On Resurrecting Zoomatics

My friend Nelly wrote:

I started reading Gilead on zoomtard’s (with all the Karl Barth I can see why he liked it. Really you should keep the Zoommatics thing going. Otherwise I’ll have to read Barth myself and that’s just not on) and Transfarmer’s recommendation.

So I thought I’d re-start Zoomatics. Plus, my wife bought me the new translation of Church Dogmatics, which is far superior to the hard to read very old versions in my college library. So expect more regular, 100-ish word thoughts on Barth as I read along. Maybe someday, this very idiosyncratic journal will be of encouragement to someone else (like Nelly) to read the great old Swiss legend.

Your Correspondent, Rolls away his own stone

Natural Theology in Dogmatics In Outline

The world with its sorrow and its happiness will always be a dark mirror to us, about which we may have optimistic or pessimistic thoughts; but it gives us no information about God as the Creator. But always, when man has tried to read the truth from sun, moon and stars or from himself, the result has been an idol. But when God has been known and then known again in the world, so that the result was a joyful praise of God in creation, that is because He is to be sought and found in Jesus Christ. By becoming man in Jesus Christ, the fact has also become plain and credible that God is the Creator of the world. We have no alternative source of revelation.

– Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (1966 Version), p. 52

For the average guy, this might be close to the definitive Barthian statement. His theology and vision of the church were formed in contest with the NAZIs and as a consequence lost all respect for what we call “Natural Theology”; that which can be known of God from the world around us (ie- not in the Bible).

Barth always seemed to me to be on the most dubious of grounds in this assertion. In Romans 1, Paul surely is talking of some kind of natural law common to all humanity that reveals God outside the Scriptures and more crucially for Barth outside the person of Jesus. But what little I have read of him and about him assures me that we do not pay such close heed to what he has to say because he is always right. Rather, even when he is wrong there is a focus and a verve and an elegance that is seemingly right-ward.

I think we naturally have a knowledge of God, even if that knowledge is revealed only in the sense that we universally get pissed off when someone robs our place in the queue at the Post Office. But Barth’s paragraph here from the chapter “God the Creator” in the Dogmatics in Outline is thought provoking nonetheless. Is he making a broad and sweeping statement condemning all of natural theology? Or instead is he making a more humble point about the futility of specifying God? If we try to paint a portrait of God from the sun, moon, stars or our own conscience we produce a dumb, deaf and useless idol. Granted. But perhaps there is still space here to read Barth as acknowledging that even if we can’t discern the character of God from the world without the person of Jesus, the world still testifies to its Creator?

Your Correspondent, Only faith is to be taken seriously

Respect My Authorit-ai!

In what way is the Bible authoritative?

In that it claims no authority whatsoever for itself, that its witness amounts to letting the Something else be the authority, itself and by its own agency. Therefore we do the Bible a poor honour, and one unwelcome to itself, when we directly identify it with this something else, with revelation itself.

I will probably never be invited to speak at a Christian Union event again in my lifetime, but is Barth not right here? Or at least more right than the protestations of Scriptural authority that we settle for in the evangelical world? The Scripture is authoritative in the sense (greater but of the same kid that any word about God is authoritative- if it truthfully points towards God.

As interesting as the evangelical attempts to secure the authority of Scripture by arguing that it is Revelation full and complete have been, for Barth, they are ultimately, “to control the Bible and so set up barriers against its control over Him”.

Your Correspondent, Won’t quote South Park again. Promise.

Drawing Around The Margins

So while I am not behind in reading Dogmatics, I am behind in blogging Dogmatics. This week however is a “reading week” in college and since Dr. Craig Blomberg is preaching in church on Sunday, I intend to race ahead in college assignment work and slip a few chapters of Barth in while no one is looking.

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand herself if, on whatever pretext, she can dream of being able to undertake and carry out anything serious in the certainly important fields of public worship reform, or social work, or Christian education or the regulation of her relationship to State and society, or an international understanding among the Churches, without the necessary and possible being done simultaneously in regard to the visible centre of her life… As if we could confidently leave that to God and meantime busy ourselves with the circumference of the Church’s circle, which has perhaps been revolving for ever so long round a wrong centre!

One of the cool but frustrating things about being the only Presbyterian ministry candidate in the class, never mind the only person who isn’t Roman Catholic is that most sentences begin with “You guys believe…”. What follows might be a description of the Baptists or the freaking Greek Orthodox but it is almost certainly going to land nowhere near Geneva.

We had one such conversation over coffee last week as to what authority I place in Benedict XVI. I offered my opinion that he is obviously one of the greatest theologians alive today. They wanted to know why I couldn’t subscribe to Papal infallibility. And Barth has give me glorious winsome words to respond with. The Church has lost its course at times, or at all times in some ways and it needs to be brought back in line, back to the topic at hand, back to the Kingdom initiatives. How do we do that re-orienteering (as a word for reforming that isn’t reformed) if the source of authority is in the church? Are we not running the risk of tinkering with our activity around the edges while our core has been misplaced?

So instead, my task (and my new friends’ task) is to “do theological, dogmatic work” which is grounded in Scripture as the revelation of Jesus Christ. Even in defending my own position on where authority lies, Barth proves his point true, “The whole Church must seriously desire a serious theology, if she desires to possess a serious theology”.

Your Correspondent, Even to love is to do theology

Running Hither And Tither

On account of doing a degree and finishing a Masters and maintaining and marriage and working full time in a church plant, I somehow don’t have as much time as I would like for sleep, live Presidential debates, showering or indeed, blogging. But I have made time for Barth and although I must skip a day here and a day there I am on track, less than .1% in, to finish this gargantuan work in five years. Taking a page from the book of my classmates in recent philosophy classes, “I think we can all agree that it is impossible, irrational and anthropologically illogical to even consider me not completing this project and only old-fashioned people would ever think that, know what I mean?”

Philosophy class is often where I read Barth. It’s no fun doing introductory philosophy when you are married to a philosophy researcher in that department. It’s like being forced to spend four hours every week observing people as they fall over on their faces.

Barth is great fun though. I can never predict what is coming next and he keeps highlighting to me just how much we assume. My run of the mill evangelicalism comes with a boatload of pre-suppositions about what direction theology ought to go and in a turn of phrase Barth sends me excitedly scurrying down an alley I never knew existed.

There are a lot of things from the last week that I could quote but I will limit it to this tidbit:

Were Church social work as such meant itself to be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very good propaganda at that.

Here Barth has been discussing what proclamation is. We are called to proclaim and we proclaim when we speak the word of God to convert, to “bring to a decision”. To that extent, youth work is not proclamation since “instruction of youth has to teach, not to convert”. I wonder what Barth would say to the phenomenon of YoungLife? Theology too is not proclamation (although it obviously slips into it sometimes, as anyone who has read Barth will agree). Barth describes theology as “Church instruction of youth on a higher grade”, which is a gloriously humble and practical definition from a man who is sometimes disregarded for his speculative theology.

And by this path Barth ends up calling the slippage into passing off social work as evangelism what it is- bad propaganda. I was chatting with a great wise friend over the weekend who had come across Christians who were literally patting themselves on their back for their “holistic mission”. They had gone into the city centre where they lived and handed out lightbulbs to people, to show them God’s love. Transfarmer’s question which brought the whole thing to a Barthian point was simply, “What was their names?” We can’t pass off good works as loving proclamation because our it is too conflicted to be love and too tame to proclaim.

My (at this point) favourite Barth quote comes in this chapter and refers to the need for theology to be “humble and candid”:

God may speak to us through Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to Him if He really does so.

Your Correspondent, Helps those who already have the means to help themselves

Testing. One. Two…

Reading Barth in the morning over coffee is what I had in mind when I started this. The winter sun rising with catastrophic pinks and shining into my kitchen. My mind humming away on the latest pop-ditty the kids are going mad for.

In reality, I have ended up reading Barth at the back of boring introductory philosophy lectures and in a coffeeshop waiting for an interview with Presbytery about my application to be a candidate for ordination. Neither setting was quite as charming and relaxing as the one envisioned.

I did manage to retain some of it though. In Chapter 1 he deals with “The Need for Dogmatic Prolegomena”. Prolegomena is a word I have been repeating syllabically in an effort to learn how to say it. Barth splits with many of his predecessors in this Dogmatics game and casts doubt on the whole need for an introduction.

Explaining your assumptions and outlining your methodologies is all well and good but if you are only doing it to impress the intellectual movers and shakers (read: science) then you are selling the project short before you even begin. Against for example, Brunner, Barth doesn’t think that a project of dogma like the one he is engaging on should be prefaced with a kind of bridge or translatory introduction for the sceptics out there. The Church ought to be confident enough in it’s content- the Revelation of God, regardless of whether that has fallen out of fashion.

And so he says:

There is no dispute about the fact that dogmatics too, together with the Christian Church generally, has to speak all along the line as faith opposing unbelief, and that to that extent all alone the line her language must be apologetic, polemical. But there has never been any effective apologetic and polemic of faith against unbelief that the unintended one (impossible to intend! purely experiential!) which took place when God Himself sided with the witness of faith.

I know now why so many American evangelical Christians initially despised Barth. They were presuppositionalist in their apologetics.

My question is whether or not we can say that Barth’s point holds true on a serious work of systematic theology that deals explicitly and centrally with the Divine Revelation and simultaneously endorse Cornelius Van Til and the presupposition boys in their one-to-one relational evangelism with people who are sceptical about the whole basis of Christianity? Can one do that and still be consistent? Tim Keller is the chief descendant of the Presuppositionalists today and his book Reason For God is one I have already read so many times I feel I can quote large chunks of it. But I am totally and utterly convinced by Barth that “Difference of faith is faith in which we hear unbelief express itself in words” and therefore we cannot begin every discussion of the revealed truth with a special appeal to the mythical “non-believer”.

How do I reconcile the two? Eh? Maybe Barth will answer me. (Maybe he has already and I missed it). Tune in next week to find out.

Your Correspondent, Off to see Liam Neeson pretend to be Bond

Even In The Forward…

In the Forward to The Doctrine of the Word of God, (Volume I, Part I), Barth is already writing stuff so explosively cool that you just want to punch your fists in the air at the theological Rocky of the 20th Century- taking on all comers with nothing but a typewriter and whatever the equivalent of a cold-room filled with meat carcasses is.

He is fighting back against accusations of being a closeted Roman Catholic and against the critics who attack his altogether out-of-date defense of such embarrassing doctrines as the Trinity and the virgin birth! Remember, the version I am reading was published in 1934. Hitler had come to power and the persecution of the Jews had begun. Barth, writing from Germany says of his critics:

… should I rather weep over the constantly increasing barbarism, tedium, and insignificance of modern Protestantism, which has gone and lost- apparently along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth- an entire third dimension (let us say it once for all, the dimension of mystery- not to be confused with religiously moral “seriousness”); only to be punished with every possible worthless substitute, only that it might with all the less check relapse into High Church, German Church, Christian Community, religious socialism, and similar miserable cliques and sects, only that in the end so-and-so many of its preachers and faithfull ppeople might learn finally how to discover religious insight in the intoxication of their Nordic blood and in their political Fuhrer?

I love how he charts in one paragraph the demise of theology, first into liberal modernism, then losing its voice so that it re-moulds its doctrines to correspond to the morality of the day and finally losing its soul as the morality of the day goes bankrupt and rotten.

Onwards to the real work of the Dogmatics so that we can see how this pipe-smoking, Mozart-loving old man could rebuild our confidence in Orthodoxy!

Your Correspondent, Not tempted to trust in his white-boy blood

The Stated Goal

Over the next five years I am completing a degree in theology at the Pontifical University of Maynooth. I will be continuing to work for the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth for a good chunk of that time.  My silly wife insists we ought not spend 100s of euros on books I may never read. So, I have decided to take advantage of the library in Maynooth and finally read Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

If you read at a rate of 5 pages a day it takes about 5 years to finish Dogmatics. So that is what I am aiming to do. Every week I will take something from my 35 pages and blog it here, in about 100 words, to create a useful, interesting and mis-matching overview of this great work. Or at least that is what I hope.

Your Correspondent, 1983 is the last time Dogmatics Vol I was checked out