Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Essentials: An Excursis on Meeting God

(Welcome to Conversations with Bob! Two blind squirrels looking for a nut! It's Bob's turn!)

I know, most of us are used to seeing pictures of Karl Barth as an old man. I like this picture of him as a younger man.

I raised the issue about Schleiermacher and Barth for a reason. As I see it, the difference between Schleiermacher and Barth is the issue: who starts the conversation? It is a fundamental question of the Christian and Reformed Faith.

I think it comes back to a question John and I have danced around a couple of times but have not addressed directly: what John calls Special Revelation. Personally I don’t like the term. It suggests that we can see who God is in a general way, (in General Revelation) through looking at the universe or through reason but that we cannot find a salvific way of seeing God without God speaking to us in a special way. And if I understand you correctly, John, you have rejected special revelation.

Karl Barth responded to the question of general revelation, (and to his friend Emil Brunner), in a document appropriately named, Nein! Barth’s point was that humans are unable see who God is or see God at all by looking at creation or other humans or through reasoning. There is no general revelation. Barth’s point was that when humans set out to find God we cannot do so. It is impossible for humans to find God. Instead Barth argued God reaches out and finds us; that God speaks to us in self revelation, that God reveals God’s self to us in the person of Jesus.

One can see the influence of Barth, (actually he was the primary author) in The Barmen Declaration. The Declaration says, in part,

1. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14:6). "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.... I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved." (John 10:1, 9)

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

2. "Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." (I Cor. 1:30.)

As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords--areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

Yes, Barmen was written in a particular historical situation and to meet a particular threat: Nazism. The German Christians were trying to turn Jesus from a Jewish savior who died on the cross into an Aryan hero. Further the Nazis were making claims on the lives of Germans that were in effect divine claims or what we call totalitarianism. Barmen spoke and said that Jesus is Lord of all of life, not Hitler.

But Barmen, I believe, also makes claims on us today. Whenever the Church is tempted to place some idol in the place of God, the most popular in the USA being consumer capitalism, (which yes, John, is a primary source of destruction of God’s good creation), we must say that Jesus Christ alone is Lord. And whenever some say that God reveals God’s self in other ways than in Jesus, as attested in Scripture, Barmen says the only revelation is Jesus.

Thus one cannot go from creation or thinking or reason to God. One can only, (through the power of the Holy Spirit), receive the revelation of God in the person of Christ through Scripture.

I suggest then that Schleiermacher’s way, and therefore the path of liberal Christianity throughout the 19th and into the early 20th Century, (please note I use the term liberal Christianity here as a technical term to describe a school of thought that, went from Schleiermacher down to Harnack), cannot lead to God. Humans simply do not have the power to see our way or reason our way to God. God must find us.

A quick note to flycandler: the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate was primarily between Old Princeton Scholastics and liberal Christians. Neo-Orthodox thought came to America in the 1930’s as a unifying theology for the Presbyterian Church that lasted until around 1970.

Please note I am not a thoroughgoing Barthian. I am probably closer to Brunner. I think, (and here I try to agree with Paul in Romans chapter 1), that the universe does indeed reveal God, but that humans, because of sin, are unable to see that revelation. I would argue against Barth as well that Scripture really is the Word of God, that it is the revelation of God, but that humans are unable to see or hear that revelation without the power of the Holy Spirit.

Schleiermacher bases his argument for the Christian faith on human feelings. Certainly faith involves human emotions. But is faith primarily a “feeling of absolute dependence?” What happens when we don’t feel the feelings? Faith involves the whole human being. When one does not feel the presence of God the Christian says, “Nevertheless I will trust him.” Even in times of despair and depression, something I know a lot about, the Christian confesses “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Ph 2:11 RSV)

I suggest that what Karl Barth gave back to us many in the mainline churches abandoned in the 1960’s and later. Much of theology today again begins with the human situation, often, (as in Liberation Theologies), with particular human situations, and argues that to find God one must start with the human situation. I believe the opposite is true. God must start with us.

Grace and Peace



  1. "Nevertheless I will trust him." Thank you for that Bob. What more can be said about walking with Jesus Christ.

    I guess I am much more of a Barthian; him over Brunner.

    But I always laugh when I think of how my two favorite writers, C.S. Lewis and Barth can be so different theologically. Although I think God knew what he was doing. Barth for Germany with the Romantic Movement so affecting Christianity—in a bad way! And Lewis a Christian romantic for the British who were so badly infected with the logical positivists who Lewis detested.

    Any way thanks I truly enjoyed this and the younger picture of Barth.

  2. Yes Bob, very well put.

    I think faith is trusting God in the dark, when all your senses tell you it makes no sense. And even that is a gift from God.

  3. Viola,

    Hello again! You wrote:

    "But I always laugh when I think of how my two favorite writers, C.S. Lewis and Barth can be so different theologically. Although I think God knew what he was doing."

    Exactly. Thank you. Would you add Schleiermacher, Tillich, Reuther, and others to the list of God knew what he was doing?

  4. Bob, let's be clear: I never said that Karl Barth was involved in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. What I did say was that after Machen and his minions left, the ideas that came largely from Barth helped to heal the northern church and had a profound impact going forward. Most of what I know about Barth comes from Jack Rogers and the late, beloved Shirley Guthrie (who personally studied under Barth).

    While I generally agree with you about rejecting the idea of General Revelation (which I am told by a somewhat unreliable source was a favorite of the late James Kennedy), this comes in part from what scientific training I've had. The danger in assuming that creation holds keys to understanding God is that our understanding of nature changes over time. Just in the last 50 years, the work of Watson and Crick revolutionized the way we look at biology. I think it bolsters the idea of non-overlapping magisteria: science is by design better suited to rapid changes in understanding. Faith has to be more deliberate--the church may be reformed and ever being reformed, but it is constrained by the Word of God (I am fighting with every ounce of strength the urge to show off my Latin again).

    As far as liberation theology goes, I do think that it is simply another side of the same coin. Yes, faith is a powerful force for one personally, but it also compels one to live out one's faith in service. In other words, "'you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt 22.37-40 NRSV). Our love of God compels us to love our neighbor.

    I cannot speak for Liberation Theologians as a whole (mainly because I'm not a Roman Catholic), but I can see how they arrive at their conclusion. As James put it:
    "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (Jas 2.14-7 NRSV) As Calvin and Luther would put it, good works are not necessary for grace, but grace has an almost inevitable outcome of good works.

  5. Hi John,

    That’s a good question, but, sorry, no, I would not include Schleiermacher, Tillich, or Ruether among those God was using for a certain time and place in history. And there are several reasons.

    One of the most oblivious is that Barth was all his days contending with the theology of Schleiermacher and others who began their theology from below, human experience, rather than above, God’s revelation to humanity. There are other reasons.

    All three of the theologians you have mentioned are Panentheists. All three start from human experience and name God them selves and believe that humanity in some way is a part of God. For instance, Tillich’s “ground of being.” I believe God names himself. Both Barth and C.S, Lewis believed that God was the one who informed humanity about himself and most clearly and finally in the person of God the Son.

    Their differences were over how God had prepared humanity to receive Jesus Christ. Lewis believed that all the cultural myths of gods, etc. were meant to prepare humanity to understand the incarnation. They were like stories that lead to Jesus Christ. Barth on the other hand believed all of humanity’s myths only served to turn humanity further away from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

    Neither Lewis nor Barth would have disagreed on any of the tenets of Christianity, such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human or the atonement on the cross. The three theologians you name did disagree with much of traditional Christianity.

    But I do believe God uses all of us in our time and place. But, in a different way than what I was writing about above. Even those who reject Christ are used in some way by God to further his purposes.

    Also may I recommend a good book I am right in the middle of: “Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers: from Plato to the present” by John W. Cooper. It is published by Baker.

  6. Bob:

    Two disagreements.

    1) Isn't it more accurate to say that Barth rejected General Revelation because - when used alone - it conjured an idol?

    2) Romans 1 says that God reveals himself in nature. You say that we are "unable" to see it because of sin. However, Romans 1 says that we see God's self-disclosure, then choose to pervert it and don't acknowledge God as God.

    The point Paul makes isn't inability, but suppression of the truth. It's the very same charge he makes against Jewish believers who had God's Torah, but suppressed it in unrighteousness.

  7. fly

    Didn't mean to suggest you didn't know about it. It was more along the lines of, "fly and I both know this but we better tell everyone else." At least that's what I meant even if it didn't come out that way.

  8. I have a couple questions. You say Viola,

    “I would not include Schleiermacher, Tillich, or Ruether among those God was using.”

    How do you know God did not use those you mention above to reveal the light of truth that they perchance perceived?

    You then say,

    “But I do believe God uses all of us in our time and place. But, in a different way than what I was writing about above.”

    Again, how do you know God uses all of us, or specifically any one person? And in what “different” way are you claiming God uses us?

    You say,

    “all three start from human experience and name God themselves and believe humanity in some way is a part of God.”

    The bible calls God by many names: the I AM, the Almighty, the God of Israel, and in Jesus teachings Father. If these names given to God reflect an enlarging revelation about the nature of God and our relationship to God, moving from that of king or judge to that of a Father, and a tender parent-child relationship, does this not indicate that the name given to God reflects the nature of the relationship thereto? Jesus revealed a God of love who is the Father of each individual, and consistently used themes designative of this parent-child relationship between us and God. Which is more important, the name used to designate the living relationship, or the living parent-child faith relationship it symbolizes between us and God?

    And finally, are we not “in some way a part of God”? For after all, do not the scriptures tell us we live, move, and have our very being in God?

  9. Hi Rob,

    First a correction, how oblivious got into my fifth line I do not know but I meant obvious!

    Any way your questions and thoughts: I know it looks like I have created a contradiction when I say Schleiermacher and the two others were not used by God like Lewis and Barth. And then I say God uses all of us in our time and place.

    What I meant by that was that I believe the Lord used Barth to bring to an end well over a hundred years of theology in Germany that was so ensconced in the Romantic Movement that it had began to equate revelation with events, history, nature, etc. that it no longer upheld the Word of God written or the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

    And I believe God used Lewis, a Christian romantic, to help bring at least a good counterpoint to logical positivism, a philosophy that ruled out any religious or supernatural belief or any kind of moral statement on the grounds that it could not be proven empirically.

    None of the theologians that John mentioned could have aided in those needs. Lewis not only gave the romantic answer he also gave a reasonable Christian answer with out backing down on the Christian essentials. And Barth gave the Christian answers to the overly romantic German theologians without backing down on the essentials either.

    Schleiermacher was trying to produce what he felt was an acceptable apologetic for those skeptics of his age. But he did so by denying the deity of Jesus Christ and the atoning death of Jesus Christ., even the sinfulness of humanity.

    I believe that if God is unable to use us because we reject Christ he will still use us to help Christians to be conformed or molded into people more like Jesus. He will use all things to bring about his own purposes. And I do believe God has a purpose for all Christians.

    Why do we have to choose between God's name and our relationship with him?

    I don’t believe that Panentheism is the same as immanence. The reason I am reading the book I recommended and another is a want eventually to write an article on my blog about the difference between Panentheism and God’s immanence. To say that we live and have our being in God is not the same as saying that we are a part of God. After all a fish that swims in the ocean and takes its oxygen from the ocean is still not the ocean. God is a separate being from his creation.

  10. I do have to say that I personally think it's a bit of a stretch to say that "God was working through Karl Barth, but not Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, or Rosemary Ruether", even though I may agree more often with the former than the latter three.

    I also always have a teensy little wince every time C.S. Lewis gets lumped in with theologians. While there's no doubt he was a brilliant writer, he didn't consider himself a theologian but rather "a very ordinary layman". He may be more readable and quotable than Karl Barth, but they were men of different occupations.

    To use one of my personal favorite authors, I wouldn't consider Graham Greene a Catholic theologian, even though a lot of his writing on faith is brilliant.

    I'm not saying that Lewis isn't useful when discussing Christianity, but that we do need to acknowledge that he didn't consider himself a theologian.

  11. Flycandler,

    I never have the problem of wincing over who is a theologian and who is not. And Barth is one of the people who helped me with that. (Barth, I think, is very quotable.)

    Here is a Barth quote from the Swiss introduction to a book written by a Dr. Arthur Frey in 1938 entitled "Cross and Swastika: the ordeal of the German Church." Dr. Frey was a Swiss political economist, and Barth writes:

    "The Church is not a minister's preserve, but is the affair of the congregation. And in the congregation difference between theologians and non-theologians--the word 'layman' should be condemned to complete oblivion in the Evangelical realm--can only be a technical, not a fundamental, difference. That applies also to questions of doctrine about which rightly this book is concerned. And even the technical difference disappears in the moment when the non-theologian gives practical proof that in regard to theological matters he is so well informed and has reflected on them so deeply that he has something to say."

    Beyond that I don't believe I called Lewis anything but a writer.

  12. Borg has the following to say on panentheism and immanence:

    [T]he most common modern Western concept of God, shared by Christians as well as by many atheists and agnostics, is that the word "God" refers to a personlike being separate from the universe. Because this "superbeing" is not here, but somewhere else, "out there," beyond the universe, God is not a reality than can be experienced. (Borg 2006: 110)

    The term commonly used for this way of thinking of God--as a being separate from the universe--is supernatural theism. This form of theism seems orthodox to many Christians because of its familiarity. Language that speaks of God as a personlike being is common in the Bible. Perhaps the most familiar example is the opening line of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven." But when taken as a concept of God, as the meaning or referent of the word "God," it is misleading and inadequate, for it is only half of the biblical concept of God. It speaks only of God's transcendence, God's beyondness. (Borg 2006: 110)

    The Bible also speaks of God's presence everywhere and in everything. This is most concisely expressed in words attributed to the apostle Paul: God is the one "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28). Note what the language affirms: we live within God, we move within god, we have our existence within God. God is not somewhere else, but right here, all around us, the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. Though this notion sounds foreign to some Christians, it really shouldn't. Most of us heard it while we were growing up: God is everywhere, God is omnipresent. the semitechnical term for this is God's immanence, which means "indwelling." God dwells in everything, and everything dwells within God. For the Bible, and for orthodox Christian theology through the centuries, God is both transcendent and immanent, both more than the universe and present in the universe. (Borg 2006: 111)

    A term increasingly used to name this way of thinking about God is panentheism. Its Greek roots indicate its meaning: pan is the Greek word for "all" or "everything"; theism comes from the Greek word for "God," theos; and the middle syllable en is the Greek word for "in." Panentheism affirms that everything is in God, even as it also affirms that God is more than everything. Though the term is only about two hundred years old, the notion is as ancient as the language of supernatural theism. (Borg 2006: 111)

    But in recent centuries, many Christians began to think of God as only transcendent. The cause of this change was the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. [See Hecht 2003.] Before then, most Christians [and Buddhists] thought of God not only as more than the world, but also as present in the world. The world was shot through with the presence of God. But the Enlightenment led to a new way of thinking of the universe, as a closed-system of matter and energy operating in accord with natural laws. In effect, the Enlightenment removed God from the universe; nature became disenchanted, the world became desacralized. The notion that God is "everywhere," God's immanence, was eclipsed. Panentheism was replaced by supernatural theism. (Borg 2006: 111)

    Personally, I think his argument is cogent, and insightful.

    The question I have is why do some Christians feel a need to deny we are a part of God?

  13. The ancient pagan religions sacrificed their property, animals, and even children to their gods because they thought that without the shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness. The Hebrews believed in this primitive religious practice as well, hence the priestly sacrificial system and elaborate purity rituals.

    Essentially, the "Hebrews believed that 'without the shedding of blood there could be no remission of sin.' They had not found deliverance from the old and pagan idea that the Gods could not be appeased except by the sight of blood, though Moses did make a distinct advance when he forbade human sacrifices and substituted therefor, in the primitive minds of his childlike Bedouin followers, the ceremonial sacrifice of animals."

    Even Paul was unable to escape this primitive religious belief, and viewed the "crucifixion of Jesus as a blood sacrifice canceling out the sins of believers. In antiquity, and still at the time in the temple at Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was thought to effect forgiveness. But we no longer think that was today."(Robinson 2005: 87)

    "It is ironic that Jesus himself, in the parable of the prodigal son, told of a boy who had left home, squandered his inheritance on a very bad lifestyle, and then in desperation returned remorsefully to his father, whereupon the father welcomed him back with open arms. Jesus’ God apparently did not need blood sacrifice to make up for all the bad things the prodigal son had done, much to the dismay of the prodigal son’s self-righteous older brother...." (Robinson 2005: 87)

    We owe a great debt to the fathers of Liberal Christianity, who saw clearly that:

    "The barbarous idea of appeasing an angry God, of propitiating an offended Lord, of winning the favor of Deity through sacrifices and penance and even by the shedding of blood, represents a religion wholly puerile and primitive, a philosophy unworthy of an enlightened age of science and truth. Such beliefs are utterly repulsive to the celestial beings and the divine rulers who serve and reign in the universes. It is an affront to God to believe, hold, or teach that innocent blood must be shed in order to win his favor or to divert the fictitious divine wrath."

    Robinson notes reagarding Paul's teacihng of the atonement doctrine that

    "The outcome has been the Apostles’ Creed, which omits completely Jesus’ Galilean ministry as a Jew in defining who Jesus was and what he did that is worth believing. It is this glaring omission in our understanding of Jesus that the present book is seeking to fill." (Robinson 2005: 87-88)

    I would argue that that was one of the great truths that the Spirit was seeking to teach those fathers of Liberal Christianity, and it is still striving to reveal the full consequences of this truth to humankind.

    James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. HarperSanFrancisco. 2005.

  14. Viola, I simply meant that Lewis did not consider himself an expert on theology and had little formal training in the subject. It doesn't mean at all we have to discount him; however we should bear that in mind, just as Barth warns that many well-trained theologians blindly followed Hitler and Mussolini.

    I simply meant that when reading Lewis, one needs to take him with a grain of salt, as he did with himself.

  15. And Rob, I believe there's a calf who would disagree with you about the prodigal son story (Lk 15.23) ;-)

  16. A response from my blog:

    We must seek and consider God in his works, which for this reason the scripture calls representations of the invisible things…this should teach us all of such a God as it is necessary to know." John Calvin

    I was thinking of the juxtapositioning of natural revelation which starts with human experience versus special revelation which is God revealing God's self in Christ and in scripture.

    I don't see how this division can be sustained. The Christ event as well as the stories of the early church where experienced by humans who lived in nature, in time, and in history. They are recordings of a kind of human experience.

    So there's no way to get around the limitedness of our vision. The apostle Paul can get knocked and still he says we see only in part. But it doesn't limit divine iniative. Afterall, Paul was knocked off his donkey.

    What we're doing is relativizing what we humans say about religion, etc. This is what the Barmen Declaration was doing, what the neo-orthodox did as well. Because we serve a transcendent God all human claims to unquestioned power, authority, are reduced to rags.