27 July 2007

of barth & evangelicals 4

The morning of Wednesday, 27 June, brought a couple of presentations on Barth and ecclesiology. The first was given by Kimlyn Bender, professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Sioux Falls, entitled “The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism – Conversations across the Aisle.”

Bender began with an anecdote about Geoffrey Bromiley who, on behalf of Christianity Today, approached Barth with a set of questions from prominent evangelical theologians, including Cornelius Van Til and Carl Henry. Barth, however, wouldn’t entertain the questions since, once he saw them, didn’t think the questions posed gave any evidence of having genuinely and fair-mindedly engaged with Church Dogmatics. If anything, the questions demonstrated that the interlocutors already had their minds made up and wanted to further devour him rather than really dialogue.

To interject here, it seems to me that this is a fascinating window into all-too-typical interaction with theological projects that are "other" to one's own thought-forms and patterns of discourse. Bromiley's questions were posed after many years of ongoing evangelical critique of Barth and Barth's frustration with and unwillingness to devote time to further dialogue was not simply hubris on his part. He'd seen the critics' misrepresentations of his thought and their impatience in trying to inhabit Barth's own thought-world.

I suspect that Barth's assessment of his critics was in large part correct and that subsequent Barth scholarship has persuasively borne this out. As often as not in modern church history, the prevailing "consensus of critics" has been profoundly mistaken.

Returning to Bender's talk, he raised the question of what we might mean by "evangelicalism" as a living tradition when we raise the question of Barth's relationship to evangelicals, especially on the issue of ecclesiology.

Evangelicalism may be defined in terms of a narrative history (from Puritanism and pietism up through the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and beyond) or by theological convictions (inerrancy, conversion, penal substitution, etc.). In neither case, however, does ecclesiology play any role in evangelicalism's definition.

Evangelicalism is both narrower than ecclesiology or church (personal piety, doctrinal purity) and broader (para-church ministries that remain both ecumenical and sectarian, with a shared piety). Thus, Bender suggested, it is difficult to assess whether Barth and evangelicals are friends or foes with regard to ecclesiology.

Thus Bender asked the questionsof where might Barth be critical of evangelicals on ecclesiology, where he might be able to contribute, and where he might be sympathetic.

First, with regard to criticisms of evangelical ecclesiology, Bender suggested that Barth would see evangelicals as neglecting the institutional, visible church with its ministry of word and sacrament. In his own day Barth criticized one para-church organization for neglecting church in favor of a movement, suggesting that problems with the church cannot lead to abandonment of church.

Barth was also troubled by the anthropological starting point of piety-oriented movements, which make felt need and current situation the primary emphasis. This can lead to evangelistic triumphalism and adoption of secular methods to market the gospel, an implicit denial of grace. Along with this, Barth warned against the cult of personality, fawning for endorsement, and placing too much weight on the testimony of the changed individual rather than the gospel and Christ.

Barth's points have obvious broad application to present evangelicalism. Bender, however, noted some possible evangelical responses, questioning whether there has to be a conflict between "church" and "movement" and noting that there is good biblical precedent for becoming all things to all people and recounting one’s own encounter with God.

Second, Bender explored ways in which Barth might contribute to evangelical ecclesiology. Barth has a rich ontology and theology of the church that is well worth considering, providing an alternative to flight into sociology, history, and entrepreneurship or away from the visible church.

Barth's theology could prove important to evangelicalism since evangelicalism is a sociological and historical movement, more than theological, and thus tends away from the visible church. Moreover, it is often shaped by practitioners interested in numerical growth and success. This further leads to a disregard for the visible church in favor of an invisible church, individual experience, pietism, a spiritual fellowship of the truly converted, and a notion of the church as a voluntary society. Relationship to God becomes prior to and extrinsic to the church.

Barth, on the contrary, says that while the church is more than visible, it never less than that, and as the Body of Christ, totus christus, remains analogous to the Incarnation. We enter into a relationship with God, after all, through the witness of the church and thus believers always exist in community. This community, for Barth, is grounded in God’s free election of grace, creating corporate and concrete people, overcoming incipient Reformation split between ecclesiology and soteriology.

Bender suggested that Barth here provides a high ecclesiological alternative to Roman Catholic ecclesiology, an alternative that is both catholic and evangelical, Protestant and congregational, and from which evangelicals have something to learn. The church, for Barth, has indispensable role in salvation without becoming a caretaker of grace - a unity in distinction exists between Christ and church, so that the church is a proclaimer, not a dispenser of grace.

Third, Bender outlined some areas in which Barth might well be sympathetic with evangelicalism.

In particular, the scandal of the gospel of Jesus Christ is embraced by both Barth and evangelicalism, placing them together on one side over again liberalism and unbelief. Further, the radical particularity of the concrete congregation is upheld by both Barth and evangelicalism, more than institutional, denominational structures. Moreover, this congregation is the primary local of the Spirit's work in the lives of believers. Finally, both Barth and evangelicalism see mission – evangelism and service – as central to the church’s existence and identity.

Bender's fine talk was followed by an equally fine presentation by Keith Johnson, called “The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology,” addressing the relationship of Barth to "younger evangelicals."

Johnson began by recalling the key ways in which Robert Webber characterized younger evangelicals: a desire for more visible church, an opposition to individualism and its subjectivist and ahistorical piety, an emphasis upon the embodied presence of God’s reign in a material community, and a rethinking of justification with ecclesiological as well as forensic or soteriological dimensions.

He noted that Barth’s ecclesiology is often criticized as bifurcated, an endless dialectical play between two rejected alternatives without its own concrete proposal. That's to say, is the church a voluntary association of the pious? Or is the church the divinely established institution of Catholicism? Where the formed tends to root the church in a general sociological account of humanity, the latter tends to absorbs Christ into church, grace becoming nature. So what's Barth's alternative?

Barth’s third option, according to Johnson, sees the church as pure act, a result of divine act, that is, free action of God rather than any merely historical or cultural factor. The church is called into being in the event of personal address. But, if Barth is correct, then the church seemingly can’t be embodied in a lasting way, even if it bears witness.

So, one might ask, does Barth have a weak ecclesiology, presupposing an opposition between Spirit and institution? If the Spirit is Christ’s mode of action, it's not clear how human agency is involved in Spirit’s work.

One way of reading Barth is to see him as saying that God binds himself to the church by the Spirit via community practices, beliefs, institutions, persons, as gifts of the Spirit in the economy of salvation. According to Johnson, rather than having to choose between a Spirit/church disconnection and a Spirit/church identity, Barth provides a third alternative.

On Barth's view then, the church is a divine action through what God has done in Jesus Christ - a divinely established reality - while nonetheless remaining an earthly historical event. But how, Johnson asked?

Here Barth draws upon the doctrine of concursus as the mode by which the Lordship of God and free action of creature interrelate. Concursus is not an assertion but a confession, proceeding on theological grounds with its starting point in God’s electing action in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

In Barth's view, all human history finds its meaning and purpose in God’s electing act, enclosed within God’s action in Jesus Christ. Creation itself took place with view to the covenant of grace - a kind of supralapsarianism. When a creature acts, God has already loved, acted, and elected to redeem and save as pre-condition of creature’s act. While God doesn’t positively will all that human creatures will, he wills all things to serve the covenant of grace.

This is the context, for Barth, in which concursus is situated.

Thus Johnson suggested we cannot, if we follow Barth, consider human action apart from relation to divine action, and yet this doesn’t undermine the humanity of human action. Humanity is an active, not inactive recipient, but always remains a recipient so that God’s actions are not conditioned by his creatures, so that God’s activity determines ours. Within the context of covenant of grace, God is so present in the activity of the creature that the activity remains a single act.

As Johnson explained Barth, God and creatures are not two species of the same genus. So God’s action is of a different order than the creature’s. God, the only true God, so loved world that he willed to become a creature, to be its savior, so that all the activity of the creature is God’s own will revealed and triumphant in Jesus Christ.

For Barth, Johnson insisted, this is not some kind of generalized theory about divine and human action, but described events of encounter, by Word and Spirit. While there is a continuity between God's actions and creatures' actions, there is no permanent identification, but rather continual supply of grace. Barth explains this by was of Chalcedonian analogy.

With Barth's doctrine of concursus in hand, Johnson suggested that we can explain Barth’s doctrine of the church. He used the example of the sacrament of baptism.

There is a distinction, for Barth, between the baptism of the Holy Spirit and baptism with water. Our life in Christ is an event of God’s grace – Spirit baptism. Water baptism, according to Barth, is a human work in response to or witnessing God’s work.

Divine action occurs in, with, and over human action, so baptism is not wholly independent from divine action and is not reduced to mere human witness, but this is so without at all detracting from the creatureliness of the action.

Thus, for Barth, there is no sharp disjunction between divine and human action in baptism, but God’s action precedes follows, in, with, and over human action. Water baptism as human act, therefore, stands in continuity with divine action in keeping with the covenant of grace, in Word and Spirit. Baptism counts for something in the sense of serving as divinely given witness to the Word of God, God’s action in Jesus Christ.

So, Johnson concluded, what are the implications of Barth’s ecclesiology for younger evangelicals? According to Johnson, Barth’s approach frees us to be evangelicals, bearing witness. More Roman Catholic approaches, that see church as a mediation of grace, then turn this mediation of grace into the church’s primary vocation rather than mission.

For Barth we stand enclosed in the history of Jesus Christ, so that the work of Christ stands in no need of supplementation or mediation, but in itself brings about human response and thereby the objective includes within itself the subjective realization of its work.

In the question and answer to both of these presentations, there were some questions about the traditional distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied. It would seem that, on some construals of Barth, such a distinction very nearly disappears so that the subjective appropriation of and reception of grace is always already accomplished.

George Hunsinger suggested that this is to misread Barth. While, in Barth's theology, there is a single action in Jesus Christ including God's eternal election, the event of Christ's death and resurrection, and the subject salvation of sinner, this does not do away with the variety of dimensions and tenses of that action.

I find Barth's ecclesiology and sacramental theology challenging and insightful, but I wonder if he is sometimes too worried about the church devolving into a "dispenser of grace" in a way that occludes mission or proclamation. It seems to me that the Barthian notion of concursus does help in this regard since it emphases the priority and freedom of God's gracious action without thereby setting aside the church as the place in which God's grace is found.

What I'm unclear about is whether the notion of the church serving as a witness to grace or proclaimer of grace is sufficient to account for the sacramental realism of the New Testament in which the sacramental celebration of and thanksgiving for God's already present grace in Jesus Christ is, nonetheless, by the Spirit through faith, also a personal encounter with the risen Lord.