Monday, December 30, 2013

Markus Barth, Sacraments, and Mysteries - Mondays with McMaken

Time for another self-serving installment of this “please go buy a copy of my book” series.

This time, I want to highlight a very interesting argument that I found in the work of Markus Barth, Karl’s son and noted NT scholar. Markus seems to have arrived at a full-blown rejection of sacramental baptism sooner than did Karl, and Karl acknowledges the role that his son’s work played in his own development on the question.

One of the arguments that often gets made in support of a sacramental understanding of baptism is what might be called “appeal to mysteries,” that is, the idea that the New Testament pictures baptism in a way consistent with how ancient “mystery cult” rituals are pictured, especially with reference to efficacy to produce the thing represented. Below is my attempt to communicate Markus’ argument for why that appeal is misplaced.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 37–38.
A significant aspect of how Markus worked out his rejection of baptism as a sacrament was through a discussion of whether baptism in the New Testament is properly understood as a mystery. Despite the close parallels that many church fathers drew between baptism and ancient mystery cult rituals, Markus argues against the notion that baptism’s meaning ought to be determined on the basis of these parallels. In these cults, the ritual symbol “does not only recall to mind, make evident, sharpen consciousness, or induce experience. . . . It is a real image and creates reality,” such that if baptism’s meaning is determined by appeal to this concept, it becomes an effective depiction of Christ’s death. Such conception is easily recognized as the bedrock that lies behind my previous discussion of the sacramental argument for infant baptism. [Ed. note: look here for a little more on the sacramental argument.] But, Markus asks, is this a properly Christian notion? His answer is a resounding Nein! He fails to find such a conception promulgated by Christ or Paul and, given the pagan parallels, concludes that this notion of baptism as a mystery “is not a specifically Christian intellectual production or the result of a specifically Christian worship experience.” In other words, to understand baptism as a sacrament or mystery is, according to Markus, to understand Christian ritual as simply one more instance in an ancient religious class. While this is certainly how Christianity appeared on the religious and philosophical buffet of the ancient world, and while the church fathers often engaged in apologetics aimed at demonstrating Christianity’s superiority to these other options on the latter’s own terms, the fathers nevertheless remained committed to the belief that Christianity is concerned with a unique and uniquely true revelation of and relation to God. Markus draws the pregnant conclusion that to understand baptism as a mystery is to establish a Christian cultus that “is neither in its value nor nature fundamentally different from other religions.
Want more awesome stuff like that? You know what to do . . .


Friday, December 27, 2013

"The God who has a history" - Hauerwas, Jenson, and Theological Sentences

Stanley Hauerwas wrote a piece back in September entitled “How to write a theological sentence.” I skimmed it then, but more recently I sat down to read it carefully. It is very interesting for a number of reasons. But I want to highlight here part of Hauerwas’ discussion of the sentence that he takes as exemplary of theological writing, a sentence that comes from the first volume of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology:
I believe . . . that Robert Jenson’s sentence, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt,” took a lifetime to write. I do not have the gift of exposition Stanley Fish displays, but I need at least to try to show why I think Jenson’s sentence is such an exemplary theological sentence. The crucial word is “whoever.” With that word Jenson resists the commonplace assumption that when someone says “God” they know what they are saying. I suggested above that the problem with much of modern theology is too often we confirm the familiar. “God” is a familiar name. Jenson’s use of “whoever” is grammatically necessary to make the familiar strange. “Whoever” calls into question the reader’s presumption that they know who God is prior to who God makes Himself known.

[And then a little further on...]

"Whoever," therefore, is the grammar appropriate to the God who has a history.


Monday, December 23, 2013

A Theology of the Holidays by Chris TerryNelson

My good friend and friend of the blog, Chris TerryNelson (he wrote for both the 2007 and 2008 KBBCs, and collaborated in some other endeavors as well), has written an engaging series of theological reflections on holidays – specifically: Christmas, Halloween, Easter, and Thanksgiving. So, as we are in the throes of a holiday season, I wanted to pass these on to you for contemplation. He has a nice index post up for quick reference, so just surf over to his blog and check them out.

One thing that I really like about these reflections is that he has brought together the more obviously theological holidays of Easter and Christmas with the less obviously theological holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Chris’ reflection on Halloween is especially stimulating, I think. He tackles the issue of horror in the world from a pastoral angle, even offering this bit of counsel which I wish was more obvious to more people:
Just a note of caution: if your friend is suffering from something, an illness or some accident, don’t ever say anything like “Don’t worry, it’s all part of God’s plan.”
But that is more of an aside. The main line of his reflection is captured in this compelling sentence:
What we find out in the Bible is that the world is full of monsters, and that sometimes we even have a little monster in us too.
So with Chris’ guidance, the theological point at issue in Halloween is one of truth-telling. It is a practice of recognizing the presence of evil in the world, and in ourselves. This should make us afraid, and we are better off when we face that fear rather than hiding from it in our own perfectly manicured “Christian” sub-cultures (I’m riffing a bit now…).

Thanks, Chris!


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Actually, it’s been over a month since the last link-post installment. AAR, end of semester grading, finals grading, holidays, etc. But I need to get another one of these out there for you, gentle readers, for a couple of reasons. First, I have about 300 theology blog posts sitting in my reader that I need to look at and sort into what I want to share with you and what I want to ignore, and perhaps I would be more motivated to do that if my hopper of already sorted posts was depleted . . . Perhaps . . . Second and more importantly, however, I want to highlight once more for you an exciting opportunity here at DET – the book giveaway contest!

That’s right! You might be eligible to compete for the change to get a copy of the new Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth for free!

Check out the announcement post for all the details. Be sure to spread the word far and wide around the interwebs, and encourage (yourself and) anyone you know who might be interested to go for it!

Anyway, here are the other recent posts here at DET:

And here are the rest of the links!

Whew – hopper is empty! Enjoy!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Troeltsch’s criticism of Schleiermacher

Once more into the Troeltschian breech!

Hans-Georg Drescher, Ernst Troeltsch: His Life and Work (Fortress, 1993), 205.
The crux of Troeltsch’s criticism of Schleiermacher is that because he came from Herrnhuter pietism and was close to the world of Romanticism in his early years he expressed his theological programme in a fantastic and unworldly way. In particular his ideal of the church seems to Troeltsch to be utopian and alien to the world. In the mature Schleiermacher Troeltsch criticizes above all his assimilation to current circumstances, to life in the Prussian church. For Troeltsch, Schleiermacher’s programme, particularly his definition of the “essence of Christianity,” is dependent on a dogmatics which puts the emphasis on the concept of redemption and which allows itself to be directed by church thinking, by an accentuation of the concept of the church.
What intrigues me about this is how Troeltsch’s criticism of Schleiermacher is almost the mirror image of what one usually finds in today’s anglophone and largely neo-orthodox (and I don’t use that term in a positive way . . . ) theology. For instance, what one usually hears (unfortunately) is about how Schleiermacher departs from Christian conviction and not least by marginalizing the Trinity, how he introduces non-theological prolegomena in his work, etc. But Troeltsch comes at it from the other side: the problem with Schleiermacher is that he is too un-critically Christian! He has too high an estimation of the church! His work depends too much on dogmatic concepts (i.e., actual Christian conviction)!

Perhaps this indicates that the theological conversation in contemporary anglophone theology has become unhelpfully narrow.


Monday, December 16, 2013

First Amazon Review of my “The Sign of the Gospel”

You will remember when I posted about the first review that my book received, written by Jim West. It is now my pleasure to bring to your attention the first Amazon review for my book, this time written by John Flett. Readers of DET will know John’s work from my posts (here’s one) about it. Anyway, this is what John had to say about my book:

“Fine treatment on a difficult subject. Well researched, well written, and, perhaps most noteworthy, it develops a positive conclusion. The relationship of baptism to the vocational core of the church's existence is a question worth considering, and McMaken's answer is one worth hearing.”

Surf over and read the original for yourself if you like. It will be easy for you to order a copy while there but, if your conscience is alive, surf on over to the Fortress site to do so.

Now we just need the book's first traditionally published review...


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Giveaway Contest! “The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth”

That’s right, folks! This is your chance to win a free copy of the newly published Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth (WJK, 2013) edited by Richard Burnett. This looks like a very handy volume for folks starting out in Barth studies, or who are interested in a more thematic presentation of Barth’s thought.

Westminster John Knox was kind enough to send DET a review copy of the book. Luckily for you, gentle readers, they did so about a week after I had received my pre-ordered copy. So now I’m giving you a chance to get a free book. Here’s how this is going to work…

To become eligible for the prize, you will need to send a short (500-750 word) “essay” (blog post, etc.) in response to the prompt:

Why and / or how (i.e., in what manner) should Karl Barth remain an important theological voice in 21st century theology?

This submission should be original work, not posted on a blog or otherwise made publically available. Send your entry to the DET e-mail address (derevth [at] gmail [dot] com) by February 1st. Be sure to include a clear subject line in your e-mail (e.g., “Westminster Handbook on Barth blog contest”). I—and any of the other DET contributors that I can enlist—will select a “best of” list comprised of 3-5 entries.(*) Each of those entries will be posted here at DET over the course of a week, and readers will be given the opportunity to vote on the prize-winning entry. The winner will receive the book!

Sounds like fun, eh? Spread the word far and wide on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter so that we can get a good group of entries to choose from. I’m excited to get an idea of how the younger generation of theological thinkers today view Barth and his creative possibilities in theology!

*Some restrictions apply: (1) DET contributors are ineligible, (2) authors of “established” blogs are ineligible, (3) full-time professors are ineligible, (4) [other things I may think of later].


Thursday, December 05, 2013

Jesus reveals humanity’s true state: Gollwitzer on Luke 23.1–12

Here’s a nice little bit from Gollwitzer that I thought that I would share. It comes from one of his (relatively few) translated sermons. I always find his sermons to be compelling.

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Dying and Living Lord, 44–5.

So, in His last hours, Jesus was surrounded by people who showed by their behavior what is the real state of man, what that humanity, which He had come to save, is really like, fundamentally. This revelation becomes ever clearer and ever more terrible: first of all there is the fanaticism and the anger of the [Jewish leaders], then the irresponsibility and timidity of the authorities who wield political power; and then finally, as a dreadful climax, the scene at Herod’s palace, where Jesus Christ, the very presence of God upon earth, becomes the sport of Herod and his court. When the Bible wants to show the lost condition of man it does not describe criminals and convicts, but the appalling blindness and unawareness of average human beings, the blindeness of the educated, of the bourgeois, of high officials, the blindness of us all, even people like ourselves, who live in Lichterfelde and Dahlem. Can we ever forget, can we ever cease to hear that scornful chatter, the cruel laughter of the courtiers and their ladies, who join in Herod’s laughter: ‘And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him.’ And was it not inevitable that at this point the two official rulers should come together? The brotherhood of Jesus Christ created fellowship in the Holy Catholic Church beyond all the divisions of the world; it has its counterpart in the brotherhood of those who are Christ’s enemies, which also triumphs over all other causes of disunion: ‘And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.’


Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reassessing Barth’s Treatment of Baptism in CD 4.4 – Introduction from my AAR / KBSNA paper

Shortly before Thanksgiving I had the honor of addressing the members of the Karl Barth Society of North America at this year’s annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I intend to submit my paper for publication in the very near future, but I also wanted to give folks an idea of what I covered in that paper. So below you will find the introductory paragraph to my paper, which sketches the argument.


Few subjects within the field of Barth-studies have been so divisive as Barth’s doctrine of baptism and, specifically, his articulation of that position in Church Dogmatics 4.4. Reception of Barth on this point has been divided into those who support his rejection of sacramental and infant baptism, and those who do not. In what follows, I work through a fivefold thought progression in an effort to reassess this portion of Barth’s theological legacy. First, I identify Eberhard Jüngel and John Webster as paradigmatic examples of those who regard Barth’s treatment of baptism in CD 4.4 as either definitive or defective, highlighting the common assumption that underlies both positions. The common assumption is that Karl Barth changed his mind concerning the relationship between divine and churchly human agency between his treatments in CD 1.1 and CD 4. Second, I interrogate that assumption and argue that although Barth’s mode of presentation changes, he demonstrates a basic continuity of thought on this subject. Third, I will move beyond the confines of the Webster-Jüngel divide on the issue by considering the notion of paradoxical identity as a way of describing Barth’s understanding of how divine and human activity relate. Fourth, I will turn to the text of CD 4.4 to argue that Barth’s understanding of this relation in that material is neither defective in Webster’s sense nor definitive in Jüngel’s sense. Rather, it is deft. Finally, I will conclude with some reflections on how this reassessment of Barth’s account of how divine and churchly human activity relate might provide a background for the advancement of a post-Barthian doctrine of infant baptism.

[**For more on Barth's doctrine of baptism, buy my book!]