An Ecclesiology of Freedom: Bender on Barth and his Critics
Travis McMaken has reviewed Bender's impressive volume on modern theology (see here and here). The publisher also sent me a free review copy (with no prior expectation my reviews would be positive), so I too will offer a couple of posts highlighting notable bits of this book. I will echo Travis' assessment: Bender is a formidable interpreter of Barth and the contemporary theological scene, and his work is well worth a careful read -- especially in the area of Barth's ecclesiology, Bender's special area of expertise.
Kimlyn J. Bender, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
In that vein, I particularly commend the first essay in the volume: "Karl Barth's Doctrine of the Church in Conversation with American Theology Today." In this piece, Bender gives an overview of Barth's ecclesiology, which is shaped definitively both formally and materially by Christological commitments, and then provides a thorough summary and analysis of several recent critiques of Barth -- in particular, those offered by Robert Jenson, Joseph Mangina, Reinhard Hütter, Nicholas Healey and Stanley Hauerwas. By now the topography of these criticisms is well-traversed: e.g., that Barth underdevelops his pneumatology and subsumes it within his Christology; that Barth fails to treat adequately the embodied, historical life of the church -- including its doctrines and practices; and that he neglects the church as integral to the economy of salvation.
|Ruins of Heptonstall Old Church by Tim Green|
The most interesting bits in this essay for me, though, came in the compact, two-page conclusion. Here Bender hones in on the issue of the freedom of God as a linchpin of Barth's ecclesiology. "Because of the freedom of God, the church's life, along with its doctrines and practices, cannot be directly identified with Christ's own action, or the Spirit tied in any way to the church so that this divine freedom is sacrificed" (63). This divine freedom was a keynote theme in Barth's remarks in his 1962 trip to the United States.
Nonetheless, as Bender argues, this divine freedom should not be abstracted from the equally crucial theme of God's faithfulness. Bender writes:
Barth's justified and outspoken emphasis on the freedom and lordship of God is so evident in his work that his quiet yet unshakable confidence in God's faithfulness is at times missed. It is a consideration of divine freedom without faithfulness that may be the reason some regard Barth's theology in general, and his ecclesiology in particular, as inherently unstable, occasionalistic, or ahistorical, and ultimately incapable of providing truly viable guidance and direction for an embodied ecclesial life (ibid).
It is this confidence in divine faithfulness, paired with divine freedom, Bender argues, that inoculated Barth from the kinds of furtive obsession with self-preservation that sorely tempts the churches amid modern cultural upheavals. Bender continues:
The search to alleviate this anxiety is nowhere as evident as in the search for a stable objectivity in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles, an objectively attempted in the flight to irreformable dogma, an infallible church office or inerrant biblical text, an irrevocable ministry of historic apostolic succession or a hierarchically arranged ecumenical alliance (p. 63-64).
I wonder what other supposed spiritual verities the churches today would be willing to discard if we had the kind of confidence in the Spirit Barth commends.