the realm of the political (CP, 28-29). Christians can love their personal inimicus, but not their political hostis. There can be no love for enemies of state.

Despite this Myers neither considers the friend-enemy distinction nor confronts the state of exception, even where Barth himself does. That Schmitt’s Political Theology is determinative for Taubes’s is mentioned only in passing as part of Myers’s introduction. And Barth’s own treatment of these themes in “The Protection of Life” (CD III/4 §55.2) is not mentioned at all. There Barth considers the permissibility of killing. He makes the case for so-called presumptive pacifism, which “has almost infinite arguments in its favor and is almost overpoweringly strong” (CD, 455). But there he also makes explicit concessions to the state of exception, first for high treason and tyrannicide and then for war itself. The environing conditions within which these three types of killing become permissible are those of the Schmittian exception. For treason and tyrannicide, “What must be at stake in these cases is not the state in its stable and peaceful form, but the state convulsed and attacked and therefore in serious difficulties. It must be a question of absolute emergency when not just the bene esse but the very esse of the state and its members is at issue” (CD, 446-447). For war, “”[The possibility of Christian support] rests on the assumption that the conduct of one state or nation can throw another into the wholly abnormal situation of emergency in which not merely its greater or lesser prosperity but its very existence and autonomy are menaced and attacked” (CD, 461). Despite the strength of presumptive nonviolence Barth not only allows for the exception in general, albeit on the strictest terms of divine command. He further argues that it would apply specifically to “any attack on the independence, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Swiss Confederation” (CD, 462). While Barth refuses any freestanding Volksrecht of blood or soil, he does not reject the exception or the friend-enemy distinction absolutely.

What matters most in Taubes’s reading of Barth is not his caution against the theological self-legitimization of orthodoxy, no matter how prescient or pressing that criticism may seem. Far more important is that he raises the issue of the political itself as a theological problem. Taubes’s political theology challenges Barth’s view that the exercise of lethal power is an opus alienum of the state. He reveals that the modern state-form institutionalizes violence and is an institution of violence. Taubes reopens the possibility and necessity of political theology. Theological existence today is political theological existence. Christological counter-sovereignty is neither political nor ecclesiological nihilism. Apocalyptic rejection of political radicalism and violent revolution thus is not messianic quietism. Rather it is what John Howard Yoder calls God’s “original revolution.” The originally revolutionary not-doing of Paul is the refusal to return evil for evil. It is antinomian love even the enemy of the state. Paradigmatically it is the not-doing of the Messiah himself whose crucifixion according to the law is the un-doing of the law itself, even the law of sin and death which cannot but culminate in the state’s god-like command to die and to kill.


CD Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (T&T Clark, 1961)

CP Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press, 1996)

PT Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1985)

PTP Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford University Press, 2004)

RII Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1968)

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 3

Beauty, Glory and Trinity in Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart
By Keith Starkenburg

According to John Betz, Barth’s difficulty with the analogia entis comes from “an aesthetic prejudice for the sublime against the beautiful” (John R. Betz, “Beyond the Sublime,” Modern Theology (2005), 370). David Bentley Hart, who is a close collaborator of Betz, makes similar claims in The Beauty of the Infinite (229-230). If aesthetics has to do strictly with the escapability of the known from the knower, then the analogia entis will be difficult to maintain. Conversely, for Hart, the analogia entis is a way to maintain properly both the beauty of the Triune God’s and creation. As Hart makes this claim, he positions himself against Barth. In this essay, I approach this question indirectly. Instead of analyzing Barth’s concepts of the analogia entis and the analogia fidei, I argue that Barth’s doctrine of glory achieves the same purposes that Hart sets out for his own theology of beauty. Thus, as a consequence, Hart’s claims about Barth’s analogical mechanics are misleading or incomplete.

Hart claims that the question he answers in The Beauty of the Infinite is this: “Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible” (1)? Beauty is “theologically defensible” if it allows the Christian tradition to provide a bulwark for the claim that the evangel is “a gospel of peace” (ibid). Thus, Hart’s thesis is that “beauty belongs continuously to the Christian story (as, indeed, a chief element of its continuity), and that it appears there as peace…that for theology beauty is the measure and proportion of peace, and peace the truth of beauty” (33). Is the Christian proclamation of reconciliation in Christ simply, as Nietzsche suggests, a power grab for the sake of one’s own aesthetic vision of order? Or, is its proclamation really a proclamation that does not oppose peace and the beautiful?

There are two large moves in Hart’s argument. First, Hart claims that “the most elementary statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty…God is beauty and also beautiful” (177). The trinitarian life of God fuels Hart’s argument, despite the book’s title: “The Father’s entire being, which he possess in his paternal depth, is always both filial – manifest, known, imparted – and spiritual – loved, enjoyed, perfected – and this event of God’s knowledge and joy is the divine essence – exteriority, happiness, communion – in its infinite unity” (176). Since God is Father and Son, God’s life has mutuality and reciprocity. Since God is Spirit, God’s mutuality has an exteriority and that mutuality can be “differently inflected…as plenitude” (ibid). This allows Hart to say that the Christian God is “infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form…always possessed of his Logos” and is “delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence” (177). God is beauty since beauty is “the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance” (ibid). God is beautiful in that God enjoys God’s own beauty without lack.

How is this connected to peace? Given God’s triune life, to be God is to move, to enact difference in unity and unity in difference. Thus, God is peace, since Christian language is able “to place difference at the origin” (180). The triune God “is not that which negates – or is unveiled through negating – difference, he has no dialectical relation to the world nor any metaphysical ‘function’ in maintaining the totality of being…he shows that difference is…peace and joy” (181). Against modern ontologies of difference, such as Hegel or Deleuze, Hart aims to show that the Christian story declares a Triune God who creates difference without self-alienation or a merciful self-recession. As a result, it is only the Christian, Trinitarian God who is peace, and thus elicits a peaceful ontology in which differences on the surface of created being do not compete with one another or with an infinite which establishes that created order.

This brings us to Hart’s other central claim. The Christian gospel is peaceful because it announces that creation participates in the divine life. While the most elementary statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful, according to Hart, the “cardinal axiom of any Christian theological aesthetics” is that “creation is without necessity” (256). Creation is without necessity because “God is Trinity, who explicates himself, utters himself, and responds eternally, and has all fellowship, exposition, and beauty in perfect sufficiency” (ibid). This is a common Christian motif, but Hart converts it into an aesthetic claim that is distinctly expressed in an analogia entis. Hart’s general point is that creation manifests the Creator because it participates in the self-manifesting love of the Triune Creator (243, 245). The creature and the Creator have the Creator in common, not some third entity called being. But, more specifically, the creation bears an analogy to God precisely because of its unlikeness to the Triune God, not despite its unlikeness. Hart’s claim becomes precise when he says that “the analogy is a disjunction and a difference, while also being the interval of creation’s participation in the being that God gives as his gift: creation tells of God’s glory precisely because it is needless, an expression of a love always directed toward another” (251, cf. 158, 180). In other words, the shape of being – its form – is one of “absolute contingency” (250). Creation is marked by its fragility or needlessness, and that shape or form bears witness to God’s life, providing for its “analogy” to the divine life. Precisely as it expresses God’s ever-sufficient self-expressiveness by its non-necessity in relation to the Triune God, creation is analogous to God. Creation is infinitely different from the Triune life insofar as it is unneeded by Triune life. If it were not infinitely different, the Triune God would need the creation in order to act with love. However, because it is infinitely different – more concretely, it is absolutely unnecessary for God – it can bear witness to the Triune God. An unnecessary creation, insofar as it is unnecessary, bears witness to the Triune God. Thus, it is the gratuitous shape of creaturely existence – its beauty - that ensures the peacefulness of the Christian Gospel.

Hart is quite dismissive of Barth’s claim that the analogia entis is the invention of antichrist. According to Hart, this is “inane (and cruel) invective,” and Barth’s later analogia relationis “reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us” (241). It is difficult to respond to these claims because Hart does not interact with Barth’s multiple deployments of analogy within the Church Dogmatics. However, as Keith Johnson has recently made clear (Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis), Barth never withdrew his criticisms of certain versions of the analogia entis. I will not adjudicate these claims directly, but I think we can see why Hart dismisses Barth on this score. Hart handily connects a version of the analogia entis to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and to peacefulness of the Gospel. If Barth is right that the analogia entis is not a Christian doctrine, then that undercuts Hart’s case for a non-violent Christian theological ontology. However, given Hart’s material moves summarized above, we can test Barth’s theology of beauty to see if it is capable of doing similar work.

Barth’s theology of beauty appears within his presentation of the divine glory in paragraph 31 of CD II/1, the first half of Barth’s doctrine of God. God’s glory “is God Himself in the truth and capacity and act in which He makes himself known as God” (II/1, 641). God’s glory is “the fullness of God’s deity” because it is “the emerging, self-expressing, and self-manifesting reality of all that God is” (643). For Barth, glory is God’s self-expressiveness, that which makes God accessible. Barth’s purpose is to absolutely affirm God’s “freedom to love” in relationship to the creation: “in the fact that He is glorious He loves” (641). If God’s life in the creation can be accessed by the creature, then God’s freedom to love the creature would be conditioned by the creature’s capacity to recognize God’s life. God is graceful, holy, unified and omnipresent and thus has de jure fellowship with creatures. But if de facto fellowship with God is to be achieved, then that gracefulness, holiness, unity and omnipresence within creation must be declared by God alone. God’s glory accounts for his lordship over God’s own transition to creatures.

Barth develops this thesis in three parts. First, he delineates the subjects and objects of glory. God is glorious because he excels all other beings absolutely (646). However, God in God’s self is given to the creation and creatures are induced to participate in God’s own glory and mediate God’s glory to other creatures, especially as creatures worship. At this point, Barth will define glory as “the indwelling joy of his divine being which as such shines out from Him, which overflows in its richness, which in its superabundance is not satisfied with itself but communicates itself” (647). Second, Barth queries the mode of God’s glory and how it is that God is joyful and thus desirable for creatures. Barth’s answer is that God is beautiful; God is “the perfect form” (657). He clarifies, “the form of the perfect being of God is…the wonderful, constantly mysterious and no less constantly evident unity of identity and non-identity, simplicity and multiplicity, inward and outward, God Himself and the fullness of that which He is as God” (ibid). Since God’s life is beautiful in that it is a life of unified distinction and a distinguished unity, God’s life is characterized by “movement” and “peace” (658). It is this movement and peace which God enjoys, which satisfies God and which overflows into the life of creatures. Lastly, Barth unfolds in more depth what it means for creatures to be glorified.

How does Barth’s doctrine of glory achieve the same purposes that Hart sets out for his theology of beauty? A subsidiary purpose of Barth’s treatment of the divine glory is to delineate a non-violent relationship between divine and human activity. God’s glory is a presence “which opens them…which also looses at once tongues which were bound” (647). Since God is glorious, God has “the power of attraction” (650). More specifically, it is beauty which attracts and persuades: “If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how He enlightens and convinces and persuades.” God does not enact the transition to creatures simply by “ruling, mastering, and subduing with the utterly superior force.” This way of presenting the matter would not be “worthy…of the God who is the truth.” For Barth, just as we saw for Hart, God’s life is irresistible and attractive, powerful and persuasive, and overwhelming and non-violent. Another way to put it is that God’s beauty accounts for creaturely joy. It is God’s beauty which “attracts us to joy in Him” (655). Creatures are joyful because they are persuaded by the form of God’s life, God’s beauty. Thus, just as Hart opened his book with the question of the persuasiveness of the Gospel, Barth states quite directly: “But where this element is not appreciated – and this is why the question of the form is so important – what becomes of the evangelical element in the evangel?”

Second, does Barth actually achieve a peaceful ontology, and how does he do this? Barth formulates a peaceful theo-ontology with the same Trinitarian strategy that Hart employs. For Barth, “the triunity of God is the secret of His beauty” (661). Why? He writes, “Here first and in final truth we have to do with a unity of identity and non-identity…it certainly follows from God’s triunity that the one whole divine being, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit whose being it is, must be at the same time identical with itself and non-identical, simple and multiple, a life both in movement and at peace” (660). God’s triunity has no “disparity or dissolution or contradiction” (ibid). In other words, the triunity of God is beyond negation for Barth, as it is for Hart. God does not achieve God’s identity through self-negation or self-recession in order to make room for creatures. God’s self-achievement is peaceful since God is triune. For Barth, as for Hart, peace is at the origins.

Barth is also careful to mention that God’s triunity makes creation unnecessary, and that creation expresses God’s life. Just as with Hart, God’s self-satisfaction establishes creation and divine co-existence with creation as gifts. Since God has no need of the creation, the creation’s existence and the self-giving of God to the creation are gratuitous. Also, as with Hart, Barth makes it clear that it is the “utter creatureliness” that is “the echo of God’s voice” (668). Given what happens in Jesus Christ, creatures correspond to the divine life by giving themselves entirely, just as God gives God’s self entirely in Jesus Christ (671, 674). As God’s self-giving in Christ is grace, creatures give themselves entirely to the Triune God with gratitude. Gratitude participates in the divine glory because it “becomes as such the confirmation of the divine existence” (673). Grateful creaturely existence, in the face of its gratuitous participation in the divine glory, expresses the divine life insofar as it expresses its difference from the Triune life. Creaturely unlikeness to God makes for creaturely likeness to God, for Barth as well as Hart.

In conclusion, I highlight two substantial differences between Hart and Barth. First and unsurprisingly, for Barth the glory of creation is actuated because of the history of Jesus Christ. Creation, apart from Jesus Christ, does not express God’s life. It is only the incarnation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the creation which makes that possible. Hart, however, thinks of Jesus Christ’s work as one of restoration and perfection, not initial establishment. He affirms the practice of natural theology - not a “naïve natural theology” (BOI, 242) - but a natural theology nonetheless. In his doctrine of glory in paragraph 69 of CD IV/3 (“The Light of Life”), Barth does affirm that creation expresses itself and that all of creation shares in the history of God’s revelation in Christ. That may be a kind of natural theology. But more likely it is a way to say that creation expresses the Triune God, but only because of the history of Jesus Christ.

If Hart and Barth agree that trinitarian theology is the heart of a peaceful ontology and a workable analogia, then it is unclear whether Barth’s trinitarian theology can achieve what he sets out to achieve. As Barth often does, in II/1 he describes the unity of the triune God simply in terms of the Holy Spirit (660). This sort of trinitarian theology will not work as a description for the Trinity’s glory because glory is God’s self-illumination or self-declaration. Barth specifies that creatures receive God’s self-illumination, as they participate in God’s self-glorification. But, if God is to be free to self-illuminate, and is to be able to share that freedom, then God would need to be God’s own audience. As Barth says, God is inwardly what God is outwardly (667). The immanent God must be fully externalized, fully shining outward and fully receiving that shining. But, Barth does not clearly specify the receiver of this shining in terms of the divine ways of being, because he cannot do so. The Holy Spirit is the relationship between the Father and Son: the Holy Spirit is their unity; the Holy Spirit exhibits no agency within the Triune life. If he had been able to maintain the Holy Spirit’s immanent agency, his theology would have enunciated a God who loves in freedom more successfully. That may be where Hart offers Barth an important corrective, given the similarity of their work.

Response - Beauty, Glory and Trinity in Karl Barth or in David Bentley Hart?
By Han-luen Kantzer Komline

Keith Starkenburg’s essay makes a cartographical contribution. Through the landscape of Barth’s Reformed theology he maps an alternative route leading to the fulfillment of the very “same purposes that Hart sets out for his own theology of beauty.” Hart constructs his defense of the beauty of God, the beauty of creation, and their compatibility via the analogia entis. In Barth’s theology, Starkenburg argues, the doctrine of glory leads to these aesthetic desiderata.

Starkenburg’s essay thus offers a succinct variation on the type of argument Ken Oakes has advanced in his essay, “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth” (Modern Theology, 2007). In the face of John Betz’s charges that Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis led to a number of undesirable consequences in and surrounding Barth’s understanding of the relationship of nature and grace, Oakes enjoins that “sympathy for one’s subjects requires considering the possibility that Barth might have used other doctrinal resources to express something similar” to a natural desire for the supernatural (597). Oakes shows how Barth’s understanding of humanity, as both creature and covenant-partner, in analogy to Christ, as both human and divine, constitutes a doctrinal alternative to the analogia entis that at once performatively exemplifies Barth’s capability of analogical modes of thought and affirms something like a natural human openness to God. Like Oakes, Starkenburg aims to uncover a hidden path in Barth’s theology to an endpoint with which an advocate of the analogia entis (Hart in Starkenburg’s case, though Starkenburg notes Betz’s critique of Barth as well) might be satisfied.

I have some questions about this kind of methodological or formal approach in general, as well as about its instantiation in Starkenburg’s defense of Barth. Neither Oakes nor Starkenburg wants to say simply that theological ends are all that really matter in the final calculus, or that all theological roads lead to Rome. To dismiss these kinds of apologies for Barth as relying on methodological presuppositions reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham, or even of John Hick, would be to overstate the point. Certainly different theologies offer different strategies for resolving the same perennial puzzles, in this case, the puzzle of how to affirm God’s utter transcendence without falling into either nihilism, dualism or immanentism. Starkenburg, like Oakes, points to this phenomenon in a case where it has been overlooked. He has the flexibility and charity to make room for more than just one answer to a theological difficulty. I wonder, though, if the accent of such approaches on ultimate doctrinal destinations incurs (though by no means inevitably succumbs to!) the risk of obscuring the irreducible particularity of the peculiar paths chosen by each theologian. Is it legitimate to leave that irreducible particularity behind when pronouncing two theologians to be in agreement? If not, to what extent does this particularity of theological means always demand a qualification of any agreement of theological ends? I wonder, in other words, if two different paths actually can lead to the same place in the realm of theology, or if a unique theological journey necessarily corresponds to a unique theological destination.

Applied to Starkenburg’s thesis, for example, what, if any, are the implications of the fact that Hart’s affirmation of creation’s beauty rests on the analogia entis while for Barth “we must keep strictly to Jesus Christ. It is indeed only of Him that we can speak when we dare to say such extravagant things about ourselves and the rest of creation”? (CD II/1, 668). Does this difference in the basis of creaturely beauty in Barth and Hart entail a concomitant difference in each theologian’s understanding of what creaturely beauty actually is? I believe it does. For Barth, a kind of participation that could be described as koinonia supplies the form and content of creaturely beauty whereas for Hart this beauty lies in a kind of participation closely akin to platonic methexis. As I have argued previously, there could be a way of constructively synthesizing two such accounts (“Finitude in The Beauty of the Infinite,” Heythrop Journal 2008), but such a synthesis presupposes an acknowledgment of their differences.

Although Starkenburg never mentions the Christological core of Barth’s treatment of creation’s beauty in his comparative essay, he does hone in at the conclusion of the essay on what, according to him, sets Hart and Barth apart with respect to trinitarian aesthetics. The argument becomes extremely compressed at this point, making it difficult to determine the meaning of Starkenburg’s key terminology, the fairness of his argumentation to Barth’s own views, and his implicitly operative premises. Difficulties with Starkenburg’s criticisms of Barth aside, however, it is worth noting that in the final analysis Starkenburg himself seems to acknowledge (though certainly not in a way flattering to Barth!) that the unique features of Barth’s doctrine of the trinity could ultimately demand a reconsideration of the thesis he stated at the beginning of the paper, that “Barth’s doctrine of glory achieves the same purposes that Hart sets out for his own.” In the end Starkenburg’s paper suggestively qualifies its identification of a sameness between the theologies of Barth and Hart, implicitly raising the question of whether it would not be better to see any analogia theologiarum that might relate the two as a matter of similarity amid greater dissimilarity.

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