ANZATS 2017 – Stephen Barton

This week I have been at the 2017 ANZATS Conference in Adelaide. The theme this year has been “Kinship & Family in Contemporary Australia and New Zealand.” The two international guests have given excellent plenary addresses, and the elective sessions that I have attended have been good. Of course, one of the best things about Conferences is catching up with peers from around the country—and from New Zealand, and meeting new friends.

Stephen Barton from Durham, UK has given two addresses on the topic of marriage, the first providing a biblical perspective and the second, an historical perspective from the Christian tradition. Both accounts were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and portrayed the complexity and plurality of images and approaches in both the Bible and the Christian tradition. Several things stood out to me:

  1. Barton rejects a “sola scriptura” approach to the question of a Christian ethic of marriage and family. Several statements in the lecture make his position clear: “‘The Bible says’ is no way to establish a ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘family.’” He prefers a more “Anglican” approach—Lex orandi, lex credendi (which translates roughly as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing” and means that prayer and worship lead to belief and theology)—“the Bible released from rationalism opens a depth of biblical resources for prayer and moral reflection.” And again, “sola scriptura is too narrow a foundation for a full doctrine or ethic of marriage and family.” Barton views marriage as a complex, many-layered phenomenon with natural, spiritual, legal, social, cultural, and sacramental aspects. He eschews reductionist approaches which would reduce marriage to just one thing. Thus while scripture is an indispensable source for a Christian ethic of marriage and family, other sources of moral reflection must also be consulted, including an understanding of natural law, the history of development of concepts and practices of marriage, cultural forms and traditions, philosophical reflection on the “goods” of marriage, etc.
  2. Barton views marriage primarily through an eschatological lens: a wise reading of Scripture adopts a prophetic-eschatological perspective that disrupts cultural values in the light of the coming kingdom. I found this intriguing, especially since biblically, it appears grounded more in creational frame of reference. Nevertheless, his treatment of the biblical vision was very insightful and challenging.
  3. His recounting of the development of marriage in historical and ecclesial perspective was incredibly interesting and illuminating. The lecture was peppered with such gems as “the [medieval] Roman Catholics understood marriage a natural origin, a legal form, and a spiritual significance.” Or, the Roman Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament was transformed in Protestantism: Luther viewed it as a “social estate,” Calvin in terms of a “covenant,” and Anglicanism as a “little commonwealth.” Barton’s discussion of each of these was rich in detail and insight.

In the end, says Barton, marriage is indeed a complex institution, essential for personal flourishing and familial and societal well-being. He understands it especially in terms of a practise of life-long openness to the other, in a context of deepening hospitality and self-giving.

An Ode to Learning German

The Guardian had this piece  “Why We Should Learn German” from novelist John le Carré. Once again, I am stirred to renew my study of German and gain a renewed competence in the language.

You can have a lot of fun with the German language, as we all know. You can tease it, play with it, send it up. You can invent huge words of your own – but real words all the same, just for the hell of it. Google gave me Donaudamp-fschiffsfahrtsgessellschaftskapitän.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

To quote Charlemagne: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.

New Barth Books

Two new Barth books arrived in the post this week, all the more exciting because they are primary documents rather than new books about Barth.

The first A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons contains thirteen sermons preached by Barth to his small congregation at Safenwil from July 26 through November 1, 1914 – the first three months of the war. Here is the young pastor Karl Barth, twenty-eight years of age, wrestling with the meaning of the war in the light of Scripture and theology. Nine of the sermons are based on New Testament texts, and four on the Old Testament. This is the first time these sermons have been translated for an English audience, and I am very much looking forward to reading this volume, together with its introductory essay by Canadian translator and editor William Klempa.

The second volume is also early Barth. The Epistle to the Ephesians were amongst the first lectures given by Professor Barth in the winter semester at Göttingen, 1921-1922, just months after Barth had ended his pastorate at Safenwil and finished the second edition of his Romans commentary. It seems Barth spent most of the course exegeting his way through the first chapter of the epistle, and then devoted the final lesson to chapters two through six! This volume also comes with introductory essays by Francis Watson and the late John Webster.

I have dipped at random into A Unique Time and present a brief excerpt (pp. 112-113):

So war, even this terrible war, has its place in God’s purposeful design of peace for us. Hence, for us men and women, what matters is that we have a living experience of the wrath and of the unspeakable grace of God, to which the European nations now tread so near. Nothing else will help us. In this time, victory and defeat can again be quickly reversed. For thousands of years the history of humanity has simply been a story of alternating victories and defeats. God has permitted time and again that humanity would go its way and on its way find only misery. Victory and success should no longer be what they want; what do they get out of them? Surely, we should all let God speak to us through the present storm, for which human beings are at fault. This will pass away, but you remain! As long as we keep on praying only for victory and success, God will not hear us, and we will continue to be confronted by new storms through our own fault.

Moveover, we Swiss should not think and pray in this manner. Yes, we want to pray for our beloved country, but not to a god of war and victory, in accordance with the practice of the ancient Jews and the pagans. Nor are we to pray that narrow-minded selfish prayer: “Spare our house; instead, burn down someone else’s!” Yes, and if the situation were to become serious, in no way could we boast about our just cause! Nor could we at all demand without question that the good Lord stand right behind our soldiers and cannons. We also are culpable in our whole being for the present world’s situation. Rather, we must pray as Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done! And forgive us our sins! And deliver us from evil!”

Lord, set us free, not from the enemies but from the powers of darkness that are in and around us, from falsehood and arrogance, meanness and thoughtlessness. Lord, let us be victorious, not over foreign nations but over ourselves, over our selfishness. Lord, let us triumph, not in outward success but in letting ourselves be filled and empowered with your love, freedom, and justice. Dear friends, let this be our war prayer, the war prayer of a neutral nation. . . .  May God grant this. If we so pray, God hears us. 

New Issue of Crucible Available

The new issue of Crucible has just been published online and is available here.

The issue is focused on the theme of  migration. The editorial states that “one of the most
pressing issues facing our world today is mass migration. From the “boat people” debate in Australia to the refugee crisis in the Middle-east and Europe, the world is struggling with some of the biggest mass migrations in history.” There are several peer-reviewed articles addressing this matter, some other articles and resources, plus book reviews including my own review on Frank Macchia’s Baptized in the Spirit.

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

Introduction
After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal asking, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” He received numerous responses ranging from atheists asserting that the tsunami proves that there actually is no God at all, to gratitude from others who appreciated his perspective, to severe criticism from many who argued that, on account of God’s all-encompassing providence, we must insist and conclude that God sent the tsunami for his own ultimate though hidden purposes. There is a brand of theology that sees God as “all-controlling” for his own good purposes. Everything that happens can ultimately be traced back to “God’s good plan.” How can we possibly trust a god like that?

James knew about the trials and troubles that can come storming into life. He knew the pain and heartache of unjust criticism, of grinding poverty, of oppressive governments and social systems. Yet in spite of it, James absolutely insists on the utter, unchanging, uncompromising goodness of God. In the first chapter of his letter he has two texts which declare his utter conviction that God is a good and generous God.

Who Was James & Why Was He Writing?

James 1:1
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Although we cannot be certain, it is often thought that the author of this epistle was James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine being the brother of Jesus!

James did not always believe in Jesus. The gospels say explicitly that Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and that they thought he was nuts (John 7:5; Mark 3:21).Yet here he is calling himself a servant (= slave) of Jesus—whom he calls Lord, and writing a letter in his name. What happened? The resurrection: “then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gained a reputation as a holy man and became known as James-the-Just, and eventually, in about 62AD, was martyred.

James is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” This enigmatic address indicates that James was writing for a Jewish audience amongst those who had been “scattered” or dispersed among the gentiles. We get some clues concerning his audience from accounts in Acts which tell of the Jerusalem church being dispersed as a result of persecution that arose around Stephen’s martyrdom (ch. 7; 8:1; 11:19). Was James writing to Christian refugees driven out of their homes and city, jobs, families and livelihoods? Accepted by neither gentiles nor by other Jews, these displaced Christians faced grave difficulties, and James writes to encourage and strengthen their faith.

Chapter One: An Overview

After his one line greeting James gets right down to business. Verses 1-8 deal with the trials that come crowding into our lives, trials sent not from God, but simply the circumstances of life, or even spiritual opposition. It is possible that James is thinking especially of economic trials because of the amount of attention he gives to this matter, not least in vv. 9-11.

But trials arising on the outside are not the only difficulty Christians face: temptations also arise from within. In both cases it is our faith that is being tried; these tests come not to build our faith but to destroy it—trials by discouraging us and tempting us to give up, temptations by luring us away from God, causing our faith to shrivel. Pressure from without and pressure from trouble within—we are in a right state, aren’t we! But whether from without or from within, James’s admonition is the same: stand fast! Persevere!

James finishes the chapter with further admonitions about the true nature of the new life Christians have entered into: an active life of compassion and holiness, doers of the word and doers of the work.

There is much we can speak about in this chapter—weeks of sermons! But today I want to focus especially on what James says in this chapter about God—the good and generous God.

God, the Single-Minded Giver
Right in the middle of James’s discussion of the trials we face he suggests that we ask God for wisdom—so that we might know how to conduct ourselves in the trial, perhaps even, how we might be delivered from it.

James 1:5
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

One of the most important things we could pray for in the midst of a trial is wisdom—that spiritual/practical understanding of God’s will and purpose as it applies to everyday life. Notice that James does not say we ought to pray for deliverance from the trial, but for wisdom so that we might know how we are to conduct ourselves in the midst of the trial. It is spiritual because it comes from God and is directed towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes. But it is also practical because God’s purposes are realised in daily existence and daily life. The command to ask is present: we should continually ask God for this!

But note what James says about God in this passage:

  1. God is the giving God – this is the kind of God that God is. God so loved the world that he gave…
  2. God gives generously– the Greek word here (haplōs) is unusual but insightful: it does mean generously, but it means more than that: it means to be wholehearted, or single-minded: God is single-minded in his giving. That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous.
  3. God gives to all– his generosity is universal, limitless, and without restriction

James thus gives us grounds for great confidence in our prayer—as long as we ask in faith! How can we be double-minded when God is single-minded in his generous giving!

The Always-and-Only Good God
James’s second passage comes in his discussion of temptations we face. In verse thirteen James insists that

James 1:13, 16-17
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. … Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Once more James insists on the utter goodness of God: to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity; in all his works; in his deepest purposes, intentions, will and motivations, God is good. God is goodness itself; he is transcendentally good, and there is in God nothing but goodness. God is unchangingly, single-mindedly, wholeheartedly and generously good!

How might we respond to this? By standing fast in trials and temptations, persevering and enduring. By trusting God, hoping in God, believing in God, rejoicing in God, drawing near to God, waiting on God, and loving God.

Johanson, The Word in this World (Review)

Johanson, Kurt I. (ed.)
The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth 
trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007). 
66pp. ISBN: 1-57383-411-4

This little booklet contains two Barth sermons from different periods of his life, a foreword by Eberhard Busch, an introduction by William Willimon, an afterword by Clifford Anderson and acknowledgements by the editor which tell the story of how the booklet came into existence. Altogether it is an attractive and interesting little package. Johanson declares his hand on page 24: “It is also a clarion call to the pastors who herald the glorious gospel of our God from the pulpit, and to those who hear it in the pew, to powerfully proclaim and witness to the Word in this world.” But not only pastors:

I want nothing more than the church, and her scholar-preachers, to be able to offer, in one unified voice, as a part of her calling, a confident word to the world. It is my simple hope and prayer that the Pastor and the Professor can work together toward the recovery of courageous and powerful biblical preaching (28).

Thus the book is concerned with Barth as homiletician rather than theologian, although in truth, the two cannot be separated: “The main value of Karl Barth for us contemporary preachers is that he is a theologian,” says Willimon (10), for “thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons” (18). Thus, Barth’s insistence on the priority of the biblical text, on giving “close, obedient attentiveness” to God by means of this text is what preaching is about. Further, this attentiveness concerns itself, says Eberhard Busch, not simply with what God said once-and-for-all, but with what God says. “Barth learned from the Reformers that the sermon in the service of worship is to correspond to the prophetic office of Jesus Christ” (7-8).

So what do we find in Barth’s sermons? The first, from April 1912 when Barth was just twenty-five years old and a newly-minted pastor, is a pastoral response to the sinking of the Titanic which had occurred earlier that week. The second, from November 1934, was preached in Bremen’s Frauenkirche in the darkening days of the Nazi regime. The first is the work of the young “Red” pastor of Safenwil, the second, that of the seasoned professor of Bonn (although he was stood down from his position shortly afterwards) and a leader in the Confessing Church.

In Barth’s Titanic sermon we see the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them. Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36). We see also the young socialist pastor at work as he blames the disaster on capitalism. Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)!

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered. As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress. Just two years later Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology, on the basis, not least, of his discovery of the “new world in the Bible.”

The second sermon is entirely different and reflects this discovery. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s Bremen sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (25). The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus. In this sermon the biblical text is front and centre, and the sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, or contextual remarks. Barth’s method is simply to exposit the biblical text itself (Matthew 14: Jesus—and Peter—walking on the water), line-by-line. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.”

The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God. The very form and structure of the sermon is itself a kind of theological claim (Willimon, 21).

Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. In Barth’s hands, Peter images the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

No longer the young, liberal, we see here Barth as an ecclesial theologian of the Word, doing theology for the sake of proclamation, that the church might truly be the church, bound only to one lord, and thus truly free. Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But the church must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us.

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (2)

In an initial post, I provided an overview of the first part of this book by Scott Hendrix.

The second part of the book is comprised of ten chapters covering the period from 1522-1546. Here the pace of the book slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. Luther steadfastly resisted rigorist developments which either enforced reform on unwilling participants or bound their conscience with all kinds of rules. Instead he sought to liberate consciences and counter “unthinking piety.”

Nor was Luther’s concern limited to spiritual matters. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. In Luther’s view, God’s word and grace had given Germany an opportunity which it dare not refuse lest it fall back into misery and darkness, as had happened to the Jews, the Greeks, and now Rome and the Latins. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents. Hendrix details formative ecclesiastical developments, especially the German mass, the new church order, and formal parish visitations for quality-control and oversight which together facilitated the establishing of a new form of (Evangelical) church. Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges,

If all of that resembles the ideal monastic life of common prayer and work—although stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection, and adapted for all “earnest Christians” outside the cloister—it is no coincidence. Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man (176).

Nonetheless, Luther’s refusal to limit the church to the “faithful,” faith-filled or fully-devoted is of a piece with his theology: we are ever sinners in need of grace. Thus Luther rejected the perfectionism of the monastery while retaining other aspects of its ideal of a life devoted to God. His Small Catechism sought to instil the fear and love of God as the manner of Christian life such that God’s people were free but did not “misuse” their freedom ((196-197).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:26

James 2:26
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

In this final verse of the chapter James reiterates with another metaphor the same point he has been making all along in this section: that a workless faith does not “work,” it cannot save, it is dead. He begins with a common anthropological image: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead” (Hōsper gar to sōma chōris pneumatos nekron estin). It is possible to translate pneumatos as “breath” in which case James is stating a simple biological fact. Most English translations render the term as “spirit,” drawing on familiar biblical imagery that assumes that the spirit animates and gives life to the body (so McKnight, 258). The point of the verse, however, is neither biology nor anthropology but the relation of faith and works.

Thus, just as the body without the spirit is dead and lifeless, “so faith without works is also dead” (houtōs kai hē pistis chōris ergon nekra estin)—lifeless, unproductive and impotent. The faith of which James speaks is “that faith” of verse 14, the faith which is faith only as confession in verse 19, the workless faith of verse 20, faith which is alone in verse 24. This is not faith at all in its true New Testament sense. True faith, for James, is inseparable from works of obedience toward God and mercy toward others. The faith which we rest in the good and generous God, calls forth a similar character in those who believe, such that their lives too, become good and generous toward others.