Karl Barth’s Ideal Church Service

“Would the sermon not be delivered and listened to quite differently if everything outwardly and visibly began with the baptism and moved towards the Lord’s Supper? Why do numerous attempts to bring church liturgy up to date prove without exception so unfruitful? Is it not because they do not fix their attention on this fundamental defect, the incompleteness of our usual service, i.e. its lack of sacraments? 
– Karl Barth

I agree with Barth – one of the largest problems with many churches is the lack of attention or effort given to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Ideal church service: baptism -> sermon -> Lord’s Supper.

Agree or disagree?

Book Review: Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson

9780830840342I recently received a review copy from IVP Academic of one of their November releases: Theology as Discipleship by Keith L. Johnson. The book is Johnson’s attempt at explaining how the discipline of theology should function as an integral part of discipleship, the Christian call to follow Jesus in worship and obedience. Theology of Discipleship deftly achieves this goal by clearly articulating the need for theology as a vital practice for faithful discipleship. At the same time, Johnson offers a solid and accessible work of theology himself as he explores concepts such as Christology, the Trinity, and participation in the Triune life while setting the foundation, context, and content of Christian theology.

As he mentions at the beginning of the book, the book is largely the result of Johnson’s numerous experiences teaching introductory theology classes at Wheaton college. I currently teach similar courses at Houston Baptist University and can easily relate to and affirm the problems that Johnson acknowledges: students often are at a loss for why theology is relevant to their lives as Christians and are also fearful that it will distract them from actually following Christ. The book responds to these concerns in the format of seven chapters: 1) Recovering Theology, 2) Being in Christ, 3) Partnership with Christ, 4) The Word of God, 5) Hearing the Word of God, 6) The Mind of Christ, and 7) Theology in Christ.

The heart of Johnson’s thesis is that theology is vital to discipleship because it trains us to rightly hear, understand, and use words about God which inevitably influence our religious practices. This emphasis, a key note that Johnson plays throughout the book, reminds me of John Howard Yoder’s statement that, “The task of theology is working with words in the light of faith.” He rightly notes that without theological training, Christians use an assumed “functional theology” that is often riddled with logical and biblical problems. The choice for Christians is not between theology or no theology, but between good theology or bad theology.

After giving a well-reasoned historical explanation for the current divide between the academy (read: theology) and the church (read: discipleship), Johnson situates a proper Christian theology around the revelation of Christ: “The discipline of theology proceeds rightly when it begins from the presupposition that all right thinking and speaking about God, reality, and history takes its bearings from the life of the incarnate Jesus Christ.” I think Johnson could not be more right at this crucial point- all theology must be Christologically founded. Taking his cue from Barth, and others, he emphasizes this point repeatedly throughout the work. This leads him into a explanation of how Christians participate in and with Christ. He then addresses the place of Scripture and the church community (both dead and living) in the discipline of theology. He closes by discussing the scriptural calls to have to have the “mind of Christ” and argues that the art of theology is uniquely equipped to develop this mind inside of us and thus allow us to follow Christ faithfully. In this way, theology serves as discipleship. He closes the book with a gem: a list of nine ways that theology must be practiced in order to serve the church and act as a practice of discipleship. If I were the dean or chair of a confessional school, I would have this list framed in the office of every theologian I employed.

While Johnson’s writing is accessible, I suspect that some readers not familiar with theology might find themselves struggling to keep up with some of his more nuanced theological arguments. Theologians might also be surprised (perhaps positively or negatively) with the amount of Scriptural engagement that guides the book. Those two comments aside, Theology as Discipleship is a refreshing and needed work as it convincingly sets forth theology as an act of discipleship because of its function to clarify speech and thought and to enable a more truthful and faithful understanding of Jesus (and thus, God).


Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.

Karl Barth on Fruitful Discussion

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968

Quoted in Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn Bender

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).

 

QOTD: Karl Barth the ‘Biblicist’

I’ve started working on a post about presuppositions and their place in biblical interpretation and hermeneutics… but it may be a while before it actually sees the light of day. I’ve got lots of pondering to do.  Until then, I thought I’d share this quote from Karl Barth which inspired the post yet to be:

“When I am named ‘Biblicist’, all that can rightly be proved against me is that I am prejudiced in supposing the Bible to be a good book, and that I hold it to be profitable for men to take its conceptions at least as seriously as they take their own.”

– Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, sixth edition (p.12)

As part of my thesis on Barth’s Der Römerbrief and theological interpretation, I am looking to explore how we might determine which presuppositions we should and should not bring to the text, or if it’s even possible to, in a sense, ‘check them at the door’ when we go about the task of interpretation.  And what’s the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this?  And… well, I have a lot of questions.  Stay tuned!