Tag Archives: Conferences

Advance Notice: Conferences 2017

KB Conference 2017

The date, theme and a list of invited speakers for next year’s Karl Barth Conference has been announced. The Conference will acknowledge the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, with a wonderful theme linking Luther’s Reformation to a critical period in Barth’s own development and the movement which arose around his work. I would love to go there but may need to wait for the book. Keep an eye on the Barth Center website for further details in coming months.

And the theme, date and invited speakers for next year’s ANZATS Conference in Adelaide has also been announced. It looks to be a very different conference to this year’s Conference in Melbourne, but hopefully just as stimulating in its own way. Further information will be available in due course from the ANZATS website.ANZATS 2017

Scripture on Sunday – The Blood of His Cross

agnusdeiThis morning in worship we are singing Blessed Assurance which includes the phrase “washed in his blood.” George Hunsinger has remarked that modern dogmatic theology, where it still speaks of the saving death of Christ, usually does so without reference to the blood of Christ (Hunsinger, “Meditation on the Blood of Christ,” in Disruptive Grace, 361).

I was recently challenged on this theme by someone who asked, when speaking of the atoning work of Christ, “must there be blood?” The person was concerned that reference to Jesus’ blood signified a violent atonement and thereby legitimised violence in the world. Given the violence this person has seen in their life and work, their concern is not surprising. Despite their unease, however, I was concerned that this was a bridge too far for those who, like myself, see Scripture as something more than writings reflecting human religious experiences and ideals. Trevor Hart has commented,

Whenever the story which the church tells appears to dovetail neatly and without wrinkles with the stories which human beings like to tell about themselves and their destiny, it is likely that the church is cutting the cloth of its gospel to fit the pattern laid down by the Zeitgeist rather than the heilige Geist” (Hart, in Gunton (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 191).

I do not think Hart’s critique can be fairly levelled at this person. In some respects the gospel this person is telling is not at all consonant with stories human beings like to tell about themselves. We like stories of heroism, of sacrifice, of power that triumphs, and yes, of victory won, even at the cost of violence. Violence is deeply embedded in human relationships and structures; it seems we are all capable of violence in one way or another, and so this person’s gospel wants to disrupt, challenge and overturn this pattern of human sinfulness.

And yet; I am still concerned that the person is cutting the cloth of their gospel in a way which is not sufficiently attentive to the Holy Spirit’s witness in Scripture. The following verses show that the blood of Christ was a prominent theme in the biblical writers’ understanding of the saving work of Christ on the cross. Indeed, almost every New Testament writer shares this understanding, indicating its pervasive influence in the thought-world and faith of New Testament Christianity.

Mark 14: 23-25
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

Acts 20:28 
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

Romans 3:25 
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed

Romans 5:9  
Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.

Ephesians 1:7 
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

Ephesians 2:13
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Colossians 1:20 
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Hebrews 9:12-14
He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Hebrews 9:21-22
And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews 13:12
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.

1 Peter 1:18-19  
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

1 John 1:7 
But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Revelation 1:5 
And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.

In all these texts and others like them, we see that the blood of Christ functions as a sin-offering on behalf of humanity, and as the institution of a new covenant between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. The answer to my friend’s question must be, on the basis of the New Testament witness, an unqualified “Yes!” The blood of his cross is the basis of our forgiveness and reconciliation with God, and of the new covenant of which we have become heirs. More must be said, of course. Does Jesus’ bloody death implicate God in violence? I will endeavour to address this important question next week.

Karl Barth Study Group (2016)

ANZATS 2016 delegates-JohnMcDowell

The Karl Barth Study Group met for the second time at this year’s ANZATS Conference in Melbourne on July 4, 2016. This year six papers were presented at the Study Group meeting, an increase of three over last year’s meeting in Sydney. We also enjoyed more participants in the sessions this year, with lively discussion and Q&A after each session. It was exactly what I hoped for when I floated the idea a couple of years ago.

The six presenters represented a variety of institutions in five cities and came from three countries. The papers were each distinctive and worthwhile in their own right. Some dealt with the official Conference theme (Atonement) while others ranged further afield. Together they displayed the broad interest Barth continues to excite in the Asia-Pacific region. In brief the presenters and themes addressed were as follows:

  1. Michael O’Neil – Vose Seminary, Perth
    Title: “Changed into Another Man: The Meaning of ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit’ in Karl Barth, in Conversation with the Pentecostal Doctrine.”
    My paper was a briefer version of the paper I gave at the 2016 Barth Conference in June at Princeton. I argue that Barth and Pentecostals have plenty to talk about, and that both might learn something from each other. Barth describes the life of one baptised with the Holy Spirit: “The power of the life to come is the power of his life in the world.”
  2. Edmund Fong – PhD Candidate (Otago University), Singapore
    Title: “‘For Us and in Our Place’: The Doctrine of Atonement in Engagement with the ‘Reception of Doctrine’ Approach.”
    Edmund explored the hermeneutical and trinitarian presuppositions which govern understanding of the atonement, before arguing that for Barth, the Deus pro nobis is the very Sache, the subject matter, of the doctrine of the atonement, which he unpacks in a fourfold substitutionary pattern.
  3. Mark Lindsay – Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, Melbourne
    Title: “Divine Forgetfulness and the Re-Creation of Memories: The Significance of the Sepultus Est.”
    Mark’s fascinating lecture explored Barth’s meditation on the burial of Jesus in his Utrecht lectures of 1935, published as Credo. In his burial, Jesus surrenders to the human fate of becoming ‘pure past,’ thus no longer having either present or future. He becomes as though he were not, no more than a memory. Yet God opened a new future, and through him, ‘new futures.’
  4. Geoff Thompson – Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity
    Title: “Reading Barth Reading Job.”
    Geoff explored Barth’s reading and interpretation of Job in Church Dogmatics IV/3. Barth finds a certain correspondence between Jesus and Job such that Job functions as a witness of the True Witness who is Jesus Christ. For Barth, Job is not about theodicy or a meditation on suffering. He is rather a witness who speaks the truth and unmasks falsehood.
  5. Christopher Holmes – University of Otago, New Zealand
    Title: “The Atonement and the Holy Spirit”
    Christopher’s careful lecture detailed the work of the Holy Spirit in the immanent trinity and the outworking of this role in the event of the atonement. The Holy Spirit can never be untethered from Jesus Christ either at the cross or unto all eternity, the Spirit and the Son are one, even in their distinction.
  6. Chris Swann – PhD Candidate, Charles Sturt University, Canberra
    Title: “Discipleship and the ‘Indirect Directness’ of Barth’s Account of Sanctification in Church Dogmatics IV/2, §66”
    Chris responded to criticisms that Barth’s ethics are too abstract and indirect, arguing that Barth’s ‘indirectness’ is intentional, and intends to educate our moral imagination or tune our ears to hear and respond to the direct command of Jesus Christ.

Preparing for Princeton

KBC_2016_1024x375_(1)Early in the year I submitted an abstract for the 2016 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. After the call period finished I expected that my paper was not chosen, but then a spot opened up for me and I am excited to be going. Excited and a little over-awed. I am so busy this semester, I don’t have a lot of prep time. The theme of the Conference is Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement. My abstract for the conference is:

‘Changed into Another Man’:
The Meaning of “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” in Karl Barth,
in Conversation with the Pentecostal Doctrine

Late in his career, Karl Barth prepared a little section for the Church Dogmatics entitled “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” (IV/4:3-40). This paper presents a careful exposition of Barth’s doctrine of ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit,’ showing that Barth conceived of the Spirit as the conjunction between the objective act of God’s reconciliation achieved in Christ in history, and the event of Christian faith. In the Holy Spirit, the mediating link between these two aspects of the one event, Christian faith is grounded not in an act of humanity but in that of God. That is, the Christian’s apprehension of faith in Christ is a genuine participation in, and incorporation into the life of the triune God, rather than simply a limited, and indeed, earth-bound, existential or ecclesiological event.

While the exposition makes clear that Barth’s doctrine is materially different to that of classic Pentecostalism, certain affinities may be noted between the two positions. In particular one notes the experiential language Barth uses to describe the encounter which transpires between God and the human agent. Second, is Barth’s insistence that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit involves the ontic renewal of the Christian such they become in truth ‘a different [person]’ (18). These features of Barth’s exposition suggest that his doctrine, although distinct in form and content from that of Pentecostalism, may in fact address the deeper longing of that movement for a dynamic, experiential ‘life in the Spirit.’


2015 Evangelical History Association Conference

EHA Conference Picture


On August 8th I had the privilege of attending this one-day Conference in Sydney. I happened to be in Sydney for another meeting on the Friday, so I changed my flight, stayed over, and was glad I did. There were about 70 people there all up, and I have never seen so many historians gathered in one place. As a theologian, I felt like the odd-one -out; my friend, Peter Elliott, says he usually feels like that at a theological conference, but felt right at home at this one! Go to the EHA Facebook page to see some photos.

The keynote address for the conference was delivered by renowned historian David Bebbington who spoke on the relation of evangelicalism and secularism, comparing developments in the United Kingdom and the United States. Of particular note were the differences between the two nations with respect to fundamentalism in the early twentieth-century, and the sheer numbers of evangelicals in the American context. I would say that Australia has more similarities with the British than the American experience, though that may be changing – or not. It may be that American evangelicals will face the challenges that have long faced their British and Australian cousins in a more secular, less churched society.

There were also some two dozen papers given in the elective sessions. The Conference theme was Christianity & Crisis, which allowed for a huge variety of topics, many to do with Australian church history. Peter Elliott from Perth Bible College gave a great paper on Katherine Chidley’s separatism in seventeenth-century England, while Malcolm Prentis from Australian Catholic University gave a fascinating paper on the various characters involved in a very public “Fundamentalist vs. Modernists” dispute in Geraldton in 1929. The paper was of particular interest to me because my father was born in Geraldton in 1929, and Monica and I lived in the Presbyterian manse there for a period of time when we lived in Geraldton.

David Bebbington at the lecturn
David Bebbington at the lectern

My own paper was on Barth’s treatise Theological Existence Today written in twenty-four hours from June 24, 1933, the day the new German government intervened in Protestant church affairs, in their attempt to bring the church under the direct control of the Nazi party. Barth’s treatise was a clarion call for the independence of the church, and more importantly, for the church to be faithful to its own life and calling under the headship of Jesus Christ. For Barth, the battle was not against the so-called “German Christians” but for them. The battle was not against the Nazis or the government either. Rather, it was a battle for the Word of God, for the faithfulness of the church in a time of cultural crisis, and for the free and faithful proclamation of the gospel. Barth called for the church to be “the church under the cross.” I think the paper was reasonably well received. It seemed that way.

The Conference finally ended with a meal together in a local restaurant. That, too, was a special time, and I enjoyed getting to know a number of the participants in the conference a little better. There are very few positions for full time church historians in Australia, and yet there were many, many very talented and knowledgeable people at the Conference. I hope that the study of church history might have a renaissance of sorts in this country in years to come. We tend to forget how much the present is deeply connected to what has been, and indeed, how much the past is still alive here and now. William Faulkner reputedly said, “The past is not dead. The past is not even past.” Without a knowledge of church history Christians engage their present context with eyes half-closed. And that’s a great shame.


Serene JonesDay three of the 2015 ANZATS Conference was shorter than the previous days as the Conference wound down. Scott Stephens worked to bring his lectures to a conclusion. I still found it difficult to nail a clear or integrating argument in his lectures overall, but nonetheless they contained many thought-worthy asides, quotes and ideas. The take-home from the final lecture included some very powerful thoughts such as:

  1. “The great foe that is killing us is not doubt, but cynicism.” Scott discussed this with respect to present cultural mores. The culture, he suggests, has progressed well beyond doubt, that uncertainty which is unsure whether it should or even could believe.
  2. How might such cynicism be addressed? Here Scott’s answer was breathtaking: sanctity. By becoming communities where the existence of saints and saintliness becomes possible, lives that have the scent of the holy in rich relational and compassionate ways. We need saints, says Scott, whose lives are in some way translucent to the glory of divine love, whose behaviour points to something greater, and highlights the weakness and vacuity of other life visions and life styles.
  3. In a long discussion of the predominance and dominance of the “image” in our culture, and especially in social media, Scott argued that online engagement in social issues often lacks moral reality. Voyuerism, digital outrage, and self-congratulation are not moral engagement. What is required is personal presence, embodied and relational engagement with others as persons.

To get a taste of the kind of material Scott was presenting at the Conference, read this article which is an earlier and brief version of his first lecture.

I gave my second paper of the Conference, this time on Bruce McCormack’s christology. In the paper I trace five critical moves made by Bruce in his christological reflections. It seems to me that Bruce’s attempt to argue that the humanity of Jesus is the subject or performative agent of Jesus’ earthly life raises serious theological questions. When I have fine-tuned the paper some more I will host it on academia.edu for anyone interested.

The final two sessions I attended were led by two presenters who shared teaching strategies for improving student learning in theological education. Both sessions were very interesting for me with respect to my role, and I am looking forward to implementing some of the ideas presented in my classes starting next semester. At next year’s Conference there will be a stream specifically dedicated to theological education. I look forward to that as well.

So I really enjoyed this year’s Conference and found it a valuable time of input, reflection and friendship. The sessions I attended proved interesting and stimulating, and I don’t think there was any poor behaviour in any of them! I say this because Monica, my wife, attended several sessions in which academic posturing, and poor or simply rude behaviour by one or two participants was on display. What a shame!

Next year’s Conference is scheduled for July 3-6 2016, is hosted by the University of Divinity in Melbourne, addressing the theme of Atonement. The invited speaker for the keynote sessions is Serene Jones from Union Theological Seminary in New York.


AngelsAnother good day at the Conference, and an easier day for me since I did not have to present a paper. A highlight of the day for me were the many conversations with new friends and old from all around the country. This is one of the main reasons for attending conferences, in my estimation. This kind of formal and informal interaction is enriching and fun, even for an introvert like myself!

Scott Stephens’ second lecture was around themes of political representation in democracy, the modern mind, and popular press. It was not as coherent a presentation as yesterday’s lecture (in my view), and I found it somewhat difficult to follow. Scott departed from his published schedule and put several somewhat diverse elements together. I should note that several other folk afterwards said they appreciated it very much. A take home point for me included an assessment of modern autonomous freedom as freedom from our responsibilities in community and for the common good.

Other papers today included a well-written and interesting exploration of Barth’s theology of angels by Mark Lindsay from the University of Divinity. Mark identified an enigma in Barth’s doctrine whereby he seems to insist that angels are involved in the mediation of revelation – something absolutely novel in Barth’s theology, and worthy of further investigation.

Christy Capper, a doctoral student from University of Divinity, explored the concept of an authentic life, showing that there are different levels of authenticity, and that sometimes, what appears as authenticity is not, and that authenticity is not simply “self-expression” or “being true to one’s self,” but indeed, true authenticity may mean denying what one wants or would prefer, because genuine authenticity involves living toward something greater than the self.

Myk Habets from Carey Baptist College in Auckland presented an attempt at a “theotic” ethics, in which he sought to incorporate four major approaches to ethical reflection (deontological, teleological, virtue and ontological) with a trinitarian account of the good life. I liked his approach and think it worthy of further reflection. The end of ethics is the glorification of the saints in communion with God the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.

Vicki Lorrimar from Vose, and now a doctoral candidate at Oxford, presented an excellent study of Stanley Hauerwas’s christology. Hauerwas has been severely criticised by Healy as having an insufficient christology and a Pelagian or almost Pelagian account of salvation. Lorrimar demonstrated that Hauerwas views Jesus’ death in terms of both a Christus Victor and an exemplarist model of atonement, and that Jesus’ death as victory is decisive for salvation. She acknowledges that Hauerwas is not a systematician, but insists that he should not be held to account for what he does not say. Rather, what he does say is not incompatible with a more complete account of salvation, christology, etc.

Finally, Robert Tilley from the Catholic Institute of Sydney, brought a very forceful lecture exploring the philosophical connections between capitalism and neo-liberalism, arguing (I think) that the neo-liberal self conforms to the logic of the market. He identified abortion as a critical issue for both systems and noted that the many modern critiques of capitalism fail at precisely this point, where the freedom of the self and the freedom of the market seem to intersect. He insists that any movement of resistance to late-modern capitalism must also be resolutely pro-life. This, too, was a very interesting argument, beyond the limits of my all-too-scant philosophical knowledge. I suspect, however, from the certainty of the presentation that the case may not be quite as certain as it was presented.


Scott StephensThe 2015 ANZATS conference got off to a good start today. This year we are meeting in Sydney at the offices of the Sydney College of Divinity. There are 70-80 delegates, with Scott Stephens (Online editor of religion and ethics for the ABC) addressing the plenary sessions.

Scott’s topic today was “The Kingdom of the Popular Soul: How Truth became Opinion, and Opinion became Fashionable.”
His lecture was basically an overview of some key developments in the history of popular media and mass communications, and how these developments have helped shape discourse in the arena of ‘public opinion.’ His discussion of Kierkegaard’s ferocious opposition to the popular press was a highlight of the day. My brief note here probably does not do justice to what I heard…

For Kierkegaard, opinion is irresponsible speech, something we have to wear into the public realm, opinion as a ‘fashion statement.’ Irresponsible speech is to ‘chatter.’ It is the annulment of the essential distinction between silence and speech. Speech derives from thoughtful reflection. Silence as a means of reflection, is therefore a moral activity; to speak is then to become responsible, to commit oneself. The opinion makers have therefore cheapened public discourse, forcing opinions, chattering… The pressure to have an opinion, to have to ‘say something,’ leads to irresponsibility.

Other sessions I attended today were:

1. Anne Elvey – “Compassion as Method in (Public) Theology.”
To have compassion is to act in concrete ways toward others in ways which seek to alleviate their suffering, to include them in community, etc. What impact would a commitment to live and act compassionately towards others, including the non-human creation, have on our theological work?

2. Geoff Thompson – “A God Worth Talking About for a Life Worth Living: The Accidental ‘Public Theology’ of Terry Eagleton.”
This was a very interesting lecture on the way a non-theologian is introducing ideas from classic theology into public discourse in order to ‘repair culture.’ Eagleton is a talented polemicist, yet he gains a hearing for Christian ideas, introducing and explaining them as ideas which are relevant to the way we think and live. Thompson suggests that Eagleton seems to have convictions about just how big the Christian story is; convictions many Christians and even theologians seem to have forgotten. I came away from this lecture wondering whether we should be trying to do “public theology,” or to do ordinary theology in publicly accessible ways. I suggest the latter is the case.

3. Scott Kirkland – “Toward an Aesthetics of the Cross: Barth, Divine Beauty, and the Persuasiveness of Divine Speech.”
The first lecture of the Barth Study Group explored Barth’s doctrine of the divine glory, the beauty of God seen in the work of Jesus Christ, and especially at the cross. What would otherwise be understood as ugly and violent becomes a thing of beauty, not from some kind of objective and disinterested stance (i.e. a kantian view of beauty), but from a perspective of faith, in which the true beauty of the self-giving God is revealed to us.

And I presented my first paper: “An Ethics of Presence and Virtue in Psalms 9-11” arguing for a fully ‘religious’ ethic. Two really interesting questions  were asked at the end:
(a) Is it wrong to advocate both a virtue ethic and an ethic of imitation? Are not these two forms of ethics at odds with one another? I suggested, within the context of Psalms 9-11, that no, they are not. This is an ethical life grounded in the community of God’s people living into the narrative of God’s redeeming work as witness in Scripture, including the kind of God that God is, and the kind of people God calls us to be.

(b) If the psalms so commend such an ethic, how might they be more fruitfully used in congregational worship to stimulate such ethical response, especially in the free church tradition where they are not used liturgically? Great question! I think we need to work on that one…