Reading Barth Together: Session 1

I’ve heard from quite a few folks that they wanted to access the session today but found it full. Stan and I are sorry to have disappointed you. Our Duke Zoom webinar license only permitted 500 attendees. We’re working on finding a better solution for next week and the weeks following. In the meantime, I’ve got the video of the session up on my fledgling YouTube channel:

Additionally, we’ve compiled a list of the questions folks asked for you to peruse:

Hope you can join us next week!

Will

Dogmatics in Outline and the Local Church

Stanley and I have decided to extend our Reading Barth Together webinar series (which begins Tuesday at 10am) for a fifth session on the Local Church and Dogmatics in Outline. We’ll be joined on the panel by some pastors who have used the book in Confirmation classes among other settings. We’ll focus our reflection together around how Dogmatics in Outline might be used in the future for the edification of the Body of Christ and as always take some questions from attendees. This final meeting will be on the first Tuesday in June (6/2/2020) at the same time and at the same link. I’ve reposted the webinar details below.

Hope you’ll join us on these Tuesdays,

Will

Zoom Meeting Details

Reading Barth Together

Schedule:

  • May 5, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 1-4
  • May 12, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 5-9
  • May 19, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 10-20
  • May 26, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 21-23
  • June 2, 2020 10:00AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Local Church

Join Zoom Meeting

https://duke.zoom.us/j/97672236970

Webinar ID: 976 7223 6970

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Lyman Beecher Lectures

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be giving the 2020 Beecher Lectures and that Abingdon Press is going to be publishing the lectures in book form as Preachers Dare.

This was the Divinity School Press Release:

William H. Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and a retired United Methodist bishop, has been invited to give the 2020 lectures for The Lyman Beecher Lectureship, the most prestigious and historic lectureship on preaching in America.  

Willimon was invited to give this year’s lectures Oct. 14-16 by Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory E.  Sterling, on behalf of the faculty. Yale Divinity School’s historic lectureship, which begins with a convocation and processional, began in 1871.

“I’m honored to be giving these lectures at the divinity school that prepared me for ministry five decades ago,” said Willimon, who earned his M.Div. degree at Yale. “It’s my opportunity to express my gratitude to Yale Divinity School on the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation. I plan to emphasize preaching as a theological endeavor in which God speaks to God’s people. To prepare, I’ve gone back and read or listened to all the Beecher Lectures for the past fifty years. I’m honored to be in this company of great preachers.”

The theme for Willimon’s lectures is “Preachers Dare” and will be inspired by theologian Karl Barth’s theology lectures in Germany in the 1920’s. The Beecher Lectures by Willimon will be published by Abingdon Press later this fall in the book Preachers Dare: Speaking for God.

“My lectures will stress the centrality of preaching as if God matters,” said Willimon, who recently published the book Leading with the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership. “I will try to show why preaching is the most significant theological endeavor of the church, the main purpose of pastors, and how theology is preaching’s most important guide and critic.”

In recent years, the Duke Divinity School faculty has accumulated an impressive record of presenting The Lyman Beecher Lectures. Previously giving the lectures were: Charles Campbell, James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Homiletics (2018); Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology (2003); and Richard Lischer, James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of Preaching (1999).

Prior to his current position, Willimon served for 20 years as a faculty member at Duke Divinity School and as dean of Duke Chapel at Duke University. He also served as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the UMC.

Willimon’s ties to Yale Divinity School also run strong and deep. He was the first to receive Yale Divinity School’s Distinguished Alumnus award. Willimon and his wife, Patsy, have established a scholarship endowment for students at the school that gives preference to students who come there from Wofford College, where Willimon earned a B.A. degree. He earned his S.T.D. degree at Emory University.

Earlier this year, when Willimon’s memoir, Accidental Preacher, was published, Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones hailed the book as “a remarkable portrait of the excitement of ordained Christian ministry as a vocation.” Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel, in his endorsement called Willimon “a Jesus-loving, story-telling, truth-talking, laugh-generating gift from God for the church.”

Why Dogmatics in Outline?

In March 2000, First Things asked a variety of folks to name which theological books of the twentieth century “made a lasting mark,” so Stanley named Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline, recommending that it be read yearly. If you’re planning to attend our Reading Barth Together series of webinars in May, this little encomium may pair well with Ralph’s series of discussion question to help you read Barth’s wonderful little book.

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 46-47.


Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (1947) 
By Stanley Hauerwas

In 1946, standing amid the ruins of Bonn University, Karl Barth gave the lectures that we now know as Dogmatics in Outline. He lectured without a script, because as he tells us, the “primitive conditions which I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to ‘talk’ instead of to ‘read.’” In fact Barth says it was impossible for him to be only an academic teacher (which he confesses came easy since he had never been that). But rather he had to be a kind of missionary, Sunday School teacher, and popular orator. Yet the result was and is a beautiful book that witnesses to the God who alone gives us hope that we can live in a world in which war is not assumed to be a given.

First Things, I assume, is committed to the proposition that God matters for all that is matter. That God, moreover, is not just any god, but the God who has made Himself known to us in Israel and Jesus Christ. It is not easy to speak well of such a God in a world that might assume God is but another piece in the metaphysical furniture of the universe. Even the most “orthodox” in such a world often discover that in spite of themselves, their speech about God turns out to be speech that serves to underwrite idolatry. Dogmatics in Outline is Barth’s short, but intense, course in how to speak of God in a world that has lost the habits of faithful Christian speech.

When he delivered the lectures in Bonn, Barth was sixty years old and he was working on the third volume of the Church Dogmatics. Barth lectured extemporaneously, but the words he spoke were ones that could come only from a life of struggle with the Bible. Indeed, one of the attractions of Dogmatics in Outline—in form, a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed—is that it really is an outline of Barth’s much larger Church Dogmatics. In the “Foreword” to the paperback edition of these lectures, Barth expresses some concern that some may try to substitute the reading of Dogmatics in Outline for the Dogmatics. Anyone who would do so he condemns by quoting Paul—”If any one will not work, let him not eat.”

Barth understood that recovering Christian speech is work and it is a work that the world literally cannot live without. The heart of Barth’s theol ogy is the presumption that if we get God wrong, we get everything wrong—our politics, our science, our art, our very lives. Moreover, he thought the wars that had wracked this century were the result of our making ourselves rather than God the beginning and end of existence. Dogmatics in Outline, indeed the whole of the Dogmatics, was Barth’s attempt to help us regain the language adequate to our situation as creatures created to praise our Creator and thus capable of living at peace with one another.

Barth coyly observes, “A Christian Father once rightly said that Deus non est in genere, ‘God is not a particular instance within a class.’” That “Father” was, of course, Thomas Aquinas; and Barth, in spite of his attack on natural theology, knew he shared far more with Aquinas than he did with many Protestant theologians. Barth, like Aquinas, knew that God is God and we are not, and (also like Aquinas) took on the hard task of helping recover the grammar of the God Who is Trinity. Barth thought this work important because it cannot help but force men to speak and live precisely. For to say that “Jesus is Lord” overturns the presumption that we, not God, rule the world.

Consider, for example, Barth’s claim: “Men are timeless when we are without God and without Christ. Then we have no time. But this timelessness he has overcome. Christ has time, the fullness of time. He sitteth at the right hand of God as he who has come, who has acted and suffered and triumphed in death. His session at God’s right hand is not just the extract of this history; it is the eternal within this history.” Accordingly Christians need not leap Lessing’s ditch separating the necessary truths justified by reason from the claims of faith justified only by history and tradition. Our God’s history “is indeed an accidental truth of history.” Our task is not to try to fit God into our histories, but rather to understand the good news that God has made us part of His history.

God’s history, moreover, cannot be told or lived without the living presence of the Jews: “If as Christians we thought that church and synagogue no longer affected one another, everything would be lost.” Barth’s comment about the Jews is not an attempt to “make up” for the destruction of the Jews but rather a reminder to Christians that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews must be read as a judgment on our unfaithfulness to our Lord. Our recognition that our God is the Lord of history requires that we recognize that Jesus was “of necessity a Jew. . . . The problem of Israel is—since the problem of Christ is inseparable from it—the problem of existence as such. The man who is ashamed of Israel is ashamed of Jesus Christ and therefore of his own existence.”

In the midst of his lectures at Bonn, Barth was asked if he was aware that many of the people at the lectures were not Christians. With his usual good humor and the sheer joy he found in theology freely done, Barth responded, “It makes no difference to me.” Theology becomes a burden only when we take our unbelief seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously—a faith, moreover, that recognizes that “we are not nearer to believing in God the Creator than we are to believing that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. It is not the case that the truth about God the Creator is directly accessible to us and that only the truth of the second article needs a revelation.” In both cases we are faced by the mystery of God and the recognition that our existence is the work of grace.

That God and man have become one in Jesus Christ, however, has made through Christ’s ascension not only the possibility but the necessity of the visible witnesses in the world called Church. Barth knew such witnesses could not help but appear in the world as “strangely human persons.” How could we not but appear strange, believing as we do that we are timeless, if God has not in fact redeemed us in Christ? Just to the extent that those committed to the witness of First Things might be tempted to forget our strangeness, I can think of no better reminder than a yearly reading of Dogmatics in Outline.


Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Theological Ethics at Duke University.

Discussion Questions for Dogmatics in Outline

With the Reading Barth Together webinar series with Stanley Hauerwas and me set to begin next Tuesday (hope you’ll join us), my friend Ralph Wood, one of our finest scholars of theology and literature, shared with me a set of questions related to Dogmatics in Outline. Now I share them with you to help stimulate and guide your reading of Barth.  Ralph has labored heroically to bring Karl Barth’s work to undergraduate students over the years.

Study Questions on Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline

Formulated by Ralph Wood

Baylor University, Waco, Texas 76798

  1. Since “dogmatics” means simply “the testing of Church doctrine and proclamation” (12), why does Barth say that it should be classified as a science rather than one of the humanities?  What is the “definite object” of this science (3)?  What is the proper audience for such theological effort to get clear about what Christians believe and proclaim?  Why do dogmatics deal with what Christians really have to say to the world (11)?  What are the two theological criteria for measuring the church’s proclamation, and yet why do they not stand on the same level—the one binding and the other non-binding (13)?
  2. Since credo means “I believe,” why does Barth first of all describe faith as trust, calling it “the subjective form of faith” (15) that comes from the heart?  Yet why does he call this trust a meeting, a gift, not something that we seize but that we receive, and therefore not something dependent on our native human capacity (17)?  What is truly radical about the simple claim that “God is to be known only through God Himself” (18)?  What is meant by unbelief, the opposite of trusting in God?  Why does Barth describe trusting faith as “a freedom, a permission, something beyond our strength” (19)?  Why does Barth insist that faith is an awakening “in spite of everything,” rather than a heroic decision that we must nobly make for ourselves (20)?  Why must true faith not be temporary but always indelible and thus a once-and-forever kind of trust?  Why should we not take our unbelief too seriously? (21)
  3. Why does Barth call faith, in the second case, a form of knowledge that occurs in the head, and therefore not something irrational or incredible?  Vernunft (German for “reason”) is linked to vernehmen (understanding), just as pistis (Greek for “faith”) is linked to gnosis (knowledge).  Yet why does Barth insist that the existence of this God whom we in faith are called to know is literally unthinkable, undebatable, not truly open to discussion, and unprovable (23)?  Why therefore does God have to provide knowledge of himself, and where is this knowledge found (24-25)?  Since scientia means logical knowledge, why does faith produce sophia or sapientia—the knowledge which means wisdom and the way actually to live (25)?  Why is the most shocking claim of this chapter found here: “The truth of Jesus Christ is not one truth among others; it is the truth, the universal truth that creates all truth as surely as it is the truth of God, the prima veritas (first truth) which is also the ultima veritas (last truth)” (26)?
  4. Why does Barth wait until last to speak of faith as confession, decision, an act of the will?  Why does he speak of this decision not as “making our personal profession of faith” but as an act of obedience in identifying ourselves with the community called the church?  Why is this act our true confession to the world (29)?  Why would any other decision be a hiding of God’s gift of faith to us, an attempt to live in a snail’s shell (30, 34)?  What does it mean for the church to confess faith in God in its own language, and can you think of examples where the contemporary church professes faith in another and false language (31)?  Yet why must the church also translate its faith into the language of the world, avoiding all notions of “Christianity as friendly ‘magic’ belonging to the ‘realm of religion’” (32)?  Why is this translation, this determination to “grapple with the problems of the day,” likely to be costly, requiring us to “pay in person” (34)?
  5. When we speak of God as the fulfillment of our longing, the satisfaction of our homesickness, the hope for the world’s unity, the meaning of our existence, why are we not speaking as Christians (35)?  Why does Barth elsewhere describe all religion as the disclosure of human unbelief?  When Barth declares that “God is not to be found in the series of gods” (Deus non est in genere), what does he mean?  Why is it wrong, therefore, to speak of God even as the Supreme Being, but right to declare that God is “the Reality which [man] has never of himself sought out or first of all discovered” (36)?  Why does the Bible have no interest in proving God but only in describing the God who proves himself (38)?  Why are proofs of God an insult to God?  Why is it erroneous to speak of God as lonely, “even without the world” (40; cf. 44)?  Why does Scripture speak of God’s three triune acts of self-disclosure: in Creation, in Covenant, and Redemption (39)?  Why is Barth suspicious of all so-called “Christian art” (41)?
  6. Why should we not derive our idea of the divine fatherhood by looking first to our own parents and likening God to them, but rather should we measure them in the light of God the Father (43)?  Why is it appropriate to say “God is love” but inappropriate to say “Love is God” (cf. 39)?  Why should we describe the created cosmos as “the overflow of God’s fulness” in which “He gives us a share in Himself” (44)?  Why should we describe ourselves as God’s creatures rather than God’s children, and thus as people whom he has made (factus) rather than begotten (genitus) (44-45)?  Why should we call ourselves the adopted children of God?  If God’s own triune life is a chain of charity (vinculum caritatis), what does it mean that “God of Himself lets us participate in His nature, in His life and essence” (45)?
  7. It is important to remember that this lecture was delivered in response to Adolf Hitler’s constant references to God as der Allmächtiger (the All-Powerful).  Why does Barth describe God as the One who is free not to do anything whatsoever but only “what he wills to do” (47)?  Why does Barth distinguish between two opposite kinds of power: potentia (the raw, brutal power to work chaos and destruction) versus potestas (the legitimate ordering power based on law and love)?
  8. Why does the world remain such a “dark mirror” (52) that God must be revealed to us as the Creator, when it seems so obvious that there is a world and thus that there must be a Maker of it?  In interpreting Genesis 1 and 2, why does Barth avoid the categories of both myth (once-upon-a-time stories of timeless and universal truths) and science (factual accounts of the world as it actually exists)?  Why does he prefer the term saga (narratives recounting actual events in the life of a particular people, but retold so as to emphasize their meaning rather than their historicity) (51)?  Why is it proper to understand God as the Creator only in light of His having become a creature in Jesus Christ (53)?  Why should we be more astonished at our own and the world’s existence than God’s (53-54)? Why would the universe vanish if God withdrew His support from it even a nanosecond (55)?  Why does the world exist by the Word (57), and thus serve as the theatre of God’s glory (58)?  Why is sin not to be understood as having come into the world by our own free choice, as if we stood like Hercules at the cross-roads choosing between good and evil, but rather as the result of the disobedience which surrenders all freedom (the bottom of 56 must be read and re-read!!!).
  9. Why is Barth so insistent that Christianity is a not a Weltanschauung, not a world-view tied to a particular kind of science, not even Einsteinian science (59, 61)?  Why is heaven to be regarded not as an eternal but as a created (though inconceivable) realm that shall eventually pass away (61)?  Why does the this invisible heaven make the creation fundamentally mysterious, alternately terrifying and delighting us, yet making us neither fear nor worship it (62)?  Why is man the sole creature who exists on the boundary between heaven and earth, the singular creature who stretches beyond himself and who therefore exists for the praise and glory of God (63)?
  10. Why is Christology “the touchstone of all theology”?  Why is it also the one doctrine that tells us who we are?  Why is it a great error to say God and man rather than God become Man (66)?  Why can even a four-year old understand the glorious glad tidings that God has become human (67)?  Yet why is it foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (read 1 Cor 1:23)?  What does Barth mean by the most shocking statement in this chapter: “Even the fact that [man] is a sinner cannot be known from man himself”(67)?  Why is the Incarnation “the infinitely surprising thing that never existed before and cannot be repeated” (68)?  Why is the Incarnation not a mythic and timeless truth (one truth among others) but the unique Truth, the historical reality that “God willed from eternity” (69)?  Why does this supreme Good News shatter all gloom and make for all joy?  Lines 6-20 on page 71 are the most wondrous in the entire book!
  11. This chapter shows how the Christological claims made in the last chapter address the Jewish question, especially in view of the Holocaust that the Nazis had just perpetrated.  Why does Barth say that Israel is nothing apart from Jesus Christ, just as Jesus Christ would be nothing apart from Israel (74); indeed, that our Savior “was of necessity a Jew” (76)?  Why are the Church and the Synagogue inseparably engaged with each other?  Why are the Jews “the single proof of God’s existence” (75)?  Why must anyone who regards the Jews as the enemy also regard Jesus Christ as the enemy?  Why must any nation (including the U.S.) which “chooses itself and makes itself the basis and measure of everything” finally seek to exterminate the Jews?  Why is anti-Semitism a worse form of godlessness than all kinds of atheism (77)?  Why are the Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah not then rejected by God, and why is their mission not superceded by Christianity (79)?  Read John 4: 22 and Romans 9-11 to see why Barth insists that “salvation is [not was] of the Jews” (81).
  12. This chapter deals with Christ as Savior.  Why does Barth not compare Him with others saviors and prophets—Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Zoroaster—but rather confess what the church believes (87)?  Why do all other religious revelations and miraculous or terrifying phenomena (even the atomic bomb) lack the “final, binding authority” that Christ alone possesses (83)?  Why is “man not broken by these lords who are not the Lord” (84)?  Why is “the Bible not a letter-box but the grand-document of the revelation of God” which requires us to answer its message (85)?  Why is the Christian faith radically distinguished from all “religion,” including Christian “religion” which Barth elsewhere defines as unbelief (86)?
  13. Here Barth asks why Christians declare Jesus to be the Lord.  Why does Barth not call us to make a decision about this Lord but say, instead, that “a sovereign decision has been made about us” (88)?  Why does he declare that “In this one man God sees every man” and that “Everything is decided about us in Him, in this one man” (90-91)?  Why does our obedience to Jesus’ summons not spring from ourselves but from the objective fact that “man is Christ’s property, not in spite of but in [man’s] freedom” (91)?  Why is it a matter of deep mystery rather than easy assurance “that all men have their Lord in Him” (92)?  Why are Christians not angrily obsessed with the world’s unbelief but instead glad and thankful for the privilege and honor of becoming a “unique, living advertisement” of their Lord (93)?
  14. Why is the miracle of Christmas an analogue of the original creation, as God offers the world a new beginning in history, in the history of Israel (97)?  Why is the Virgin Birth not a gynecological claim about Mary having her first sexual intercourse with the Holy Spirit, but rather the doctrine that Jesus Christ was conceived “by way of the ear of Mary”(99)!?  Why did God choose this lowly woman, rather than a swaggering he-man, to bear his Son (99)?
  15. Why does Barth say that Jesus’ whole existence was lived “under the sign of suffering” (102)?  Yet why was his suffering unlike all other, so that only through faith in Him do we “see what suffering is” (104)?  Why do we learn in Christ’s Cross alone what wickedness and evil and sin truly are—because there man’s “No directly touches God Himself” (105)?  Yet why is it the deepest mystery of God that God himself becomes guilty there (107)?
  16. How does the claim that Christ was crucified “under Pontius Pilate” remind us that we are not dealing with the mythic death of a Greek or Roman god, but a shameful historical execution that exposes “what politicians have more or less always done,” as Revelation 13 teaches (111)?  What should Pilate have done instead, and why does his role as a proper statesman reveal why we must renounce all non-political Christianity, as Romans 13 teaches (112)?  How do Pilate and Judas serve as parallels?
  17. Why does Christ’s death not concern the most horrible physical suffering ever witnessed, but rather the utter humiliation (exinanitio) of God himself?  Why is the Cross not the image of a noble sacrifice which we should re-enact but rather “God’s putting Himself in man’s place and man’s being put in God’s place” (115)?  How can God assume our condition as guilty sinners and “actually forgive Himself” (116)?  What does Christ’s death reveal about our own death—that it is no mere pause but the end, that our lives are a “hurrying to the grave,” that we deserve to get what we want, namely, the Hell which is total and final “exclusion from God” (117-18)?  Why did Christ descend into Hell to prevent our well-deserved fate?
  18. Why is this chapter on the Resurrection the shortest in the book?  Why does Barth not liken Christ’s victory over death to the tulips and daisies that bloom in the spring, as nature is annually reborn from death?  Why is the Resurrection an event in space and time that cannot be proved?  Why does Easter concern the glorification (exaltatio) of man, through “the breaking in of a new time and world” (122)?  Why is Easter the proclamation, not of a coming victory, but of a victory already won?  Why does Easter make Christians comic rather than tragic people, a people who prefer laughter over tears?
  19. Why does Barth emphasize the present-tense verb “sitteth” as he discusses the meaning of the Ascension?  How does this event make Christ qualitatively different from Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter and the other people in the New Testament who were also raised from the dead?  What does it mean that Christ not only reigns at the right hand of the Father but also that “we [are] with Him beside God” (125)?  Why is this fact “the one constant” that remains and continues, giving Christians an undefeatable hope?  Why is the new time created by the Ascension to be understood as the unique time of the Church, the time in which God exhibits both His patience with stubborn and unbelieving humanity, and his eagerness for Christians to be his glad witnesses in the world (128)?
  20. How does the doctrine of the Last Judgment demonstrate God’s unwillingness to wait forever, but rather that he will bring time to a final end? Why is the Christ who is coming not different than the Christ who has come (131)?  Why are Christians not melancholy owls but a joyful folk precisely because  they believe that “the world derives unknowingly, while the Church derives knowingly from Jesus Christ” (132)?  Why does the doctrine of the Christ’s Return in judgment bring comfort and the “tidings of joy” rather than fear and horror (134)?  Why is it better not to think of the Final Coming as a division of humanity into the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, but rather to imagine how everything ungodly in everybody will be cast into everlasting darkness (read the bottom of 135 and the top of 136 very carefully!)?
  21. Why does Barth say that the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that enables our freedom and conversion and belief, not draw a line of obvious separation between men but one that remains “hidden from us” (138)?
  22. Why is it impossible to be an unchurchly Christian, and thus why is it necessary to believe that “the congregation to which I belong … is the one, holy, universal Church” (144)?
  23. Why does the forgiveness of sins come under the doctrine of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, and not refer merely to our individual willingness to forgive others (149)?  Why, when he was assaulted by demonic temptation, did Martin Luther scrawl the words “I have been baptized” (Baptizatus sum) on a chalk board (150)?  Why shall we be judged less according to all of the good works we have performed than by the question of whether we have lived by grace, having “nothing to boast of” (152)?
  24. Why is our expectation of bodily resurrection and eternal life not a negation of “the beauty of this life,” its joys and delights?  Why does resurrection not mean “the continuation of this life but its completion”?  Why when rightly understood is eschatology, the doctrine of Last Things, “the most practical thing that can be thought” (154)?  Why is the Lord’s Supper our constant reminder of this final hope in the face of death—the hope that our death has already been put to death (155)?

Gospel of Grace

In a forthcoming review essay in The Christian Century on a reclamation of gracious preaching as the core Protestant practice, my friend Jason Micheli includes the following friendly words about Accidental Preacher:

Will Willimon, in his highly theological memoir Accidental Preacher (Eerdmans), exemplifies the self-effacing humor and playfulness of someone whose life down here on earth has been hijacked by the presence of a talkative God.

Accidental Preacher—accidental in the sense of fortuitous and serendipitous—illustrates the way the loquacious God of Protestant theology is also necessarily a living God at work in the world. A God who gives Christ to us through proclamation must also be a God who works by vocation, electing and grabbing hold of conversation partners called preachers. And because the only candidates God has available are reluctant sinners like us, God has no choice but to be a God of grace.

Willimon weaves together memories—from his episcopacy and preaching ministry, but also from his growing up with a con-artist father and as a white boy amid the unfettered racism of the Jim Crow South—so that together they present a kind of coda to Mark’s cliffhanger Easter story. God is alive and at work in the world, the memoir shows, just as in Willimon’s own life God has been on the prowl. “My curriculum vitae is a string of incursions,” Willimon observes, “when unexpectedly, often belatedly, I discovered that I was being pursued by a God who refuses to take no for an answer.”

If Forde helps preachers to reflect on the nature of their craft, Willimon demonstrates how ordinary Christians might go about theological reflection. Writing about a Methodist youth retreat he attended as a teenager, Willimon sees that he was, fortuitously, paired with a black youth from his own town. “Does it bother you that there are laws that separate us, keep you in your place and me in mine?” the teenager, Charles, asks Will one night. Willimon, in his context of unexamined racism, hadn’t been bothered by it until that moment. About their ensuing night-long conversation, Willimon confesses, “I had my world skillfully cracked open [by God], exposed, infinitely expanded and disrupted.”

In just this way, Accidental Preacher is a gift not only for those who proclaim the gospel but for those who receive it. It models with wit and humor how we all might go about discerning the cracks the living God creates in our world. Once we’ve been exposed and infinitely expanded, there is still the question of how this divine disruption reorients us toward our neighbors.

If the gift of Christ makes God’s forgiveness ours, as Martin Luther so compellingly showed, then we should be freed to love our neighbors as our neighbors rather than as the objects of our anxious quest for enoughness. But does this Protestant piety of the word actually lead to works of love, or does it provide an attractive rationalization for believers to avoid them?

If the latter, perhaps the deficiency is less in Protestant theology than in its reliance upon the writings of the apostle Paul.

The Christian Century, 5/20/20, pp.28-29

–Will

Evangelicals Get Real

Just as Donald Trump was endorsing inoculation  against COVID-19 with bleach, and then lied about what he said, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, joined Rod Dreher and Jerry Falwell Jr. in endorsing Trump for a second term. While Mohler didn’t vote for Trump the first time around, Mohler said that he now shares Trump’s worldview, even if he is occasionally “frustrated” by him.

When some evangelicals pushed back, wondering if Mohler had paid too high a price for dinner at the White House, Daniel Strand – an assistant professor at the USAF Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama – defended him in the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s online magazine Providence under the headline, “Evangelicals Need More Pragmatism and Less Moralism.” [1]  Strand is thrilled that evangelical leaders like Mohler are at last abandoning their naive “over-moralizing of politics.” 

Strand has done graduate work in ethics and knows that “Politics is more than ethics….  Ethics and character are part of the equation, but only a part.”  Which part?  (Karl Barth, when asked to define sin, replied, “A PhD in ethics.”)

“I want my politicians to be moral but also effective. I want them to have character but also competency, understanding, and skill….” For the first time in history somebody has connected  “competency, understanding, and skill” with Trump. Professor, check out your claim of Trumpian competence with a nurse or grocery store worker.

  Strand praises the Donald’s “track record on judicial appointments and defense of religious liberty.”  Though “Compromise is a dirty word these days,” Strand can show you how.

Strand says that “character” isn’t all that it’s made out to be.  Abraham Lincoln despite “enjoying a recent resurgence of love and admiration, was not above political chicanery and tricks,” Strand says.  “But when Trump does this more brazenly and brashly, we are told this is unprecedented and a corruption of politics.”  Strand may be a better Christian than I am if he can forgive Trump for buying his way out of the Army when Trump and I were students during Vietnam. (I didn’t. I don’t.)   

Strand admits that Trump is not “without major flaws,” But quibbling about Trump’s lies, adultery, racism, or corruption overlooks that by appointing the right people to the Supreme Court he has saved “the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.”  To quibble about Trump’s character just “shows how narrow-minded moral politics can make us.”

Chiding all the narrow-minded fellow Evangelicals who make such a big deal over adultery, serial divorce, prostitution, lying, racism, caging kids, cozying up to the Russians, and shady business deals, Strand says, “Evangelicals need to move away from moralistic politics.”  He then scolds Evangelicals for believing that, “Republican politicians were the sole possessors of ‘virtue’ or ‘character’…. They are flawed human beings, like the rest of us, and Christians need to reject this sort of hyper-moralizing tendency,” building to the whopper, “Christians need to get a big fat dose of realism.” Reinhold Niebuhr would be shocked to know that his “Christian realism” is now used by the Evangelicals (whom he despised) to jettison historic Christian moral virtues.

“What we need is a principled pragmatism….  We can work with morally flawed people…. The perfect is the enemy of the good.” (John Wesley is rolling over in his grave.) “If we are people who understand that we are fallen sinners, then this should be no problem.” “All the handwringing about Trump is tiresome….  Character matters, but it’s not all that matters.”

When Trump jilted the government and all of those veterans out of their money in Trump University, maybe he wouldn’t have lost his case if he had defended himself  on grounds of realism.  “I’m not a crook; I’m a pragmatist!”. 

Call me an old-fashioned, narrow-minded, unrealistic, idealistic, moralizing Evangelical.  If a man will lie to his wife and family, he will lie to the voters.  If someone bears false witness against immigrant families at the border, who knows what he’ll say about my family?  Ironic that there are those who for the sake of opposing abortion will lay aside all ethical concerns and support the man who may be the only President in history to have actually paid for his mistress to have an abortion.

I’m not sure if American Evangelicals who defend Trump are being pragmatic or realistic but I’m really sure they are not being evangelical and thereby doing incalculable damage to evangelicalism.

            Speaking of Evangelicalism, two topics that neither Mohler nor Strand mention in their Trumped-up statements: COVID-19 or Christ. 

Good call, Mohler and Strand. Wise, realistic, pragmatic omissions. 

–Will


[1] Daniel Strand, “Evangelicals Need More Pragmatism and Less Moralism,” Providence (Institute on Religion and Democracy, April 22, 2020), https://providencemag.com/2020/04/evangelicals-need-more-pragmatism-less-moralism-al-mohler/)

The Quest Podcast

I appeared with Pastor Brandan Robertson of Missiongathering San Diego on his podcast The Quest to talk about COVID-19, the church, and what God’s up to in the midst of a crisis among other subjects. You can watch the conversation where it is embedded below or at this link. The audio form will be up within a couple weeks on The Quest’s podcast feed wherever you get your podcasts.

–Will

Reading Barth Together (Updated Link)

Perhaps intimidated by the imposing Church Dogmatics and unsure where to start, many would like to be more familiar with Karl Barth’s theology. My dear friend Stanley Hauerwas and I have have decided to do a series together on Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline to introduce folks to Barth’s thought in an accessible form and forum. Despite Dogmatics in Outline only being 153 pages (less than 2% the length of CD!), Stanley described it as the most influential theological book of the twentieth century. Here are some discussion questions to consider as you read.

Note: The webinar license has now been upgraded to allow 1000 participants.

I’ve heard from a number of people who were unable to access the first webinar. If we fill up the 1000 person webinar license, be assured that the sessions are being recorded and posted on the blog. Here’s the first session:

The sessions will be hosted each Tuesday in May from 10-11am EST as a Zoom Webinar. No pre-registration is needed; all we ask is that you include your name and email address when you join. The Zoom information is at the bottom of the post.

Stanley and I will talk about what Barth is doing in the chapters and what those chapters have to do with our theology today before taking whatever questions participants might have. All are welcome regardless of whether they’ve been reading Barth for years or this is their first exposure to his thought.

For the first session, we’ll be considering Barth’s accounts of The Task and Faith (Ch. 1-4). For the second, God and Creation (Ch. 5-9). For the third, Jesus Christ (Ch. 10-19). For the fourth, the rest of the book (Ch. 20-24). While it’s available quite affordably on Amazon, you may be able to access it here or here as well.

We’ve also decided to broaden the panel for a fifth session the first Tuesday in June (6/2) on Dogmatics in Outline and the Local Church at the same address and same time. Stanley and I will be joined by pastors who have used the book for Confirmation classes and other applications.

Also, our former student Andy Rowell has offered to host a discussion group on Zoom after each session. We’ll be posting that link during the webinar.


Zoom Meeting Details

Reading Barth Together

Schedule:

  • May 5, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 1-4
  • May 12, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 5-9
  • May 19, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 10-19
  • May 26, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Ch. 20-24
  • June 2, 2020 10:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada): Local Church

Join Zoom Meeting

https://duke.zoom.us/j/97672236970

Webinar ID: 976 7223 6970

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