Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity

I highly recommend Roger Olson and Christopher Hall’s The Trinity.  This book is part of the Eerdman’s Guides to Theology series.  It appears that there are only two contributions thus far to this series (this and one on feminist theology), so I can’t make any comment on the series as a whole.  Regardless, this volume is a very well done and thought-provoking overview of the doctrine of the Trinity throughout the ages.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Trinity lately and trying to think through how a proper understanding of this biblical truth can impact not only our understanding of God, but also our lives together as Christians.  To this end, this book was very helpful insofar as it provides a concise but thorough look at how believers throughout the ages have understood this doctrine.  This is historical theology at its finest.  The snapshots are not so surface level as to be useless, neither are they so dense as to be cumbersome.  They provide, in my opinion, just enough information to give the reader a general but good sense of where Trinitarian thought was going in various ages of the Church’s life.

To me, this would be a good introduction to any study of the Trinity.  It sets the stage and helps us get a big-picture view of where we’ve been and where we’re going with the doctrine of the Trinity.  That’s a view I like to have when studying a particular doctrine.  It gives perspective and context.  And, as none of us arose out of a vacuum, it helps us understand our own minds.

If you’d like to begin studying Trinitarian theology, this would be a great place to begin.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition

In this fascinating and provocative book, noted historian Jaroslav Pelikan distinguishes between tradition (“the living faith of the dead”) and traditionalism (“the dead faith of the living”) and argues that tradition, far from binding the soul and stifling intuition, creativity, and freedom, provides the foundation on which these things exist and operate. As such, the book seeks to vindicate tradition against its detractors. Pelikan succeeds in creating a book that will cause all who read it to think deeply about tradition, whether one agrees with all of the particulars of the work or not.

As a Baptist, I found Pelikan’s frequent treatment of the Reformation to be very interesting. He is not altogether unsympathetic to Luther. This is good seeing as though he has edited a number of volumes of Luther’s works. Yet he devotes an entire chapter to John Henry Newman (a man he has also written on) and his journey towards understanding tradition that led him to the conclusion that to be intellectually honest he must join the Roman Catholic Church.

Regardless of one’s take on this, there is rich ground for discussion here. Furthermore, in an Evangelical Protestant culture in which the altar of the new seems to have been erected in a whole host of sanctuaries, this call back to the beauty of tradition is refreshing. There seems to be a growing Protestant backlash against the constant wave of innovation and, more so, against the presumptive attitude that demands this of “successful” pastors. I, for one, will attest that this backlash is largely responsible for my own reading of this book.

However, the reader will find no quick fixes here. This book is, at times, difficult, and not all will agree with Pelikan on every point (I didn’t). However, as an alternative to the cult of innovation that has invaded the modern church, we may see this vindication as a breath of fresh air.

Pelikan is to be commended. His is a voice deserving of consideration. I would encourage you to do just that.

Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion

Dancing Alone is the literary equivalent of finger nails on a chalkboard. It is shrill, intense, head splitting, and irrefutably attention grabbing. Having some familiarity with Frank Schaeffer because of my appreciation for his dad, the late Christian writer/pastor/apologist and pseudo-philosopher Francis Schaeffer, I was not completely caught off guard by this. Anyone who has viewed the film series for the book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? knows that Frank, who directed the film for his Dad, is not necessarily…um…subtle.

My wife and I read Frank’s thinly veiled autobiographical book Portofino and found it to be an extremely well written and hilarious book. We look forward to reading the sequel, Saving Grandma, as soon as we can. Dancing Alone is Portofino on speed. It makes and elaborates all of Portofino‘s basic contentions (i.e., the bankruptcy of the modern Protestant movement) but does so with none of Portofino’s charm. In this sense, it is louder than Portofino but not necessarily more persuasive.

But don’t get me wrong: it is persuasive. Frank Schaeffer is one of many Protestants who have joined the Greek Orthodox Church in search of a true depth of worship and a historical validation of theology and church practice. He rightly lambastes the cultural (for that is mainly what it is) “born again” movement and argues instead for a call to conversion that is substantive, grounded in the authentic church, and real.

Schaeffer’s answer to the shallowness of much Protestant life is the utter and complete rejection of Protestantism itself. He feels that Protestantism is inherently unsalvageable due to the fact that the shallowness and emptiness of Protestantism is a necessary outcome of its flawed foundation. I disagree. I disagree very much.

For one thing, Schaeffer’s brush is too wide. I know of no one who would not bemoan the current state of Protestant Evangelicalism. But I dare say that the assertion that there is not vitality in Protestantism borders on hubris and absurdity. God is certainly moving in mighty ways among Protestant believers and much good work is being done. There is also much substantive worship happening as well.

Protestantism is not a monolithic entity, and it appears that there is no longer a real consensus of theology under girding it anymore. I for one argue that certain branches of Protestantism are more legitimate than others. It is impossible to dismiss the whole.

Schaeffer disagrees. He argues that the Orthodox Church is the one, true, apostolic church. But in doing this he has bitten off more than he can possibly hope to chew. He cannot, I am sure, have hoped to dismantle the Protestant theology of the church, salvation, worship, and ecclesiology in this exhausting book, but this is certainly what he wants.

I am glad that Frank Schaeffer is Orthodox. He seems to have found his home. His experiences in fundamentalism were obviously troublesome, and I sympathize with him. In short, his diagnosis of the symptoms are irrefutable. But his diagnosis of the supposed disease behind the symptoms, much less his proposed cure, leaves much to be desired.

John Stott’s Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today

John Stott’s fascinating and controversial book, Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, will almost certainly cause all who read it to rethink many of their assumptions surrounding the Holy Spirit and His work today. In a day in which Pentecostalism is the fastest growing expression of Christianity in the world, this book will be found to be as timely and relevant as it was when written over twenty five years ago. Furthermore, Stott’s work takes its place among the most important and significant pneumatological works available today.

While at all times respectful to those who differ, there can be little doubt that Stott wrote this work as a corrective to the more crude and deficient ideas surrounding the Holy Spirit today. His central thesis seems to be that there is no Biblical basis for the so-called “baptism of the Spirit” as defined as a second, post-conversion, individualistic empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Instead, Stott argues for a universal, one-time “baptism of the Spirit” among all believers at the point of conversion and then differentiates between this and subsequent “fillings of the Spirit” that Christians should rightly pray for. What is more, Stott argues that there is no basis for arguing that speaking in tongues and miraculous healings are signs of a special blessing from the Holy Spirit.

Stott goes on to discuss a myriad of issues surrounding his central theme: the question of miracles today, the definition of “tongues” in the Bible, the number and nature of spiritual gifts, etc. In discussing all of this, Stott employs his characteristic tone of maturity and care. His conclusions are based on solid exegesis and a thoughtful reading of Scripture.

While there is something in this book to make everybody pause, and while there is probably something in this book that everybody might disagree with, it cannot be doubted that Stott’s voice on these issues deserves to be heard. I, for one, greatly appreciate his views on the Spirit (as well as his views on most other things!) and would heartily recommend this book to any who want to think again about this most important issue.

John Stott’s Evangelical Truth

That titan of twentieth century theology, Karl Barth, near the end of his life was asked what the greatest thought he ever had was. He is said to have responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” We may safely believe this was the case, for great men seem to move closer towards the fundamental tenets of their worldviews, not further from them, as they approach the end of life.

It is not surprising, then, to find John Stott seeking to formulate and express the bedrock truths of the faith in this tremendous book. In short, he does a masterful job. After a brief survey of many proposed lists of Evangelical “essentials,” Stott boldly suggests his own:

“It would therefore, in my view, be a valuable clarification if we were to limit our evangelical priorities to three, namely the revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son and the transforming ministry of God the Holy Spirit. All other evangelical essentials will then find an appropriate place somewhere under this threefold and trinitarian rubric” (p.25).

This is what might be called “simple brilliance.” By positing these essentials in a trinitarian format, Stott has achieved an undeniably Biblical schema that can be easily remembered (and taught). Evangelicalism is in desperate need of such a system. Over against these essentials, Stott argues that there is room in the tent for disagreement over the particulars of certain adiaphora (matters indifferent). This list of twelve is sure to raise the hair on the backs of some necks. Some of these are: baptism, the Lord’s supper, church government, worship, charismata and women (in ministry). Stott does not argue that these issues are unimportant. Anybody who knows even a little about Stott and his flirtation with annihilationism knows that he is not one to avoid controversy. However, he argues that Evangelicals may honestly disagree with some of the details of these issues but still hold to the title.

This book will delight some and enrage others. However, if a true theology of consensus is going to be achieved that avoids a “lowest common denominator” faith on the one hand and a presumptive, arrogant faith on the other, this will undoubtedly be the result. Stott has given it a go that, while not perfect, is commendable. You will be changed by this work.

Fisher Humphreys’ Baptist Theology: A Really Short Version

I picked up this little booklet and read it while waiting to see my brother, David, receive his DMin. from the Beeson Divinity School.  They were honoring Dr. Humphreys and had just unveiled a nice collection of essays in his honor, so “Humphreys was in the air”, you might say.

I like Fisher Humphreys.  I never had the opportunity of having him as a professor during my time at Beeson, but I appreciate his work and I really appreciate his spirit and his obvious commitment to Christ.

Baptist Theology: A Really Short Version is part of The Baptist Heritage Library which is put out by the Baptist History & Heritage Society.  I was a tad bit on guard when I started this.  Dr. Humphreys is more “moderate” than I am, to use the language that surfaced during “The Controversy.”  The Baptist History & Heritage Society is likewise a fairly moderate group.  (I do not consider myself a fundamentalist and would frankly reject outright the suggestion that I am.  I’m an Evangelical and a conservative.  These categories overlap, at times, but there are also significant divergences.)

My suspicions were largely unnecessary.  This is a very helpful little booklet that I believe would be a good resource for helping laypeople understand who we are as Baptists.  It is, like all of Dr. Humphreys writings, accessible, practical, and helpful.  I’m very glad I read it and would recommend it, with some reservations.

I’m never terribly comfortable when somebody uses the phrase “most Baptists,” which Humphrey’s uses here a few times.  I probably don’t have any major qualms with the specific ways he uses it.  I did cringe a bit at this sentence:  “This is folk theology, the theology of most Baptists.”  But there again, I would not disagree.

Humphreys has a catholic heart, and he does want to stress that impulse: “The first Baptists treasured the great Christian traditions that they inherited even as they called for changes in beliefs, such as infant baptism.”

On page 12, Humphreys interestingly notes that Calvinism “entered Baptist life early.  It seems to have been a majority tradition for much of Baptist history; for more than two hundred years it was held by a majority of Baptists who wrote systematic theologies.  But today, most Baptists do not accept Calvinist theology.”  This last sentence is likely true, but, then, as Tom Ascol frequently points out, around 60% of Southern Baptists don’t even show up for worship at their own churches.  So there is a bit of a problem appealing to “most Baptists” today, which, let me qualify, Humphreys does only by way of observation and not for any overarching point. (Here, anyway.  He’s ground that axe elsewhere.)

I was intrigued by the suggestion on page 13 that fundamentalists believe in the “near” future return of Christ.  Is this so?  I’m not so sure.

I was prepared to grow irate on page 18 where Humphreys wrote that “Baptists who had been influenced by the Calvinistic theologian John Gill resisted the proposals of William Carey and his supporter Andrew Fuller to send Carey to India as a missionary.”  This is true, of course (i.e., “Sit down young man…”), but then there is the little matter of Carey himself being a Calvinist.  The temperature subsided a bit when I saw endnote 37 at the back of the book which points out that “Carey and Fuller were themselves Calvinists, but of a more evangelical kind than their opponents.”  I’m glad he included this rather important fact, but I do wish it would have been in the body of the text.

I was also intrigued by Humphreys’ definition of Founders Ministries as “an organization that promotes Calvinism among Baptists.”  I suspect that Tom Ascol would find that definition to be a bit too narrow for what Founders does and somewhat misleading as well.

Again, this little booklet is not without its flaws, and one may see the author’s leanings here and there, but, in all, this is an informative and helpful little introduction to Baptist theology.

Timothy George’s (ed.) God the Holy Trinity

I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this collection of essays on the Trinity was.  Edited by Timothy George, these essays were originally delivered at The Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.  The contributors are an impressive lot:  Alister McGrath, Gerald Bray, James Earl Massey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Frederica Mathewes-Green, J.I. Packer, Ellen T. Charry, Cornelius Plantinga, and Timothy George.

The essays approach the Trinity from a number of interesting starting points.  James Earl Massey (a prince of a man!) discusses the Trinity and African-American spirituals.  Avery Cardinal Dulles discusses the Trinity and Christian unity.  In a brief and fascinating essay, Frederica Mathewes-Green discuss the Trinity in the Old Testament.  J.I. Packer gives a very interesting look at Trinitarianism in the thought of John Owen.  Timothy George has penned a very helpful essay on the Trinity and Islam.

As I say, these are compelling essays, and each of them, to varying degrees, is helpful.  The highlights for me are (in this order):  (1) Cornelius Plantinga’s fascinating and soul-stirring sermon, “Deep Wisdom”, (2) Alister McGrath’s balanced and level-headed overview of and cautions concerning modern Trinitarianism, and (3) Timothy George’s careful but clear call for courageous Trinitarianism in the context of conversing with Islam.

I found Ellen Charry’s essay, “The Soteriological Importance of the Divine Perfections”, to be tedious initially, but it ended well and I think I get what she was driving at.  Furthermore, James Earl Massey’s essay, “Faith and Christian Life in the African-American Spirituals”, was good but I do wish it would have been longer.

Get this book.  It will sharpen your thinking about the Trinity.

Gerald Bray’s The Personal God

The Personal God was written a few years back as a response to Clark Pinnock et al’s The Openness of God. Bray’s work is short, but it shows a remarkable precision and depth in responding to the Pinnock and in offering the reader a well-informed and challenging articulation and defense of classical theism. It discusses the charge often brought against classical theism that traditional theology has been held captive by Greek philosophical categories and that our picture of God is therefore skewed. Furthermore, Bray offers an explanation of why Christians believe in God’s immutability, the deity of Christ, and the Trinity.

I found this to be a very challenging and rewarding book. Do not be deceived by its smallness. You will have to take time and work through this book carefully. Bray wastes no words. As an introduction to the current discussions surrounding God’s nature, you will not find a better book.

The Formation of Christian Doctrine with Dr. Malcolm Yarnell

Wyman Richardson:  Dr. Yarnell, I’d like to say from the start that your book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, was refreshing insofar as it constitutes a unique and singular contribution to theological prolegomena from a free-church perspective.  You note in the work the relative absence of prolegomena in our tradition (while acknowledging that some, like Millard Erickson, have made substantial contributions).  Why is this?  Is there something germane to the free-church tradition in particular that makes intentional and substantial attempts at theological prolegomena either undesirable or difficult?

Malcolm Yarnell: I am glad that you enjoyed this aspect of the book, for it is central to understanding the purpose of the monograph. First, let me be clear that there have been free churchmen who have written theological prolegomena, the discussion of theological method. What makes this book different from previous attempts is that it intentionally looks to the confessional practices of the free churches (more particularly, the believers’ churches) for their theological method. I do not think there is anything inherent within the free church tradition that makes such an attempt undesirable or difficult. Rather, the lack of previous attempts indicates the historical placement of the free churches amongst the state-churches.
Believers-only churches were not only disallowed prior to the widespread establishment of religious toleration in the West, they were often severely persecuted. It was difficult for free church theologians to live (one thinks here of martyred theologians such as Balthasar Hubmaier and Michael Sattler), much less have the leisure to reflect upon the difficult problem of theological method. Disclosing the free church theological method is not undesirable to the free churches; rather, historically, the free churches have had to plead for the very right to exist against the persecuting churches of the Roman and Protestant traditions.
Even after toleration of dissenting churches was allowed, our people were kept out of the universities. It was not until the last two centuries that free church theologians began to receive the theological training necessary for such an exercise. Unfortunately, after such training, those theologians in the free churches who were even minimally interested in theological method tended to think in the magisterial manner of the academy in which they were educated, rather than according to the manner of the free churches from which they were called. My hope is that the book will serve as a clarion call for free church theologians to cease forsaking their own churches in favor of an alien paradigm. I have little doubt that some will not like it, precisely because it calls into question their fundamental presuppositions. However, God has never given this particular preacher a comfortable ministry.

Wyman Richardson:  You say on pages 115-116 that the original impetus for this book was the desire to see a free-church response to Cardinal Newman’s famous An Essay on the Development of Doctrine.  As one who is intrigued by Newman’s approach, I found this fact fascinating. You do note that this book is merely a first step and not a complete response to Newman.  I wonder if you feel that such a free-church response is essential today?  Why is this important and do you intend to pursue a more exhaustive response to Newman?

Malcolm Yarnell: John Henry Cardinal Newman is probably the most underrated theologian in the modern era. Most systematic theologians, especially in the Protestant tradition, tend to look toward authors who intend at the most to critique the church rather than build it up, or at the least who construct a theology that the church cannot live. Newman intentionally set out to build up the church and his theology was one that his church could utilize, although in his lifetime this was not always evident. (It was not until after World War II that many Roman Catholics began to see that Newman’s theology was helpful for bringing the Roman Church into conversation with modern humanity.)
Unfortunately, the sheer genius of Newman proved not only beneficial to Roman Catholicism, something that Benedict XVI also recognizes, but it proved attractive to those Protestants seeking a firmer though ultimately elusive historical basis. The brilliant thesis of Martin Luther was in showing that a return to Scripture did not entail submission to Rome; the brilliant thesis of Cardinal Newman was in showing that a return to truth might occur through submission to Rome. (Newman liked liberalism as much as Southern Baptist conservatives do.) In my opinion, Newman’s greatest legacy may be the intellectual subversion of the Reformation, a subversion that occurred while he wrote An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. The crisis of Reformation theology, especially with the current wholesale trend towards ecumenical theology, is found in Newman and his doctrine of doctrinal development.
This is why I believe there must be a response to the English Cardinal. As the free churches have become more aware of the history of the churches in general, they have discovered that Christians in other churches and at other times are not necessarily as depraved as they had sometimes led themselves to believe. This deepening historical awareness, a positive movement, also brought a sense of ecclesiological insecurity, a negative byproduct compounded by a loss of preaching upon biblical ecclesiology. As a result, some free churches have suffered loss of members to the Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran communions, or even more radically, to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Unless the free churches regain their theological foundation, we will continue to see the loss of our distinctives. If this were merely a historical loss, I would not be so exercised. The problem is that it entails the loss of what I believe to be the proper foundation of theology.
Do I plan to address Newman’s ideas with regard to development more deeply in the future? It would be an honor if that were my task. However, Newman deserves a worthier opponent than this middle-aged obscure theologian. When Newman is definitively answered, it must come from a wisdom that I fear I do not yet possess, if ever. However, perhaps someone will see fit to use my preliminary attempt as a basis for addressing Newman. For the sake of the New Testament churches, I believe it must be accomplished.

Wyman Richardson: You rightly bemoan the gutting of the term “evangelical” and the reduction of this word to a kind of “mushy middle”, lowest-common-denominator position that lacks clarity and force.  You also note how the term was originally bound up with ecclesiology but has now been divorced from any polity structure. In reaction, you use the term “evangelical” in its original sense and association with Magisterial Reformation polity and ecclesiology, thereby declaring your own apprehension with applying the term to Baptists.  I was curious, however, about why you did not mention perhaps the most well-known definition of “evangelical,” the Bebbington Quadrilateral?  Doesn’t Bebbington’s definition have more force and substance than the weak, tepid, and market-driven construct that you rightfully reject while at the same time providing a definitional construct that crosses denomination and polity lines?  Cannot a Baptist in good conscience hold to this idea of “evangelical” and not compromise his Baptist identity or lapse into the vacuous approaches that the term popularly carries with it today?

Malcolm Yarnell: Wyman, I appreciate this question tremendously, for it lets me address the evangelical problem from the perspective of modern evangelical historiography, a field upon which whole careers are made and broken. (Did I use the terminology “mushy middle”? I hope not, for that would belittle my respectful concern regarding where the movement may be going.) If I were providing an encyclopedic taxonomy of “evangelicalism,” which was not my intent in the preface, I most certainly would have included the work of David Bebbington. This premier historian’s fourfold definition of evangelicalism as crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism is both historically viable and religiously attractive. If “evangelicalism” were to be authoritatively defined, then Bebbington’s construct would be most attractive. However, for all its merit , the problem is that it is an historical definition and an historian’s definition. As an historical definition, which is all I imagine the professional historian Bebbington meant for it to be, it is subject to the vagaries and variances inevitable with the movement of history; as an historian’s definition, it carries no authority beyond those academics and others personally persuaded by the writings of Bebbington (and I am one of those). Bebbington’s definition has gained wide and deserved credibility among historians of the evangelical period from the late-eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.
But ultimately, the definition of “evangelical,” even by such an accomplished historian as David Bebbington, is subject to the same problem outlined in my preface: it lacks ecclesiological normativity. Unless a church decides its own meaning of “evangelical,” it will always be subject to shifts in meaning, according to whatever the latest poll and the reporting pollster indicate. Sociology is a poor substitute for biblical theology, as I pray church leaders will increasingly discern. Academics, whether historical, sociological, or theological, for all of its helpfulness, possess no ecclesiological authority whatsoever. Jesus Christ established the churches as his agents of reconciliation with the world, and no para-church institution or employee may lay claim to such divine mandate. As a result, it would be grossly presumptuous of any Christian academy to assume for itself theologically normative authority. As to your last question in this group, a Baptist church as a free church can do whatsoever it desires with the term, “evangelical.” Wisely, most have preferred to leave the matter alone, perhaps because they intuitively recognize that the term is unstable. Theology deserves a firmer foundation than that.

Wyman Richardson: I’m curious about your methodology. You choose to speak throughout the book through association with various figures and positions.  As such, your proposals are presented somewhat vicariously through representative persons and episodes within historical theology.  I wonder what you see as the particular strengths of writing theology in this particular manner? Why did you choose to write the book like this?

Malcolm Yarnell: The particular strength of writing a biblical systematic theology with great respect for the contributions of history is that it helps keep a person honest. When theologians claim undue creativity, they are contradicting the preacher (koheleth) of the Old Testament: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The sensitive theologian will recognize that the biblical exegesis that we attempt is really just a new presentation of some old problem. Moreover, I personally believe it is wise to rely upon our theological forefathers. The truly great theologians are those who recognize the exegetical contributions of those who came before us. Respect for one’s elders seems to be a lost virtue in this emergent age, following closely upon the heels of the self-sufficient liberal age. When we theologians assume that we can read the Bible apart from the witness of the churches through the ages, we display a despicable pride.
Finally, as I indicated in the preface, theology is best done in community. The great thing for the modern historian is that the works of the early fathers, the medieval theologians, the Reformers, the modernists and fundamentalists, and those who do not fit well in a particular period are so widely available. Why not ground one’s theology in the Great Tradition, even as one provides a biblical critique of the various traditions that are grounded in the movement of God throughout history? Historical theology at its best is biblical theology conducted in conversation with the great Christian thinkers that have come before us.

Wyman Richardson: Methodist theologian Tom Oden has introduced a number of younger Baptists (like myself, ironically, in a Southwestern Seminary chapel service) to the Vincentian Canon through his paleo-orthodoxy programme.  You are sympathetic to the importance of antiquity, universality, and consent, noting that theological neophilia is an act of “hubris.”  Yet you are ultimately skeptical of the idea of a “patristic consensus,” pointing instead to the numerous conflicts, contradictions, and variances in patristic thought.  Yet Oden and others are quite passionate about the existence of a “classical Christian consensus” (Oden’s term).  Granting the maddening variety in patristic thought, was there not a core consensus or recognized orthodoxy on a number of key issues? Is consensus really so elusive when one considers the patristic writings?

Malcolm Yarnell: Thomas Oden is one of the greatest theologians alive this day. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hosting him as the guest lecturer for our annual Day-Higginbotham Lecture series at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have an abiding appreciation and hearty approval for his efforts to encourage what he refers to as “young fogies,” by which he means younger theologians who are highly interested in orthodoxy. And I would classify myself as one of those who encourage our students to know and ground themselves in classical Christianity. I do this in two ways: First, at the basic level, I utilize the major orthodox creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Formula of Chalcedon, Quicunque Vult) and encourage my students to know them, even memorize them. Second, at the more advanced level, I lead my fellow students, who have graciously allowed me to shepherd them, to read the major theologians of East and West, including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, for instance.
However, I want my students, while they appreciate the brilliant contributions of the early church theologians, to see that they were not perfect. Like theologians today, they had their blind spots. What Protestant or free churchman can truly justify the sacerdotal system constructed by Cyprian, a system that has distracted many from the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross by focusing upon the sacrifice of the priest? What true Christian really wants to excuse the persecuting society that Augustine clearly justified in his theological innovations? The point I try to make in the book is one that is largely bypassed in the current rush to patristic theology: Although I personally believe we should hold to a basic Christian orthodoxy, which the early church fathers worked through especially with regard to Trinity and Christology, I also believe we must read the fathers critically. When we treat one theologian or synod or historical period with singular authority, we have in effect undermined the biblical canon.
Similarly, when it comes to the various periods of historical theology, although I have two degrees in Reformation theology, I refuse to treat the Reformation uncritically. This is why I do not measure orthodoxy through the ancient creeds alone or by the Synod of Dort, etc. And this is why I argue that the free churches must be willing to listen to the church fathers, the medieval schoolmen, the Reformers, as well as the modernists and fundamentalists. However, standing in judgment above every theologian, every council, and every period is Jesus Christ, who reveals Himself through the Bible. If we look at theology or theologians or their books or their conciliar decrees other than through the cross of Christ, we will err. We must ever be careful to follow Christ alone as revealed in the Bible alone through the illumination of the Spirit alone in the midst of the gathered body of Christ.

Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline

Speaking in the summer of 1946, Karl Barth delivered a series of lectures to a group of faculty and students at the University of Basel.  Against the backdrop of the massive societal upheaval of World War II, Barth chose to allow the Apostles’ Creed to act as his outline for the lectures.  In commenting on the various articles of the Creed, Barth revealed an approach to theology that is at once rooted in the classical confession of the Church yet relevant to his modern context as well.  An evaluation of the lectures reveals a number of consistent characteristics among his approach to dogmatics.  Barth’s lectures reveal that he saw Christian dogmatics as being necessarily proclaimed, epistemologically ultimate, biblically based, tied in with the greater historical witness of the Church, restored to its true form in the Reformation, and, above all, relevant.

Barth defines dogmatics as the proper content of the Christian proclamation.  He contended that dogmatics stands “halfway between exegesis and practical theology” (12).  That is, dogmatics is neither the science of interpretation nor the act of application.  Rather, dogmatics is concerned with a foundation of content on the basis of which we speak.

It is essential that the place of proclamation in Barth’s conception and approach to dogmatics be discussed as it stands antecedent to all other attributes of his methodology.  For Barth, proclamation is the sine qua non of dogmatics.  The call to proclaim runs throughout the entire series of lectures.  When considering his sense of urgency and necessity in discussing proclamation, it is imperative to consider not only the personal risk Barth took in not accommodating his proclamation in Hitler’s Germany, but also the certain poignancy and tension of his comments as they were directed to German Christians who were just then having to deal with the tragedy of the German Church’s overall silence during the turbulent years of the war.  This is not to suggest that Barth’s emphasis on proclamation was somehow deceptive or intent upon correction or rebuke per se, or that it was not germane to the overall flow of his thought and approach to dogmatics, but only that there may have been a pastoral intention behind the emphasis as well.

Barth posits proclamation into the very meaning of dogmatics.  For Barth, dogmatics is not merely concerned with content but more so with “the content of proclamation in the Christian Church” (11).  In fact, he argues that “there would be no dogmatics” if it were not the Church’s responsibility to proclaim its content.  He saw proclamation as necessary not only to the definition of dogmatics, but of Christianity as well.  In his twenty-third lecture he noted that “Christians are messengers in Christ’s stead” (149).

The issue of proclamation stands behind two of the most impassioned and personal comments that Barth makes, with the possible exception only of his discussion of National Socialism in the eleventh lecture.  The first instance is one in which Barth speaks out against the concept of insular Christianity.  While discussing “Faith as Confession” in his fourth lecture, Barth first of all condemns any attempt at a personalized and non-proclaimed faith as actually uncommittment and dishonesty.  He then concludes this lecture by upbraiding faith that is lived in a “snail’s shell” as essentially disbelief.  The second instance comes in a fascinating and moving episode in which Barth reveals that some have approached him with concerns about how his lectures may be making non-Christians in the audience feel.  He notes that he has “always laughed” at such concerns and points to the Church’s commission to speak as well as the power of Christianity to bind people together.

All of this is to show that Barth not only deemed proclamation as the essence of dogmatics, but also that he lived in fundamental integrity with this belief.  One senses in the exclamation points, intensity, and colloquialisms of his speech at these points that the issue of proclamation stands as a watershed issue in his own mind.  It was an issue that nearly cost him his life as a professor and an issue which he obviously believed would either validate or refute the Church and for all that it stands.

Concomitant with Barth’s emphasis on proclamation is his obvious conviction concerning the primacy or epistemological ultimacy of Christian dogmatics.  It is of no small import that Barth speaks on the primacy of the Christian revelation most fully in his twelfth lecture, “God’s Only Son.”  Thus, his belief in the ultimacy of Christianity is fundamentally Christological.

Barth acknowledges the existence of a whole host of non-Christian teachings and assertions.  He does not deny that many of these have very important things to say.  Nonetheless, he concludes that “we must say of these revelations, that they are lacking in a final, simply binding authority” (82-83).  Thus, Barth rejected an excessively latitudinarian ecumenism that reduces the truth-claims of Christianity to being merely one set of pronouncements among many others of equal importance.  Furthermore, Barth points to Christ and, specifically, to His divinity as the foundation for his assertions.  Christ was God and, as such, speaks with a final authority (84).

Barth’s understanding of the primacy of Christian dogmatics is crucial insofar as it stands against the grotesquely simplistic relativism of a modern pluralistically religious society.  His claim is also interesting as it stands in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust.  In today’s society, assertions of Christian epistemological ultimacy are often pointed to as that which formed the ideological basis for such horrors as the anti-Semitic underpinnings of the “final solution,” among other things.  To find, then, in Barth, a man who risked life and limb to oppose the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s National Socialism yet, at the same time, who proclaimed the finality of the Christian message, is to find one of the too few examples of true Christian integrity in the war-torn Europe of the mid-twentieth century as well as an answer to the claim that such assertions of primacy equate to the atrocities of anti-Semitism.

Barth’s approach to dogmatics also reveals that he felt the Christian scriptures to be of essential importance in the formation of our dogmatic assertions.  Throughout the entire series of lectures, while using the Apostolic Creed as his framework, Barth immerses his discussion thoroughly in scripture.  In fact, he sees the Bible as the “standard” by which all claims must be weighed (13).  That is, the truthfulness or falseness of our claims is determined by their fidelity to the biblical text.  Barth also understood the Bible to be the clarifying and deciding factor in our understanding of church government (146).

It is more than clear that Barth cherished the Reformation maxim of sola scriptura.  To begin with, he appeals to scripture as the authoritative objective standard of truth in the Christian Church.  Such subjective appeals as those made to “my thoughts, or my heart” do not carry the weight of scripture (13).  Again, in his exaltation of the Bible over subjective experience, Barth stands in contrast to the modern groundswell of sympathy for purely existentialist expressions of faith which possess little more than the adherents’ whims and fancies as the grounds for their assertions.

What is more, Barth, while showing great respect for the historic confessions of the Church, as is evidenced by his use of the Apostle’s Creed and not-infrequent appeals to the Heidelberg Catechism, nonetheless saw such creeds as secondary to Scripture (13).  No doubt this conviction lies behind Barth’s insistence that the Church concern itself with the careful study and proclamation of the Bible and that it not let the scriptures denigrate into “a dead book with a cross on the cover and gilt edging” (146).  In so doing, Barth’s view of the authority of the Bible must be seen as thoroughly reformed.

Yet, Barth’s understanding of biblical authority did not negate that possibility of dogmatic expressions whose linguistic expressions do not match with legalistic strictness the form of the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek New Testament.  This is made clear in Barth’s discussion of Christ in his twelfth lecture.  In speaking of the divinity of Christ, Barth appeals with approval to the Nicene Creed’s language.  He then speaks against those who protest that the language of the Creed is not the language of scripture, noting that the “Bible is not a letter-box” and that the Church is justified in speaking theological truths on the basis of scripture even if those truths are expressed in words not found in the Bible itself (85).  This is significant insofar as it offers a corrective against unduly restrictive understandings of scripture and theological discourse.  For Barth, the truths of scripture, not scripture’s particular articulation of those truths, were exclusive.

While Barth’s dogmatics are biblical in nature, and while he asserts the supremacy of scripture over all of the confessions of the church, the prominence of the Church’s historic expressions of faith in these lectures warrants the claim that Barth saw the historic witness of the Church as crucial to the formulation and accurate proclamation of Christian verities as well.  There is, of course, the obvious and overshadowing presence of the Apostle’s Creed in Barth’s lectures.  He explains that he chose the model of the Creed simply because of its familiarity and that many other models might suffice, but one would not be remiss in seeing Barth’s appeal to the Creed as reflective of his own belief in the sustaining presence of God’s hand throughout the history of the Church.  It is more than ironic that a man who is considered by many to be perhaps the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century should model his lectures on the Creed, but it is certain that Barth would not have found it so.  It is clear that he felt himself to be standing in the stream of the great witness of the Church throughout time.

While acknowledging that the confessions of the historic Church is not “binding” upon us in the manner in which scripture is binding, Barth nonetheless acknowledges a “non-binding” authority.  He argues for taking the witness of the Church throughout time “seriously,” and, in a fascinating image, likens the authority of those who have preceded us to the authority of a parent over a child (13).  Thus, we should honor the historic confessions of the church.  In fact, Barth twice scolds those Christians who would make light of, neglect, or easily dismiss the historic witness of the Church.  In his defense of the language of the Nicene Creed regarding the deity of Christ, Barth labels the dismissal of “orthodoxy” as “barbaric,” uneducated, and disrespectful (85).  Later, in his fourteenth lecture, Barth defends the Council of Chalcedon’s articulation of “hypostatic union” and dismisses the modern weariness of such articulations as “plebeian” and the result of a “barbaric intellectuality.”  In truth, Barth, on these two different occasions, seems almost frustrated with the Church’s shallow respect for the historic Church’s efforts in articulated theological verities.

One shudders to think what Barth would make of the shockingly excessive individualism of modern American Protestantism.  Too many expressions of modern Protestantism resemble a ship without an anchor.  The banality of the superficial “Jesus and me” mentality exhibited time and again in our churches is less a result of the indisputable overall downplaying of the mind in our church contexts than it is a deliberate determination that the historic witness of the church is simply not as important as the subjective and often emotivistic experience between the individual and Jesus at this moment.  The emptiness of many Protestant expressions of worship have even led to something of an exodus of Protestants to Greek Orthodoxy and even Roman Catholicism.  One of the primary reasons for such moves is the perceived and oftentimes actual neglect of historical moorings among Protestants.  Against such debilitating impediments as these, Barth’s respect for the patristic and confessional utterances of the Church offers a resounding rebuke.

It must be noted too that Barth’s approach to dogmatics was fundamentally Reformed.  His appeal to sola Scriptura has already been mentioned, but there remains a number of indications of his affinity for the witness of the Reformed church in particular.  In Barth’s twenty-second lecture on the Church, he makes a rather fascinating comment which can be taken as a summary of his thoughts concerning the history of the Reformation.  He comments that “the Reformers came and the Roman Church remained behind the Reformed Church and separated from it” (145).  By claiming that it was the Roman Church which separated from the Reformed Church and not vice versa, Barth was making a none-too-subtle statement regarding his belief that it was the Reformed Church which carried on the true gospel.  In this sense, the Roman Church was the schismatic church.

This idea is also implicitly evident in Barth’s use of the Apostolic Creed in his articulation of a reformed theology.  The very sight of a reformed theologian using the Apostolic Creed as his framework suggests that a conviction concerning the restorative nature of reformed theology to the purity of apostolic doctrine is evident.  It is obviously assumed by Barth that, if not necessarily in all of their particulars, the theologies of Luther and Calvin may generally stand with the Creed in theological unity.

Barth’s reformed proclivities are further evident in his frequent appeals to Calvin, Luther, and the Hiedelberg Catechism.  He appeals to Calvin in his discussion of the creation and of the Church (58, 142).  He interacts with Luther in his discussion of heaven and earth and the lordship of Christ, and references him in discussing baptism (60, 88, 150).  In so doing, Barth gives his stamp of affirmation to the validity of knowing and studying the theology of the reformers.  More than this, by offering these sentiments in the context of the Protestant church of Germany, Barth was implicitly pointing to the ongoing validity of reformation itself.  He did not interact with the reformers solely because his particular church context called for such or because he chose to use them as mere historical examples.  Thus, not only the particulars of the reformers’ theology is worthy of our consideration, but their belief that the church in every age needs to be reflective and reforming is as well.

The modern Protestant church would do well to mark Barth’s belief in the relevancy of reformed theology.  Too many churches seem to regard the maxims of the Reformation as either irrelevant studies in historical theology, or else they are merely assumed without understanding the reformers’ arguments that lie beneath them.  Barth’s lectures reveal a familiarity and interaction with the reformers which suggests that their words need not only to be heard, but comprehended in the modern church.

The most interesting aspect of Barth’s dogmatics is his application of theological truths to his particular day and society.  By applying the truths of the Creed to the particular social, ecclesiastical, and political circumstances of postwar Germany, Barth was suggesting that theology truly belongs not in the ivory tower, but on the street.  While he may, at times, indulge in speculative theology, Barth was no mere speculative theologian.  He makes this clear in his quite moving statement from the fourth lecture:  “If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life” (32).  Theology, for Barth, spoke to the present day if it spoke at all.  This is clearly seen in many instances in his dogmatics.

In his discussion of Christ as the Savior, Barth addresses the issue of anti-Semitism within the Church by reminding his audience of the Jewishness of Jesus as well as of the place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan.  In fact, Barth suggests that the Church will suffer if it does not properly understand the place of Israel in salvation history (75).  From here, he moves on to a strong condemnation of “the anti-Semitic core” of National Socialism (76).

By even addressing what was certainly a relevant and emotionally-charged issue around the entire world in the mid-twentieth century, Barth showed great daring and acumen.  More than that, however, he showed that the Church cannot and dare not remain silent at the risk of offending those who might disagree.  Furthermore, Barth showed that the Church must not be afraid to address the matters of the state.  His discussion of National Socialism therefore shows the Church that, whatever its views of the relationship of church and state might be, it must not cease to speak where there is evil.
Without trying to read into Barth’s discussion of relevant political issues more than is warranted, it must be noted that he would have seen any church’s refusal to address political issues at all as unfortunate.  It seems within many American churches as if political issues and social issues are taboo as far as sermons are concerned.  On the other end of the spectrum, it seems as if some churches speak of little else.  Barth appears to offer a mediating position.  His concern is primarily theological, yet it necessarily must address certain political instances as theology.  In other words, Barth certainly considered himself to be “doing theology” while discussing National Socialism as much, if not more so, as he did when discussing the language of Chalcedon.  Theology, to Barth, was not only penultimate, it was expansive and encroached upon all areas of life by necessity.

On a smaller scale, Barth’s discussion of political issues strikes at the very root of the unfortunate secular/religious dichotomy that many believers have claimed for their own beliefs.  Barth certainly would have recoiled at the American believers who suggest that their beliefs in God do not affect their political understandings or their stances on social issues (92).  The assumptions behind the “religiously conservative/socially liberal” dichotomy, for example, would have seemed unwarranted to him. If this state of belief were reached after careful theological reflection, it would be legitimate as a matter of conviction.  But this distinction has become a cheap way out for many within the church not to have to apply theological truths to contemporary life.  Most tragically, it represents a theological fallacy by assuming that God’s pronouncements may be compartmentalized in one corner of our greater ideologies to the extent that they do not intrude upon other beliefs.

So strident were Barth’s convictions in this regard that he proclaimed making “the Confession heard in the sphere of the world” to be the “one task” of the Church (33).  Subsequently, he rebuked the Church for its all-too-often irrelevant language.  The Church is to speak the truths of God in the language of its culture.  In this sense, Barth saw theology as inherently evangelical.  It must be taken to the world in terms that the world can understand.  Perhaps here, more than in any other area, Barth puts a burden on the preaching ministry of the church.  Pastors must proclaim God’s truth in ways in which it can be comprehended.  More generally, Barth intended this idea to be applied to all believers.

One need not wonder long what Barth would have made of many churches and denominations that have become so inward focused as to make them largely irrelevant in the culture.  On the other hand, it can only rightly be argued that Barth did not intend in his arguments for relevancy for churches to achieve this at the expense of truth.  Specifically, Barth’s dogmatics show that he would have no tolerance for radical expressions of “seeker-sensitive” churches which downplay and even neglect Christian teaching in an effort to reach people.  We are to be relevant, but we are to be relevant with and in God’s truth.

Furthermore, Barth’s call for theological earnestness and efforts towards relevancy throughout these lectures stand as something of an indictment against much of the North American church growth philosophies.  Barth would have looked at some of the more bizarre expressions of this philosophy with disdain.  Translating, as he called it, “the language of the pulpit” into the language of the people does not mean you jettison the truths being expressed in the pulpit or even that you seek to remove their offensiveness to modern ears.  Rather, it means that you take the message of Christ, which is necessarily offensive and intrusive as it speaks to all areas of human life, and communicate it in such a way that lost men and women in a particular society may comprehend it.

A careful study of Barth’s dogmatics would do much good for today’s churches.  Whether one agrees with all of Barth’s methodologies and arguments, his attempts at communicating classical Christian expressions within the context of a turbulent and broken cultural and societal atmosphere stand as a wonderful example to the modern Church of how to go about speaking the truths of God.  His refusal to compromise his theological convictions or to remain quiet on the issues surrounding his particular cultural and political surroundings present a model that any Church would be wise to emulate.