An Ecclesiology of Freedom: Bender on Barth and his Critics

In his doctrine of the church, as in his theology generally, Karl Barth eschewed conventional weapons -- even such seemingly benign bulwarks as an infallible text, unchanging dogmas and a stable hierarchy.
Kimlyn J. Bender highlights why Barth's ecclesiology remains fruitful and provocative today.

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
(wikimedia commons)
Bender's response, to be very terse, is to concede a certain lack of concreteness in Barth's ecclesiology -- albeit a problem that can be corrected from within Barth's own basic commitments. Bender also defends the Swiss theologian's Christocentric focus as a hedge against untoward, independent anthropological concerns creeping into dogmatics through the back door in treatments of the church and the Spirit. Bender has done his research and I find his responses to be generally persuasive.

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.



Matthew Frost said…
Yeah, I'm fairly well convinced that most of the complaints adduced regarding Barth's ecclesiology—as in so many other areas—are predicated on ideas of what Barth should have thought if he valued the magisterial institution as the essential form of human participation, and as a valuable theological contributor.

His "underdeveloped" pneumatology is so-called, as far as I can tell, because he doesn't magisterially institutionalize the forms of the Spirit's action. Which is how Jenson decided that Eastern Orthodoxy as the solution he had in hand to Western ecclesiastical failures is also a solution to the Barth-Society-imputed pneumatological problem of subordinating the Spirit to the Son. And I could go down the list, but Bender's done that already. But to a man, these critics would far rather see the Spirit subordinated to the church!

The priority of God as the implacable criterion of all human action and community is galling to people who think the church has something of its own to say about God, just as it is to people who think the creature has something of its own to say about God. If you want to say your word about God and be right, especially by appeal to past human words about God, you're going to have a problem with Barth.

I really like Bender's approach to ecclesiology in Barth. I've been using it as one of the supports of my own approach to soteriology, as an equally synthetic and all-encompassing locus. And that works, so far, because for Barth the church is that which responds to grace. We're the accretion disc around salvation, not vice versa.
Matthew Frost said…
I agree wholeheartedly with your selection of Bender's combination of freedom and faithfulness as crucial. Freedom without faithfulness is terrifying caprice. Faithfulness without freedom is bondage to necessity. This is where the contentious problem of the "ohne uns," God being God without us even as God chooses faithfully to be God for us, is important to uphold.

The ecclesiastical conservatives adduced above as critics of Barth presume a certain meaning of God's faithfulness that Barth disavows. God's faithfulness to us is not a function of us, not a restriction upon God's power, but an overflow from God's total eternal and internal self-fidelity. It is pure grace, and in no way exceptional as grace—as though grace were the exception to a god of law and order, as among the neo-Orthodox.

God isn't only God for us when God remembers us; if God actually forgot us, we would cease to be posited above the abyss, and would return to nonbeing. God is God for us because God has eternally self-determined to be so, in a consistency that has nothing to do with us. Creation, providence, and election are of a piece in this. But God is so entirely without us; we exist eternally downstream. Our feedback in relationship with God is real, a function of the interaction of the free and loving God with the independently free agency of the creature—but as Luther would have said, only in hubris could we imagine that this freedom implies contingency in God.

Without us, and in full eternal self-knowledge across God's entire span of being, God has chosen for there to be a covenant partner of such nature as could really be a partner to God. God has chosen really to be the covenant partner of this creature, contingent only upon God's own free choice for the reality to be this way. The fact that the creature in its finitude and freedom has chosen to be radically inconsistent does not change this, though it has frequently tempted God to erase this reality, return to the blank slate, and try again differently, as the scriptures tell us. God is not faithful to us because God has to be; God is faithful to us because God has chosen from all eternity not to be the god who inflicts that kind of harm for any purpose.

Ecclesiology has no choice but to follow God as its fundamental nature. God is not bound to be our covenant partners, out of all other creatures, because God likes our groups better. It was the same with Israel and Judah. We've got nothing. God is faithful to us as an effect of God's self-consistency, and if we want to use that we have to be consistent with God, because God isn't bound to be consistent with us at all.
Thanks for commenting! Indeed, I too was thinking the freedom/faithfulness pairing here(or put another way, the freedom/love dialectic of CD II/1) naturally leads one to take a closer look at the distinctive way Barth reconstructs covenant theology.

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