Monday, July 15, 2013

More on “Grace in Practice”: Schleiermacher, Barth, and Zahl on an Anthropological Starting Point for Theology

In my initial post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice, I indicated that I would like to devote this second one to the anthropological starting point of his “theology of everyday life.” I raise this topic because I believe that Zahl’s Grace in Practice may provide a way toward reconciling the theologies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, especially with respect to dogmatic organization and the role of experience in theology. Zahl does not explicitly make this case, but I do think that his theology opens up such a possibility. A full treatment of this topic could hardly be contained within a blog post. My hope here, then, is simply to highlight a few salient issues and show how Zahl might offer a way forward. With that, let’s now set up the problem that Zahl might help to resolve.

As many readers of DET will know, Barth’s theology explicitly rejects Schleiermacher’s “anthropologising of theology” (CD I.1, 20). That is, Barth rejects anthropology as the normative principle and starting point of dogmatic theology. We see this even in the structure of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which effectively reverses that of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith.

First, where Schleiermacher treats the doctrine of the Trinity in his conclusion (relegating it to a mere appendix in the eyes of some; not mine, though), Barth treats it in the very first of the fourteen part-volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

Second, by locating Christology in the Second Part of The Christian Faith, that is, within his treatment of the Christian consciousness of grace, it appears that Schleiermacher subordinates Christology to anthropology. According to James Duke and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, even in Schleiermacher’s own day, “there was widespread suspicion that Schleiermacher treated Jesus Christ the redeemer as a postulate derived from the need for redemption” (On the Glaubenslehre, 28). Barth’s Christocentrism, on the other hand, is well known.

Finally, where religious experience, i.e. religious self-consciousness and the feeling of absolute dependence, dominates Schleiermacher’s dogmatics, Barth provides religious experience no such place in his scheme. In fact, Barth reserves his treatment of the individual Christian’s experience of faith, hope, and love to the concluding pages of parts 1-3 of CD IV. And even then, “we shall speak correctly of the faith and love and hope of the individual Christian,” says Barth, “only when it remains clear and constantly becomes clear that, although we are dealing with our existence, that we are therefore dealing with our existence in Jesus Christ as our true existence, that we are therefore dealing with Him and not with us, and with us only in so far as absolutely and exclusively with Him” (CD IV.1, 154). So much for an anthropological starting point.

We see the root of Barth’s allergy to “experience” in statements like this: “the term (experience) is burdened—this is why we avoid it—with the underlying idea that man generally is capable of religious experience or that this capability has the critical significance of a norm” (CD I.1, 193, emphasis mine). At issue in these differences between Schleiermacher and Barth over both dogmatic structure and the role of experience is the normative principle of dogmatic theology. For Schleiermacher, “the feeling of absolute dependence,” and therefore anthropology, remains the norming principle throughout his system. And even though Schleiermacher did suggest that he could have reversed the structure of The Christian Faith, placing the Second Part on Christology before the First Part on the development of the religious self-consciousness, nevertheless it seems that the feeling of absolute dependence laid out in his introduction, and therefore anthropology, remains the controlling factor of his system (On the Glaubenslehre, 58). For Barth, on the other hand, only God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ can stand as theology’s norm. Barth will allow for no general human capacity for revelation, no “anthropological prius of faith” to encroach upon the freedom and unconditional grace of the electing God (CD I.1, 38-39). The human experience of God’s self-revelation, then, is not a human possibility; humans do not possess the capacity for revelation naturally. The experience of the event of God’s self-revelation is possible, for Barth, only because God makes it a reality. This means that for him, anthropology cannot be the starting point of dogmatic theology. Against Schleiermacher’s theology from the ground up, Barth asserts his theology from the top down. What, then, of Zahl’s anthropological starting point for his theology of everyday life?

Zahl is unapologetic in saying that Grace in Practice is a “Christian theology that starts from the bottom up” (94). We see this especially in the structure of his second chapter, which is entitled, “The Four Pillars of a Theology of Grace.” In succession Zahl treats anthropology, soteriology, Christology, and finally, Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity (an order that closely follows the structure of The Christian Faith). The structure in Zahl is such that the problems under one locus find their solution in the next. It would seem, then, that Zahl could fall under the same observation made by Duke and Fiorenza noted above, that the redeemer is derived from the need for redemption. We’ll see that this is not the case shortly. With these close parallels to Schleiermacher, though, how is it that Zahl could possibly help to bridge the gap between Schleiermacher and Barth on dogmatic structure and the role of experience in theology?

In order to see how Zahl’s theology could remain compatible with Barth’s while still following after Schleiermacher, let’s first understand what Zahl is not doing in Grace in Practice:

This book is not about the metaphysical or philosophical ideas of Christianity. It is not about the so-called “doctrine of God.” It is not about the Trinity as a normative description of God’s unity in plurality. This book is not about anything related to essences or pure being or ontology or anything like that. This book is about how Christianity works…. It is perfectly fine to say that God is such and such a thing, or such and such a person. But the value of the idea is in its application (27, emphasis original).

By saying that “this book is about how Christianity works,” Zahl means that his book is about the experience of Christianity, the experience of law and grace in everyday life. We have here what we might call a distinction between doing theology ontically (according to the order of being) and doing it noetically (according to the order of knowing), Barth representing the ontic approach, Zahl the noetic approach to theology. But doesn’t that leave Zahl squarely in Schleiermacher’s camp with anthropology as the normative principle of theology? Not necessarily. In Zahl’s Grace in Practice, we have a theology from the bottom up, yes, but I think it is one that assumes a theology from the top down. (Zahl actually says something close to this in the second lecture in a course he taught at Knox Seminary entitled, “From the Bottom Up”).

Zahl’s theology of every day life does not assume an anthropological prius to the event of revelation. Humans are not capable of reaching up to God. But the event of revelation also does not exist in the abstract. For it to be genuine revelation it must (by grace) be understood and experienced by real, live human beings. We see an instance of this concern in one of Zahl’s descriptions of the law:

What we have to do in order to relate the concept of divine unbending law to human experience is to speak from analogy. The point is an old one: you cannot understand God, who is not understandable to human beings on his own terms, without reference to human (thus accessible) experience. I say this without apology. You cannot understand God apart from perceived, true, real life experience. Without connecting God’s law, for example, with the innumerable “laws” that people place on themselves, God’s law is a concept. It is an abstraction (28).

This is perfectly consistent with Barth’s theology insofar as Zahl understands the direction of the analogy as moving from “above to below,” or, as Bruce McCormack has said regarding the analogia fidei in his book on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, if Zahl understands that in this analogy, “God’s act is the analogue, ours is the analogate; His the archetype, ours the ectype” (17). And if Zahl has this understanding in place, then there is nothing to stop him from “starting” his theology of everyday life with anthropology. In other words, I think that it is possible that if one were to take the conclusions of Barth’s dogmatic project and turn them into premises,[*] that person would end up with something like the “theology of everyday life” in Zahl’s Grace in Practice. Ultimately, the key, I think, is that while anthropology is Zahl’s starting point, it is not the normative principle of his theology.

My hunch is that Zahl assumes something like Barth’s top-down theology, but that with that assumption in place, Zahl seeks to express the experience of grace from the bottom up. If Zahl is successful, and if he removes the normative status that Schleiermacher gave to anthropology, then what we have in Zahl is a theology following the pattern of Schleiermacher, but following after Barth.

In my next post, I will lift up a number of examples in which Zahl shows “how Christainity works” in relation to law, grace, imputation and some other cases.

[*] I am indebted to my good friend and co-pastor Scott Jones for helping me to develop this insight within the context of our weekly preachers’ meeting.



W. Travis McMaken said...

Keep up the good work, Matt.

You say that Barth is ontic and Zahl is noetic in approach. I'm not sure that's a good way of putting it since for Barth the noetic and the ontic are very closely related, and really the latter is derived from the former in interesting ways.

Perhaps Zahl can be characterized as poetic?

Dave Strobolakos said...

"Ultimately, the key, I think, is that while anthropology is Zahl’s starting point, it is not the normative principle of his theology."

I like this idea of anthropology as starting point, but not normative principle. It seems intuitive to say that the experience of 'human-ness' provides important information to the process of doing theology. Something that contemporary theology struggles to find the balance in?

Also, I appreciate your effort to reconcile two somewhat disparate Christian thinkers (i.e. Schleiermacher and Barth) into one truth project. Well done!

David W. Congdon said...

This is a fascinating post. I've never heard of Zahl. Interestingly, I make the identical argument with respect to Bultmann: that he presupposes a starting-point in Christ/gospel/revelation, but that he presents it from the perspective of the world/law/existence. Barth was unable to distinguish Bultmann's theology -- which was normatively in unity with his own -- from those genuinely natural theologies that were normatively opposed to him but looked formally like Bultmann, e.g., Przywara, Brunner, Wobbermin, Hirsch, Gutmann, etc.

I had questions too about the ontic/noetic distinction you made, but I think you can make it work (pace Travis). As long as the ontic in Barth is defined by what God has done in Christ, and as long as the noetic in Zahl is defined by what human beings experience in their encounter with God, then I think it probably works. But you will want, in your future work, to make sure the reader knows you are only identifying a matter of perspective and of emphasis and not pitting Barth against a noetic approach (which his certainly also is).

Matthew Frost said...

Matt, I'm going to grab hold of and push harder on something both Travis and David have noted, which I see as a major problem with your characterization here: Barth does not do theology "from the top down" or according to an ontic rather than a noetic approach. If this is missed, as I feel you have missed it, the claim that Zahl mediates between these two figures will not be grounded properly.

The Church Dogmatics does not begin with a doctrine of God—unless you remove the first seven sections. Barth does theology from the place where God and humanity meet. And that begins by doing theology from the place where humanity understands itself to be meeting God: the church, the assembly of Christians together in faith and attention to the Word of God. Barth works very carefully from this, across seven sections, developing as dogmatic prolegomenon his understanding of exactly the noetic approach by which we do dogmatics, with respect to what normative material, as the church. This is the working out in practice of his earlier method study on Anselm. And at the end of the volume, Barth returns from the Trinity as developed out of the Word of God to the nature of the church that hears and teaches this Word.

Also, a complaint: I do not see how one could understand the statement that one "cannot understand God apart from perceived, true, real life experience. Without connecting God’s law, for example, with the innumerable “laws” that people place on themselves"—how one could say that this is "perfectly consistent" with making an analogy from above to below. The suggestion I hear Zahl making is that the analogy must flow from below to above if we are to understand what is above as anything but an abstraction! This is exactly what should not be done if one is to understand human experience as at best an ectype, an instance of the archetype situated within its own limitations. We, at our best and most truly human (that is, in our moments of maximal freedom from sin!) are not instances of a genre of ideal humanity, but reflections of a true and actual human person, our archetype, Jesus Christ.

If we assume that a theological approach that begins with God cannot have content without grounding that content in our human experience, we subordinate God's actuality to our own. This is the reason experience has so little place in Barth: our experience is always the experience of sin, the experience of broken humanity in which the imago dei, our correspondence to God, is broken from our side. We must reconcile our experience as failed ectypes, failed creatures, with the reality of our right existence as ectypes of Jesus Christ.

Theology, for Barth, goes from noetic to ontic precisely in order to condition our noesis. This is a cycle! We work from our situation through the faith to its object. We do this in order to proceed back from the truth of the object of faith, to some knowledge of what is true and false in our own existence. And we proceed from that provisional knowledge, gained by pursuing God in faith, to action. In the process we are constantly refining our knowledge of both God and ourselves in relationship. Knowledge of ourselves, and therefore evaluation of our experience, is not a datum but a product of theology for Barth.

Matthew Warren said...


Thanks for the encouragement!

I'll address your ontic/noetic comment in my response to David Congdon.

I'd love to hear more about characterizing Zahl as poetic, though.


Matthew Warren said...

David Strobolakos,

Thanks for your kind comments.

I spent much of my time in seminary thinking through Barth's theology. In the last year, though, my interest in Schleiermacher has steadily risen. I'm especially interested in trying to understand Barth's reading of Schleiermacher. I'm not really sure where this interest will go, but I feel like there is much to be learned.

Matthew Warren said...

David Congdon,

Writing this post got me thinking a great deal about Bultmann and your project. I haven't spent much time with Bultmann, so I would love to hear more.

I think the way you nuanced my blunt use of ontic and noetic in Barth and Zahl is exactly right. My intention was not to pit Barth and Zahl against one another, only to identify the emphases of their approaches. I actually think my post can work only if one understands that the ontic and noetic in Barth and Zahl are closely related, as Travis said. I think that I tried to get at this with the McCormack quotation, but I see that I could have made this much clearer.

I think that this goes a long way in addressing Mathew Frost's comment as well.

Matthew Warren said...

Matthew Frost,

Thank you for your lengthy response to my post! Frankly, I didn't expect such enthusiastic engagement. To show my appreciation, I'll try to address as many of your concerns as I can, so please forgive the length of my reply.

First, my intention was not to pit Barth and Zahl against one another regarding what I described as their ontic and noetic approaches. In fact, my intention was quite the opposite. I admit that my language here could have been clearer. See my response to David Congdon above. This means, though, that I assume that Barth's approach is both ontic and noetic, which I hope goes a long way in addressing some of the other concerns of your second paragraph. Also, I understand that Barth does not open the Church Dogmatics with a doctrine of God. I did, however, want to highlight the different locations of the doctrine of the Trinity in both Schleiermacher and Barth. Also, I would have gladly included a discussion of CD I.1 §6.1 "The Word of God and Experience," but the post was already running a bit long.

In response to your "complaint," I don't think that Zahl is prioritizing human "laws" over God's law in his discussion of analogy, only suggesting that as humans we can only understand revelation (and theological concepts at that) in concrete human terms. They otherwise remain abstract. Creaturely media does not naturally possess the capacity for revelation, but God employs creaturely media, which is intelligible to human beings, in the event of revelation, yes? I think the sentence before the one you quote where Zahl says, "you cannot understand God who is not understandable to human beings on his own terms, without reference to human (thus accessible) experience," is very important here.

We need to keep in mind that Zahl is constantly thinking of the preaching moment, how the preaching of God's Word gets into hearers' lives and experience. Zahl's whole project in "Grace in Practice" is about discerning how we experience law, and grace, and God in our everyday lives. The point of my post is that he does this while assuming much of Barth and not allowing anthropology to control the event of revelation.

You say, "If we assume that a theological approach that begins with God cannot have content without grounding that content in our human experience, we subordinate God's actuality to our own." Sure, but I (and Zahl) am not saying that. Grounding theology in human experience would subordinate God's actuality to our own, yes. But since revelation, according to Barth, is possible because God has already made it actual, such an understanding of "grounding" theology in human experience is out of the question. This is kinda the point of my post. But this "theology from the top down" must "encounter" (notice, not "be ground in") human experience if it is to have content "for" human beings. Otherwise, we simply don't experience revelation ever. This is not to say that human experience has the capacity for revelation, but the more modest claim that in revelation God reveals Godself in ways and through media that humans can and do experience. That human experience does not control or make possible the event of revelation, but God does graciously take it up in the unveiling and veiling act of revelation, making Godself intelligible to human knowing and experience. Zahl's "Grace in Practice" is an attempt to describe this experience of revelation in everyday terms.

I hope I was able to adequately address your concerns.

Take care,


Matthew Frost said...

Matt, thank you for your detailed response. I think "blunt," as you said to David Congdon, is le mot juste, and I can see how I may have been complaining about an imprecise gloss rather than an intended sharp distinction. And it's possible that I'm also falling into the same boat as Barth vis-à-vis Bultmann on the matter of insisting on a formal as well as normative alignment, as David suggested. If there's one thing I obsess over, it's nuance. And I'm about to be more enthusiastic in reply here, in three parts, because I've done the reading and I'm in.

At the risk of anticipating what you may deal with later, I'm going to start replying to your response with something of a non-sequitur to this one. That is that if I wanted to compare and contrast Zahl on the basis of Grace in Practice with Barth, I'd start with the sharp contrast between the law-first-then-gospel ordo salutis Zahl assumes, and the thoroughgoing "Gospel and Law" orientation that Barth cultivates in its place. But then, I'm a Lutheran, and one of those that gets called "antinomian" for "denying the third use"—so part of me really gets what Zahl is trying to do for preaching. My preaching professor was adamant about something very similar to what Zahl says about how "grace-justification preaches."

See, the problem I seized upon in my first reply has more to do with how you've framed him—I wouldn't even guess from this book that Zahl was trying to mediate between the formal systems and methodologies of Barth and Schleiermacher. I don't see any way to assert that law-gospel dialectics is an approach from below, especially in such a deeply forensic context as Zahl relies upon. Nor do I see that he's beginning theology with anthropology here—I think the phrase that might better fit is "he's doing a work on ethics." And, pointedly, that is where we wind up when we take Barth's conclusions as our premises for further work. Barth leaves us solidly in ethics, every time, as long as we accept his premises and therefore his conclusions. And I'm OK with that, with ethics as the nature of a "theology of everyday life."

Matthew Frost said...

I can see how, as you suggest, Zahl builds from problems to solutions, but the language of "top" (God-side) and "bottom" (human-side) seems misplaced. I will even deny it for Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher isn't doing "bottom-up" so much as he is doing aplogetics; Barth isn't doing "top-down" so much as he is doing dogmatics. The hidden issue is what carved the deep river-bed that Barth felt he had to oppose, which wasn't the man himself, so much as the Liberal tradition after him.

I will gladly grant that it's a nuance worth noting, as you have, that one may start sequentially with anthropology without being normed systematically by it. I believe Barth may have made a similar point in respect of "What is the chief end of man?" That doesn't make the Shorter Catechism "bottom-up." It still proceeds conceptually from God to humanity, norming human existence in terms of God's reality. But there are many ways of starting "top-down." Systematically, Zahl seems to have started "top-down" with his particular form of law-gospel dialectic, grounding his "everyday life" portions in the application. That leaves him, in the shaky ground of law-as-revelation, relying on a top-down strategy that proceeds from genre to species, abstract to concrete, rather than from archetype to ectype, model to copy.

On the pages you cite from Zahl's chapter on law, he elucidates an idea of the unity of divine and human law that would be quite at home in Catholic moral theology. And he does so in order to build up his notion of God as the giver of law, of law as revelation. I realize that he's doing it in a relatively classic ploy to make law both big enough and horrible enough in its justice to make the carrot of grace more acceptable, so that we will do what he intends and lean on the gospel of grace for preaching. However, as a Barthian and even as a Lutheran, I don't agree with this whole way of dealing with law, classic as it may be to Luther and company in their fight against Rome—which involved seeing Paul as in a parallel fight against Judaism. (This even the "New Perspective" hadn't fixed.)

Zahl opposes grace to law, both being revelation, and he does so in a sequential context in which grace always bats cleanup. And so, even when he gets to grace, the law-first-then-gospel ordo lets him suggest several times that grace accuses before it forgives. Law is exactly where Zahl seems to let God be the genre of the species, the abstraction from the specific, making laws the content of God's perfection. This is nothing like Barth's talk of the command. It appears to me, as I said, to be working from below to above. Which happens very often when we attempt to define God as though there were that in God which is not revealed to us and is intrinsically ungraspable.

Matthew Frost said...

There's a reason that Barth lifts up and emphatically champions the classic Reformation refrain that there is nothing of God that is not revealed in Jesus Christ. There is no "God-in-God's-terms" aseity separable from the "God-in-our-terms" condescension of revelation, because that assumes that revelation is not really God self-revealing, and that the content of revelation is—even by dumbing-down—something other than the actual being of God. When Barth says that revelation is not a human capability, this is nothing against the reality that God self-reveals to us. It is not that we are not capable of understanding; it is that we are not capable of revealing God. So I'm still going to adamantly take issue with the idea that revelation remains abstract unless translated. It is not revelation unless it is God in contact with us, surely—but it is revelation in which God is actually in contact with us, not providing us with some creaturely mediation of the divine presence. God's use of the creature is precisely unintelligible—it is evident, as Barth suggests, only because it is the fantastic relative to what the creature itself normally does. But that isn't divine self-revelation. It is the shadow of the action rather than what makes it clearer to us.

I'd far rather say of Barth that he works from the intersection, from the middle out. But in interpreting that intersection, he always works from God-who-determines to humanity-which-is-determined, from the certainty to the implications. Maybe that is "top-down," but I'm not sure the terminology clarifies relative to Schleiermacher, who also argues that our existence is determined by God. Schleiermacher simply believes that we are determined by God in such a way that what is determined about us can tell us about God in reverse process. So, for that matter, does Pannenberg. Barth refuses experience as a datum because there is no way back from it. It tells us nothing about how God determines us. And those two opposite positions cannot be mediated. So perhaps my point is just to suggest that your claim about formal mediation doesn't go very deep into the normative issues between Schleiermacher and Barth, at least as I understand them.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Just to clarify my earlier comment, I was thinking of Zahl's approach being "poetic" in the sense of "poiesis."

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks for a great post, Matthew Warren.

I want to quibble about something you write here. I don't think my quibble affects where you're going with this overall, though, and I like the way you retrieve religious experience within a framework that takes Barth's Christological norm seriously.

Here's my issue, which comes from your brief summary of critiques of Schleiermacher:

"Second, by locating Christology in the Second Part of The Christian Faith, that is, within his treatment of the Christian consciousness of grace, it appears that Schleiermacher subordinates Christology to anthropology. According to James Duke and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, even in Schleiermacher’s own day, 'there was widespread suspicion that Schleiermacher treated Jesus Christ the redeemer as a postulate derived from the need for redemption' (On the Glaubenslehre, 28). Barth’s Christocentrism, on the other hand, is well known."

Indeed, FS was well aware of this critique and, as I recall (it's been a while) he answers it in the text, I believe, whose intro you cite here (Two Letters to Dr. Lücke). Unlike many, I found FS's answer convincing and would challenge the notion that the feeling of absolute dependence is the formal norm of his dogmatics. Rather, as I read him, the Christian experience of redemption in Christ is the formal and material norm of his dogmatics. The phenomenology at the beginning, then, is the framework entailed to make sense of experience of redemption and relate all the parts of the Christian faith together as a whole. This is a sort of christocentrism -- though, granted, one that's quite different from Barth's christocentrism, and Barth (as you point out) would still have reasons to object. The ordering of the two parts by itself isn't enough to convince me the criticism is on target.

Yes, religious experience, does function for FS in a way unacceptable to Barth, a way that would seem to put the believing human subject at the center. The epistemological issue remains between the two thinkers -- the question of how we come to know redemption in Christ. And working with that tension, as you do here, is interesting. But maybe that's something distinguishable from the norm of theology per se?

Matthew Warren said...

Matthew Frost,

In response to your comments of July 17th, let me first say that I am glad to hear that you’ve picked up a copy of “Grace in Practice.” That makes me very happy. Now to the substance of your replies.

Regarding your first reply of July 17th: I’ll treat Zahl’s understanding of law and grace in my next post, but not with respect to Barth or an ordo salutis. I’ll say here, though, that Zahl poses a convincing challenge to my Reformed convictions regarding the “third use of the law.” Let’s just say that I wouldn’t be sad to find myself in your position and have someone call my preaching “antinomian.”

I started with Zahl’s treatment of anthropology because I see in it a possible way to do justice to both Schleiermacher and Barth. I’m more interested in that than a strict comparison of Zahl and Barth, though, I agree that such a comparison regarding law and grace would be fruitful. Now, the reason you “wouldn’t even guess from this book that Zahl was trying to mediate between the formal systems and methodologies of Barth and Schleiermacher” is that he’s not. In my opening paragraph I say: “Zahl does not explicitly make this case, but I do think that his theology opens up such a possibility.” Basically, I like Schleiermacher, Barth, and Zahl and I’m playing around with some ideas.

I wouldn’t characterize what Zahl is doing as a work on ethics, not without qualification. You might more precisely describe what Zahl is doing as theological psychology. As he says in the Knox Seminary course I referenced, he’s trying to offer a psychologically accurate description of how the truths of the gospel play out in the lives of real people. Also, the first half of the book functions almost like a theological prolegomena to his theological psychology in the second half. But, as Barth (and Jensen!) would have us know, prolegomena inevitably include theological statements, and so we have a parallel in Zahl as he reframes theological concepts through the lens of human experience in the first half of the book (his “prolegomena,” if you will), turning to more concrete descriptions of the experience of law and grace in the second half. So, I maintain that the starting point of his “theology of everyday life” moves from the bottom up. Last, while we end up in ethics with Barth, would you agree that that’s not necessarily the same thing as ending up with a description of the human experience of grace? This is why I prefer describing Zahl’s work as theological psychology to ethics, and why I’m pulling Schleiermacher into this conversation.

Matthew Warren said...

Regarding your second reply of July 17th: I’m not so sure about your saying that Schleiermacher is doing apologetics in The Christian Faith not dogmatics. Barth does say something like this in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, but soon after that he says, “One thing at all events must be said of the content of Schleiermacher’s theology: he did at least see the danger of a theology which is essentially apologetic in its approach—its impending metamorphosis into a philosophy; and if there was one thing he fought almost desperately against as an academic theologian, it was this danger” (417). Also, Schleiermacher’s understanding of apologetics and its relationship to dogmatics is quite complex and innovative in both his Brief Outline and The Christian Faith, and I don’t think that I am willing quite yet to accept Barth’s judgment that The Christian Faith is “at bottom…perhaps more apologetics than what, by pointing to its better part, could be understood as comprising a doctrine of faith” (417). So I don’t know that I can grant your first point. Then again, I am still a novice when it comes to Schleiermacher, and my understanding is rapidly and ever evolving as I read more of him. I do agree with you, however, when you say that Barth is rejecting the Liberal tradition and not so much “the man himself.” I’ve often thought this myself, but since I have yet to work this out to my satisfaction, I chose to stick with a more conventional understanding of the contest between Barth and Schleiermacher as I test these ideas. I am more than willing to change that, however.

On Zahl’s understanding of the law, I think that it is wrong to view him as using it like a bludgeon to beat would-be-believers into wanting the “carrot of grace”; he’s not Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron (praise God!). So, instead of viewing law as revelation per se, I think it would be more appropriate to use the language of experience. When Zahl says things like, “God as law is undeviating,” we should read that as, “we humans experience God as judgment constantly” (44). And psychologically, this is simply true to the experience of Christians and non-Christians alike. I think this also explains why he orders law before grace in his exposition. That is, he’s moving according to human experience from problem to solution. Moreover, I actually can’t imagine Zahl employing “use” in relation to law. There is definitely no “third use” for Zahl, but I am tempted to say that there is only a weak (or no) second use either, and this despite the “horror” with which he describes the experience of the law’s crushing weight. The law functions more like a problematic experiential context. We find ourselves in a context where we experience judgment (law) constantly. And so, speaking into this presupposed context, we constantly see Zahl saying in sermons, lectures, and “Grace in Practice” that we must begin with the love, acceptance, and grace of God in Jesus Christ. To me, that sounds pretty close to Barth: no talk of sin except forgiven sin kind of deal. On the idea of Zahl saying, “grace accuses,” could you point me to some pages in Zahl?

Matthew Warren said...

Regarding your third reply of July 17th: Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that your reply here is a response to the quotation in my post where Zahl says, “you cannot understand God, who is not understandable to human beings on his own terms, without reference to human (thus accessible) experience.” Zahl is not trying to drive a wedge between the economic and the immanent. He’s just saying that if humans are to understand God, God must be understood in human terms. The wonderful thing is that God makes Godself available to us in human terms, and Zahl clearly thinks that God is understandable on these terms. I have two points: First, I reiterate that creaturely media is not capable of revelation apart from grace, and that if humans are to experience revelation, it must come via creaturely media, for how else could we creatures comprehend it? We actually get God in revelation, not just a divine presence, but we get God as a creature, the man Jesus Christ. Unless I’ve grossly misunderstood him, Bruce McCormack is excellent on this stuff in his discussion of veiling and unveiling and the analogia fidei in his Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. Second, I think that we need to make a distinction between God’s being comprehendible in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and possessing exhaustive knowledge of God via that self-revelation. Part of the aim of Barth’s doctrine of election was to shed light on the dark shadow of the Deus absconditus. In other words, we want to know that we are actually dealing with God when we are dealing with Jesus Christ. Allow me to quote Barth at length: “The election of Jesus Christ is the eternal choice and decision of God. And our first assertion tells us that Jesus Christ is the electing God. We must not ask concerning any other but Him. In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any other but Him. There is no such thing as Godhead itself” (CD II.2, 115) (my emphasis). The point is that the one whom we meet in the event of revelation, in Jesus Christ, is none other than God, that we have no further to look for God’s self-revelation than Jesus Christ, that there is nothing hiding behind him. I, with Barth, will go even so far as to say that the man Jesus Christ is God. Again, Barth at length: “The fact is sure that He is none other than the Creator, the Lord of the Church, the Ruler of our hearts and consciences, the Judge at the last day, the same Lord to me and thee and to His angels and archangels, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever, here and now and in the remotest lands and times, ever diversely manifested in His freedom, yet ever the same, never and nowhere a different God. But we are sure of this fact only because God is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is God; only because the divine immanence in all its varied possibilities has its origin in Jesus Christ and therefore its unity in Him, but only in Him, in the diversity of its actions and stages. Therefore we cannot be sufficiently eager to insist, nor can it be sufficiently emphasised in the Church and through the Church in the world, that we know God in Jesus Christ alone, and that in Jesus Christ we know the one God” (CD II.1, 318) (my emphasis).

Last, I am really interested in pursuing what you’ve said here: “I'd far rather say of Barth that he works from the intersection, from the middle out. But in interpreting that intersection, he always works from God-who-determines to humanity-which-is-determined, from the certainty to the implications.” I think that there is something really fruitful here. Perhaps with this reading of Barth and a more generous reading of Schleiermacher, we could bring Barth, Schleiermacher, and even Zahl a bit closer together.

Thanks so much for your engagement!

Take care,


Matthew Warren said...

J. Scott Jackson,

I very much appreciate your comment. Your reading of Schleiermacher is a position that I am presently investigating, and I think that you might be right. I stuck to a more conventional interpretation of Schleiermacher for this post, however, because I am still working through the issues myself. Could you point me to any resources? I'd really appreciate that.