Category Archives: Barth

The Meaning of Love – A Conference Review

For the past five years Biola’s Center for Christian thought has been holding conferences which have addressed various big questions, such as: “What is Christian scholarship and how should it influence culture?” “How can psychology shed light on the process of spiritual formation” “What are the chief intellectual virtues that promote civil discourse within societies?” “What is the relationship between neuroscience and the soul?” This year CCT’s annual conference revolved around the question: “What is the meaning of love?”

Gathered at Biola’s beautiful campus on an unusually rainy Southern California weekend a wide variety of theologians, philosophers, pastors, psychologists, and social scientists gathered to see if they could make some progress on a constellation of questions related to the meaning of love. The conference, which was held on May 6th-7th, consisted of eight plenary sessions and twenty four breakout sessions. The contributors came from all over the map. There were presenters from Southern California institutions, including Biola, Fuller Seminary, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount among others. Presenters also came from institutions from all over the US, including the University of Kentucky, Texas A&M, Baylor, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Princeton Seminary. The fact that so many of the presenters came from different disciplines and different parts of the country made for quite an interesting experience. This diversity really embodied the CCT’s goal of creating an environment in which Christian scholars from a variety of disciplines can work collaboratively on some of the most important issues of our day.

 

The Conference – A Summary

The conference was kicked off by philosopher-theologian Thomas Jay Oord. His lecture was quite fitting for an opening lecture of a conference on the meaning of love, as his was the only plenary session which explicitly attempted to give a definition of love. During his lecture Oord defined love by saying, “To Love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well being.” He proceeded to unpack the various elements of this definition. The work Oord did in providing a definition of love proved to be quite fruitful as his definition often ended up being a point of discussion in various other plenary and breakout sessions.

Thomas Oord’s lecture was followed by Frances Howard-Snyder’s lecture which was titled “An Ethics of Love and Future Generations.” Here she focused on the second great commandment, “Love Your neighbor as yourself.” She wondered whether this commandment can help us think through the non-identity problem in ethics. Briefly the non-identity problem focuses on the obligations we think we have in respect of people who, by our own acts, are caused both to exist and to have existences that are in some sense unavoidably flawed. Her talk revolved around a thought experiment in which a mother is faced with two choices of 1) conceive a child now, knowing the child will be handicapped or 2) wait to have a child, and know the child will develop without any disabilities. She concluded that an ethic based on the second commandment would allow the mother to follow through with case one. Her conclusions received some intense pushback during the question and answer time, especially from Nicholas Wolterstorff. However, this sort of pushback and discussion embodied CCT’s spirit of civility in the midst of disagreement.

The first two sessions approached the topic from a somewhat philosophical perspective, but the third and fourth sessions approached the issue from the social sciences. Lynn G. Underwood, presented a social science approach to understanding the concept of love. Her lecture focused on research done at a Trappist monastery and the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, in which four out of the sixteen questions focus explicitly on divine love. Out of her research at the monastery she discovered various practices for strengthening love. Her research on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale pointed to the fact that those who had higher scores on this scale tended to experience lower burnout rates and tended to report a greater loving attitude towards others. Her findings had some very practical implications for ministers in the audience. Not only did she address some ways to grow in love, but also she addressed some important issues of pastoral burnout.

Bennet Helm’s lecture focused on what he calls “Communities of Respect.” These communities hold each other accountable to certain binding communal norms. His research focused on whether or not this concept of “Communities of Respect” can provide a foundation for an objective morality based on an ethics of care. He provided an argument for how this may be so by turning to Kant who claimed that “concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.” Thus, in Helm’s reading of Kant, the upshot is that objectivity requires grounding of moral theory in experience. Helm’s conclusion seemed to be that the community’s understanding of what ethics of care looks like will be grounded in that community’s conceptual schemes. After the lecture, some concerns were raised as to whether Helm had read Kant correctly and whether this account can actually provide a robust account of objectivity that Helm seemed to be after.

The final plenary session of the first day happened immediately after a dinner reception in which the attendees were served a delicious full course meal. Here Nicholas Woltersorff built upon earlier research on the relationship between love as beneficence and justice by turning to the relationship between love as attraction and justice. Love as attraction and justice are two modes of acknowledging embedded goodness. Thomas Aquinas defines beautiful things as those which please when they are seen or heard. Thus, For Aquinas beauty is a recognition of the embedded goodness of a thing. Thus, Wolterstorff made the connections and argued that in a way, attraction and justice are intimately related to recognizing the beauty of a thing.

Nicholas Wolterstorff giving the final plenary of day one at the conference.

Saturday morning’s first session was kicked off by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger. With what might have been the most creative plenary session, Hunsinger compared the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with that of Karl Barth. One would be hard pressed to find other scholarly work making this sort of comparison. The lecture began with an explanation of Barth’s account of agape. Barth’s definition of God’s agape includes four elements: 1) a concern for fellowship, 2) a disregard for aptitude or worthiness in the object  of love, 3) it is an end in itself, and 4) it is necessary. He then turned to the mystery of evil in Barth and Tolkien. He pointed out the affinities between Barth’s account of evil as das Nichtige (Nothingness) and Tolkien’s description of the Witch King of Angmar – the Lord of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. Both the Witch King of Angmar and das Nichtige are conflicted and absurd, actual and empty, a symbol of an impossible possibility. The defeat of both of these elements cannot be divorced from longsuffering, which is a crucial aspect of agape.

The final two plenary sessions were delivered by Stephen Post and Alan Tjeltveit. Post argued that a recognition of the image of God in every human being can provide the basis for the practice of agape love toward those whom he called “the deeply forgetful” i.e. those with dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc. Post drew upon his experiences to give real life examples of what it would look like to show love towards this particular group of people. Tjeltveiet showed how a two-way interaction between psychological research and theological insights can shed light on issues which impede love and provide practices which can help provoke love towards others. These practices include being careful how we use the word love, training our emotions, choosing our social contexts wisely, developing empathy, choosing to perceive the worth and goodness of others through God’s eyes, and finally, but perhaps most importantly, allowing God’s grace to develop the virtue of love within us.

In addition to these plenary lectures there were a number of breakout sessions. These breakout sessions covered a wide variety of topics including: medieval theology of love, non-violence and love, definitions of love, love and technology, biblical accounts of love, and philosophical perspectives on love. Most of these breakout sessions were marked by quality presentations of original research and lively discussion after each paper.

 

Some Thoughts About the Conference…

This was my first time at a Center for Christian Thought conference, but suffice it to say that I walked away from it very impressed. First, the environment was excellent, and I’m not just talking about the venues for the main sessions and the breakout sessions, though they were superb. I’m talking about the tone and feel of the conference. The environment was collegial. There was a real sense that everyone present was there to support one another’s work and research. Though at times some of the responses were critical, they were always critical for the purpose of building up. The environment was productive. Some of the presenters that I talked to really felt as though they received really good constructive feedback during the sessions which will help them improve their work. Also, some new lines of research were opened up for some of the participants. One could hear chatter during the breaks about future lines of research on the subject of love. Finally, the environment was fun. That isn’t usually what you expect from an academic conference, but it was fun nevertheless. There was a sort of lightheartedness that pervaded most of conference. Whether it was Thomas Oord or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s jokes, discussions at lunch over gourmet sandwiches and salads, or the root beer float reception at the end, the conference was quite enjoyable.

But more than being a great environment for the conference, another feature of the weekend that stood out to me was the strength of most of the presentations. Naturally there were a few that were not as impressive (including a couple of the plenary sessions), but most of them did what good research does, i.e. they presented original ideas and/or further lines for future research. A few that stood out to me as being especially strong where Thomas Jay Oord, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alan Tjeltveit’s lectures. In my opinion each of these lecturers embodied what the CCT is all about. They were doing serious Christian scholarship which will have further implications for not only the church but for society in general.

Overall, I came to the end of this conference with the opinion that more of these kinds of conferences need to happen. We need more rigorous Christian scholarship that has an eye towards serving the world and the church. We need more opportunities for scholars who take their faith seriously to interact with others who share the same goal if doing scholarship for the sake of the world. We need more venues for this sort of scholarship to happen and to flourish. Although it was my first time at this conference, I see that Biola has a good thing going with the Center for Christian Thought. I look forward to seeing what they have in store for the community of Christian scholars next year.

Agape and the Long Defeat – George Hunsinger

Saturday’s first plenary was delivered by George Hunsinger. He is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He earned his degrees at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. He is most noted for being a leading expert on Karl Barth. His paper brought together two, (to my knowledge) conversation partners that have never been brought together, namely Tolkien and Barth.

Introduction

  • Tolkien as “author of the century”
  • Like Tolkien, Barth can be considered “century’s greatest theologian”
  • Little work has been done to compare the two
  • 1st – how Barth understands agape, 2nd – meaning of evil, 3- eschatology of agape

barth

Meaning of Agape

  • Not benevolence, beneficence, compassion
  • Agape has these but adds – a desire to give oneself, union w/other, self giving for the sake of koinonia
  • Summary of Agape
    • God’s loving is concerned w/a seeking and creation of fellowship for its own sake by loving us in JC – God take us up into fellowship/communion that God enjoys as Holy Trinity
    • God’s loving us is concerned is w/o reference to aptitude or worthiness of the object of love. God’s agape is not conditioned by any prior reciprocity of love. God doesn’t love us b/c we are lovable, lovable because he loves us.
    • God’s loving is an end in itself. God doesn’t even will his own glory for his own sake, but for the sake of his agape. God loves b/c he loves. His agape is the supreme end which includes all other ends in itself.
    • God’s agape is necessary. It belongs to him primordially and by definition. Its eternal as God is eternal in his triune life.

The Mystery of Evil in Barth and Tolkien

  • Convergences exist in their depiction of evil. See Barth and Nothingness vs. Witch King of Angmar – the Lord of the Nazgul
  • Nothingness – act of cosmic power, destruction, chaos, ruin. Its inexplicable, can’t be explained only described. Origin is obscure, but effects are not. The impossible possibility. Actual yet empty at the same time. God did not create it. God defeats it at great cost to himself. No right to exist, serves no greater good. Not means to some higher end.
    • The answer to the problem of evil is not an argument but a name
  • Tolkien’s Lord of the Nazgul captures something of Barth’s Nothingness.
    • Conflicted and absurd, actual and empty simultaneously,
    • Good symbol of Barth’s impossible possibility
    • Image for the paradox of evil, powerful yet hollow at the same time.

306c2dc333b400083776270f22eeac98

Eschatology of Agape

  • Tolkien writes w/ idea that evil must be fought w/knowledge that we cannot ultimately defeat evil. “We have fought the long defeat.” No victory is complete, evil rises again, even victory brings loss. But the long defeat is not the last word.
    • There can be no true theology of glory divorced from the theology of the cross.
    • For Paul agape cannot be divorced from longsuffering

George Hunsinger’s Lecture on Barth & the Trinity

What’s George Doing on CSPAN!?!?!

Last week in our Trinity Seminar George Hunsinger led a discussion about Church Dogmatics 1.1 Sections 8-12. Here are some notes that you might find helpful/interesting:

Reading for the Outline

Barth has a very detailed outline by which he structures Church dogmatics. “Every paragraph is written around a central mainpoint” if you read each mainpoint you can reconstruct his outline. You can go paragraph by paragraph and find out the main point.

Pronoun Problem

Keep track of the antecedent of the pronoun. If you get lost start looking for the pronoun and trace it back to the antecedent.

Barth’s Modalism

Many people have come away from Barth with the impression that its modalistic.

How are ones and trinity related? Dialectically! Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.

He wants oneness and trinity to both be basic, and not privilege one over the other.

Another reason for this dialectical organization is that the reality of God is ineffable for God.

Trinitarian Language

Language – oneness and threeness are not univocal nor equivocal, but we are driven to use these terms. So we always have to have a recognition that we are using these terms in a peculiar way.

The preposition “in” does a lot of work in Barth’s theology. Barth is sort of “mystical” – the three persons are “co-inherent’ in the divine ousia. The divine ousia is co-inherent in the divine hypostasis.

Koinonia

The indivisible divine being is a given – the three are mutually participating in one another…. The Holy Trinity for Barth is a communion. For Barth – Koinonia is ultimate reality. Its not “being” itself but “being” in relation and in communion. The telos is “koinonia.”

Economic/Immanent Relations and Epistemology is Asymmetrical

The unknowability of God is given in and with the knowability of the Holy Trinity. The unknowable part of God is still Trinitarian.

What he is in revelation He is antecedently in Himself. And what he is antecedently in Himself He is in revelation. (466) We don’t know about the immanent trinity directly. As far as knowledge of God is concerned we go from economy to immanent. God is not a different God than the one in all eternity. When we know God in Christ, we are taken up and participating in the truth of God’s self knowledge. This is the danger of Rahner’s rule… the immanent Trinity is a different form of the Economic Trinity. Its an asymmetrical relation.

The Divine Ousia

One thing we find in Barth, and not Moltmann and Jenson is that God’s ousia is invidisible. Barth upholds a strong version of divine simplicity. This has to do with the otherness of God. If you weaken simplicity you weaken your concept of eternity. You are in danger of making eternity someone = temporality and adding a dependent element into the Godhead. The divine ousia is one and indivisible and also living at the same time.

Barth on the Spirit

The Holy Spirit does three distinct things for Barth – 1)HS brings Christ to us and 2)us to Christ, and 3)The Spirit brings everything into unity with Christ. The Spirit does not add anything, he actualizes it. The Spirit “applies.” But Barth avoids the “application” language because it makes stuff impersonal.

Threefold Office of Christ

Prophet – Truth Bringer. It has correspondence to Spirit in Truth.

King – Messiah, Lord. It has correspondence to Spirit in his power of Love. Spirit also brings the Lordship of Christ to us. None can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit. Priest – intercession, worship, thanks, praise, brings us into union and communion with Christ. Access, blood, expiation, propitiation. Correspondence in Spirit by his teaching us to praise, bringing us into union with Christ. The person, work, and benefits of Christ are distinct but we cannot keep them apart.

On Rahner’s Rule

Key difference between Rahner’s rule and Barth’s doctrine of antecedence is that there is an asymmetry between the relation of economic/immanent in Barth whereas for Rahner, the economic and immanent is so strictly related that any sort of difference is collapsed. For Barth there is a difference in form but not in essence. Interesting question – is everything that is true of the economic trinity, but not vice versa?

On Functional Subordination

Revealer – Father

Revelation – Son

Revealedness – Spirit

God reveals himself as the Lord. It’s a participatory knowledge. Its God the Spirit moving in us that gets us in this revelation.

Sometimes Barth’s rhetoric does not fully match his substance/content. The rhetoric of revealer-revelation-reavealedness dominates his theology. Part of this is his historical context – which makes us lean to much on revelation as opposed to for example reconciliation.

Modalism Again

Rhetorically Barth has modalistic tendencies. In substance he is not modalistic. Nonetheless he uses a modalistic idiom.

Does he derive his doctrine of Trinity from concept of Revelation?

Barth is trying to test whether the doctrine of the Trinity is dispensable or not. So its not a project of deriving it. The Trinity can’t just be taken out and thrown away or else you lose everything else with it. It’s a “testing” exercise rather than a derivation exercise. Three reasons why we have the trinity (other than the Biblical witness): A-Revelation, B- Reconciliation, and C-Worship. Modern theology had abandoned it and Barth is trying to show why we need it. If we take the Trinity out we are losing these three things.

George Hunsinger and Reading Barth with Charity

Today George Hunsinger will be presenting at our Trinity Seminar – and I’m assuming he is going to talk quite a bit about Reading Barth With Charity. In this book he lays out what it looks like to read another theologian in a charitable way. Austin Reed at Reformed Forum gives an excellent summary of what this looks like. He also gives a pretty good description of Torrance’s Evangelical Calvinism:

In his new work, Hunsinger sets forth a reading of Barth very different from his revisionist opponents; a Barth that is, well, strikingly less radical. Hunsinger arrives at this reading of Barth by using a “hermeneutic of charity,”[3] a methodological approach to ambiguous texts that seeks alternative interpretive options when faced with apparent contradictions. According to the hermeneutic of charity, the reader should only subject an argument or proposition to criticism after one has sought to resolve the difficulties themselves.[4] If one cannot resolve the apparent contradiction via a favorable interpretation (i.e. one that does not involve prima facie contradiction), then one is permitted to subject the argument or proposition to criticism. The principle of “charity” is more or less a hermeneutical application of the “Golden Rule.”[5] As one could probably guess, Hunsinger argues that the revisionists’ interpretation of Barth fails to read Barth charitably; that is, they’re guilty of pitting Barth against himself and through deductive reasoning setting a theological trajectory for his theology that Barth never intended.

Hunsinger cites T.F. Torrance’s[6] distinction between “evangelical” and “rationalistic” Calvinism as an example of the principle of charity in action.[7] It is a more or less classic “Calvin and the Calvinists” approach. The “evangelical” Calvinism is allegedly closer to the actual textual Calvin than the logical systemizing of the “rational” Calvinists following Beza. “It judged, according to Torrance, that the filial was prior to the legal, that the personal was prior to the propositional, that the inductive took precedence over the deductive, and that spiritual insight placed constraints on logical reasoning.”[8]

The rationalistic Calvinists’ approach to Calvin’s writings lead to the allegedly “extreme” doctrines of Limited atonement, supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism and worst of all (for Torrance at least), a “legalistic construal of ‘covenant’ that tended toward synergism.”[9] For Hunsinger the present debate is no more than an incarnation of the “Calvin and the Calvinists” debate, only this time, it is Barth and the revisionist Barthians.[10]

Trinity/Election and the Doctrine of Antecedence

In his new book Reading Barth With Charity, George Hunsinger gives us a rather succinct summary of the Trinity-Election debate within Barth scholarship. I appreciate how (in the particular paragraph in mind) he frames the debate within two doctrines: the doctrine of antecedence & the doctrine of subsequence.

In short, whereas the traditionalists uphold Barth’s doctrine of antecedence, the revisionists want to flip it over into a doctrine of subsequence. For the revisionists, God’s trinitarian being is subsequent to God’s relationship to the world. Election has the logical and ontological priority, apart from which the Trinity is merely potential or at least indeterminate. For the traditionalists, on the other hand, God’s being in relation to the world is grounded in God’s being and for himself. The Trinity is always logically and ontologically antecedent. This, then is the disputed question: Is God’s eternal trinitarian being – for the later Barth – subsequent or antecedent to election? (10)

Death… But Life!

Remember, this was the outcome of the Easter story, the history of Jesus Christ, just as death as the wages of sin was its beginning. With Christ’s resurrection from the dead God’s free gift, eternal life, entered the world. He, the dear son, he, the faithful and obedient servant, he who was willing to make our sin his own and to die our death in replacement of us, he Jesus Christ, was raised from the dead and recalled from the tomb by the Father. He was robed in eternal life. But now remember also, dear brothers and sisters, that God so acted in Jesus Christ in order that we, truly all of us, without exception, may share in this free gift of life eternal. His story now becomes ours, just as before ours became his. This was accomplished when the Easter story reached its climax. This was the great “but” and “onward” wherby our sin and with it our death was relegated to the past. This was and this is the light mentioned already in the story of creation. “God said, let there be light! and there was light.” There was light for us all in the story of Easter, in the event of Jesus Christ. There all of us, mankind itself, were made free for eternal life. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! In him and with him, we too are risen indeed.

-Karl Barth (from the Easter sermon “Death – But Life!”)

Does Karl Barth Hold to a Version of Penal Substitution?

It’s a sort of tricky question. How does Barth understand Penal Substitution? I was once told that Barth definitely saw PSA in Isaiah, but that he believed that it is not taught in the New Testament. The debate sort of rages on – does Barth have some version of Penal Substitution? And if he does how does it differ from typical evangelical versions of PSA? And if he doesn’t – can Barth be a resource for formulating a version of PSA? These are all important questions.

In his recent book Faith, Freedom, and the Sprit, Paul Molnar addresses a passage which I believe hints at some sort of version of PSA in Barth. But I will let you decide for yourself:

Barth always stresses that Jesus acts both divinely and humanly so that we never have simply a human or divine being in Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for us “is of course, a human action –but in and with the human action it is also a divine action, in which… the true and effective sacrifice is made” (IV/1, p.280)

Up until this point there is nothing that would hint at PSA. All that is being explicated is that atonement happens in both directions – it comes from God and Man. Molnar goes on to say:

In Jesus we see the true meaning of suffering and death. While there was suffering and death in Israel, in Jesus these become “the work of God himself” (IV, p.175)

At this point there is nothing surprising here. Atonement is being explained as the death of death. Sin and guilt and death themselves are put to death on the cross. Nothing (yet) about Jesus being punished. All that we know at this point is that the Son exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel in its suffering.

Now here stuff gets tricky:

“The Son of God in his unity with man exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel suffering under the mighty hand of God” (IV/1, p.175)

Molnar says that “As such he suffers Israel’s suffering as “children chastised by their Father”; in him God entered the vicious circle of human suffering allowing the divine sentence to fall on himself… “He, the electing eternal God, willed himself to be rejected and therefore perishing man” (IV/1, p.177).

Molnar seems to think that the suffering of Christ is in solidarity (some form of substitution) with humanity under the hand of God. This constitutes the act of sacrifice. If Molnar is right (which I think he might be), then we have an interesting take on Barth’s PSA.