Saturday, March 30, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Well, I guess it has been three weeks since the last installment. It has been a busy month in the theoblogosphere. My collection of links is larger than usual, so get ready for a glut of good reading. But first, what’s been happening here at DET?

But enough about me. What about all the other great theoblogs out there?!?!? I’m glad you asked. Et voila!

Ok, I need to stop. Going much further would result in this lovely link collection becoming entirely unmanageable. I’m sure that there is enough here for everyone to find something to read over the weekend. I have many more posts in my notes, waiting to be highlighted, so stay tuned for the next installment. Meanwhile, and speaking of the weekend, have a blessed Easter!


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is Atheism Evil? Karl Barth on Truly Dangerous Atheism

Is atheism evil? Is atheism good or bad? Ask the average self-described “Christian” on the street in North America and you’ll get a decisively negative answer. But it is a bad question, a misleading one. For there is not only one form of atheism, and most of them tend not to be straightforwardly “good” or “bad.” In the below quote, Barth addresses three types of atheism. The first two types were much more prevalent in his day than in ours, although in recent years we’ve seen a particularly loud form of the second type emerge (here is one news clipping that comes to mind). Barth does not believe that these two types are particularly worrisome. In fact, he speaks not only of their weaknesses but also of their strengths. Rather, it is the third type that is “the real enemy.” And in discussing this third type Barth indicts your average North American “Christian” who—as a body—seems absolutely incapable of recognizing this critical point. 

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 46–47. Bold is mine.
Addressing myself particularly to ‘Christian’-minded readers of this essay, I should like to add the following in regard to the phenomenon and problem of ‘atheism’. There exists in the East at the present time, connected politically of course with dialectical materialism, a rather fiery form of atheism . . . that opposes the Church, religion in general, and thus also what is taken to be the Christian faith, in a more or less militant and aggressive fashion. . . . [There is also an] older, Western, cold type of atheism that is essentially defensive. The universal validity it claims for the negation of faith is based on the alleged sole validity of the scientific and technological method of thought, but in practice it merely claims the liberty to express that claim and . . . freely to renounce the Church and Christian faith in the name of an intellectual elite, ‘looking forward to a time when this renunciation will have become general’. Both types of atheism have their special pathos, their special strengths and weaknesses. I should like to say this about them. Atheism is not abominable, because evil, dangerous or pernicious, in either of these forms, even in the Eastern form which is now so greatly feared and therefore so bitterly denounced by the honest[*] Swiss. The atheism that is the real enemy is the ‘Christianity’ that professes faith in God very much as a matter of course, perhaps with great emphasis, and perhaps with righteous indignation at atheism wild or mild, while in its practical thinking and behavior it carries on exactly as if there were no God. It professes its belief in him, lauds and praises him, while in practice he is the last of the things it thinks about, takes seriously, fears or loves. . . . God is spoken of, but what is meant is an idol that one treats as one sees fit. Who can acquit himself of this third form of atheism? Let all who believe themselves to be Christians consider this: that in this third form atheism is a really evil thing. But this is the form in which it prospers in Christian families, homes (including ministers’ homes), groups, associations, institutions, [political] parties and newspapers. This is the form of atheism that is fertile soil for the growth first of the mild, then of the wild, first of the Western and then of the Eastern type, and from which both continually draw their strength. The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians.

[*] Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? 


Friday, March 15, 2013

Karl Barth on Christianity, Religion, and Western Culture

I was going to present this quote entirely without comment (shocking, I know…), but then I realized that a little context must be provided or else certain bits of this quote will hit the ear a bit strangely. So, know this: the title of the talk that this quote comes from is “Christianity or Religion?” and it was presented to a group of incoming international students at the University of Basle in 1963. This context is particularly poignant in my own context since it shows Barth seizing an opportunity in the midst of a kind of bureaucratic necessity to say something interesting. Something very interesting, indeed.

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 29–30. Bold is mine.
You are visitors to this old Europe of ours, and our good city and university of Basle and the sample fair offers you a vivid picture of its traditions and civilization. Adopt as much of our science and technology, our art and politics, as you can and may. You will also come across signs of what is called Christianity. May they be real signs of real Christianity. And may you not confuse them with the signs of our religion. For, apart from wanting to be Christians and to call ourselves Christians, we are all also religious, and at times even terribly religious. There are also religions disguised in the form of science, art and politics, technology, sport or fashion, concealed behind a very demonstrative secularity, which represents superstructures or leaps that are the more vigorous for that very reason, leaps into some sort of beyond, worship of the most diverse gods and idols. Mammon, money, is the most powerful of these concealed but very real deities. Let no one pretend to you that here you are in an area of Christian tradition and civilization, that you are in the ‘Christian West’. ‘Christian’, properly understood, means being governed by the message of Jesus Christ, the liberating discovery of God’s gracious move towards humanity. But such discovery is an event, not a condition or institution, and thus is not an attribute with which human creations can be endowed or by which they can be distinguished. Nor are we governed by that event, but at best are only distantly touched by it. The truth of the matter is that we still have really and properly to learn what is involved in this essential Christianity and thus with the happy reversal in which God moves ahead and man follows, God as the father and man his child, in other words the whole meaning of Jesus Christ. There is a religions, but not a Christian West; there is only Western humanity confronted by Jesus Christ.
Those who have ears to hear…


Monday, March 11, 2013

Karl Barth’s Reflections Christianity in America vs. in Switzerland

Finally, a quote I can present entirely without comment! 


Did that count as a comment? 


Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 49. 
As for Christian America and Christian Switzerland, one thing struck me most of all, and that was that in American Christendom the congregation is still a real thing. People do not just attend divine service and then go home again, as they do with us; they do not go just to listen to the minister, but also to be with one another. They ‘gather together’ for worship. Even in the big cities I visited, such as Chicago, Washington and Richmond, they knew, greeted, talked to one another. Going to church is not a mere private matter; it is a ‘social gathering’, as the Americans call it. This may have its dangers, but basically it is a good and gratifying thing; the Gospel binds people together. On the other hand, with us the preaching is on the whole better, or at any rate deeper. American Protestantism is still strongly marked by the somewhat superficial reasoning of the Enlightenment movement.


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

…or, Something to keep you busy over the weekend…

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Or, whatever. Here’s another link post. There has been a lot of good stuff floating around lately. Of course, I would be remiss not to highlight what’s gone on here at DET since the last installment…

Some of those posts have even generated comments, which is quite gratifying. In any case, be sure to catch up if you missed them. Also catch up on all the following links from around the theo-blogosphere. Happy reading!

Well, then. That ought to keep you in theology blog reading for a while. Enjoy! Until next time . . .


Thursday, March 07, 2013

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.6-10

Malachi 1.6-10

[6] A son honors his father, and slaves honor their master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you priests who show contempt for my name. But you ask, ‘how have we shown contempt for your name?’ [7] By offering defiled food on my altar. But you as, ‘How have we defiled you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. [8] When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. [9] “Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?” – says the LORD Almighty. [10] “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”



Calvin’s discussion of this passage is interesting because it seems to be a bit autobiographical. His primary concern throughout is to explain the logic of how Malachi condemns the priests here. The root problem, as Calvin sees it, is that the priests have been lax in upholding God’s commands concerning right worship of him. Calvin suspects that their motive for sacrificing sub-standard animals, etc, was personal well-being. Placing Malachi’s ministry during the return from exile, Calvin speculates that the Israelites were hesitant to bring forward the best of their animals for sacrifice due to a general shortage of good stock. Concomitantly, the priests accepted sub-standard offerings because they worried that if they did not, they would not be able to survive (remember that the priests largely lived of the people’s offerings). So Calvin concludes:
We now then perceive why the Prophet objects to the priests, that they had called the table of Jehovah contemptible; not that they had spoken thus expressly, but because they had regarded it almost as nothing to pervert and adulterate the whole of the divine worship according to the law, which was an evidence of religion when there was any (491).
How is all this autobiographical? Well, if you know anything about Calvin’s Geneva, you know that he took the “lawful” worship of God very seriously. He chalks the priest’s actions here up to a failure of nerve, and in this statement one can easily hear Calvin’s dedication to avoid their error. Indeed, this is almost a pep-talk to himself and his colleagues, as well as a barb for his opponents:
As [the priests] allowed to others so much liberty, it appeared quite evident that the name of God was but little esteemed by them; for had they possessed true zeal, they would not have suffered the worship of God to be trodden under foot or profaned (485-6).
Of course, Calvin backed such words up with action, refusing to administer the Lord’s Supper to certain of the native Genevan political leaders who opposed the Consistory’s discipline in face of threats of physical harm. One story goes so far as to say that when certain of these folk stormed the table in an effort to forcibly compel the ministers to serve them, Calvin threw himself on the table, covering the elements, and declared that they would only receive the Supper over his dead body. This cowed the belligerents. Also, one must remember that Calvin and the Genevan ministers went about unarmed in an age when men generally wore (and frequently unsheathed) swords.

Enough of this anecdotal and historical diversion, and back to the text. Calvin raises the not-unreasonable question of why God would be so concerned about the quality of sacrifices when in other places we find statements about the insignificance of sacrifices when compared to practices of justice, for instance. One thinks here of Hosea 6.6, for instance. Calvin’s solution is to think in terms of degrees. Whereas in Hosea the sacrifices are lawfully carried out, albeit legalistically, in Malachi they aren’t even performed properly. So Calvin:
Had all their victims been fat or well fed, our Prophet would have spoken as we find that others have done; but since their faithlessness had gone so far that they showed even to children that they had no regard for the worship of God – since they had advanced so far in shamelessness, it was necessary that they should be thus convicted of impiety (491).
Hosea takes aim at those are self-satisfied in the propriety of their worship of God, while Malachi goes after those who can’t even be bothered to go through the motions properly.


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou has been pleased in thine infinite mercy not only to choose from among us some to be priests to thee, but also to consecrate us all to thyself in thine only-begotten Son, - O grant, that we at this day may purely and sincerely serve thee, and so strive to devote ourselves wholly to thee, that we may be pure and chaste in mind, soul, and body, and that thy glory may so shine forth in all our performances, that thy worship among us may be holy, and pure, and approved by thee, until we shall at length enjoy that glory to which thou invitest us by thy gospel, and which has been obtained for us by the blood of thine only-begotten Son. – Amen.


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Significance of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Humorous Interlude

Those who know me offline, or who have been long-time DET readers, know that I like to have a laugh from time to time. This is one of those times. Through the mysterious workings of the internet, it came to my attention that the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London (yes, Spurgeon's church!) has put online a piece written long ago by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It is a magzine-style piece that is very critical of the thought and legacy of Karl Barth. It is entitled, "The Significance of Karl Barth."

Now, the things that Lloyd-Jones says about Barth are laughably and obviously misguided to anyone who knows Barth, so there is humor in that alone. The sorts of claims that he makes have been debunked again and again in the secondary literature (even if, unfortunately, there are plenty of people walking around who still hold them - even people who should know better). But an idea popped into my head whereby I might use humor to make even more obvious the absurdity of his take on Barth.

So I submit the below to you all as something like a theological SNL sketch. It is meant in good fun, and as a piece of humorous satire. I certainly mean no ill-will to Lloyd-Jones or his memory (at least, no more than what he bore for Karl Barth). Of course, as with all the best humor, I believe that there is truth to be found here . . .


The Significance of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The passing of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the age of 82 is an event that calls for comment.

As a man, there is only one adjective to apply to him and that is ‘cantankerous’. Everything about him was ornery. He clearly also had some intelligence. Nothing else could account for his tiresome criticism of various theological outlooks. He was said by those who knew him to be a ‘great stubborn mule’. But his obstinacy was seen supremely in his all-but-heroic call for British evangelicals to beat a hasty retreat from their churches to form a new and ostensibly ‘pure’ one (because no one ever tried that before . . .).

There is no question also but that he stood out above all others as a conservative crank in this century. No name has been disparaged more freely not only in Protestant circles but also among Roman Catholics.

He first became known mid-century as the pastor of Westminster Chapel, where the spectacle of his preaching drew significant crowds. This was followed in the 1960s by the now-infamous ‘evangelical controversy,’ alluded to previously, in which Lloyd-Jones called for the formation of a new evangelical church. Fortunately, he was strongly opposed and sternly reprimanded by John Stott. Perhaps Lloyd-Jones’ most notable work is a 14-volume commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

The great question is – What has all this meant from a Christian standpoint? The answer is quite simply – practically nothing! At first many felt that Lloyd-Jones was a great new ally. His attacks on Liberalism and Modernism existed, and he appeared to be reasserting the old Calvinistic position. But alas, it was only a matter of appearance.

To start with he rejected a radical criticism of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, entirely forgetting Calvin’s principle of accommodation. His view of revelation was clearly not that of the Reformers. He affirmed propositional revelation, and elevated affirmation of mythological supernaturalism to confessional status.

‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ and when this canon of judgment is applied to Lloyd-Jones and his works it is clear that the result has been entirely negative.

Though his works and influence have been in existence for over 50 years, he has brought no revival to the church. This is not surprising as his approach, in spite of his denials, is essentially philosophical. His style was involved and difficult and while for a time he produced a crop of intellectual preachers, who were always preaching about the words of the Bible, it soon became clear that they were not preaching the message of the Bible.

He lacked entirely a noticeable influence on the continent, and his influence in the United Kingdom was, while perhaps significant among a conservative demographic, almost entirely negligible. Lloyd-Jones does not appear to have many students at all at the present time, and certainly not any Roman Catholics. It may well be that his greatest achievement will be the dubious honor of having self-consciously encouraged further schism in the church.

As a negative critic of the old Modernism he was unoriginal, but because he tried to bend the Scriptures and their message to his philosophical system (early modern philosophy of science coupled with epistemological foundationalism) and failed to become ‘a fool for Christ’s sake’ in the Pauline sense, and to submit himself to that ‘simplicity which is in Christ Jesus’, his positive contribution to the cause of the Gospel was virtually nil. It is because of this that his name should never be coupled with those of Luther and Calvin. What a difference there is between causing a stir, or even a flutter, in the ecclesiastical dovecotes, and being used of God to produce a reformation and a re-awakening!


Friday, March 01, 2013

March Book ‘O the Month

It’s time for a new book of the month! This month, DET will feature the little collection of Barth’s late occasional writings entitled Fragments Grave and Gay. Those of you who read DET closely and have good memories for detail might recall that this is one of the books that I read cover-to-cover last year. While reading I noted a number of juicy bits that I wanted to share with you all, gentle readers, so I will be doing that as the month progresses. But for now I would like to point out that this collection contains short theological appreciations of both Kierkegaard and Calvin that are both substantive and whimsical. Below I include a quote from the text wherein Barth discusses the role of a theology faculty vis-à-vis both its subject matter and the church. 

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 23–24. 
The Bible speaks of Jesus Christ – the name is unavoidable since he is the very essence of it. This source of theology (which can also be called Gospel) is also its subject-matter, to which it is tied just as all other branches of knowledge pursued at the university are tied to their subject-matter. Without it theology could and would quickly dissolve into amateurish excursions into history, philosophy, psychology, and so on. Being tied in this way means that it is no more at liberty to choose its themes than is, say, ophthalmology . . . . It searches for the truth (there is only one truth) within its field, within which its various problems are ever posed afresh and by which alone it allows its methods from first to last to be prescribed. Bound to its subject-matter though it is in this way, it enjoys complete freedom of inquiry and doctrine . . . and it accepts no instructions or regulations from anyone; it even serves the Church in the independence of its own responsibility. And since the God from whom it takes its name is no dictator, it cannot behave dictatorially. Bound only by its subject-matter, but also liberated by it, the teacher of theology can have and desires to have only pupils who are free in the same sense. If he is sometimes seen in a different light, that may be his own fault, since he is not an angel. But it may be the result of the use of distorting mirrors by means of which distant observers have made up their minds in advance to view him.