Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender

IVP Academic provided a copy of this book for review.

9780830840595

Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender is a collection of essays that “are really ‘looking along’ with Schleiermacher and Barth to the reality they were trying to describe, which for both of them meant (though in radically different ways) the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” (16). The essays are divided into three sections:

  1. Church and Conversation (Chs. 1-4) focuses on ecclesiology and ecumenity.
  2. Canon and Confession (Chs. 5-9) focuses on scripture, biblical authority and tradition.
  3. Christ and Creation (Chs. 10-12) focuses on Christology, creation and covenant.

I am just starting to read the book, and as a Baptist I decided to start with Ch. 8 “Barth and Baptists: A Fellowship of Kindred Minds.” In this chapter, Bender focuses on Barth challenge to Baptists’ reluctance to acknowledge the importance of creeds or traditions. Bender begins by pointing out some key thoughts shared by Barth and Baptists, such as baptism, ethics of discipleship, the importance of the local congregation, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet, the shared space he builds from in challenging Baptists is found in this quote:

In Barth we see a truly unparalled focus on Jesus Christ, a truly christocentric theology at work, with a firm commitment to Holy Scripture as the unparalleled authority for the church’s faith and confession, and with an emphasis on proclamation and preaching as central to the church’s worship and practice, all within a theology dedicated to service to the church that focuses on themes of witness and discipleship (249).

From this foundation, Bender builds a case for challenging Baptists tendency to make “statements of opposition and mutual exclusion, for example, pitting the Bible and tradition against one another” (250). Bender, first, explains that while Barth realizes that scripture and tradition have a relationship it is not on equal grounds. Scripture, as the unique revelation of God, is unquestionably superior to tradition. He writes, “All church proclamation, as well as church tradition, comprised of doctrine, creeds and confessions, must be based on Scripture which stands over them” (250). But, Barth does not go so far as to empty confessions, or tradition, of all meaning. Rather, Barth insists that for the church to confess its faith in the present it must pay attention to the church’s past confessions. Thus, tradition is important because in tradition the church reads scripture together.

It is this idea, that the church, past and present, is needed for understanding scripture that Bender challenges Baptists tendency to have a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. He even repeats a phrase I have heard often as a Baptist, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe” (263). Bender argues that Barth challenges us at this point by reflecting on the importance of reading scripture together in the present by using the past. Bender writes, “Barth sees a real authority in confessions but does not see them as absolute, nor does he espouse forced subscription. He upholds the uniqueness of scripture against all creeds and confessions, but does recognize a real authority in them and refuses to ground Christian faith in subjective personal experience” (264).

As a Baptist, I appreciate this challenge from Bender to take the past seriously. Baptists can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking Christianity began on the day they were saved. Faith begins when we “walk the aisle” and so why should we go back. But this idea is not only misguided it is dangerous as it leads us to prioritize our feelings and leads us to towards a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. In Barth, Bender finds a voice that challenges this tendency by asking us to reconsider this approach and instead come to understand reading scripture as “we and our Bible.” While there is much we might want to argue with in Barth, surely this is a place we can find some humility and acknowledge he might just be right.

Or as Bender writes, maybe we can ask and answer with Barth, “How does Jesus tell us what to do? Jesus’ voice is found in Scripture, and Scripture is read in a community of persons that, like us, he has called to be one people” (263-4).

 

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