Review: The Making of Stanley Hauerwas

Making

The Making of Stanley Hauerwas (New Explorations in Theology), David B. Hunsicker, foreword by Stanley Hauerwas. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and the apparently contrary threads of being characterized as both Barthian, and a postliberal theologian.

Stanley Hauerwas has been one of the most visible and discussed theologians of the last forty years. His challenging work on the nature of the church, his assertion of the church as a political structure, and his social ethics has evoked much discussion. In this work, David B. Hunsicker focuses on two apparently contrary aspects of Hauerwas theological work–his claim to be a Barthian, and the postliberal character of his theology, focusing on narrative interpretation of scripture and emphasizing ecclesiology instead of Christology.

Hunsicker begins by tracing Hauerwas biography and the Barthian influences in his thought–particularly in rejecting the divorce of theology and ethics, and in rejecting theological liberalism. He then offers a case study of how each of them approached abortion, how both reject natural theology approaches arguing from universal reasons, but how Hauerwas parts in grounding his exploration in ecclesiology and how the church functions in moral formation. He concludes in the first part that Hauerwas was indirectly influenced by Barth, and that his post liberalism expands the idea of what it means to be a “Barthian.”

In part two, Hunsicker considers the claim that Hauerwas learned to keep theology and ethics together from Barth. The discussion revolves around a key difference–Barth’s rejection of a casuistic approach ethics. Hauerwas reintroduces casuistry in his ecclesiological approach but the differences are reconciled in Hauerwas’ narrative approach to Christology, with the ethics of the church formed by its imitation of Christ.

In the final part, Hunsicker takes on the question of whether Hauerwas is more Ritschlian than Barthian in that his use of scripture is sociological rather than theological. Hunsicker contends that while Hauerwas goes beyond Barth in his focus on the church, his theology of the church is consistent with that of Barth. The conclusion includes some of Hunsicker’s ideas of helpful clarifications Hauerwas could make to resolve the apparent contradictions.

One question I wonder about beyond academic curiosity is why this all matters? One of the things this work underscored is the critical connection between Christ and the church, that our encounter with Christ is embodied and lived out through the church into the world. Through the church, we are both formed in Christ and engaged with the world. This work also helps explicate the way Hauerwas departs from liberal theology and the creative tension in his work in its Barthian and postliberal aspects. Finally, it underscores Hauerwas critique that Christian ethics in Twentieth century America was more American than Christian, and Hauerwas effort to recover a church more Christian than American.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for EvangelicalsMark Galli. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: An succinct overview of the life and theological relevance of Karl Barth, particularly for contemporary evangelicals.

By most estimates, Karl Barth is considered perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. He commentary on Romans challenged the liberal consensus of his day focusing attention on the sovereignty of God rather than human standpoints. In his insistence on the sovereign initiative of God and Christ’s reconciling work, he clashed with Emil Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. He stood as courageously as Bonhoeffer against Nazi totalitarianism, formulating the Barmen Declaration, and eventually losing his faculty position in Bonn when he could not swear loyalty to Hitler. He lived for the rest of his life an exile in Switzerland.

Yet evangelicals have often been uneasy about Barth. From the early opposition of Cornelius Van Til down to present day concerns about Barth’s view of scripture and fears of the universalist implications of his soteriology, many evangelicals have wanted to hold Barth at arms length. Mark Galli, as editor in chief of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, gets that, and yet offers in this slim volume a sketch of Barth’s life, and theological work, and what evangelicals might learn and gain from this, even if they retain their reservations.

Galli traces the theological development of Barth in the liberal protestant tradition shaped by Schleiermacher and his mentor Adolph von Harnack. He describes the “conversion” of Barth from a young social activist and socialist pastor through his study of Romans, and how the publication of his commentary on Romans rocked the theological world as he reasserted the centrality of God rather than human initiative, and God’s gracious action rather than even the best of human religious impulse. We trace his continued theological development as a professor first at Gottingen and then Bonn.

Galli shows us both the courageous and human side of Barth. He was one of the first to recognize the dangerous pretensions of Nazism and its insidious foothold in the German Church, and led the resistance to this in the formulation and promulgation of the Barmen Declaration, affirming the precedence of the sovereign God over any human sovereignties and that the church could not relent to political captivity to any ideology. This led to Barth being stripped of his teaching position, and his emigration to Basel, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The human side was what Galli concedes was his “emotional adultery” with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his research assistant for many years. Despite the strains this placed on his marriage, he was unwilling to break off this relationship, and it seems that Barth and his wife Nelly eventually reached some kind of understanding. Even after Karl’s death, Nelly regularly visited Charlotte, an Alzheimer’s victim. This may say something of Nelly, about whom I wish Galli might have told us more.

It is impossible in a book of this length to adequately summarize the Church Dogmatics. Galli focuses on the two aspects that have often been of concern to evangelicals, and while not removing them as cause for reservation, he points out aspects from which evangelicals might learn. With regard to scripture, he acknowledges the problems of Barth’s position of God’s authoritatively revealing himself through a fallible scripture, yet he observes Barth’s Bible-centered practice, how extensively he cited scripture, and always with a view to it’s authority as God’s witness, not in criticism of its faults. He also tackles Barth’s ideas of “universal reconciliation.” He contrasts the Reformers “If you repent and believe, you will be saved” with Barth’s “You are saved; therefore believe and repent.” He sees in this a position that may have the promise of ending the impasse between Calvinist and Arminian positions, while acknowledging the further work that remains.

Finally, Galli takes up what he sees as a fundamental challenge to contemporary evangelicalism. In Barth’s unflinching commitment to the initiative of God, he sees a challenge to an evangelicalism at once focused on subjective experience and on human activism in doing good. He sees in these trends a theology not unlike that of Schleiermacher, even while clinging to evangelical affirmations. He trenchantly observes

The point is not to make a sweeping condemnation of evangelicalism, as if it were the epitome of nineteenth century liberalism. The point is not to look to Barth as our theological savior. The point is to suggest that the theology Barth eventually found bankrupt, and so ardently battled, is a theology we understand and identify with at some level. That we imbibe it unthinkingly is a problem, because as Barth’s theology demonstrates, it is an approach that brings with it a host of problems, problems that undermine not only the church’s integrity but especially its evangelistic mission” (p. 145).

Galli gives us a succinct biography that leaves us much to consider. Would we have Barth’s courage to stand against a compromised church and a powerful regime? What place does the “strange world of the Bible” have in shaping our world? How central in our thinking is God’s initiative in salvation? In Barth’s “no” to the natural theology of Brunner, and nineteenth century liberalism, do we also hear a “no” to our own generation’s human pretensions? Galli, a skilled editor, also serves us as a skilled writer, using few words to give us much to consider.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Confessing Christ for Church and World

Confessing Christ

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.

Is It Time for a New Declaration of Barmen?

barth

Karl Barth

The Declaration of Barmen. No, this isn’t the drunken bloviations of a bunch of good old boys who have had a few too many at the local pub. Rather, this was a serious statement formulated by Karl Barth and agreed to by representatives of Germany’s Confessional Churches to address the rising threat of Nazi tyranny and the usurpation of the place of Christ by the state in the life of the church. It basically argued that the church cannot and would not give to the state what belongs to Christ alone and spoke out against the idolatry of the “great leader”

In its various articles it confessed:

  • There was no other power beside Christ who reveals God’s salvation.
  • That there was no area of life not under the Lordship of Christ.
  • That the church could not abandon its order or message to conform to prevailing ideological or political convictions.
  • The church could not allow special leaders, particular instruments of the state, to rule over its life.
  • The church could not and would not become an organ of the state.
  • The church could not subordinate the Word and work of Christ to any state agenda.

A friend of mine wondered whether it is time for another such declaration. I wonder particularly if it is time for such a declaration among the churches of America.

It seems to me that for too long we have looked to the political powers-that-be, whether on the right or the left, as our source of hope and have made of government an idol.

It seems to me that for too long the church in America has been politically captive to the left or the right rather than focusing on its distinctive message of the in-breaking rule of God.

It seems to me that for too long we have been infatuated with electing the “right” political leader into office and have lodged far too great a hope in fallible human beings and governments.

Karl Barth and the German leaders who signed this Declaration were prescient in recognizing the political captivity and the idolatry of power that was gaining a foothold in the German churches and compromising the Christian message with a gospel of power and hate that destroyed six million Jews, and countless others in the World War that followed. Unfortunately, much of the German church did not heed this declaration, and sadly, a deeply compromised church lost its power to speak into the life of a Germany re-building after the war.

I wonder if we have reached a critical juncture in the life of the church in America where we need to clearly choose between politics and the gospel of the kingdom of Jesus. And I say this across the spectrum from liberal to conservative in both the political and theological senses. Will the church in America simply mirror the political divides of this country, which we have done through so much of our national history (think of the debates on slavery)? Or will we seize this moment, which might be our last, to repent of our idolatry, and political captivity, and divisions among ourselves?

Is it time for a new Declaration of Barmen? Time and past time, I would say.