Tag Archives: Evangelicalism

Galli, Karl Barth for Evangelicals (Review)

Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals 
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Pp. xvi + 176. 
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6939-5

Mark Galli entitles his recent book on Karl Barth an ‘introductory biography for evangelicals.’ As a biography it is a faithful though simplified rendering of the broader and deeper story found in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976), upon which it draws heavily. With respect to his intended audience, Galli is writing specifically for evangelical Christians, not as a Barth specialist, but as an appreciative student and fellow-traveller.

Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has written his book to reintroduce Karl Barth to evangelicals for two reasons. First, initial evangelical introductions to Barth’s theology ‘got him wrong’ (6) with the result that a deep distrust developed among (especially North American) evangelicals so that even today his work is often ignored or dismissed by them (2). Nonetheless, the reception of Barth among evangelical theologians is now changing and it is only a matter of time, Galli suggests, before Barthian theology, ‘however chastened and revised, will make its way down into the pulpit and pews of evangelical churches’ (9). Second, and as a corollary to this, Galli believes that Barth’s insights have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism as they consider afresh what it means to proclaim the gospel and to ‘bear the cost of discipleship in these trying times’ (12).

After the introduction and first chapter provide the rationale for the book, Galli devotes nine chapters to a brief recounting of Barth’s remarkable life from his youth to his retirement years, highlighting his ‘conversion’ from nineteenth-century Liberal theology, his Romans commentaries, his participation in the church’s struggle against Nazism, his political activity in a post-war divided Europe, and his ongoing work on the Church Dogmatics. He considers Barth’s attitude toward Russian communism (‘in retrospect Barth does seem naive on this issue’ (103)), and his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (‘it was clearly a case of emotional adultery’ (68)).[1] These chapters are supplemented by a further chapter on Barth as ‘preacher and pastor’ which also considers him as a family man, a person of prayer, and the struggles of his old age (‘he suffered from what we would today call depression’ (133)). This is a useful and very accessible biography for those new to Barth.

After the initial chapters of biography Galli has two chapters devoted to Church Dogmatics though in reality they address not the substance or structure of the work itself, but two theological issues of immediate concern to evangelicals: the question of Barth’s concept of the Word of God, especially as it relates to Scripture, and the question of universal reconciliation. In both cases Galli endeavours to provide a ‘larger understanding’ of Barth’s thought with regard to the issue, and with respect to Scripture concludes that ‘given this larger understanding, I don’t know that traditional evangelical theology has much to argue with’ (112). ‘Barth reminds us that Scripture is not something we preserve and manipulate, let alone protect, but the means by which the Word encounters us, preserves us, and, if you will, “manipulates” us—that is, shapes us into the beings we were created to be’ (115-116). Galli remains unsure as to whether Barth’s theology leads inexorably to universal reconciliation, and suggests that ‘insofar as Barth’s doctrines of election and justification move in the direction of universalism, of course, evangelicals rightly reject his views’ (121). Nevertheless he applauds Barth’s ‘fresh approach’ to long-standing theological conundrums, and ‘speaking personally, Barth has helped me talk about the gospel as unquestionable good news…[he] helps me as a teacher and preacher to proclaim good news that is really good news…with no ifs, ands, or buts. No quid pro quo. No qualifications’ (125-126).

In his final chapter ‘“Liberal” Evangelicalism,’ Galli returns to his rationale for writing the book only this time to argue that ‘today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a liberal and an evangelical’ (141). In a rhetorical flourish he even suggests that ‘Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism’ (144). Galli is clear that contemporary evangelicalism is not the equivalent of nineteenth-century liberalism, but is concerned at the extent it has assimilated much of its ethos, especially its emphasis on religious experience and Ritschlian moralism. For Galli, Karl Barth’s thorough-going battle against liberalism together with his clarion call to hear afresh the Word of God in Jesus Christ, will serve as a salutary summons to evangelicals. At stake, suggests Galli, is the very identity and mission of the church (145). The book concludes with an annotated bibliography useful for those new to Barth, and an index.

Galli notes that Barth ‘wrote his theology…as an attempt to think about Jesus Christ in the context of the challenges and problems of the day. He wanted to model a way of doing theology—grounded in the Bible—more than to champion a particular theology’ (137). If Galli succeeds in his attempt to reintroduce Barth to a new generation of evangelical Christians, students and pastors he will have rendered the movement a great service. While it is quite certain that evangelicals will continue to dispute with Barth over a range of issues, substantial engagement with his theology will assist them as they in their own way also think about Jesus Christ amidst the challenges and problems of the day. One hopes that this little book gains a wide readership amongst its intended audience.

[1] It is worth noting that Galli only became aware of the extent of the relationship and Barth’s justification of it, shortly after the publication of his book. See his comment and reflection at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html.

American Evangelicals & Mr Trump

pew_trump_clinton_religionSince the election of Mr Trump last week, a number of news articles have appeared in the American press exploring the relation between his election and the evangelical vote. Reports indicate that over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Mr Trump. These articles explore why this was the case.

This first article by Emma Green (“The Evangelical Reckoning on Trump”) provides a general overview of evangelical leaders’ views regarding the relation between US evangelicalism and the Trump election.  She portrays an evangelicalism divided, especially along racial lines in the United States:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

Olga Khazan (“Why Christians Overwhelmingly Backed Trump”) suggests that Evangelicals backed Mr Trump because they believed he would uphold their views on abortion, and perhaps even turn the clock back on abortion services:

Seven in 10 voters on Tuesday said the next president’s appointment of a new Supreme Court justice was an important factor—presumably because this judge could have a decisive vote in cases involving abortion and other social issues. Voters “were mobilized by what’s at stake & the clear contrast w/Hillary on life,”Family Research Council president Tony Perkins tweeted late Tuesday.

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, “believes evangelicals were motivated to vote in unprecedented numbers because of Hillary Clinton’s record on abortion,” according to the Huffington Post.

Carl Trueman (“A Tale of Two Marxisms”) rather glumly argues that Americans have received the politician they deserve: a perfect mirror of what American culture has become.

Cool chic and celebrity connections are now far more important than coherent policies and personal integrity. And Mr. Trump is surely no better. In many ways he is more representative of the moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age than Mrs. Clinton. He really is nothing more than an entertainer, the political equivalent of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. Yet that is precisely what makes him the perfect politician for this present age. He is the great Hegelian synthesis of modern American culture: a perfect compound of know-nothing populism, undisciplined appetites, and vacuous entertainment. Do not waste time lamenting his advent. He was inevitable: He is the very embodiment of the World Spirit.

What Trueman does not discuss is the implication that American evangelicalism has largely become culturally assimilated to the “moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age.”  I suspect, however, that he may agree with this suggestion.

Darren Guerra (“Trump, Evangelicals, Religion & the 2016 Election Exit-Polls”) argues that evangelical support for Mr Trump only rose to the levels it did after the Presidential race was reduced to the two primary candidates. That is, their support was reserved. Nevertheless, that they did support him in the end was due, perhaps, to their playing a longer game: 70% of evangelical or religious voters voted with an eye to the Supreme Court.

Given the large gaps between plurality support for Trump in the primaries and majority support for him in the general election, evangelicals clearly needed time to warm up to Trump. Evangelical support for Trump, while robust, seems to have been driven by prudential judgment and fear of a Clinton presidency, rather than by blind acceptance. To the extent that this is true, evangelical support for Trump may very well be “contingent support” that could evaporate if Trump does not deliver as promised.

Two weeks before the election Russell D. Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave the 29th Annual Erasmus Lecture with the (to my ears) somewhat dubious and uninspiring title, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” Moore was a vocal advocate of not voting for Mr Trump in the months prior to the election. The lecture is well worth listening to. The video can be found here; the podcast here.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling on Moral Conscience

Wyndy_Corbin-ReuschlingThis semester I have been teaching an introductory unit in Christian ethics and for my undergraduate students, assigned Wyndy Corbin Reuschling’s Reviving Evangelical Ethics as a text. I also required a report on the book to ensure students actually read it! Previously, I have assigned Arthur Holmes’ Approaching Moral Decisions, which is also a good book. Nevertheless, I found Holmes a little conservative and dated in some respects, and felt that Corbin Reuschling had a good contribution to make to the subject. I also want to include some women in my reading lists where an appropriate text is available, to help even up the voices that students are reading and listening to.

Wyndy Corbin Reuschling writes as an evangelical concerned that evangelicals have thinned out their moral reflection, as well as the moral nature of Christian salvation and life because of historical commitments to patterns of piety, and modern commitments to cultural priorities such as pragmatism, personal fulfilment, and ecclesiastical success. Corbin Reuschling surveys the three classic models of ethical reflection—deontology, teleology and virtue ethics—via a discussion of major theorists in each field—Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle. She then explores in quite broad terms how a central aspect of each of these classic models finds expression in evangelical spirituality. The subtle shift from ethics to spirituality is not made overtly, but is probably intentional, and highlights Corbin Reuschling’s conviction that evangelicalism has a “thin” ethics. Thus she insists that spiritual formation is moral formation, and that one cannot be transformed into the image of Christ without an accompanying commitment to the moral and ethical concerns of Jesus.[1] In this vein, she associates deontology with evangelical biblicism, virtue with therapeutic forms of piety, and suggests that evangelical pragmatism might be considered as a kind of “spiritual utilitarianism.” In the final chapter she presents her own constructive proposal in terms of the development of a robust moral conscience, supported by robust Christian community, and a developed competence based in practical wisdom.

Corbin Reuschling begins by distinguishing between an “antecedent” conscience, an idea more at home in Roman Catholic moral philosophy, and a “consequent” or “judicial” conscience, more familiar in Protestantism. An antecedent conscience is simply a conscience developed prior to the ethical moment when one is faced with a dilemma, a choice, or some other ethical challenge. Corbin Reuschling defines conscience as follows:

Conscience is the active integration and use of our abilities to assess moral issues with our passionate moral commitments that reflect the heart of God’s justice with practiced determination to live and act according to our moral convictions. … This begs the necessity for the formation of an “antecedent conscience,” which Charles Curran describes as the capacities and sensitivities we need prior to an action to guide and direct our decisions in order to act according to the orientation that our moral values and sense of goodness give us.[2]

Later in the chapter she also approves van der Ven’s definition of conscience as “considered conviction … developed in and through sustained processes of thought, reflection, discovery, prayer, and dialogue.”[3] Clearly, such a conscience is not innate but rather must be formed. Nor is it private, because one’s conscience is socially mediated. The formation of robust Christian conscience, therefore, requires:

I. A deep and continuing immersion in and reflection on Scripture in order to,

  1. Confront each person and the community with the reality of evil in ourselves and in the world;
  2. Illuminate and motivate us with a renewed moral vision including the church as an alternative community, Christ and his cross as our essential paradigm, and the vision of the kingdom of God as our goal;
  3. Discover rich sources of moral wisdom, especially in the biblical narratives.

II. A community where these narratives are taught, where conscience is formed, where identity is narratively constructed, and where moral discourse and deliberation are encouraged and practised.

III. Skills of practical wisdom (phronesis) leading to moral competence. Practical wisdom includes the skills by which we move from the abstract to the particular, from the conceptual to the concrete, aware of the unique, contingent and open-ended nature of every moral situation. Practical wisdom is the application of “considered convictions” to this particular situation. It involves making moral judgements with reference to norms and values. It takes personal and corporate agency and responsibility seriously, with respect to this

By recovering the idea of conscience and situating its formation and use within the community, Corbin Reuschling retains the sense that each moral agent bears responsibility for their own decisions and actions, without privatising the moral life or to modern evangelical individualism. This unique balancing of the personal and the communal is a significant contribution.

Much more could be said about the book. By and large my students appreciated her moral vision, and the rigor she brought to the study. This, perhaps, is the best commendation I can give the book: they have suggested that I use it again next time I teach the unit.

[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 124.

[2] Ibid., 149, original emphasis.

[3] Ibid., 163-164.