Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (2)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:12-21,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

When Barth speaks of ‘man before God’ he means the person who does in fact stand before God, the one in whom the knowledge of God has been realised or fulfilled. How does this occur, that someone knows God and therefore stands before God? Barth’s answer to this question is twofold: the person has been encountered by God, and thereby knows and acknowledges God (31). This knowledge is itself, faith.

Faith is the total positive relationship of man to the God who gives Himself to be known in His Word. It is man’s act of turning to God, of opening up his life to Him and of surrendering to Him. It is the Yes which he pronounces in his heart when confronted by this God, because he knows himself to be bound and fully bound. It is the obligation in which, before God, and in the light of the clarity that God is God and that He is his God, he knows and explains himself as belonging to God. But when we say that, we must at once also say that faith as the positive relationship of man to God comes from God Himself in that it is utterly and entirely  grounded in the fact that God encounters man in the Word which demands of him this turning, this Yes, this obligation; becoming an object to him in such a way that in His objectivity He bestows upon him by the Holy Spirit the light of the clarity that He is God and that He is his God, and therefore evoking this turning, this Yes, this obligation on the part of man. It is in this occurrence of faith that there is the knowledge of God; and not only the knowledge of God, but also love towards Him, trust in Him and obedience to Him (12).

The realisation of the knowledge of God in human life has, therefore, this dual aspect: the act of God making himself an object for human contemplation, and the corresponding and subsequent human act of recognition and commitment—faith. In the recognition of God as God—something possible only in the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit—the person finds themselves confronted, encountered, bound in such a way that they respond to this new reality by turning, opening, and surrendering themselves to this God. They stand before God.

Biblical faith lives upon the objectivity of God. In one way or another, God comes into the picture, the sphere, the field of man’s consideration and conception in exactly the same way that objects do, uniting Himself to man, distinguishing Himself from him, evoking by His existence and nature man’s love, trust and obedience; but before and in and above all this, bearing witness to Himself by establishing from His side this orientation of man, this uniting and distinguishing. Biblical faith stands or falls with the fact that it is faith in God (13).

In confronting the human creature God reveals himself—as Another—thereby distinguishing himself from the person and yet also uniting himself to them, and evoking a corresponding reaction from the person. Genuine faith will include love, trust, and obedience but prior to these responses it is knowledge of God given in the act of revelation itself. Thus, faith is knowledge of God and conversely, the knowledge of God is faith. To have faith is to know God; to know God is to have faith. This, too, is an epistemological claim: to have faith is a particular way of knowing, similar to other forms of human knowledge of other objects, but also unique because this object of knowledge is unique, distinct from all other objects of human knowledge.

In the Bible faith means sanctification. And in the Bible sanctification is the execution of a choice—of particular places, times, men, events or historical sequences. Where this sanctification and therefore this choice occurs, there, according to the Bible, knowledge of God occurs also. The foundation and subject of this sanctification and choice is, however, the object of scriptural faith, electing and consequently sanctifying Himself in glory. And this object is God, the one who is certainly an object, but the utterly unique object of a unique human knowledge; . . . What happens throughout the Word of God is the history of this choice and sanctification. It is this history that we recount; and our own faith only comes into play in so far as we keep to this history (15-16).

God reveals himself, so making himself an object for human knowledge, but does so by sanctifying himself amongst all other objects, and by electing, calling, and sanctifying those to whom he is revealed. This setting apart which occurs via revelation, is faith.

That God can make himself an object for human knowledge is grounded in the primary objectivity in which God is immediately objective to himself in all eternity in the intra-trinitarian relations.

We call this the primary objectivity of God, and distinguish from it the secondary, i.e., the objectivity which He has for us too in His revelation, in which He gives Himself to be known by us as He knows Himself. It is distinguished from the primary objectivity, not by a lesser degree of truth, but by its particular form suitable for us, the creature. God is objectively immediate to Himself, but to us He is objectively mediate. . . . First to Himself, and then in His revelation to us, He is nothing but what He is in Himself (16).

God knows himself in all eternity directly and immediately in the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. In his revelation to us, however, God is known indirectly and mediately, for he appears to us not directly in his naked glory “but clothed under the sign and veil of other objects different from Himself” (16). Thus, the recipient of this revelation stands before God in faith, truly knowing God and trusting God though only indirectly. God cannot be identified with the media of revelation: he remains ever distinct from them but also utilises them as the vehicle of his revelation and through them gives himself to be known.

At bottom, knowledge of God in faith is always this indirect knowledge of God, knowledge of God in His works, and in these particular works—in the determining and using of certain creaturely realities to bear witness to the divine objectivity. What distinguishes faith from unbelief, erroneous faith and superstition is that it is content with this indirect knowledge of God . . . it is grateful really to know the real God in His works. . . . But it also holds fast to the particularity of these works. It does not arbitrarily choose objects to set up as signs, in that way inventing a knowledge of God at its own good pleasure. It knows God by means of the objects chosen by God Himself. It recognises and acknowledges God’s choice and sanctification in the operation of this knowledge (17-18).

In all this Barth is interested in the nature of human faith as a response to God’s revelation and evoked by that revelation. Faith has its basis in God’s sovereign election—his subjectivity, while the church is the sphere of revelation. It is impossible for humanity to arrive at the knowledge of God independently, and nor may they decide for themselves how God may be known, or set up their own means to the knowledge of God. “We must seek Him where He Himself has sought us—in those veils and under those signs of His Godhead. Elsewhere He is not to be found” (18). The veils and signs of which Barth speaks are his works:

It is this God in action . . . He really stands before them; He really speaks to they; they really hear Him. But all this takes place, not in a direct, but in an indirect encounter. What direct confront them are the historical events, forms and relationships which are His work.

The Messiah, the promised Son of Abraham and David, the Servant of Yahweh, the Prophet, Priest and King has appeared; and not only as sent by God, but Himself God’s Son. Yet the Word does not appear in His eternal objectivity as the Son who alone dwells in the bosom of the Father. No; the Word became flesh. God gives Himself to be known, and is known, in the substance of secondary objectivity, in the sign of all signs, in the work of God which all other works of God serve to prepare, accompany and continue, in the manhood which He takes to Himself (19-20).

“Letting this be enough for oneself is not resignation but the humility and boldness of the man who really stands before God in faith, and in faith alone” (20).

Times Have Changed

This is from the opening paragraph in the General Introduction of The Library of Living Theology. The first volume of the series appeared in 1952, and thus the General Introduction probably also appeared then:

As we enter the second half of the twentieth century, religion and theology are less likely to be neglected by thinking men. Whatever may be the causes of the present-day return to religion, the fact remains that religious thinking has again become intellectually respectable. As against the climate of a generation and more ago–when the notion of a ‘Christian intellectual’ was almost a contradiction in terms–we now see religiously minded men–motivated in their thinking by basic religious and theological assumptions–taking a more and more prominent and commanding place in the world of thought (Charles W. Kegley (ed.), The Theology of Emil Brunner, vii).

It seems to me that the confidence expressed in this announcement changed, and rather quickly. I imagine that by the end of the sixties the tide was already in ebb. Perhaps not universally since serious theological conversation did continue in institutions of higher learning and amongst their participants. But this is more an intra-mural than public conversation. Change in both church and culture shifted the focus of ‘thinking men’–of thoughtful people–with the result that religion and theology were not merely neglected but often rejected.

No doubt many factors were at play in both church and culture that led to this unanticipated neglect. No doubt some factors at work in the religion and theology of the period also contributed.

My point here is not an attempt to delineate these factors. Rather, I am simply musing on the confidence of the series editors in mid-century USA who did not anticipate the seismic shifts about to rock their world.

And I am wondering whether and how theologians might again find the means of commending the gospel in the cultural context in which now live. This is necessary, not as an adjunct to the gospel but, if we would learn from the ancient apologists, the Church Fathers, the great preaching bishops, medieval monks, and reformers, etc., as a part of what faithful and fruitful gospel proclamation means and requires.

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (1)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:3-12,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

Barth begins his treatment of the doctrine of God with a chapter entitled “The Knowledge of God.” The chapter has three sections, the first being “The Fulfilment of the Knowledge of God” itself comprised of two sub-sections.

In the first sub-section, “Man before God,” Barth provides a description of how the knowledge of God occurs—from a human perspective. He begins by assuming that the knowledge of God is a reality in the church: “In the Church of Jesus Christ men speak about God and men have to hear about God” (3). That this knowledge occurs in the church is a result of the gracious gift of God by which God has made himself known and makes himself known. True confidence must begin here—with the actuality rather than the possibility of the knowledge of God. We do not ask whether God might be known but rather how far God is or might be known (5). This is an epistemological claim: the knowledge of God occurs only in its occurrence—where God is actually known, where the fulfilment of this knowledge takes place. There is no neutral position or standpoint whereby one might test, explore, or prove the knowledge of God without having already heard the Word of God and been brought within the circle of the knowledge of God.

God is a unique Object, known only as he gives himself as an object of human knowledge. God is not one amongst others, not one in a series, nor an abstract postulate such as a ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘First Cause.’ God—the true and living God—is not a god one might identify or choose for oneself; such an entity could never be God. For Barth, this principle is self-evident for there is, in fact, only one God—the self-existent One who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To have knowledge of this God is to have the knowledge of God. To have knowledge of some other god or concept or being is not the knowledge of God.

The knowledge of God with which we are here concerned takes place, not in a free choice, but with a very definite constraint. It stands or falls with its one definite object. . . . Because it is bound to God’s Word given to the Church, the knowledge of God with which we are here concerned is bound to the God who in His Word gives Himself to the Church to be known as God. Bound in this way it is the true knowledge of the true God (7).

This, therefore, is the ‘very definite constraint’ with which the church is ‘bound,’ that is, God is known only as he gives himself to be known in his Word. “Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods” (7).

Confident Christian speech about God—good apologetics—must begin under the discipline of this constraint. Nor is it the case that we choose the constraint: we rather find ourselves constrained by the Word that has come to us. “We can only come from the real and original constraint by the Word; we cannot come to it” (9). Barth cites Psalm 127:1-2 (Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it), giving it epistemological force. “Good apologetics is distinguished from bad by its responsibility to these words” (9).

Barth’s first point, then, is that the knowledge of God is mediated knowledge; there is no unbound, non-objective, or immediate knowledge of God. We know God only through the mediacy of his Word in the church where he gives himself to be known as an object of human knowledge.

If God gives Himself to man to be known in the revelation of His Word through the Holy Spirit, it means that He enters into the relationship of object to man the subject. In His revelation he is considered and conceived by men. Man knows God in that he stands before God. But this always means: in that God becomes, is and remains to him Another, One who is distinct from himself, One who meets him. Nor is this objectivity of God neturalised by the fact that God makes man His own through the Holy Spirit in order to give Himself to be owned by him (9-10).

In making himself an object for human knowledge, God remains nevertheless “the primarily acting Subject of all real knowledge of God, so that the self-knowledge of God is the real and primary essence of all knowledge of God” (10).

Several observations about Barth’s point can now be made: first, any true human knowledge of God is always a gift of divine grace. Barth takes it as axiomatic that genuine knowledge of God is beyond human capacity. God is not an object of human observation or enquiry in a manner similar to other phenomena. Rather, God makes himself an object of human knowledge by giving himself to be known by humanity as this object. Unless God does this, humankind cannot know God. That God has done this is an act of divine condescension and grace, an act of the Holy Spirit who makes the human subject capable of the knowledge of God (10).

Second, the knowledge of God is a personal and relational knowledge: God comes to the human person as Another, meeting them as this Other, and giving himself to be known by them. The human subject finds themselves encountered by God—a transcendent Subject who makes himself an object for their apprehension—and so come to know Him and not merely about him. While God knows himself perfectly and immediately, they know him only mediately and contingently yet still truly. The knowledge they have is an aspect of God’s own self-knowledge.

Third, as noted, this knowledge of God is also a mediated knowledge, a knowledge given to us by his Word in the church. Only by starting out and staying on this path can one attain the knowledge the God. God can only be known where God has given himself to be known: other paths lead to false gods and no-gods, gods of human invention and so not at all the knowledge of God. Barth warns against mystical attempts to ascend to God immediately:

This ascendere and transcendere means abandoning, or at any rate wanting to abandon, the place where God encounters man in His revelation and where He gives Himself to be heard and seen by man. . . . If we really soar up into these heights, and really reduce all concepts, images, words and signs to silence, and really think we can enter into the idipsum [the ‘self-same’; the thing itself], it simply means that we wilfully hurry past God, who descends in His revelation into this world of ours. Instead of finding Him where He Himself has sought us—namely, in his objectivity—we seek Him where He is not to be found, since He on His side seeks us in His Word (11).

 

Let’s Get Growing (3) – As Gospel Community

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in August 2021 (page 13), the third in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw a some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan. I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him, is Jesus.”

Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood, or even worse forgotten, the grace of God.

There are two ways to misunderstand grace: one is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive—and live in—the reality of this grace.

The two errors often are connected. The first error forgets that all of us lives only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ me; we work harder, wear masks, and practise image-management, trying to earn our belonging, and prove our worthiness. We hide, and we perform.

Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others—as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed, and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God—and from one another—in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.

Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness is mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles—our hearts—to another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing—experiencing!—God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply—and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.

Picture Credit: Katie Workman

Center for Baptist Renewal Reading Challenge

I have only now become aware of this reading challenge from the Center for Baptist Renewal, and too late to join it this year, obviously. I don’t think I would have had time for it this year any way.

The list of readings provides a great introduction to the history of Christian theology, and maybe I will tick off the readings a little at a time. I have read only one of them entirely (Athanasius), though parts of many of them, but the idea of a systematic reading of twelve seminal works in twelve months is attractive. Though, given my time constraints I may well take longer than a month for each anyway. And it may be that I would swap some of them. For example, I have a copy of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, but not On the Apostolic Preaching.

Worth considering, I think!

Let’s Get Growing (2) – in the Gospel

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in June 2021 (page 13), the second in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). To the Corinthians he said, “We are being transformed into the image of Christ!” (2 Cor. 3:18). Yet it seems that this ‘transformation’ comes ever so slowly, especially in my own life!

Can our lives really be changed?
Can our lives be really changed?

Significant growth in a Christian’s life comes through a range of experiences, some unique to each person, others necessary for any Christian who wants to grow. All Christian growth is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit and involves a deepening engagement with Scripture and our response in prayer and thanksgiving. Trials, suffering, service, and ministry are also common catalysts of growth.

At the root of all Christian growth, however, is a fresh encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the gospel (Mark 1:1), and includes the story of his birth and baptism, his preaching and teaching, his healings and miracles, his parables and promises, his compassion and companionship, and supremely, his suffering, death, and resurrection. By returning again and again to the Gospels—prayerfully, studiously, hopefully, and in conversation with others—we open our lives to a transforming encounter with the gospel.

These stories speak to us, challenge, call, and commission us. They summon us to repentance and faith, to believe impossible things—and to hope for their reality, to a vision of the kingdom of God, to a life of companionship with Jesus, and to a participation in his mission.

So let’s get growing by reading, meditating, and pondering their message. And let’s do this in conversation with others in our small groups and at church. And with those who have written commentaries, and with the great preachers and theologians of the church. Let’s deepen our engagement with the gospel so that its message might penetrate the deepest corners of our minds, spark our imagination with new visions of life, and guide our decision-making and will in those directions.

But I want to say more.

If engagement with the gospel is the root of transformation, at the heart of the gospel is a message of grace. At the heart of the gospel is the story of God who has loved us, and turned to us, come to us, and suffered for us and in our place. God stoops to gather us up, even in our sinfulness and alienation, even in our opposition to him.

But this is a disruptive grace by which God not only forgives our sins but also claims us as his own. By this grace, he calls to us out of the life we have independently constructed, and into a new life of friendship and obedience. To be touched by grace is to know that we are profoundly loved—and confronted. When Peter saw Jesus’ majestic power and authority, he also saw himself with fresh eyes and cried out, “depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That Jesus did not depart is pure grace. That he called Peter into a life of discipleship and service—this too is the same grace, and the two cannot be separated.

At the heart of the gospel—and therefore at the beginning of all Christian growth and transformation—is God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and of friendship with God (John 15:13). But only real sinners need apply! It seems that it is only as we face up honestly to our own willfulness, brokenness, and sinfulness that this grace captures our hearts with its transforming power. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20)—and begins its healing work.

How might we experience this transforming and liberating grace? By turning again and again to Jesus, the Friend of Sinners (Matt. 11:19), coming clean with him, and with those we have wronged, and letting grace do its work. And by participating in communities of grace where the gospel of this grace is practiced and exemplified. We’ll talk about that next time.

Calvin, on the Theologian’s Pastoral Task

I came across this note as I read a little of Calvin this evening. I was in the Institutes I:14:iv on the doctrine of creation where Calvin is beginning his discussion of the angels. He writes to head off the kind of teaching that indulges in endless curiosity and speculation not tethered to Scripture. His words are still apt today:

Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word. Furthermore, in the reading of Scripture we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Let us not indulge in curiosity or in the investigation of unprofitable things. And because the Lord willed to instruct us, not in fruitless questions, but in sound godliness, in the fear of his name, in true trust, and in the duties of holiness, let us be satisfied with this knowledge . . . 

The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.
(See: Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics. Editor: John T. McNeill; Trans. Ford L. Battles, volume 1:164.)

Calvin reminds us of the limits our knowledge and so counsels epistemological humility. It is evident that he views Scripture as an inspired and authoritative source of theological knowledge, and that what is given us in Scripture might be profitably taught, learned, and believed. But not everything we might want to know is given us in Scripture. Standing behind this admonition is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Of course, not all questions are fruitless. Many questions are necessary if we are to understand Scripture in both its parts and as a whole. Many more are necessary if we are to understand its significance and relevance to our everyday lives. Calvin certainly understands this as his own work testifies. But he is against the kind of mystical or merely academic approaches to Scripture and theology that neglect what he considers basic: the pastoral purposes for which Scripture is given – something also found in Deuteronomy 29:29.

The pastoral orientation of Calvin’s theological work is clear. In this, he differs not at all from Luther–see my discussion of Luther’s pastoral theology. In the citation given above, Calvin provides a framework for discerning that which is pastorally useful: that which edifies and strengthens the conscience; that which nurtures godliness and the fear of the Lord, true trust, and holiness. We might want to add to the kinds of pastoral outcomes we seek to nurture in the lives of God’s people: engagement in community and mission, the pursuit of just relationships, concern for the poor, etc. Nevertheless, Calvin’s concern for trust, holiness and a good conscience before God is also warranted.

I found this a salutary reminder that theological enquiry is never an end in itself but a means of being drawn more deeply into a life of faithfulness before God, and a participation in his creational and redemptive purposes – as revealed in Scripture.

Let’s Get Growing (1)

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in April 2021 (page 4), the first in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

One joy in life for Monica and me at the moment is watching our grandsons grow from little babies to little boys. Each so beautiful. So energetic. So curious. So full of life and learning. So unique.

Some things are predictable, other things not so much. How exciting when they take their first steps. When they speak their first words. Their first tooth. Their first lost tooth! The eldest of our five recently typed in and sent me his first text message. They’re growing up!

But there was also the first surgery. Little worries about speech or sleep or habits we don’t want to see develop. We long for our children to thrive, to grow, to be well-adjusted, healthy, and to become mature. We teach and train them, slowly and (mostly!) patiently. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. But then something wonderful and wholly unexpected emerges, and we can only express wonder and gratitude at the incredible gifts God has given.

No wonder the apostles Peter and Paul could speak of Christian development in terms of growth from infancy to maturity (e.g. 1 Peter 2:1-3; Ephesians 4:13-15). Spiritual growth can also be messy and unpredictable. It doesn’t happen according to a fixed timeline or schedule. It does not follow a nicely ordered path through a predictable series of steps or phases. Sometimes we progress in spits and spurts, sometimes two steps forward, one step back.

In the case of a child, it is possible to grow old but not really ‘grow up,’ not really become a mature person, responsible and respectful, accomplished and active. The same is true spiritually: it requires a strong intention to become mature, as well as some understanding of what spiritual maturity looks like, and how a Christian might take steps in that direction. And if someone does become mature it is not merely the result of human effort; surely a miracle of grace has also taken place! Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can someone become spiritually mature.

And yet the Bible consistently calls believers ‘to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). It is clearly God’s intention that his children grow up!

Over the next few issues of the Advocate we will explore some of the patterns and dynamics of Christian growth and maturity. Some things are predictable, even in the midst of all the messy unpredictability. We can mature as hearers of God’s Word, mature in prayer or in service, in virtuous character, in Christian concern for all people, in knowledge or in hope. We hope you will join us as we learn together what it means to become mature in Christ.

Vale, Charlie

The first Rolling Stones song I ever heard was on a record my older brother bought home when I was eight years old – “Top of the Pops 1969”. The album had great classics like I Heard it through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye), Something in the Air (Thunderclap Newman), Bad Moon Rising (CCR), Where Do You Go To? (Peter Sarstedt), and Honky Tonk Women (The Stones). It also had the Beatles (Ob-La-Di), Elvis (In the Ghetto), Bobby Gentry (I’ll Never Fall in Love Again), Zager and Evans (In the Year 2525) and fillers like Sugar, Sugar (the Archies). I was way too young to understand what the song was about, but what caught my attention was Charlie’s cowbell and drum roll intro. I still think Honky Tonk Women has one of the best guitar-driven rhythms and licks in the rock and roll era. And now I get the lyrics.

The first album I ever bought was on my fifteenth birthday (1976) – Get Yer Ya-Yas Out – The Stones live from Madison Square Gardens at the end of their 1969 US tour, and just before the infamous and tragic Altamont festival. There was Charlie on the front cover with an ‘interesting’ T-Shirt. It was years before I ‘got’ the shirt and the title, even though I was a teenage boy. Slow, I guess. During the concert Charlie was doing a few drum rolls at the end of a song and Mick said, “Charlie’s good tonight, innt ‘e?” before launching into their brand new single – Honky Tonk Women.

I was a Stones fanatic when I was young, and still enjoy their music. Charlie was eclipsed, of course, by Mick and Keith, but interestingly, at their concerts it seems he gets the biggest cheer of all when the band is introduced. The quiet type.

The Stones are touring the US again in the Fall and Charlie was already going to miss it, recovering from surgery. He’s still going to miss it. I guess the tour will likely go ahead, but with a memorial to Charlie included. The Stones website, though, doesn’t yet have an update. They won’t be the same without Charlie.

I am saddened, which is interesting to me. I never met him or knew him and yet somehow, he has been a part of my life’s story. Goodbye Charlie, and thanks.

Neder: On Teaching & Learning Theology (Part 3)

Teaching and learning theology is dangerous: so says Neder in his fourth chapter. Of course, teaching spaces should be ‘safe spaces’ in the sense that students are not demeaned, coerced, or manipulated. Unless students have confidence that teachers and classmates take their questions and ideas seriously they are unlikely to learn much.

But it’s also true that if students feel only affirmed in our classes, if our classes never disturb, unsettle, or expose them, if they never find themselves fighting for their lives, then they probably aren’t going to learn much in that kind of environment either (85).

The atmosphere of our classes ought to cohere as much as possible with the reality we are attempting to describe. And since Christian theology occurs as an encounter with the living God, a confrontation that tears us away from patterns of life that obscure or contradict the truth, at least something of the spirit of that struggle ought to be reflected in our classrooms (86).

Neder takes Isaiah’s visionary call as paradigmatic (Isaiah 6), though this is something that occurs in the divine-human encounter, something that can never be manufactured and should never be coerced. It is the subject matter—God!—who confronts the student with a call to decision, not the teacher. Nevertheless, seeking to know God or to teach in such a way that God might be known is risky. When God confronts us, we are stripped of our defences and called to decision—here and now! Christ disturbs and disrupts. He calls us ‘out’ of our own lives and into his life; he is unpredictable. Indeed, “following Jesus hurts” (98). Jesus wounds, in order to heal (95).

Conversations with Jesus rarely unfold according to plan. Jesus continually shocks and astonishes people, rattles their cages, upends their expectations, eludes their traps, and zeroes in on their deepest motivations. This makes for exhilarating reading, but the more you reflect on it, the more unsettling it becomes. . . . You begin to realize that being near him requires courage (96).

This is not to suggest that teachers should set out to disrupt or deconstruct their students’ supposedly naïve faith—such an approach is confused and contemptible. Teaching theology is an act of love; teachers are to help students perceive and respond to the truth, not scandalise or provoke them (99-100). Indeed, teachers cannot reliably discern precisely what is occurring in the hearts and lives of their students. “If students hate your classes,” Neder says wryly, “it’s probably your fault” (89). But that they enjoy your classes and are attentive and engaged does not mean that they have been engaged by the ‘subject matter.’ “Can you think of anything more inane than a Christian theologian who thinks his or her classes are successful just because everyone likes them and no one feels uncomfortable?” (89)

Students can seek theological certainty rather than God; or theological speculation or endless deliberation. They may consider doctrinal or historical exploration or clarification as sufficient in themselves. If students think like this, it may be that they have learnt it from their instructors.

We instruct students not only by what we say about God but also by how we speak about him. . . . If our way of talking about God leaves students unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives (101).

Yet the knowledge of God requires decision and commitment, and students themselves must embrace this risk. Christianity simply cannot be reduced to doctrines (or history or morality or a hundred other things we might substitute for it). Rather,

Christian existence conditions the plausibility of Christian speech . . . either our teaching . . . will suggest God’s urgent uncontrollable presence with us, his ‘terrifying nearness’ as Bonhoeffer put it, or our teaching will mislead students. There are no exceptions to this rule (103).

“Real theological education is a process of continual confrontation with God. To receive it, students have to fight for it themselves” (108).

It is clear in this chapter that Neder believes true theological education occurs when students are confronted with the reality of God—and called to decision. It also seems clear that this is not the work of the theological educator. The best they can do is hope that God is at work in their teaching, pray for it, engage in authentic theological existence in their own lives, and continually bear witness to God in their teaching.

The final chapter (“Conversation”) describes the process of teaching and learning theology: “teaching Christian theology is largely a matter of training students to have good theological conversations” (118).

Christian theology is a historically extended conversation about the meaning and implications of the gospel. It is thinking and speaking that seeks to respond in disciplined, faithful, and creative ways to God’s own self-communication (118).

The primary—fundamental and essential—conversation is with Holy Scripture itself, seeking ever and again to hear and respond to the testimony of the prophets and apostles. But this conversation requires a secondary conversation with other readers and interpreters past and present—a conversation conducted for the sake of the primary conversation. Neder insists that good teachers train students to read with sympathetic attention rather than the habits of suspicion and scepticism which characterises contemporary study in the humanities (121-122).

Despite its hegemony, there are strong theological (and non-theological) reasons to be suspicious of ubiquitous suspicion—not least of which is that suspicious readers don’t generate conversations as interesting and fruitful as do readers who befriend the texts they interpret (123).

The book closes with a brief section on cultivating classroom conversations. “Conversations reveal commitments that require closer examination, beliefs that need to be sharpened or discarded, assumptions that cannot withstand sustained scrutiny” (132). Neder finds a model for theological reflection in the kinds of questions Jesus posed to his interlocutors: questions that probe and personalise theological reflection, that penetrate to the heart of students’ deepest concerns (136-137). Good conversations occur in classrooms that are genuine learning communities—where teachers also expect to learn from their companions in the conversation. Such conversations require deep, patient, and careful listening to one another in an atmosphere of critical inquiry, grace, respect, and courtesy. They require honest discussion of one’s own ideas, an openness to new or other ideas, profound personal questions, and a stimulating breadth of opinion.

But conversation is not an end in itself:

Its purpose is to help students encounter the truth, discover their lives in Christ, and follow him into the world he loves. If the conversations that take place in our classes have the opposite effect  on students, if students acquire the habit of talking about God objectively and dispassionately, if they come to believe that the truth can be known without being lived, learned without being appropriated, and if the accumulation of theological ideas results not in existential transformation and faithful witness but in endless talking and permanent postponement of decision and action, then our teaching works against the work of the Holy Spirit (143).