Thursday, February 27, 2014

Comments Brought to Light: David Congdon on Bultmann, Barth, Heidegger, Scripture, Tradition, and Sache

Collin Cornell recently provided a guest post here at DET entitled, “Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on Scripture, or, the problem of *ethical* biblical criticism.” It is a very thoughtful post, and it has generated a number of comments. Twenty-seven, to be exact. That conversation is very interesting and I encourage you to go read it thus far. But it was recently the scene of an extensive set of comments by David Congdon in response to Phil Sumpter and addressing a number of interesting questions that depart somewhat from the subject of Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on the doctrine of scripture (although they grow organically from the starting point).

In any case, I wanted to highlight these comments because I thought that they were particularly helpful articulations, and I wanted to provide a separate comment thread so that discussion on these topics can continue in their own dedicated location. I have only provided Congdon’s comments here, and I encourage you to go read the original comments thread in order to get a sense of the context.

Comments by David W. Congdon

1. Bultmann has almost no indebtedness to Heidegger, as surprising as that will sound. Indeed, all of his material decisions are made prior to encountering Heidegger; Heidegger actually read Bultmann before Bultmann read Heidegger, so the influence may very well be in the other direction; Heidegger provides Bultmann with formal concepts but that's it; and at every point that Heidegger transgresses a limit determined by the material norm of theology, Bultmann objects. So Heidegger is of no material significance where Bultmann's theology is concerned. (This is not a new thesis. Roger Johnson made the case for it in 1974, and the publication of Heidegger's Nachlass in the years since has confirmed it.)

2. Bultmann explicitly appeals to the tradition of the church as the starting-point for Christian theology. I may have given the wrong impression when I criticized appeals to tradition. Bultmann is quite clear in 1925 that the “concrete situation” for exegesis is “the tradition of the church of the word.” Since “I stand in my existence in the tradition of the word, there is a readiness for faithful questioning.” And in 1929 Bultmann says that the communication of the church “belongs itself to what is communicated,” since it is not a “mere conveying” of facts but rather a word that addresses each person. The church’s teaching “has the character of tradition, which belongs to the history that it narrates. The tradition belongs to the event itself.” I could go on, but the point is that Bultmann affirms that the gospel message includes the tradition. The only question, of course, is in what sense. How are we to understand the way in which kerygma and tradition relate?

3. Everyone seems to get tripped up over Bultmann's discussion of existence. It all goes back to his infamous statement in 1925 that “if one wishes to speak of God, one must evidently speak of oneself.” Most people stop reading at this point, which is a shame, because he ends up explaining what he means in a way that debunks (demythologizes!) the false reports about him. Later in the same essay he writes: "We cannot speak about our existence, since we cannot speak about God; and we cannot speak about God, since we cannot speak about our existence. We could only have the one with the other. . . . In any case, a speaking of God, if it were possible, must be at the same time a speaking of ourselves." The key here is the "at the same time" (zugleich). Bultmann never reduces talk of God to talk of human existence, as if God is directly accessible in or identified with existential questions. On the contrary, his point is a soteriological one: if God is only known in revelation, and if revelation is always also reconciliation (as Barth rightly perceived), then God is only known where God savingly acts upon us, and that means we can only speak of God if we are also at the same time speaking of ourselves. The two (divine and human) are coterminous. Thus Bultmann could say in 1924 that “the object of theology is indeed God, and theology speaks of God in that it speaks of human beings as they stand before God, and therefore out of faith.” God is the object of theology (not human existence), but since God is only known in revelation, theology speaks of God in speaking of the human person standing before God. And so, returning to the 1925 essay, we read: “if our existence is grounded in God, i.e., it is not available outside of God, then the apprehension of our existence just means the apprehension of God.” Our existence is not available outside of God, and thus when Bultmann says that theology speaks of human existence, this is just code for "speaks of God." Bultmann's posthumously published lectures on theology reinforce the point that the normative Sache of exegesis is found only in the divine object and never in the human subject: “the criterion of truth [of our God-talk] is not given in the individual subjective relation to the object, but rather in the object itself.” And just to show that these are not merely statements from the early "dialectical" Bultmann that he leaves behind when he turns in a more explicitly existentialist direction in the late 1930s, we find the following statement in his 1961 essay on demythologizing: “Because God is not an objectively discernable phenomenon of the world, we are only able to speak of God’s action if we speak at the same time [there's the zugleich again] of our existence as affected by God’s action.” That is to say, the existence in question is existence “affected by God’s action,” and this affectedness “has its origin strictly in God,” such that in the presence of this divine action we are “merely those who are passive, those who receive.” In sum, the human existence with which theology is concerned is existence affected by God's prior act in Christ, existence standing before God, existence in God.

4. As you admit, you have not read much of Bultmann's work. If you want to see where he develops these ideas, take a look at my reading guide to Bultmann that I posted recently on my blog. You can find all you need there. I would also recommend the book Christus Praesens by James F. Kay, which is probably the best book on Bultmann's christology.

[Ed. note: Here David moved from addressing questions of Bultmann interpretation to more independent theological considerations caught-up in the discussion.]

1. There is a false dichotomy that I discern in your comment about the regula fidei. You seem to suggest that we have two options: either (a) starting from "a clean 'pre-creedal' slate" and building up to a full theological system or (b) presupposing the received tradition as normative. I reject both options. It all depends on responsibly and clearly differentiating between kerygma/gospel and text/tradition. The normative Sache encounters us in and through the text and its traditions without ever identifying itself with them. There is indeed something "pre-creedal" that is not some ahistorical blank slate. The tradition of Christian faith cannot and must not be identified with the dogmatic creeds that are a historically situated translation of the eschatological message of Christ. The received tradition is only truly tradition, i.e., the handing-on of the faith, insofar as it becomes, in the moment, the medium of God's speech to us. It is not in itself the bearer of this message.

2. Staying on this theme, let's turn to the witness/reality problem. Here is where we truly disagree -- and perhaps fundamentally so. You write: "I am not saying (that Barth etc. says) that there is no gap, but I am saying that gap is 'bridged,' and that happens pneumatologically. To use Childs’ phrase, the text is 'infused with its full ontological reality...'" Notice the apposition of "pnematologically" and "the text." This indicates where you side with the postliberalism of Childs over against the actualism of Barth and Bultmann. For the latter, the work of the Spirit does not occur in the text itself but in the encounter with the text here and now. The text is never "infused" with anything; it is a fully human document that simply attests what particular people and communities understood about God. The reality never becomes a property of the text, nor does it become a property of the reader. Instead, the text becomes the medium of God's speech when and where the Spirit illuminates the reading of it, which occurs when and where we hear the kerygma as a message that concerns us. And this encounter with the reality of God occurs again and again, ever anew, so that we cannot speak of a gap being "bridged." Indeed, we can only really speak of a "bridging" ever anew. But I think we have to dispense with gap language altogether. The gap only exists on the human side, and that's simply because of the ontological differentiation between creature and creator; it is nothing unique to the text. On the divine side, there is no gap at all, because God is noncompetitively present in the world. God is paradoxically identical with the creaturely factors that become the sites for the human encounter with Christ. So on the divine side, there is no "gap" to cross; on the human side, the distinction between reality and witness remains even in the moments of paradoxical identity (i.e., it remains paradoxical), simply because God can never be objectified as something available at hand.

3. I agree with you that we need to do some careful dogmatic thought, but such thought is always, for me, controlled by what God savingly does in Jesus Christ. The soteriological action of God is constitutive of who God is. And since God does not reconcile us by infusing us with anything, because I understand God's saving action to be a forensic act of justification by grace alone (for reasons we can discuss another time), it follows that God is not a God who infuses anything into the text of scripture. So I disagree with your entire understanding of how God relates to the text, and for basic dogmatic reasons.

4. "I totally agree with this statement of yours: 'The Sache that is Christ becomes the hermeneutical key for understanding the genuine message within a fallible and historically situated document.' Except that I think the substance of Scripture is the Trinity and not Christ per se (see Chris Seitz’s debate with F. Watson)." Two problems. First, the Sache is not "the substance of scripture." It is the living Christ himself in his kerygmatic encounter with us. Second, I reject any distinction between trinity and christology regarding the Sache. Such distinctions trade on what I consider to be a false understanding of the trinity. The Christ-event in its historical actuality is the being of the trinity: the Father is the one Jesus experiences as the power of his sending, while the Spirit is the one Jesus experiences as the power of his mission. This historical event simply is the eternal trinity. Also, Bultmann has no aversion to thinking about God's being, once we understand that this being is not something above or prior to God's actions in history. I discuss this at length in my dissertation and describe his position as an "eschatological theological ontology."


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Breaking News—DET KBBC Book is now in print!

That’s right! After years of waiting, the revised and expanded proceedings from the 2010 Karl Barth Blog Conference have finally been published! Here is the vital information:

W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon (eds.), Karl Barth in Conversation (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014).

Head on over the W&S website to order a copy and take advantage of a special price for online orders ($29.60 rather than the retail $37)! You can take a peek at the front matter and table of contents here.

Many thanks to the contributors, but also to the many readers of DET and the KBBCs over the years that made this project happen. Interacting with folks on theological topics is what makes theology blogs fun, and this book is a monument to lots of the fun that has been had here at DET over the years.

But enough being sappy, here are the endorsements for the book:

"This book is an exciting and important contribution to Barth studies. It breaks open the potential cul-de-sac of Barth scholarship to new conversation partners and thinkers. The result is a fascinating collection of essays that brings out new accents on Barth's work and offers constructive insights for the future of theology. . . . Let us hope this book sets an agenda for the future."
—Tom Greggs, Professor of Historical and Doctrinal Theology, King's College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

"In this welcome collection of colorful and stimulating input from young scholars, we get to eavesdrop on some new 'conversations' surveying a diverse range of themes, and in the wake of the fresh questions raised, we are invited to hear again what Barth and others have heard and misheard."
—Jason Goroncy, Dean of Studies, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, New Zealand

"This is a fascinating and instructive set of essays by a group of talented young theologians. These studies offer fresh perspectives on the thought of Barth and his dialogue partners and suggest new pathways for further exploration. Here we see both the ongoing power of Barth's theology to stimulate new conversations and the creative potential of a new generation of Barth scholars."
—Adam Neder, Associate Professor of Theology, Whitworth University, Washington

What are you waiting for? Go order a copy!


Monday, February 24, 2014

DET Book Giveaway Contest – And the winner is…

…Wyatt Houtz!

Congratulations to Wyatt, who received a whopping 66% of the vote. I’ll now be in touch with Wyatt to get his mailing address and send the book on to him. Perhaps I’ll be able to twist his arm into providing a guest-post here at DET to review the book…

Thanks to our other entries for participating, and to all the readers who came by and voted. I wish I had enough copies to give one to each of the finalists. But here are the links to the three finalist entries once again.

This was fun! Maybe I’ll end up with an extra copy of something again and we can do round two.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Giveaway Poll - Get Voting!

There you have it, folks! You've seen all the entries over the past few days, and now it is time to pick a winner!

Here are the links for the entries in case you want to go back and look over all three before voting:

Vote away!

UPDATE: Poll closed


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Giveaway Entry #3 – Mason Thompson

[Mason Thompson lives in Seattle with his wife. I didn’t know that DET had such a strong readership in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s where all of our entries came from. He describes Seattle as “about as far from the Bible belt as you can get in America (both literally and figuratively),” and as “not a particularly Christian area.” But judging from our entries, there seems to be a remnant hiding out there. – Ed.]

Karl Barth should remain an important theological voice in 21st century theology for multiple reasons. Generally because he was one of if not the most influential theological voice of the 20th century, and theologians should always build on the good work of those who came before. What I will focus on, however, is how Barth relates and differs with both liberal and fundamentalist Protestants - two groups that together dominate American Christianity, making Barth as relevant as ever.

Liberal theology that allows the Bible to be interpreted through the lens of the culture (or in Barth’s words, the divination of human thinking) was Barth’s upbringing, but he eventually left primarily due to the willingness of the church to cede to the beliefs of the Nazi state.

To this day he frustrates fundamentalists with his views on inerrancy. It might be said that they frustrated him as well - in Table Talk he says “The Fundamentalists says he knows the Bible, but he must have become master over the Bible, which means master over revelation. . . . I consider it just another kind of natural theology: a view of the modern man who wants to control revelation.”

However, any theologian of Barth’s import must certainly be for something, and fortunately Barth chose well, making the person and work of Jesus Christ the center of his theology, the bedrock on which everything sat. At face value this does not sound like a belief that would cause much controversy, but it is that belief that puts Barth at odds with both liberal and fundamentalist Christians. No matter your theological persuasion, there is something in Barth that will challenge you because you question it.

We live in a day where the revelation of Christ is used as a weapon to support ideologies in both liberal and fundamentalist circles. Out-of-context proof-texts are used to defend not only theological but also political and economic ideologies. Contextualizing Scripture to modern social thought in liberalism produces the exact same result as an over-literal reading of the Bible. In both cases, Christians set themselves as “master over revelation” in which case it ceases to become revelation after having been perverted thus.
“The Christian heresies spring from the fact that man does not take seriously the known ground of divine immanence in Jesus Christ, so that from its revelation, instead of apprehending Jesus Christ and the totality of Him, he arbitrarily selects this or that feature and sets it up as a subordinate centre: perhaps the idea of creation, or the sacraments, or the life of the soul, or even the kingdom of God, or the regeneration of man, or the creeds or doctrine.” - Church Dogmatics II/1, 319.
Unfortunately, the heresies of which Barth speaks are alive and well today. Many of us would do well to focus on the resurrection instead of pet doctrines we place on the same functional level as the resurrection. The necessity of subordinating oneself to the revelation of Christ will never cease to be relevant, and perhaps never more so than today.

- Mason Thompson


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Giveaway Entry #2 – Barry K. Morris

[Barry K. Morris is a part-time student as well as a long-standing urban minister with the United Church of Canada. He currently serves with the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry, but also volunteers as a chaplain at a long-term care facility as well as working with a number of other ministries and community organizations. – Ed.]

Karl Barth helped to usher in the post-wars’ crisis and turning point for early 20th Century theology. He conjoined pastoral trial-by-fire trench warfare experiences with a renewed desire to do Biblical theology. This bears credibility. He further carried into academia democratic socialist impulses and party experiences. This adds credibility as one yearns for those who can bridge the theoretical and practical, a hopeful realism. He tapped into traceable currents of Pauline theology and parleyed this with identifiable Reformation sources to profess a neo-orthodoxy that remains convincing, by whatever label. For the Christian seeking resources for reform, this bristles with the complementary credibility of an “endurance” which is the “rhythm of faith” (thinking of Fr. John McNamee’s volume of poetry by this phrase).

The following six points summarize Barth’s legacy; what it is that remains convincing:
a) it is culled out of life experiences (praxis);

b) it is conversant with contemporary church and political crises (apologetics);

c) it accumulates into voluminous works such as Church Dogmatics (systematic or constructive theology);

d) it branches into contextual reflections in the form of sermons, letters, prayers and creedal-like declarations that are kairos-like (Barmen Declaration);

e) it is humble in that he was willing to confess how he admired (perhaps envied) the theologian/ethicist, also martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but hinted, alas, that he had let him down from the safer domain of Switzerland (see Fragments Grave and Gay letter to Bethge);

and not least,

e) Barth attests to how a dynamically balanced life and work in theology is also a ministry of word, sacrament, pastoral care and mission for the sake of God’s Reign, that – Pauline like – God will indeed be all for all, and cannot rest until it is so, such that, Moltmann-like, there is an “annihilation of hell” itself (I Cor. 15: 26, and Nicholas Ansell’s The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of J. Moltmann)!
As an addendum, there remains the practiced discipline of prayer which is a clue to Barth’s own resilience (along with an apparently devoted secretary/administrator without whom CD might well not have been possible!). Almost neglected by Barthian students and pastors, prayer was a basic component of Barth’s life and thought. He is aptly cited for the social justice arousal animation of the Magnificat-like prayer:
“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against disorder of the world” [cited in K. Leech’s True Prayer, 1980: 68 (San Fran.: Harper & Row)].
How true it is that prayer needs linking to social justice work, and vice-versa – something that Bonhoeffer and his biographer E. Bethge dialectically affirmed from Letters & Papers from Prison to the end. But there is more about prayer and its prime importance to the spiritual life and for those who are commissioned, ordained, or summoned to be leaders. There is the issue of one’s integrity for the immediate and the long haul of the practice of ministry. Is it - and are we - real and thus commendable? If not, how can such be renewed and rededicated? Here, there is a hopeful realism in Barth and thus his theology of prayer, hopeful for the possibilities it conveys and realistic for the limits of what we confess prayer not to accomplish when self-servingly or professionally or piously for mere self-interests or alas, even the corporate self-interests of one’s church or denomination.

Put otherwise, prayer assists to be present, without the calculations of by-products or pay-offs (cf. John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, the last chapter’s “The Working Church: Notes for the Future,” especially pp. 122, 132).

Thomas Merton-like, Barth professes that prayer incites and aids us to be willing to begin again or anew. In Church Dogmatics III/3’s doctrine of creation, he professes prayer as that “primitive movement” that arises from out of being called, summoned, and therein free to answer to “the Father who has addressed (us) . . . or to put it another way, to go to meet the Father from whose goodness he proceeds, or to put it in yet another way, to give direct and natural expression to his great surprise that God is his Father and that he is the child of God” (265). One retrieves Abraham Heschel’s basic intuition of prayer as that humble answer or response to the inconceivable surprise of living.

As the surprise continues, Barth’s voice bears witness to our generation - thankfully.

- Barry K. Morris


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Book Giveaway Entry #1 – Wyatt Houtz

[Wyatt Houtz is originally from Michigan, so that makes him okay in my book. But now he lives on the Eastside of Seattle with his wife and their three young children. He has been associated with various Reformed churches throughout his lifetime, sometimes serving as a pastor, and is currently a part of Trinitas Presbyterian Church. He calls himself a “voracious reader, especially of Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield and Augustine.” – Ed.]

Karl Barth’s angelic voice is yet to be heard by those who may love him most. Meeting Karl Barth has been both overcoming estrangement and meeting a stranger as Paul Tillich might put it. For many, Karl Barth has been sadly and wrongly condemned by the guardians of orthodoxy, especially by great theologians in my Reformed church tradition in a way that is comparable to the initial condemnation of Thomas Aquinas. I first encountered Barth through the criticisms of Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer, and didn’t overcome that initial estrangement until I read Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Only then were those famous criticisms disarmed when I found both sides talking past each other. George Harinck described this family feud well (particularly Van Til vs. Barth) as, “How can an elephant understand a whale and vice versa?” Once my guards to Barth were down, I voraciously read the Church Dogmatics in amazement, because as Michael Horton said, Barth has opened amazing vistas. Karl Barth must remain to be heard so that he may come to be heard the first time!

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Word of God and his theological method caused a Copernican revolution in my understanding of God, the Scriptures, the Church, and especially in Jesus Christ being “before all things and how all things consistent in him” (Col 1:17 / cf. Eph 1:4). Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture reveals that although the Scriptures are fully the words of human beings, nevertheless, miraculously, these very human words have become the words of God! God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself. Deus Dixit! In this doctrine, Barth breathes new life into the understanding of the Threefold Word of God, that provides a higher view of Scripture and a better solution than the polarized sides in the Battle for the Bible that in the past has caused us to either fall off the left side of the horse with a Bible containing only human words, or off the right side of the horse with a Bible of only divine dictation like golden plates from heaven. The Scriptures not only are human words, they have become the words of God, and even more so they have become a witness to the incarnation of the crucified God, Jesus Christ.

Barth’s theological method is an impressive example for us to imitate, and it is best represented in the small print sections. In the Church Dogmatics, I’ve rediscovered John Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli as our church fathers. Barth has the amazing ability to say new things using the very words of these great reformers, and also through quotations from the legacy of 16th and 17th century reformers who followed them. Barth has provided new answers to old questions, and has brought new life to the old answers as well, in the same way as a “master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Mt 13:52). Barth is able to trace through the history of dogma productively by traversing the family tree of the church, and brings in voiced of long past and far away that the Church desperately needs to hear again, here and now: from the long ago forgotten genius of the 17th century theologians like Cocceius, Polanus, and Quenstedt to the distant and unknown voices across the sea like Brunner, Pannenberg, Moltmann, and Bultmann. Barth’s example has liberated me from my lonely study room that is 2,000 years and 7,000 miles from Golgotha, and he has revealed that I have not been left an orphan with a bible, but have a great family legacy of teachers that have gone before me, that we have not heard. So in hearing Barth’s voice, I have heard all of their voices again, for the first time.

For those who read Barth, not only will the Word of God be renewed, but our understanding of God, Creation, Reconciliation and Redemption will be seen with new eyes.

- Wyatt Houtz


Monday, February 17, 2014

DET Book Giveaway Contest This Week!

That’s right! It’s time to give that book away!

For those of you who may have forgotten, DET is giving away a copy of the new Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth (WJK, 2013) edited by Richard Burnett.

The call went out, submissions came in (fewer than I would have liked, but enough), and now it is time for you – gentle readers – to choose a winner!

So here’s how this is going to work…

We have three contenders. Starting tomorrow (Tuesday), I will post one entry a day through Thursday. The posts will go up in alphabetical order by author. On Friday I will post a poll and folks will have a chance to vote through the weekend.

The author who gets the most votes gets the book! I’ll post one week from today to officially ratify the results.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have (very lightly) edited the submissions for typos, etc.

I’m excited! But then, free books always get me going. Apparently it works even if I’m not the one getting them… Come back tomorrow for the first entry!


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Helmut Gollwitzer and John Webster on Scripture, or, the problem of *ethical* biblical criticism – A guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge, 2003) is a carefully argued fugue on one theme: reintegrating the doctrine of Scripture into a properly theological account of God’s saving work. Webster moves Scripture from its station as theological doorman and gives it place with the other main dogmatic foci. Like them, its adequacy depends on God’s act in Christ and not on standards drawn from elsewhere.

This also means that, rather delegating exegesis to general hermeneutics, Webster fleshes it afresh along more specifically Christian lines. As such, Webster extends the deeply Reformed tradition of suspicion towards the idolatrous self. “Reading Scripture is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming; and overcoming sin is the sole work of Christ and the Spirit. The once-for-all abolition and the constant checking of our perverse desire to hold the text in thrall…can only be achieved through an act which is not our own” (89). Critical methods, then, represent for Webster “a false stance towards Scripture,” characterized not by child-like “teachableness” but by “mastery” (102).

This rings true to me. And yet I am also left wondering where this classical tradition of suspicion towards self and the modern legacy of suspicion towards Scripture intersect. Webster acknowledges the “creatureliness of the text” – mildly endorsing modern insights into the Bible’s complex development and gradient historicity (20). But it is hard to imagine what role various forms of ethical criticism could play in his proposal. How might one assume a childlike posture towards the Bible while also recognizing its pervasive patriarchy or class interests?

If Webster would give me no answer, perhaps others who shared his dialectical coordinates might. I turned to the chapter on the Bible in Helmut Gollwitzer’s Introduction to Protestant Theology (trans. David Cairns; Westminster John Knox, 1982). Gollwitzer’s (far shorter) presentation on the doctrine of Scripture addresses two problems: first, of biblical authority per se, and second, of the Bible’s material adequacy to function as authoritative.

Gollwitzer asks in the first instance whether claiming biblical authority effectively places some people (the biblical authors) in power over others (the churches). Is kyriarchy ingredient in biblical authority? The concern does not emerge from a secular egalitarianism; one of Gollwitzer’s fundamental convictions is that the gospel means freedom – spiritual and this-worldly. Can the Bible truly promote human emancipation if its adherents insist that its particular collection of human voices function as an unsurpassable court of theological appeal?

Gollwitzer postpones this question to ask a second: even if biblical authority per se is acceptable, is the Bible capable in the modern period of fulfilling its role as theological arbiter? Here Gollwitzer rehearses the familiar difficulties generated by biblical criticism, namely, the Bible’s gradient historicity and theological plurality.

Gollwitzer responds to these two questions by developing the interlocking concepts of faith and of witness. Faith in the biblical sense is “personal trust in God” (50). It cannot depend on the prior fulfillment of certain conditions, “namely, the act of submission to a human authority, either that of the church’s teaching office (the pope) or that of the biblical authors” (ibid). No human power must be confused with God’s word in which Christians put their personal trust. “By such investing of the Bible with divine authority, by laying down the previous condition of a work to be performed by us…as coming before trust in God’s word addressed to us, we involve ourselves in a hopeless contradiction with what the bible itself has to tell us about the nature of faith” (ibid.).

Rather, the Bible is a witness. Gollwitzer explains the Bible’s similarities in this regard to the church. The church, too, is deeply fallible, theologically disunited, and inevitably local in its history, point of view, and form (56). Yet God uses the church effectively to bring people to faith in Christ. And the church is united by its shared referentiality: in fact, its only unity may exist at the level of its common gaze upon Christ. So, too, is the Bible fallible, disunited, and local; its unity, too, is not formal but referential, pointing to Christ. Two features distinguish it from the church: its uniquely intensive authenticity to its message and its historical proximity to the events of God’s revelation. As a matter of experience over time, the church has found that these writings “thrust themselves” on the community, i.e., their trueness to God is self-attesting (54). The (relative) nearness of their writers to God’s acts of self-revelation in Israel and in Christ also sets them apart from other, subsequent ecclesial forms of testimony.

Gollwitzer’s deployment of these concepts, faith and witness, establish a strong differentiation between the Bible and the word of God, first from the human perspective and then from the divine. Christians trust God (and not, ultimately, the Bible); and God speaks (not, ultimately, the Bible). This distinction enables Gollwitzer to countenance a greater suspicion towards the Bible than Webster’s language about “creatureliness” allows. He goes so far as to encourage exegetes to point out “accommodations [in the biblical texts] to class interests” (60). Gollwitzer thus speaks not only of the Bible’s fallibility in matters of historiography, but also in ethics. Presumably this willingness to identify the interference of class interests could extend to include other forms of ethical criticism, e.g., feminist.

Most likely Webster would find that Gollwitzer’s use of “witness” as an organizing concept falls prey to “a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism,” i.e., it makes the relation between text and revelation too occasional, even arbitrary (24; one wonders if the fallibility of the scriptural witness is a purely formal acknowledgement on Webster’s telling, and authorizes no concrete examples). More important, perhaps, is the possibility that Gollwitzer’s project betrays Webster’s other commitments: the Reformational suspicion towards the self and an attitude of child-like receptivity towards Scripture. That is harder to decide…


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

I think it’s been a little longer than a fortnight… Anyway, here is the usual link to the last set of links that I posted for you.

Some exciting things have happened since then. For instance, the DET book giveaway contest saw its submission deadline pass! I’m currently working my way through the submissions and getting them ready for posting. My plan is to post them here at DET over the course of a week, and then to open a poll so you, gentle readers, will be able to vote and pick the winner!

So, watch for that soon.

Anyway, here are the DET posts that have gone up since the last link collection:

And now for the links from around the interwebs:

Happy reading!


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Church as “There”: Helmut Gollwitzer on Luke 24

This is an excerpt from a sermon that Gollwitzer preached in Berlin in either 1939 or 1940, when he filled in after Niemöller’s internment and before his own conscription. During this time Gollwitzer preached through Luke’s narrative of the passion. In this excerpt you will perhaps hear, as I do, echoes of our own ecclesial situation today.

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Dying and Living Lord, 92–93. Bold is mine.

A church was already there, to which the first Resurrection message could come. It was already there, just as it still is here today—and in many places it is certainly ‘there’ in exactly the same way as it was then. The people come together, they pray together, they keep the Sabbath and celebrate the Passover, and the feasts of the Church. But this is a weak and miserable affair; it changes nothing in the world; it causes no upheaval. What is it that holds this group together? Perhaps a little loyalty to their cause? Many people, indeed, have a fine trait in their character: even when they think they are supporting a lost cause, they do not at once give it up and turn to something which might be more profitable. Even when it seems to be a forlorn hope, they still stick to it, possibly very courageously, but perhaps also with a dash of fatalism as well. We can indeed respect and sympathise with people of such strong character; but they cannot win others through their own experience. This kind of loyalty did, doubtless, hold this Church together—and in addition there was also the wealth of memories, the common tradition of those years of companionship with Jesus. When we look at the motives which affect people even today, we see that very often it is this kind of tradition which, to a large extent, still holds the Church together. It holds many of you to the Church—fidelity to this idea, even when you no longer expect very much from it, and the remembrance of what this Church has meant to your fathers, and perhaps even in your own lives. This is all quite good in its way, but at bottom it does not mean anything; it has not power, and so far as the world is concerned, it is neither a danger nor a help.

The authorities of that day were quite right in thinking that this community, which was held together only by a little loyalty and tradition, was not even worth the trouble of a proper persecution.


Monday, February 03, 2014

New Center for Barth Studies Book Review

Mark R. Lindsay, one of the scheduled speakers at the upcoming Princeton Barth Conference , reviews Michael T. Dempsey, Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). Lindsay calls the volume “an attractively presented book which engages with one of the most intriguing and hard-fought battles within Barthian theology of recent times,” so surf on over and see what it’s all about.