Confessing Christ for Church and World, Kimlyn J. Bender. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: A collection of essays in Barthian theology, exploring his ecclesiology, his confessional theology, particularly as it bears on the canon, and his understanding of the relationship of Christ and creation.
Most will concede that Karl Barth was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest theologian, of the twentieth century. During his lifetime, however, even while he was challenging the liberal, higher critical-oriented, theology of his day, he was not necessarily given a sympathetic hearing by evangelicals. Kimlyn Bender, the author of this collection of essays, recounts how Barth was at one time approached by Geoffrey Bromiley to see if he would respond to questions from three evangelical theologians for a Christianity Today article. He quoted Barth’s response:
“The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me. . . . These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.”
Fortunately, the atmosphere has changed since this time (in 1961) and Barth receives a much more sympathetic hearing and many, like the author of this collection of essays have taken the approach Barth commends of “seek[ing] with me the truth that is greater than us all.”
This collection of essays is organized around three of the key words in the book’s title. The first section focuses on “church” and Barth’s engagement with Catholic ideas of the church, dissenting from while holding in tension the strong identity between Christ and church. Bender also explores what his understanding of Christ and church may contribute to evangelical and Free Church traditions in which ecclesiology (the theology of the church) are often lacking.
The second section focuses on “confessing” particularly as this bears on the canon of scripture. There is a fascinating essay here on his relationship with Harnack and Barth’s deep dissatisfaction with the separation between professor’s lectern and pastor’s pulpit, between “the assured results of modern scholarship” and the church’s confession of Christ incarnate, crucified and raised. There is also a fine chapter worth the price of admission of itself drawing on the work of Barth in answering the writing of Bart Erhman which has cast so many aspersions on canon, as well as the church’s confessed understanding of Christ. This section closes with a study of Barth’s response to atheism, which in one sense was not to take it seriously, but in another sense to engage it, not on philosophical terms but rather a clear presentation of the Christian revelation centered in the person and work of Christ.
The third section is focused on the “world”, the creation and Christ’s relation to it. Perhaps the most interesting essay here is one on Barth’s Gifford Lecture. The Gifford Lectures were created as lectures on natural theology. Barth’s lecture amounted to answering the question of why he had no place in his own work for a natural theology, focusing on both the need for revelation and for the redemption of reason. He concludes with a kind of “postscript” on the Christology of Friedrich Schleiermacher in relation to that of Barth.
Apart from shorter works, I’ve not read much of Barth. Bender’s work whets my appetite for more. Maybe in retirement I’ll have to take on Church Dogmatics perhaps in preparation for meeting the great theologian and his Greater Lord.
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