What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

DIVIDED DESIRES

What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


NOTES:

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.

 

Disunity in the Church? Absurd!

Presented at Southeast ETS 2015.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY:A BARTHIAN ANALOGY

Joshua P. Steele

INTRODUCTION

Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church1 and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. Two excerpts from the Barthian corpus legitimize this connection. First, in his prepared remarks to the 1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Karl Barth maintained that

we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.2

 

Second, almost two decades later, Barth described as “impossible” that which he had earlier declared “unthinkable”3 – that certain Christian communities should “stand in relation to other groups of equally Christian communities in an attitude more or less of exclusion,” by claiming that “their confession and preaching and theology are mutually contradictory” (CD IV/1, 676).4 It is furthermore impossible “that the adherents of the one should be able to work together with those of the other in every possible secular cause, but not to pray together, not to preach and hear the Word of God together, not to keep the Lord’s Supper together” (CD IV/1, 676). Barth insists that, “in view of the being of the community as the body of Christ [, the disunity of the church] is – ontologically, we can say – quite impossible; it is possible only as sin is possible” (CD IV/1, 677; emphasis added).

In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I will then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

SIN AS ONTOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

In considering human sin, we must begin with what it means to be human. Although various attempts have been made to define humanity in the spheres of natural science, idealist ethics, existentialist philosophy, and theistic anthropology, Barth claims that these are merely descriptions of the phenomena, and not the essence, of humanity (CD III/2, 71-132).

Against these provisional anthropologies, Barth insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place, the encounter between God and man, and not in the reaches or intricacies of human emotion, intellect, or will. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return” (CD II/1, 284). This is because God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him” (CD II/1, 285). Most importantly, “the One, the person, whom we really know as a human person, is the person of Jesus Christ, and even this is in fact the person of God the Son, in which humanity, without being or having itself a person, is caught up into fellowship with the personality of God” (CD II/1, 286). Christology determines anthropology, and not the other way around (CD I/1, 131).

Christological Anthropology

Although Barth grounds the definition of humanity in Christology, he is always careful to preserve a qualitative distinction between Christ’s humanity and humanity in general:

Christology is not anthropology. We cannot expect, therefore, to find directly in others the humanity of Jesus, and therefore His fellow-humanity, His being for man, and therefore that final and supreme determination, the image of God. Jesus is man for His fellows, and therefore the image of God, in a way which others cannot even approach, just as they cannot be for God in the sense that He is. He alone is the Son of God, and therefore His humanity alone can be described as the being of an I which is wholly from and to the fellow-human Thou, and therefore a genuine I. (CD III/2, 222)

 

Instead of framing this distinction between Christ and other humans in terms of a vague moral perfection, Barth portrays Christ as distinctly more human than humans in general – existing both for God and for other humans in a way which is unparalleled. Christ’s existence for other humans is “the direct correlative of His being for God,” and this reveals a correspondence between the existence and love of God ad intra – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the existence and love of God ad extrato humanity (CD III/2, 220).

Humanity only exists within this Christological correspondence, this analogia relationis (CD III/2, 218-20, 225-6). Specifically, Barth grounds the humanity of individual humans in the notion of a shared sphere with Christ: “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus” (CD III/2, 132). Therefore, “to be a man is to be with God,” for no matter what else each individual is, “he is on the basis of the fact that he is with Jesus and therefore with God” (CD III/2, 135). Because the incarnation is the fullest expression of the Creator’s summons to the creature into relationship, it is the ground of the human creature’s being and personality – distinguishing humanity from the other non-human spheres which Christ did not inhabit (CD III/2, 137).

Sin is the Impossible Possibility

However, the incarnation is also the source of sin’s absurdity. Because humanity “is not without God, but with God,” true “Godlessness, is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man” (CD III/2, 136). When it comes to sin, Barth simultaneously removes it from the definition of what it means to be human, and emphasizes its absurdity as part of human existence – for, although sin undeniably exists, “our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity” (CD III/2, 136).

Nevertheless, to make some provisional sense of sin’s existence, Barth claims that the distinction between Creator and creation necessarily entails the possibility of creaturely conflict with God. As opposed to the inherent impossibility of a conflict between God and himself ad intra ,5 “it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction” (CD II/1, 503). Positively, this reinforces the creature’s identity as simply that: a creature, owing its existence to God. In fact, “creature freed from the possibility of falling away would not really be living as a creature. It could only be a second God – and as no second God exists, it could only be God Himself” (CD II/1, 503). This distinction does not necessitate actual sin, however, for “sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence” (CD II/1, 503; emphasis added). And, given the Christological and theological basis of human existence, it makes no sense for a human to actualize this possibility, for “if he denies God, he denies himself” and “chooses his own impossibility” (CD III/2, 136). In Barth’s evaluation, this one absurd decision underlies all actions which are usually considered sins, for “every offence in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, and offence with which man burdens, obscures, and corrupts himself” (CD III/2, 136).

For Barth, therefore, sin is not merely moral – it is both ontological and incomprehensible: the inherent contradiction of a nothingness which opposes God as the very ground of all existence and reality (CD II/1, 532; III/3, 351). The value of this definition is its absurdity. Responding to the challenge (from Berkouwer) that defining sin as “nothingness,” an “impossible possibility,” or an “ontological impossibility” seems “to suggest or imply a denial of the reality of evil,” Barth maintains that “it is of a piece with the nature of evil that if we could explain how it may have reality it would not be evil. Nor are we really thinking of evil if we think we can explain this” (CD IV/3, 177). His subsequent clarification is especially instructive for this discussion:

When I speak of nothingness, I cannot mean that evil is nothing, that it does not exist, or that it has no reality. I mean that it exists only in the negativity proper to it in its relationship to God and decisively in God’s relationship of repudiation to it. It does not exist as God does, nor as His creatures, amongst which it is not to be numbered. It has no basis for its being. It has no right to the existence which to our sorrow we cannot deny to it. Its existence, significance and reality are not distinguished by any value nor positive strength. The nature underlying its existence and activity is perversion. Its right to be and to express itself is simply that of wrong. In this sense it is nothingness. (CD IV/3, 178)

 

Similarly, the phrase “impossible possibility” is designed to reflect “the absurd possibility of the absurd,” and “ontological impossibility” to state that “the nature of evil as the negation negated by God disqualifies its being, and therefore its undeniable existence, as impossible, meaningless, illegitimate, valueless and without foundation” (CD IV/3, 178). Easily understood definitions of evil are perhaps evil themselves, obfuscating sin’s inherent incomprehensibility.

Given the definition of humanity and the absurdity of sin, there is a tension between humanity’s Christological being/essence and its sinful act/form. As Barth puts it, “perhaps the fundamental mistake in all erroneous thinking of man about himself is that he tries to equate himself with God and therefore to proceed on the assumption that he can regard himself as the presupposition of his own being” (CD III/2, 151). However, if there is one presupposition allowed in Barth’s epistemological non-foundationalism, it is the anthropological presupposition of God and his Word as the ground of human being – divine election as the frontier beyond which we cannot look for a human being “not yet summoned” (CD III/2, 151). Just as there is no God behind God, there is no humanity beyond the divine summons, beyond existence in the same sphere inhabited by Christ. It is therefore unthinkable that humanity should try to be the source of its own existence, and yet this is precisely that which occurs.

For Barth, this absurdity takes on the character of improper judgment: “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge” (CD IV/1, 220). Although “not all men commit all sins,” everyone commits “this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins” (CD IV/1, 220). Self-justification and the damnation of the others characterize sin as “the arrogance in which man wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge,” wanting “to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty” (CD IV/1, 231). Sinful humanity tries to ground its own existence by carving-out its own improper position as judge.

Atonement’s Intensification of Sin’s Absurdity

Yet sin becomes an even further absurdity in light of the atonement. In fact, the tension between humanity’s Christological essence and its sinful form is a driving force in the doctrine of reconciliation, for “the incompatibility of the existence of Jesus Christ with us and us with Him, the impossibility of the co-existence of His divine-human actuality and action and our sinfully human being and activity” must be addressed before we can rest assured “that Jesus Christ belongs to us and we belong to Him, that His cause is our cause and our cause is His” (CD IV/1, 348). As an answer to this predicament, “the event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position [of improper human judgment], but destroys it” (CD IV/1, 232).

This displacement of humanity by Christ is the source of both its abasement and liberation, the former because, although self-justification always results in a verdict of my own innocence, “He who has acted there as Judge will also judge me, and He and not I will judge others” (CD IV/1, 233). However, it is also the source of freedom from the wearisome and “intolerable nuisance to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right” (CD IV/1, 233). With relevance to our subsequent ecclesiological discussion, Barth adds that it is similarly

an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. (CD IV/1, 233-4)

 

Christ liberates us from the tiresome task we were never meant to complete.

Furthermore, in taking our improper place as judge, he also takes away from us the just sentence we merited by taking up that position in the first place. Christ “takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and burdening himself with it,” and “it [therefore] ceases to be our sin” (CD IV/1, 236). Due to this exchange, he “is the unrighteous amongst those who can no longer be so because He was and is for them” (CD IV/1, 237), because he has delivered “sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which was properly theirs” (CD IV/1, 253). Christ destroys human faithlessness by taking it to its absurd conclusion: annihilation.

Because of this, humans “have no other ground to do evil now that the ground has been cut out from under our feet” (CD IV/1, 243). Considering Christ’s work both for us and in us, Barth maintains that “unfaithfulness to God is a disallowed possibility which can no longer be actualised. It is seen to be the wholly impossible possibility on which we can no longer count, which we see to be eliminated and taken from us by God’s omnipotent contradiction set up in us” (CD IV/4, 22). In light of the doctrine of reconciliation, repentance from sin is the only viable human response. Only by ignoring Christ and his accomplished atonement, only by denying the source of our own existence can we presume to have the freedom to sin, to reject God, and to be our own judges.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

Humanity’s Christological definition results in sin as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. The church’s Christological definition similarly results in disunity as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. As we began with what it means to be human, so we begin with what it means to be the church.

Just as Barth resists an anthropology that is based upon the mere phenomena of humanity, he resists an ecclesiology that is based upon the mere phenomena of the church. Although the church is “a phenomenon of world history which can be grasped in historical and psychological and sociological terms like any other” (CD IV/1, 652), what the church actually is, “the character, the truth of its existence in time and space, is not a matter of a general but a very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654). And just as grasping the Christological essence of humanity allows for a true appreciation of humanity’s historical form,6 understanding the Christological essence of the church allows the community to “act confidently on the level of its phenomenal being” (CD IV/1, 660). This includes ecumenical pursuits.

Christological Ecclesiology

For Barth, Christology determines both anthropology and ecclesiology, and there is therefore no “abandonment of the sphere of the [Apostles’] creed” when the transition is made from the second to the third article.7 He offers a conceptual map at this juncture:

The Christology is like a vertical line meeting a horizontal. The doctrine of the sin of man is the horizontal line as such. The doctrine of justification is the intersection of the horizontal line by the vertical. The remaining doctrine, that of the Church and of faith, is again the horizontal line, but this time seen as intersected by the vertical. The vertical line is the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ. The horizontal is the object of that work; man and humanity. (CD IV/1, 643)

 

There is therefore a Chalcedonian pattern, 8 not only to Christ’s person, but also to his work. This unavoidably includes the Holy Spirit’s work, awakening and forming the church, which is itself the subjective realization of the eternal election of Jesus Christ (CD IV/1, 667).9 In Barth’s terms: “the one reality of the atonement has both an objective and a subjective side in so far as – we cannot separate but we must not confuse the two – it is both a divine act and offer and also an active human participation in it” (CD IV/1, 643; emphasis added).

For this reason, “the history which we consider when we speak of the Christian community and Christian faith is enclosed and exemplified in the history of Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 644). Barth takes seriously the New Testament language of the church as Christ’s “body,” and claims that “the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ himself” (CD IV/1, 661). As Christ is the head of his body, the church, he is the ground of its particular existence. Just as the incarnation grounds human existence, it determines ecclesiological existence. And because Christology and ecclesiology are inseparably intertwined, the Chalcedonian pattern which unites the church with the person of Christ also applies to the relationship between the church’s being and its act – between its invisible essence and its visible form.

Disunity is the Impossible Possibility

This union, however, parallels the aforementioned tension between humanity’s essence and its form, given its Christological definition and the absurdity of sin. As Bender notes, “Barth’s dialectical understanding of the church as both an invisible and visible reality, an event of the Holy Spirit and a historical entity, leads naturally to his dialectical understanding of the marks of the church: the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”10 Within the context of the first mark, there is a tension between the church’s being/essence as one, and its act/form as many.

Credo unam ecclesiam(I believe one church) entails that there is “only one Church. This means that it belongs to the being of the community to be a unity in the plurality of its members, i.e., of the individual believers assembled in it, and to be a simple unity, not having a second or third unity of the same kind side by side with it” (CD IV/1, 668). This follows not just a Christological pattern, but a Trinitarian one as well, for

In all the riches of His divine being the God who reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ is One. Jesus Christ, elected the Head of all men and as such their Representative who includes them all in Himself in His risen and crucified body is One. The Holy Spirit in the fulness and diversity of His gifts is One. In the same way His community as the gathering of the men who know and confess Him can only be one. (CD IV/1, 668)

 

This is the source of the church’s unity, in the midst of legitimate plurality, between the visible and invisible church and between the ecclesia militans and the ecclesia triumphans (CD IV/1, 669).11 The only other legitimate church plurality is the existence of “geographically separated and therefore different congregations.” (CD IV/1, 671). If the church is to exist “in essential accordance with its commission it has to take place in many localities,” then this necessarily entails a differentiation which corresponds to “its environment and history and language and customs and ways of life and thought as conditioned by the different localities, and also to its personal composition” (CD IV/1, 671). Because it is grounded in God’s Triune unity, the church’s unity does not necessitate homogeneity, and Barth grants that each local congregation should exist within the particularities of its own context.

However, this cannot entail any sort of basic or essential difference between one local congregation and another, for “each in its own place can only be the one community beside which there are no others. Each in and for itself and with its local characteristics can only be the whole, as others are in their own locality” (CD IV/1, 672). No other legitimate plurality within the church exists, for “any other plurality means the co-existence of Churches which are genuinely divided” – churches that, at best will kindly “tolerate one another as believing differently, and at worst they will fight against one another, mutually excluding each other with some definiteness and force” (CD IV/1, 675).

And yet this is exactly the scandalous reality of the church. Although there are myriad reasons for ecclesiological divisions throughout the ages, Barth’s distillation of myriad human sins to improper judgment as “the essence and root of all other sins ” helps to make sense of the scandal of the fragmented church. Just as humans demonstrate the sinful tension between their essence and form by improperly justifying themselves and damning others, the church demonstrates the sinful tension between its unified being and its divided act when individual Christian communities justify their own existence over against the existence of other Christian communities. Because this is the case, Barth is even willing to claim that the church’s formal division has essential implications: “in its visible and also in its invisible being, in its form and also in its essence, the one community of Jesus Christ is not one” (CD IV/1, 679). While it is expected that every Christian community would claim an individual encounter with its Lord which justifies its own existence, this can quickly become a perverse insistence that the “Yes” of Christ has been exclusively spoken to them. This “claim to be identical with the one Church in contrast to the others, and in this sense to be the only Church” entails a delegitimation, whether implicit or explicit, of every other community’s claim to stand under the “Yes” of Christ (CD IV/1, 683-4). The local congregation, instead of existing in harmony with and as a manifestation of the one church, becomes a ghetto by restricting the cosmic boundaries of Christ’s church to its own four walls.

While there may be legitimate human explanations for such divisions, there are no acceptable theological ones, Barth claims, for a “plurality of Churches in this sense means a plurality of lords, a plurality of spirits, a plurality of gods” – a practical denial of the church’s theoretical confession of the singular unity of the Triune God (CD IV/1, 675). Just as it is absurd for humans to oppose God as the very ground of their existence, it is equally absurd for the church to divide in denial of the unity of God.

Atonement’s Intensification of Disunity’s Absurdity

Just as the atonement intensifies the anthropological absurdity of sin, it intensifies the ecclesiological absurdity of disunity. As Barth puts it, the previously-described exclusive claim of a Christian community to be the only church “has been dashed out of hand by the One who is the unity of the Church” (CD IV/1, 684). In making an end of the nothingness of human sin, Christ has also delivered up disunity to destruction, for “in Him it was all humanity in its corruption and lostness, its earthly-historical existence under the determination of the fall, which was judged and executed and destroyed, and in that way liberated for a new determination, for its being as a new humanity” (CD IV/1, 663). The unity which is necessarily implied in Barth’s Christological description of election is realized in the church. Members of the community “were one in God’s election (Eph 1:4), were and are one in the fulfilment of it on Golgotha, are one in the power of His resurrection, one in Jesus Christ…His body together in their unity and totality” (CD IV/1, 664). Most succinctly, “there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one body of Christ” (CD IV/1, 666). Disunity in the church is therefore absurd, because it denies the definition of the church as Christ’s body, and the reality of reconciliation as Christ’s work.

CONCLUSION: TOWARD A BARTHIAN ECUMENISM

I have endeavored to demonstrate the significance of Karl Barth’s remark that disunity in the church “is only possible as sin is possible,” by showing the structural parallels between his anthropological claim that sin is ontological impossibility and the claim that disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. Yet the value of this correlation for ecumenism is not readily apparent until it is situated within Barth’s own ecumenical vision.

For Karl Barth, the Chalcedonian pattern of both Christology and ecclesiology applies when addressing the tension between the church’s essence and form.12 On one hand, the solution to ecclesiological disunity must not entail a docetic escapism which unifies the church at the expense of its earthly-historical form. No matter how frustrated ecumenists become, they must not abandon their ecclesiological traditions to create a formless Christianity whose only members are themselves. Because the church’s external divisions result from essential, inward fractures, “neither individuals nor the whole Church can overcome it by a flight to the invisible, but only by a healing of both its visible and its invisible hurt” (CD IV/1, 678). On the other hand, because “what is demanded is the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, not the externally satisfying co-existence and co-operation of different religious societies,” Barth is suspicious of ebionitic approaches to church unity which approach the unification of the church as the unification of any other human communities, looking for the least common denominators upon which to build pragmatic associations (CD IV/1, 678).

Instead, Barth maintains that the pursuit of church unity must be an indirect pursuit – not an end in itself, but an unavoidable consequence of each Christian community sincerely pursuing the call of its Lord, and each individual doing so from a sober and humble loyalty to one’s particular confession (CD IV/1, 679).13 Barth asserts that “if only each church will take itself seriously, ‘itself and Christ within it,’ then even if there be no talk of union movements in it, even if there be no change at all in its order and its way of worship, the one Church would be in that single church a present reality and visible.”14 Because Christ, not Christians, is the ground of the church’s unity, an individual community can exhibit the unity of the church, even within a fractured ecclesiological landscape, “if in its ordinances it is zealous for Christ.”15

And yet this is the most difficult ecumenism of all, for it entails rigorous self-examination within each community, which must be willing to ask itself constantly whether it has legitimate reasons to exist as a particular, differentiated Christian community, or whether it should redefine (or abandon) its boundaries for the sake of church unity (CD IV/1, 680-1). I believe the correlation between sin as ontological impossibility and disunity as ecclesiological impossibility is necessary precisely at this point in the ecumenical equation, for each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation. Just as sinful humanity denies the ground of its own existence, so also a divided and divisive church denies its identity as Christ’s body and the reality of the atonement. Unless the disunity of Christ’s body is seen as an unacceptable scandal, the schisms will remain, and each community’s confession, “credo unam ecclesiam,” will mean nothing more than “we believe ourselves.”


NOTES:
1 As Bender notes, “the referent for Barth’s term [whether ‘community’ or ‘church’] must be determined by context,” whether it refers to the local congregation, the institution, or the universal body of Christ. See Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Hampshire/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; repr. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 13. I have followed Bender’s approach in that, throughout this study, “church” is only capitalized in quotations, when Barth himself did so.
2 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936; repr., 2005), 22-3. Emphasis added.
3 Note the similarities: “It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory…. that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God’s word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.” Barth, The Church and the Churches, 24.
4 The reference is to Vol. IV, pt. 1 of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; 5 vols in 14 parts; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). All references to the Church Dogmatics appear parenthetically in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”
5 “It is a mark of the divine nature as distinct from that of the creature that in it a conflict with Himself is not merely ruled out, but is inherently impossible. If this were not so, if there did not exist perfect, original and ultimate peace between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit, God would not be God. Any God in conflict with Himself is bound to be a false God” CD II/1, 503.
6 Consider Barth’s positive, yet provisional, appraisal of the phenomena-based anthropologies: “In this way and in this sense, then, a knowledge of man which is non-theological but genuine is not only possible but basically justified and necessary even from the standpoint of theological anthropology…. It cannot, of course, lead us to the knowledge of real man. But it may proceed from or presuppose a knowledge of real man” CD III/2, 200-2.
7 “It is significant that at this point, the transition from the second to the third article, the word credo is specifically mentioned. It tells us that we can know the man who belongs to Jesus Christ only in faith.” CD IV/1, 644.
8 Bender credits George Hunsinger with identifying this theme, based upon Barth’s own description of the ecumenical councils’ doctrinal decisions as “guiding lines for an understanding of [Christ’s] existence and action, not to be used, as they have been used, as stones for the construction of an abstract doctrine of His ‘person’” (CD IV/1, 127). See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 3.
9 As Bender helpfully notes, “there is, then, not only a direct Christological analogy between Christ and the community, but an indirect Trinitarian and pneumatological one, in that, as the Spirit binds together the Father and the Son (in the Trinity); and as the Spirit binds together the Word and flesh of Christ (in the incarnation); so also the Holy Spirit binds together Christ and the community.” Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 205. However, in touching so lightly upon the work of the Holy Spirit in this paper, I share Barth’s exclamatory sentiment: “How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done!” (CD IV/1, 649). Furthermore, despite the brief mention of election, it is significant that Barth grounds the unity between Christology and ecclesiology, not in the event of Pentecost, preaching, or the sacraments, but in the election of Jesus Christ from all eternity. The church “became His body, they became its members, in the fulfillment of their eternal election in His death on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in His resurrection from the dead” (CD IV/1, 667).
10 Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 181.
11 It is also the source of the unity between Israel and the Church, which Barth describes as the “two forms and aspects (CD II, 2, § 34, 1) of the one inseparable community in which Jesus Christ has His earthly-historical form of existence, by which He is attested to the whole world, by which the whole world is summoned to faith in Him.” CD IV/1, 669-70.
12 I am indebted to Bender’s helpful description of Barth’s critical use of a docetic/ebionitic framework. See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 7.
13 See also Barth, The Church and the Churches, 51-2.
14 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 55.
15 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 56.
Posted via blogwith

The Hope of the Holy Innocents

(PDF: The Hope of the Holy Innocents)

Today is December 28 (2014) – just the third day since Christmas – a commemoration of what is often called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” the killing of the baby boys of Bethlehem by King Herod.

The Church’s regard for this day as a feast day is quite early, going back to at least the fifth century. In the fourth century, Chromatius described these babies as the first martyrs of Christ – the first counted worthy to die on Christ’s behalf. Around the same time, St. Augustine claimed that these nameless victims, “whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.”

What if we knew the names of the victims of Herod’s infamous, paranoid rage?

What if the cries of Bethlehem took place today in Birmingham?

…For [REDACTED (NAMES OF BOYS IN CHURCH AGED TWO AND UNDER)] Continue reading “The Hope of the Holy Innocents”

The Brokenhearted God

Not to take away from the undeniably biblical teaching that God is almighty, but sometimes I think we lose sight of God's love for his image-bearers when we emphasize certain "strong" portraits of God at the expense of (instead of alongside of) other "weak" portraits found in Scripture. (I put "strong" and "weak" in quotes because perhaps our definitions of strength and weakness therefore need to change!)

It might make some of us uncomfortable to read about God portrayed as a jilted lover or a frustrated mother, but those portraits just might be desperately needed in a time when so many people turn away from God because they can't understand how he can possibly be the good Lord of a world so broken and dying.

Let's not let our emphasis on God as King make him seem like a distant despot, or something dangerously close to the author of evil. We worship a God who is immanent in his transcendence, and we don't all need to become process theologians to recognize this. Perhaps we just need to read the prophets! Consider the following two examples:


When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the further they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

and they burned incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;

I took them up in my arms,

but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them

with bands of human kindness,

with cords of love.

I treated them like those

who lift infants to their cheeks;

I bent down to them and fed them.

I won’t act on the heat of my anger;

I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and not a human being,

the holy one in your midst;

I won’t come in harsh judgment.

They will walk after theLord,

who roars like a lion.

When he roars,

his children will come trembling from the west.

They will come trembling like a bird,

and like a dove from the land of Assyria;

and I will return them to their homes, says theLord. (Hosea 11:1-4; 9-11, CEB)

As for your birth, on the day you were born your umbilical cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water; you were certainly not rubbed down with salt, nor wrapped with blankets.No eye took pity on you to do even one of these things for you to spare you; you were thrown out into the open field because you were detested on the day you were born.

“‘I passed by you and saw you kicking around helplessly in your blood. I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!” I said to you as you lay there in your blood, “Live!”I made you plentiful like sprouts in a field; you grew tall and came of age so that you could wear jewelry. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, but you were still naked and bare.

“‘Then I passed by you and watched you, noticing that you had reached the age for love. I spread my cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore a solemn oath to you and entered into a marriage covenant with you, declares the sovereignLord, and you became mine.

“‘Then I bathed you in water, washed the blood off you, and anointed you with fragrant oil.I dressed you in embroidered clothing and put fine leather sandals on your feet. I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk.I adorned you with jewelry. I put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck.I put a ring in your nose, earrings on your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head.You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. You ate the finest flour, honey, and olive oil. You became extremely beautiful and attained the position of royalty.Your fame spread among the nations because of your beauty; your beauty was perfect because of the splendor which I bestowed on you, declares the sovereignLord. (Ezekiel 16:4-14, NET)

Notice that God's immanence, his willingness to suffer alongside us (and in our stead, through Christ), doesn't negate his hatred for sin. Instead, I'd argue that God's immanence intensifies his negative reaction to Sin and Death as his cosmic enemies! Emmanuel, God with us, sees our sickness for what it truly is. It's not something to be trifled with, and it doesn't just upset God because it "breaks his list of rules." No, sin breaks God's good creation. It is a cancer which kills from within, even dragging his precious image bearers down to the grave…blinding them to the horrible reality of their downfall, and enticing them, enticing US with phantoms of fleeting pleasure.

This rambling post was inspired by the following two songs, which capture the above ideas beautifully. The first is "Ezekiel," by Gungor, based on the text of Ezekiel 16. The second is "Not Your Type" by Noah James. Give both a listen if you have the time!

Posted via blogwith

My Uncle, Timothy Steele

(This post is about my late uncle, Timothy Steele. It’s long, and I swear toward the end. Sorry.)


“It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2-3)


Image

Timothy Steele

The juxtaposition is staggering. The funeral of the man I most associate with laughter and joy. It hurts. No Steele family gathering was complete without hearing his boisterous laugh, receiving one of his legendary bear hugs, and – if you were lucky – getting one heck of a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

His greetings were the most genuine. I always knew when Uncle Tim had arrived. And whenever I arrived, he made me feel like my presence mattered, like he had missed me, like he was proud of me.

My Uncle Tim was one of the first people in the room to hold me when I was born. Although I can’t remember it, he was there on the very first day of my life. Growing up, his house was always a welcome place to hang out with my cousins. He was like a second dad, and his children like a second set of siblings.

Speaking of dad, my Uncle Tim was used by God to help my dad out of his habits and addictions and into an encounter with Jesus Christ. At the funeral, my dad spoke of it in terms of Tim saving him from drowning. I will perhaps never know how much in my life I owe to my Uncle Tim being there for his younger brother, Patrick, putting his reputation on the line to guide and love my dad toward Christ.

Also, it meant a lot to me that my Uncle Tim made it out to my wedding in Pennsylvania in August 2012. Whenever my wife and I watch our wedding video, one of our favorite parts is when Uncle Tim’s voice booms out from the back of the church after we finished our duet of Be Thou My Vision. Amidst the applause, he cries out in a weepy voice: “That was beautiful!!!” He is intertwined with the memories of one of the happiest days of my life.

Many more stories could be and have been told about Timothy Steele. However, there’s one memory in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head these past days since hearing of my uncle’s untimely death. It happened in the garage of Grandma Steele’s house during a family gathering when her health was declining, if I remember correctly. Amidst the normal hilarious and loud stories, the conversation took a serious turn, and my Uncle Tim spoke of the pain he felt when he looked back upon times in his life when he had turned his back on Jesus, so to speak.

Now, he didn’t speak of his regrets in terms of not knowing any better when he was younger. He didn’t speak of the pain of violating a general sense of right and wrong, but of the nagging sense that at various times he had let a person down…the person of Christ.

Encouragement in the Midst of Pain

Here’s why I find that story encouraging in the midst of pain: You don’t much regret letting down people for whom you don’t much care. And even though we have all, to the very last one of us, let Jesus down, he never abandons us. His love makes my Uncle Tim’s love pale in comparison, and he is now showing Tim even more grace than Tim showed to all of us each day.

If you ever met my Uncle Tim, you know of his gracious love toward every single person he met. These past few days have been filled with stories about this man who was a force of nature, always ready to extend his gregarious love toward even, if not especially, “discarded and used-up people,” as my cousin Whitney put it. And as my Uncle John put it, “Tim loved you like Jesus does.

I was struck by viewing those loving, gracious memories of my Uncle Tim in light of the relationship revealed to me in that serious conversation in the garage. That is, to realize that my Uncle Tim was such a uniquely loving person, not just because he thought it was a good idea or because he just had so much love on his own, but because of the love he had received from Christ. To realize that the intense love which characterized every personal encounter with my Uncle flowed from the intense love he had first and continually experienced in his personal encounter with the crucified-and-risen Jesus Christ.

Unlike many, my Uncle Tim understood that the Gospel of Christ doesn’t just make a difference in the “afterlife,” but that it makes a difference in the here-and-now! That if knowing Christ makes no difference in how you treat the flesh-and-blood people around you who are made in God’s image, then you probably don’t know Christ. The eternal life spoken of in the Gospel doesn’t begin the day you die, it began the day Christ died and rose from the grave.

I often worry that Christian pronouncements about the good news of Jesus Christ strike others as hollow, fake, and escapist – especially in the context of a funeral. How can trite truisms about Jesus be relevant in the midst of so much pain?

But my Uncle Tim’s life on earth, painful ending and all, was not a trite truism. You know if you knew Timothy Steele. He demonstrated what faith looks like — that it has to do with more than just thinking the right things, more than just following a list of rules — it has to do with a faithful relationship to a PERSON, a relationship which then changes the way you treat PEOPLE.


Conclude and Reflect

I write this reflection mid-air, on my way back to Alabama. I wish that I had gotten to see my family members in a house of merrymaking, but it was a house of mourning instead.As we remembered the life of the man who could make you laugh so hard you cried, there was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears in the Steele family this weekend. There was riotous applause at the funeral at one point, but I know there’s still a whole lot of sadness and pain.

If you’re reading this and you, like me, are privileged to have known Timothy Steele, would you reflect on the connection between the love this man showed to all and the love of Christ which he had first received? When you seek hope in the midst of your reasonable sorrow, and you spend time dwelling on happy memories of the man, would you consider that the source of all that gracious love wasn’t a general sense, it wasn’t an impersonal force…it was my Uncle Tim’s encounter and relationship with a person.

And if you’re reading this and your pain feels too great for all this Jesus talk at the moment, if, like me, you experienced a big dose of anger at the side of Tim’s casket this weekend…that God would allow this life to end so soon…that this world is still broken and infected by Death, would you please join me in clinging to the hope that God hates death even more than we do?

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but seriously, he does. For all the hopeful Christian talk at funerals, we can never forget that Death sucks.

No, that’s not strong enough. Death is fucking horrible. And I hope you agree that I say that out of concern for accuracy, and not merely vulgarity.Death’s final defeat has been declared at the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, butdammit, we’re still waiting for the final removal of Death’s presence from this world. It’s not our annoying, normal friend. It’s our alien enemy. And I don’t know about you, but when Death strikes close to my door, when it hits the ones I love, I want to rage against it with all I have.

God rages against Death. He dove headfirst into the depths of this world, into the realm of the discarded and the used-up, the dead and the dying. He himself dove into the very grave, that he might emerge from it victorious. That he might lay Death itself in its cold grave, that he might silence the bastard enemy of the children of God.

I don’t just follow Jesus to get into heaven someday when I die. I follow him because he hates Death more than I do, because in an important sense he is more heartbroken than I am over the death of my Uncle and the sorrow of the family members he left behind. And because, amazingly enough, he invites me and his people — he invites YOU — to join him in the mission of eternal life, to join him in the process of putting Death to death in our daily lives, in the world around us.

And, following the words of my beloved Uncle Tim, that’s beautiful.

(For another reflection on death, hope, and resurrection, read my sermon: “Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?”)

Give Thanks!

I'm not the most thankful person.

However, I am a follower of Jesus, and one of the lessons I've been learning this semester is that praise, thanksgiving, and gratitude are closely intertwined. Worship should involve the public proclamation of who God is and what He has done — including specific, personal declarations of thanksgiving for God's grace and good gifts.

If, like me, you have a hard time cultivating this worshipful practice of gratitude, then allow me to suggest the following prayers from the Book of Common Prayer to help get us started.

The first one is the simplest: a prayer for Grace at Meals. Perhaps this is an easily-overlooked truth, but we can ask God for grateful hearts! That is, instead of merely asking him for things…for which we will hopefully then be grateful… we can ask him for help in becoming grateful people.

"Give us grateful hearts, our Father, for all Your mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

If you have time for more than just the 25-word prayer above, consider using the following prayers as a springboard for a time of gathering together as a family to give thanks to God. The General Thanksgiving is said by Anglicans during daily prayer throughout the year. Consider praying through this together as a family or group of friends.

The General Thanksgiving:

"Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen."

Finally, this Litany of Thanksgiving is a bit longer, but consider pausing after each segment to think on all the good gifts God gives to us in each area of life. If you, like me, have a hard time thinking of things to be thankful for, allow this time of prayer to jog your memory.

A Litany of Thanksgiving:

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea.

We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,

We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,

We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,

We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,

We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,

We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,

We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,

We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;


To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

What are you thankful for?

~Josh

Posted via blogwith

A Prayer Before Study by St. Thomas Aquinas

I want to share with you the following prayer, based on Oratio S. Thomae Aquinatis ante studium, which Thomas Aquinas would pray before studying, writing, or preaching. We prayed it responsively before class (Patristic and Medieval History and Doctrine) with Dr. Piotr Malysz, and I’ve turned back to this prayer with three papers and a final before me in the weeks ahead!

We prayed it responsively before class (Patristic and Medieval History and Doctrine) with Dr. Piotr Malysz at Beeson Divinity School, and I’ve since turned back to this prayer often!

A Prayer Before Study

O God, Creator of all that is,
From the treasures of Your wisdom,
You have arrayed the universe with marvelous order,
And now govern with skill and might.
You are the true fount of light and wisdom.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
Into the darkened places of our minds;
Disperse from our souls the twofold darkness into which we were born:
Sin and ignorance.

Grant to each of us:
Deftness of hand,
Keenness of mind,
Skill in learning,
Subtlety to interpret,
And eloquence in speech.

And since you have given us the privilege to share in the loving, healing, reconciling mission of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, in this age and wherever we are,

May your Spirit make us wise;
May your Spirit guide us;
May your Spirit renew us;
May your Spirit strengthen us.

So that we will be
Strong in faith,
Discerning in proclamation,
Courageous in witness,
Persistent in good deeds.

May You guide the beginning of our work,
Direct its progress,
And bring it to completion.
You who bring all that is good to its proper end,
Now prosper the work of our hands.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

Amen.

Karl Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #1, Stones into Bread

Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations isperenniallyinspiring, but particularly poignant during this season of Lent.

What does it mean for Christ to be the Perfect Penitent? And how should this influence our own repentance?

The following series of quotations comes from a lengthy small-print section in CD IV/1, 259-73 (§ 59 The Obedience of the Son of God; 2. The Judge Judged in Our Place). There Barth walks through the three wilderness temptations before masterfully connecting them to Christ's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.


On page 261, the discussion of the temptations begins:

The First Temptation: Stones into Bread (CD IV/1, 261-2)

"In both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] the first Satanic suggestion is that after the forty days of hunger He should change the stones of the wilderness into bread in the power of His divine Sonship by His Word.


For Barth, it is important that Christ is not tempted in the wilderness to any sort of moral violations of the Law. Instead, he is tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For this is the form and content of Jesus' sinlessness — not a vague moral perfection, but specifically his obedience and repentance.


"What would it have meant if Jesus had yielded? He would have used the power of God which He undoubtedly had like a technical instrument placed at His disposal to save and maintain His own life. He would then have stepped out of the series of sinners in which He placed Himself in His baptism in Jordan. Of His own will He would have abandoned the role of the One who fasts and repents for sinners. He would have broken off His fasting and repentance in the fulness of divine power and with the help of God, but without consulting the will and commandment of God, because in the last resort His primary will was to live. He would have refused to give Himself unreservedly to be the one great sinner who allows that God is in the right, to set His hopes for the redemption and maintenance of His life only on the Word of God, in the establishment of which He was engaged in this self-offering. He would have refused to be willing to live only by this Word and promise of God, and therefore to continue to hunger.


From a "human" standpoint, however, choosing self-preservation over starvation makes perfect sense!


"In so doing He would, of course, only have done what in His place and with His powers all other men would certainly have done. From the standpoint of all other men He would only have acted reasonably and rightly. "Rabbi, eat" is what His disciples later said to Him (Jn. 431) quite reasonably and in all innocence. But then He would not have made it His meat "to do the will of him that sent him, and tofinish his work" (Jn. 434).


However, Christ the God-Human is more human and less sinful than us in his refusal to abandon obedience and repentance. For this reason, his repentance was perfect — a repentance unto redemption.


"Instead of acting for all other men and in their place, He would have left them in the lurch at the very moment when He had made their cause His own. Jesus withstood this temptation. He persisted in obedience, in penitence, in fasting. He hungered in confidence in the promise of manna with which the same God had once fed the fathers in the wilderness after He had allowed them to hunger (Deut. 83). He willed to live only by that which the Word of God creates, and therefore as one of the sinners who have no hope apart from God, as the Head and King of this people. His decision was, therefore, a different one from that which all other men would have taken in His place, and in that way it was the righteousness which He achieved in their stead."


Stay tuned for Karl Barth's exegesis of the second temptation, for Christ to fall down and worship Satan.

Posted via blogwith

Presenting on Karl Barth at 2015 Southeastern ETS

I just received the news today that my student paper submission for the 2015 Southeast Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society has been accepted!

My theme lately has been to write on Karl Barth and the unity of the Church. At last year's Regional ETS (hosted by my seminary, Beeson Divinity School), I presented an edited version of my undergraduate thesis: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God. Click the link if you'd like to read the PDF. Here's the thesis:

"This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation."

That paper was a blast to write, because I got to take the doctoral work of my professor (and friend) Adam J. Johnson (God's Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth, now available in paperback!) and "build" an atonement theory based upon the divine perfection of oneness/unity. I hope to expand on that work, drawing upon other theologians than Johnson and Barth, expanding my exegetical arguments for the atonement theory's legitimacy, considering practical implications for ecumenical efforts, etc.

This year, I have submitted a slightly edited version of my final paper fora seminar on the Theology of Karl Barth taught by Piotr Malysz last Fall at Beeson. The Barthian analogy is taking Barth's definition of sin as ontological impossibility — the impossible possibility — and transferring it to thought and speech about the Church. It's a relatively simple idea, with profound ramifications (in my humble opinion) for ecumenical efforts. Here's the abstract:

"Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts."

I believe this is an important topic to discuss because, as I put it, "each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation." That is, we're only going to put effort into being unified as Christ's Church if we have a robust understanding of just how ABSURD division is within the Body of Christ!

If you're interested in this topic, but you can't make it to Lithonia, GA on March 27-28, feel free to read my paper here:

Posted via blogwith

Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #2, Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan

Yesterday I posted the beginning of Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations. He does a masterful job of explaining how Christ was tempted, not to violate the Law or commit a moral infraction, but to abandon his role as the obedient, Perfect Penitent. Put differently, Barth clarifies that Jesus' sinlessness is not a vague moral perfection, but rather obedience and repentance.

Christ's first temptation was to turn stones into bread, thereby using divine power as a "technical instrument" to save and maintain his own life. Today's temptation contains an incisive critique of Christendom's desire for influence, relevance, and power.

The Second Temptation: Christendom's Cost — Worship Satan (CD IV/1, 262)

"According to Luke, the second Satanic suggestion is that Satan, to whom the world belongs, should give him lordship over it, at the price of His falling down and worshipping him.


Barth gets right to the point, interpreting this temptation. Notice again the theme of abandoning repentance:

"What would it have meant if Jesus had done this?Obviously He would have shown that He repented having received the baptism of John and that He did not intend to complete the penitence which He had begun. He would have ceased to recognise and confess the sin of the world as sin, to take it upon Himself as such, and in His own person to bring to an issue the conflict with it (as with man's contradiction against God and himself).

Terrible, right? But consider how pragmatism rears its ugly head!

"He would have won through and been converted to a simpler and more practical and more realistic approach and way. He would have determined to drop the question of the overcoming and removing of evil, to accept the undeniable fact of the overlordship of evil in the world, and to do good, even the best, on this indisputable presupposition, on the ground and in the sphere of this overlordship.

OK, so even then, the phrase "undeniable overlordship of evil" sounds quite nasty. But Barth is driving home an incisive critique of Christendom — the unholy marriage between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity and the Devil.

The following question is haunting. I am particularly struck by the inclusion of the word "ecumenical." If we are not careful, isn't this almost exactly what many Christians desire? How far are we willing to go to obtain influence and power?

"Why not set up a real kingdom of God on earth? an international order modelled on the insights of Christian humanitarianism, in which, of course, a liberal-orthodox, ecumenical, confessional Church might also find an appropriate place?

And we can still fall prey to this temptation, without completely giving up our God! Just worship God and bow the knee, even secretly, to Satan. Sure, you can still be pious. Just achieve your piety's ends through the gears and cogs of the world-machine! You want to be relevant? Hitch your goals to a movement, a political party, a military!

"Note that to do this He was not asked to renounce God or to go over to atheism. He had only to lift His hat to the usurper. He had only to bow the knee discreetly and privately to the devil. He had only to make the quiet but solid and irreversible acknowledgment that in that world of splendour the devil should have the first and final word, that at bottom everything should remain as it had been.
However, Barth's point is that, in doing so, Christ would have completely given up the redemptive mission. We must take heed, especially in our ostensibly "Christian" nation (according to some in the US, at least), lest we do the same.
"On this condition we can all succeed in the world, and Jesus most of all. In the divine and human kingdom set up on this condition there would have been no place for the cross. Or rather, in this world ostensibly ruled by Jesus but secretly by Satan, the cross would have been harmlessly turned into a fine and profound symbol: an ornament in the official philosophy and outlook; but also an adornment (e.g., an episcopal adornment) in the more usual sense of the word; a suitable recollection of that which Jesus avoided and which is not therefore necessary for anyone else.
Christ succeeded at this point where every other human would have failed.
"What other man in Jesus' place would not have been clever enough to close with this offer? But what He had to do and willed to do in place of all would not then have been done. He would again have left them in the lurch and betrayed them, in spite of all the fine and good things that the world-kingdom of Satan and Jesus might have meant for them.
Attractive realism vs. repentance and obedience. Will we take Christ's example and Barth's critique to heart, as the Church constantly faces the temptation to give allegiance to the powers, empires, and corporations of this world?
"For of what advantage is even the greatest glory to a world which is still definitively unreconciled with God? Of what gain to man are all the conceivable advantages and advances of such a kingdom? But Jesus resisted this temptation too. He refused to be won over to this attractive realism. As the one great sinner in the name and place of all others, without any prospect of this glory, quite unsuccessfully, indeed with the certainty of failure, He willed to continue worshipping and serving God alone. He willed to persist in repentance and obedience. This was the righteousness which He achieved for us."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's temptation, which Barth considers the most astonishing: "to commit an act of supreme, unconditional, blind, absolute, total confidence in God-as was obviously supremely fitting for the Son of God."

Posted via blogwith