Performing Theology

Various metaphors have been used to shed light on the nature of theology. Drama and symphony are two recent analogies. Along those lines, but in an arena more familiar to me, I want to argue that theology is like jazz piano. Each aspect of the theological task corresponds to the musical task of a jazz musician: there is the player, the bass note and its corresponding key; the “head”, or, first and final chorus; the inner chord voicings; and the audience. Likewise theology has a subject, the Church; a defining material object, God and his revelation; an ultimate goal, love; a process along the way, spiritual formation; and a watching world. Like most jazz, theology has a basic structure, but it also improvises along the way as it interacts with various contextual factors. Different players will emphasize different aspects, and some of the “inner voicings” will be nuanced and particular. The unique theological styles of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth exemplify this variety within basic structural unity. Later theologians will borrow certain motifs, and downplay others. Certain notes will ring out loud and clear in one, and you will have to strain your ear to catch it in another. Nevertheless all the basic elements are there, and our own task will be to play this song in its fullness to our present day audience.

(read more: Kleven – Performing Theology)

Karl Barth: Integrating the “Theology of the Cross” and Deus Absconditus

From a paper I recently wrote on Luther’s “Theology of the Cross”:

“No theologian receives a longer entry in the index volume to Karl Barth’s Chruch Dogmatics than Martin Luther… It suggests that Luther was a towering figure in Barth’s mind.”[1] In this article, George Hunsinger details several aspects of Barth’s theology that are heavily influenced by Luther. “Theology of the Cross” is one of the specific areas of influence, but the other areas are directly related to it as well: Christocentric theology, primacy of the word of God, simul iustus et peccator, and grace and freedom. In fact, Barth’s most distinctive theological notes can be seen as a transposition of Luther’s theology of the cross: “The christocentrism for which Barth is so famous would hardly have been thinkable without Luther’s reformation breakthrough.”[2] He follows Luther in using paradox to explicate this: “This One is the true God… the One whose eternity does not prevent but rather permits and commands Him to be in time and Himself to be temporal, whose omnipotence is so great that He can be weak and indeed impotent, as a man is weak and impotent.”[3] Yet, Barth refuses to follow Luther into his “hidden God” dilemma:

What is not so obvious, however is how far Luther really thought he could overcome this difficulty by his advice that we should worry as little as possible about the Deus absconditus and cling wholly to what he called God’s opus proprium, to the Deus revelatus, and therefore to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. For how can we do this genuinely and seriously if all the time…there is not denied but asserted a very different existence of God as the Deus absconditus, a very real potential inordinate in the background?[4]

The cross is “the deepest revelation of God’s being, not its contradiction.”[5] Barth is able to avoid this because he relativizes all of theology, including the cross, to the person of Christ himself: “The articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae is not the doctrine of justification as such, but its basis and culmination: the confession of Jesus Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”[6]Christ is the starting point of all doctrine, not merely one aspect of his work, whether justification or his accomplishment on the cross. By shifting theology from a cruci-centric to a Christo­-centric theology, he is able to include the absolutely necessary piece which is “Theology of the Cross” within a framework in which it can do its best work. “In a way that was foreign to Luther, he integrated the hidden God and the revealed God, making them two different aspects of the one God taken as a whole… yet such powerful themes as substantive christocentrism, the theology of the cross, the primacy of God’s work… are no small legacy for one great theologian to have bequeathed to another.”[7] In seeking to appropriate the Theology of the Cross, Barth, and not the Lutherans seems to be our best example.

[1] George Hunsinger, “What Karl Barth Learned from Martin Luther.” Lutheran Quarterly XIII (1999), 125

[2] Ibid, 132

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 129

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II/1, The Doctrine of God , 542

[5] Hunsinger, “Barth,” 135

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, 527

[7] Hunsinger, “Barth,” 147

Barth on Luther; Luther on Aquinas; myself on neither

Karl Barth, in preparing for his discussion of Calvin’s theology, sets the historical stage with reference to “The Middle Ages”:

An even more striking example is the way i71IhRVGCeNLn which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther [here Barth footnotes Seeberg, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 74 and n. 2], they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelic confessor! All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view

The Theology of John Calvin, 22

Luther in “Against Latomus”:

His [Latomus’s] discussions of penance and of indulgences are worthless, for he proves everything from human writings. Neither Gregory nor any angel has the right to set forth or teach in the church something which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture. Nor am I moved when Latomus insinuates that I am ungrateful and insulting to St. Thomas, Alexander, and others, for they have deserved ill from me. Neither do I believe that I lack intelligence [to understand them]. This Latomus himself will admit, and it is certainly not difficult to see that I work hard. My advice has been that a young man avoid scholastic philosophy like the very death of his soul. The Gospels aren’t so difficult that children are not ready to hear them. How was Christianity taught in the times of the martyrs when this philosophy an theology did not exist? St. Agnes was a theologian at the age of thirteen, likewise Lucia and Anastasia–from what were they taught? In all these hundreds of years up to the present, the courses at the universities have not produced, out of so many students, a single martyr or saint to prove that their instruction is right and pleasing to God while [the ancients from their] private schools have sent out swarms of saints. Scholastic philosophy and theology are known from their fruits. I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed, and would sooner believe that Bonaventure is blessed. Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine. What do I care that the bishop of bulls has canonized him? I suppose that my judgment in these matters is not entirely ignorant, for I have been educated in them and have been tested [in debate] by the minds of my most learned contemporaries, and I have studied the best writings of this sort of literature. I am at least partly informed concerning Holy Writ, and besides I have to some extent tested these spiritual matters in experience, but I clearly see that Thomas, and all who write and teach similarly, have neglected this. Therefore I advise him who would fly to take warning. I do what I must, so with the Apostle I again admonish you: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit”–this I confidently and emphatically apply to scholastic theology–“according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”–these are the laws of the bulls and whatever is established in the church apart from Scripture–“and not according to Christ” [Col. 2:8]. Here it is clear that Paul wants Christ alone to be taught and heard. Who does not see how the universities read the Bible? Compare what is read and written in the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and on philosophy with what they write and teach about the Bible–which ought to flourish and reign as the most important of all–and you will see what place the Word of God has in these seats of higher learning.

found in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 257-59

Might Barth have misread Luther, slightly? Might Luther have misread Aquinas, ever so slightly?  I’m not up for adjudicating this one, but I find the material fascinating.

“A Friendly Conversation”

71wiJCVrghLIt’s exam week. As usual, Karl Barth has words to keep everything in perspective:

No one should study merely in order to pass an examination, to become a pastor, or in order to gain an academic degree. When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they have exerted themselves, and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when learned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 172

 

“How are Things in Your Heart?”

71wiJCVrghLA word for theologians, (and theologians in training):

The story if told that the once famous Professor Tholuck of Halle used to visit the rooms of his students and press them with the questions, “Brother, how are things in your heart?” How do thinks stand with you yourself?–not with your ears, not with your head, not with your forensic ability, not with your industriousness (although all that is also appropriate to being a theologian). In biblical terms the question is precisely, “How are things with your heart?” It is a question very properly addressed to every young and old theologian!

The question might also read: “Adam, where are you?” Are you perhaps–in your interior and exterior private life–fleeing from the One with whom you as a theologian are pre-eminently concerned? Have you hidden yourself from him in the shrubbery of your more or less profound or high-flown contemplation, explication, meditation, and application? Are you perhaps living in a private world which is like a snail’s shell?

There is no avoiding the fact that the living object of theology concerns the whole man. It concerns even what is most private in the private life of the theologian. Even in this sphere the theologian cannot and will not flee this object. If this situation should not suit him, he might, of course, prefer to choose another and less dangerous discipline than theology. But he should be aware that it is characteristic for the object of theology to seek out every man in every place sooner or later (see Psalm 139). It will seek him out wherever he may be and pose to him the same question. Therefore, it would probably be simpler to remain a theologian and learn to live with God’s claim upon even the most intimate realms of the theologian’s humanity.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 83-4

 

“Avengers of Their Grandfathers”

71wiJCVrghLMore Barth, on how to view our theological fathers:

Time and time again, the community grows used to living from what was said in it and to it yesterday: as a rule it lives from the Christian knowledge of yesterday. In the meantime, it is to be hoped, theology has advanced somewhat further, and what it supposes to know, what it ventures to think and to say today, will only seldom agree completely with what the fathers of yesterday thought and said. The far greater likelihood is that the newer theology will vigorously take exception to the fathers, especially to the immediate fathers. Even if this tension is justified by the vigorous nature of theological science, theology will still do well to keep in contact with its predecessors.

By no means will we drop the problems which concerned them; instead, we will pursue them further, repeatedly considering the very problems they posed, although at the same time no doubt putting them in the right perspective. Otherwise, theology might find the sons of today proving tomorrow to be enthusiastic rediscoverers and perhaps avengers of their grandfathers. The work of overcoming past weaknesses and errors, a work which was perhaps only apparently completed, would then have to begin all over again. Ma the good Lord preserve us from that!

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 46-7

 

“Totally Involved, Seriously Engaged”

71wiJCVrghLAfter yesterday’s quote, in which he reminds us to keep our eyes on the purpose of theology, Barth counters it with some particular advice for the student. As one who has “flung himself beforehand into all sorts of Christian activities,” this is something to think about:

Theology is an enterprise in whose performance one question can all to easily be forgotten: For what purpose? Of course, this question may and should be set aside for the moment. Study is impossible when a student supposes he has to know and impatiently ask along every step of the way: Why do I need just this or that thing? How shall I begin to put this to use? Of what value is this to be in the community and the world? How can I explain this to the public, especially to modern men? He who continually carries such questions about in his heart and upon his lips is a theological worker who can scarcely be taken seriously either in his prayer or in his study. He who never lets himself be totally involved, or at least seriously engaged, by theological problems as such, but who concerns himself with them only in order subsequently to elevate himself by means of ready-made and patent solutions, will definitely not be able to say anything proper to the people. Much less will he be able to say the one thing that is fitting. The one right thing will be said only after the theologian’s first endeavor has been to make personal acquaintance with something that is relevant, right and proper. And he had better not immediately thereafter glance furtively at this or that practical application. The theological beginner should concentrate on his study in its own right during his few years at the seminary or university, for these years will not return. It is no doubt unwise, if not dangerous, when, instead of such concentration, the beginner flings himself beforehand into all sorts of Christian activities and ruminates on them, or even stands with one foot already in an office of the Church, as is customary in certain countries.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 186-7

 

“A Uniquely Fascinating Science”

71wiJCVrghLA warning from Karl Barth on forgetting the real purpose of theology:

The first thing to be said about the character of theological work as service is that it cannot be pursued for its own sake, in the manner of “art for art’s sake.” Whoever is seriously engaged in theological work knows that such a temptation lurks in many corners. Theology, especially in its form as dogmatics, is a uniquely fascinating science, since its beauty irresistibly elicits the display of intellectual architectonics. As inquiry into both the bright and the dim, or dust, figures and events of Church history, theology is at every point highly exciting, even from a purely secular point of view. And as exegesis, it is equally exciting because of the way in which it calls in equal measure for both minute attention and bold imagination.

The service of God and the service of man are the meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 185-6

 

“We Ourselves are the Church”

71gdVElR+4LKarl Barth on the need for the whole Church in the theological enterprise:

To participate in this, and therefore to accompany even the work of erudite theology in the sticter sense, is the task of the community and therefore of each individual member. The Christian is not free to adopt any current religious idea, to espouse his own private philosophy, and then to urge this upon the community. On the other hand, he is both free and yet also summoned and obliged to reflect not he Word which underlies the community and is to be declared by it, and to give responsible expression to his reflections. No one will do this obediently unless he is prepared to let himself be stimulated, advised and guided by others, including professional theologians. No one will do it obediently if he is not in dialogue not only with God but also with his fellow-men and fellow-Christians. The freedom at issue is freedom int he community and not a foolish freedom on one’s own responsibility and on the basis of hopeful or defiant private inspirations. No one, however, can be content at this point to be a mere “layman,” to be indolent, to be no more than a passive spectator or reader. No one is excused the task of asking questions or the more difficult task of providing and assessing answers. Preaching in the congregation, and the theology which serves its preparation, can be faithful to its theme and therefore relevant and adapted to the circumstances and edifying to the community, only if it is surround, sustained and constantly stimulated and fructified by the questions and answers of the community. With his own questions and answers in matters of right understanding and doctrine, each individual Christian thus participates in what the community is commanded to do. If he holds aloof, or slackens, or allows himself to sleep, or wanders into speculation and error, he must not be surprised if sooner or later the same will have to be said about the community as such and particularly about its more responsible members. How many complaints about the “Church” would never be made if only those who make them were to realize that we ourselves are the Church, so that what it has or has not to say stands or falls with us!

Church Dogmatics III/4: The Doctrine of Creation: The Command of God the Creator, §55.3 p. 498

 

“A Certain Carefree and Joyful Confidence”

415fS1T7xfLKarl Barth with a fantastic metaphor for the main problem with 19th century theology:

The key problem arose from the conviction that the guiding principle of theology must be confrontation with the contemporary age . . . Obviously theology has always been to some extent open toward and related to the world. It should be so . . .

Theology, however, went overboard–and this was its weakness–insofar as confrontation with the contemporary age was its decisive and primary concern. This openness to the world meant (1) that through the open windows and doors came so much stimulation for thought and discussion that there was hardly time or love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself. With all its energies captivated by the world, 19th-century theology achieved surprisingly little in terms of a new and positive understanding of Christian truth and truths in themselves, a primary necessity at all times.

The winds were enthusiastically welcomed and allowed to enter freely through the outside doors. This meant (2) that not a few doors inside were slammed which should have been kept open as well. Nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment. Consequently it was forced to make reductions and oversimplifications, to indulge in forgetfulness and carelessness, when it dealt with the exciting and all-important matters of Christian understanding. These developments were bound to threaten, indeed to undermine, both theology and the Church with impoverishment and triviality.

The outside winds brought not merely fresh air, but also notoriously foul air. This meant (3) that fatal errors blew in, were admitted, and made themselves at home. These errors, far from being simply tolerated, enjoyed birthright, even authority. Countereffects to be sure were not lacking, but there was no fundamental agreement about the absolute primacy of the positive tasks of theology in and for the Church, over against the secondary tasks of relating to the various philosophies of the times.

Finally, we miss a certain carefree and joyful confidence in the self-validation of the basic concerns of theology, a trust that the most honest commerce with the world might best be assured when the theologians, unheeding the favors or disfavors of this world, confronted it with the results of theological research carried out for its own sake. It did not enter their minds that respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics.

“Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century” published in The Humanity of God, pp 18, 19-20