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Review: “Schleiermacher and Sustainability” (Ed. Shelli Poe)

Book: Schleiermacher and Sustainability: A Theology for Ecological Living Edited by Shelli M. Poe [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. Columbia Theological Seminary: Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. [PUBLISHER’S LINK]

Overview: This book is a well-organized and timely collection of essays from a few of the leading voices in Schleiermacher-studies, including the veteran scholar Terrence Tice. As a study of Schleiermacher’s theology, it is superb; and as a timely meditation on the fruitfulness of his theology in the context of the ecological crisis, it is vital. 

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Schleiermacher turned 250 this month (Nov. 21, 2018), but least anyone imagines his theology has ceased to be relevant for the modern era, this new volume, edited by Shelli Poe, proves that there is still so much we have to learn from him. 

After a helpful introduction by Poe, the book begins with James Brandt’s essay on the importance of Church and ethics in Schleiermacher’s thought. Brandt has long been vocal about reviving interest in Schleiermacher’s ethical theology, in contrast to the claim that he is ethically deficient. (See his excellent book, All Things New.) Brandt’s essay continues that argument and places Schleiermacher in the context of the ecological crisis, thus setting the tone for the rest of the book. 

The second chapter, by Shelli Poe, has three interlocking concerns: economics, election, and ecumenism. The important concept of Naturzusammenhang, the “interconnected process of nature,” is introduced here. A constructive proposal regarding Schleiermacher’s concept of the afterlife is persuasively argued. 

The third and fourth chapters, by Ed Waggoner and Anette Hagan (respectively), offer an account of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation and preservation. Hagan’s chapter was the most interesting of the two, which discussed divine causality and providence.

Chapter five, by Kevan Vander Schel, explores Schleiermacher social doctrine of sin. Thus, the conclusion is reached that the social evil of ecological devastation is a consequence of collective human sinfulness. 

Terrence Tice concludes the book by reflecting on concrete actions that must take place to avoid planetary destruction. He writes:

To put the matter more directly: each of us can acknowledge that we are part of the problem, but each must also become part of the solution. We can easily take action right where we live, in our own households, every day.

So in the end, Schleiermacher and Sustainability is more than just an excellent study of Schleiermacher’s theology—though it is certainly this. It is also a timely challenge. It seems as if we are confronted, almost daily, with the news that the world as we know it is on the brink of ecological catastrophe. Yet we are not here to despair in what might be but to join hands and work towards a better, more ecologically-conscious future.  

Schleiermacher’s communally and socially oriented theology is a fruitful resource for constructing an ecologically sustainable theology, an “ecotheology.” 

A theology of this sort is vital, especially when we reckon with the fact that 88 percent of conservative evangelicals are unconcerned about the ecological crisis, and only 28 percent believe human activity has caused climate change. 1 An ecotheology that stresses the interconnectivity of the world and its relation to God is, perhaps, precisely what the theological world needs right now to help save the planet from its ever-approaching devastation. 

The one criticism I have with the book, however, is that it lacked any critique of capitalism—which is by far the leading cause of climate change today. 2 In fact, it seems as if the authors believe that capitalism only needs to be reformed, not removed, in order to avoid the effects of climate change. Connections may have been drawn, however, between Schleiermacher’s community-centric thought and modern critiques of capitalism. For example, Schleiermacher believed that the Church must be free from any sort of hierarchy. How could this line of reasoning be used in the economic world in such a way that capitalist systems that place the rich over the poor, giving them unequal possibilities for success or even survival, could be critiqued? In its own pews, the American Church is complicit in economic inequality. (The rise of “celebrity pastors” and megachurches is only a symptom of this larger issue.) The abuse of the planet in the name of corporate profits should be critiqued fiercely and rejected as sin if we are going to undo the effects of climate change before it is too late. Perhaps these considerations fell outside the parameters of the book—or perhaps my own bias is on display here—but it seems like an unfortunate oversight in an otherwise excellent book.  

Click here to purchase Schleiermacher and Sustainability, ed. by Shelli M. Poe

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

Notes:

  1. According to Pew Research, cited here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/02/why-dont-christian-conservatives-worry-about-climate-change-god/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f08a967b88b3
  2. See the recent report for the UN by Bios that concluded that climate change and capitalism are mutually exclusive, as reported by Huffington Post.

Read Jürgen Moltmann’s Foreword to My Book

I was shaking from nerves as I opened his letter. I had written Moltmann three months ago, sending him a copy of my new book, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English, and asking if he might be willing to write a foreword to it.

I was terrified that he wouldn’t like this book I had written about him. As an author, it is one thing to be afraid that your readers might not like your work, but it is something else entirely to think about the possibility that one of your heroes and the theologian of whom you are writing might disapprove. 

It was such a relief to find that not only did Moltmann enjoy my book, but he was kind enough to write its forward!

In his letter, Moltmann expressed thanks for my book and how much it impressed him(!). (The letter is now framed and sits above my writing desk.) He then encouraged me to continue my writing; particularly, he encouraged me to pursue the project I wrote to him about on Samuel Beckett and himself, since this was of great interest to him.

I am so overjoyed and honored by his response. In all honesty, I am also still a bit in shock, even though I opened his letter over five days ago. Moltmann’s kindness towards my humble little book is such an encouragement to me.

I have updated the published edition of my book to include Moltmann’s foreword. Anywhere my book is sold—Amazon, The Book Depository, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and my own webstore—now include, in both the paperback and digital editions, his foreword. If you have purchased my book previously and would like to receive an updated edition of the text, please contact me.

But for those of you who have already purchased the book, you can read it here. Here it is in the original German and then below in its published English text (translated by Cameron Coombe, with slight revision). 

“Every Christian is a theologian,” said Martin Luther. I would add to this: At any rate, every Christian who wants to understand what he or she believes. Theology is the understanding of faith. “I believe in order to understand,” Anselm of Canterbury had proclaimed. I would add that the converse is also true: “I understand in order to believe.”

I have endeavored to follow up scholarly theological books with shorter, generally accessible works. I have kept myself accountable to the injunction: “That which cannot be said simply is perhaps not worth saying at all.” As such, I followed up Theology of Hope (1967) with the popular-level work, In the End—The Beginning (2004), my Christology, The Way of Jesus Christ (1990), with Jesus Christ for Today’s World (1994), and The Spirit of Life (1992) with The Source of Life (1997).

But it is, of course, another matter when an “amateur” theologian writes for “amateurs.” It is as if one reader alerts another to something striking and the theological conversation begins. This is what Stephen Morrison has succeeded in doing, and I admire him for it. His book, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English, does not omit any of my theological works, from Theology of Hope to The Coming of God. In addition to this, he has included ethical comments from my work, such as concerning the death penalty. He has succeeded in providing a comprehensive introduction. 

An “amateur” is a lover. Stephen Morrison is a lover of theology and, I, too, am an “amateur of theology.”

Jürgen Moltmann

Tübingen, 1 September 2018

Thank you so very much Jürgen Moltmann! 

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Review: “Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism” by Catherine L. Kelsey

Book: Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism: The Interpretation of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John by Catherine L. Kelsey. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [LINK]

Overview: Catherine L. Kelsey is one of the leading scholars of Schleiermacher in the English-speaking world. This book is the published edition of her dissertation, which establishes her reputation as a careful and generous reader of Schleiermacher. The book examines Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the Gospel of John and the fundamental interaction between preaching, dogmatics, and Biblical criticism. Along the way, it presents an accurate picture of Schleiermacher’s significant presuppositions and theological convictions. It is a valuble study, clearly articulated and convincingly argued.


Three critical focuses of Schleiermacher’s theology are carefully examined in this study: his preaching, dogmatics, and biblical criticism. The second is often the most frequently discussed, but in this text all three are given their due consideration, bringing much-needed attention to Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical scholarship. Kelsey stresses the interconnection of all three, and she articulates the significant presuppositions guiding Schleiermacher’s thought.

An appropriate quotation from Schleiermacher at the beginning of the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book:

I know of nothing better to desire for my life than the uniting of the podium and the pulpit. 1

Kelsey briefly states the purpose and goal of the work: “The chief purpose of this study is to investigate more closely the relationship between historical-critical interpretations, dogmatic interpretations, and faith interpretations of Jesus Christ.” 2 She stresses how these interpretations are not linear but are interactive. The result is a masterful study of all three interpretations of Christ in Schleiermacher—which occasions his work as a preacher, dogmatician, and biblical scholar—and the various ways in which these disciplines interact and correspond to each other.

One of the most fruitful discussions comes from chapter three, where Kelsey provides an introduction to three of the major presuppositions of Schleiermacher’s theology. These are the presuppositions she considers essential:

  1. “It is apparent to all who come into the sphere of Jesus’ influence that he is the Redeemer.” 3
  2. “Redemption is availible through the redeemer prior to his death and resurrection.” 4
  3. “Redemption is directly associated with incorporation into a community of Christians.” 5

These concisely present the core drives behind Schleiermacher’s theology, particularly his Christology. For example, presupposition number one explains why Schleiermacher placed significantly less of an emphasis on the death of Christ for redemption than he does on His life. Kelsey then makes a connection between Schleiermacher’s preaching, with these three presuppositions as its basis, and his dogmatics. This results in a careful reading of Christian Faith in the light of Schleiermacher’s preaching, in chapter four.

Finally, Kelsey examines Schleiermacher’s Biblical criticism, particularly his Life of Jesus lectures. One of the great values of this chapter, besides its nuanced reading of Schleiermacher’s lectures, is how well Kelsey defends Schleiermacher’s work against his critics. Because of the publication history of Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus, it has become common to disregard his scholarship as inconsistent or non-historical. However, as Kelsey argues, a more careful reading reveals the benefits of Schleiermacher’s approach, even if modern historical research would invalidate some of his claims.

Overall, Kelsey offers a helpful interpretation of Schleiermacher’s multi-faceted theology through her study of these three aspects, and her work is notable for returning Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical criticism to a place of honor, alongside the (rightly deemed) significance of his dogmatics. The interaction of all three is important for reading Schleiermacher, as she masterfully argues in this text.

Conclusion: As a careful study into Schleiermacher’s work as a preacher, dogmatician, and Biblical critical, this study is of great value. However, it is also a great text for introducting some of the key presuppositions and drives behind his thought. Thus, it may be read as an introductory text, especially with how clear and articulate the style is.

Click here to purchase a copy of Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism by Catherine L. Kelsey. 

My thanks to Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. Cited in Kelsey, Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism, 1
  2. Ibid., 2
  3. Ibid., 67
  4. Ibid., 68
  5. Ibid., 70

“Schleiermacher: The Psychology of Christian Faith and Life” by Terrence N. Tice (Review)

Book: Schleiermacher: The Psychology of Christian Faith and Life by Terrence N. Tice (Mapping the Tradition Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Lexington Books / Fortress Academic (an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.) [PUBLISHER’S LINK]

Overview: While there is some value in Terrence Tice’s new book, I am conflicted to recommend it. On the one hand, the translation of one of Schleiermacher’s sermons into English is a great benefit, and in some of the sections, Tice writes with helpful insight into the life and work of Schleiermacher. On the other hand, the book lacked any clear vision, which made the text feel more like a collection of rambled, underdeveloped thoughts than like the scholarly resource I expected.


Terrence N. Tice is widely considered to be among the foremost Schleiermacher scholars alive today. His work as a translator has been an invaluable resource to the English speaking world. In my own reading of Schleiermacher, I quickly came to discover that any text with Tice’s name on it is worth my time, and I have rarely been disappointed. Regrettably, this book is an exception.

The main issues I have with the book is predominantly editorial: it lacks vision and clarity. But in spite of these difficulties, Tice’s brilliance as a scholar and his insight into Schleiermacher’s life and work still shines through. Accordingly, my overall impression of the book is mixed.

We will start with some of the things that could have been better about the book, and conclude with what I found valuable about it.

A lack of clear and direct vision was perhaps the greatest fault of the book. The chapters had little to no clear intentionality, nor did any major theme arise to indicate its overall goal. Accordingly, a large portion of the book comes off like the ramblings of a brilliant scholar who would have benefited from some editorial input. Many of the ideas in the book are poorly underdeveloped. If these were the off-the-cuff notes from a lecture, then it might have been acceptable; but it is not. I am not sure what guidelines were being followed. But no matter what they were, they were muddled and unclear, and it resulted in a book that could have been something far better but which, sadly, fell drastically short.

An example that is rather humorous to me is the appearance of a Donald Trump reference. It is an example of a random thought that appears in the book, but one that never develops into anything of substance. In chapter 3 we stumble upon this sentence: “Now an obviously potential fascist global billionaire leader of the ‘free world’ has been running for President of the United States under auspices of one of the two major parties.” 1 This remark does not seem to fit within the context of the chapter, which is a reflection on the reception of Schleiermacher’s thought in America. The paragraph this sentence appears in ends with a series of questions following the notion of a divided nation: “How will Schleiermacher’s thought be received in the United States of America and elsewhere in the years ahead?” 2 No clear answer is given, except for a hint towards Schleiermacher’s proto-ecological theology—something I would have been more than excited to read about, but nothing of substance is ever developed. It seems like an attempt to be speculative about the future state of America and Schleiermacher’s influence in it, but it offers little regarding what that might actually look like.

Many more examples such as this one could have been avoided with proper editorial guidance. As a whole, much of the book falls flat because of its lack of vision. Whether the editor is to blame or not is beyond me to say, but what I know about Tice makes it seem like either a blunder on his part (which seems unlikely) or editorial. I am hoping it was the latter.

But we will move on from the negatives because, in fact, there is value to be found in the book.

The most significant contribution the book offers is its new translation of a Christmas sermon Schleiermacher preached in 1820 entitled, “The Transformation That has Begun From the Redeemer’s Appearance Upon the Earth.” Tice uses this sermon as an introduction to Schleiermacher’s entire life and thought. And it is, indeed, one of Schleiermacher’s better sermons (from those I have read in English). 25% of the book is made up of this sermon and Tice’s notes about it. So as it stands, this makes it a valuable publication.

Schleiermacher’s sermons are hard to come by in English, and so this is why it is such a value (especially to us non-German readers) to have a new one made available. At the present moment, most of the English translations of Schleiermacher’s sermons are out of print, which makes it costly to obtain a copy. One such collection of sermons I have wanted to read for a while now, but it is currently $150 used and $450 new. So a new English translation of one of Schleiermacher’s sermons is of great value.

And as I said above, despite the editorial problems the book has, Tice’s insight still shines through on occasion. Chapter one is a rather strange introductory reflection, but it still offers some helpful points, including what seems like Tice’s attempt to summarize the “basic presupposition of Schleiermacher’s life and work.” 3 I found that the endnotes of the book were sometimes better than the main text itself. One example is an endnote, in chapter one, where Tice points out that Schleiermacher’s continued engagement with Scripture as a preacher and an exegete bore the most significant influence on his dogmatics (13 n11).

Chapter three reflects on Schleiermacher’s influence in America. Tice was a co-contributor to a three-volume series that examined this subject in detail 4, and this chapter seems like a brief “SparkNotes” version of that book. I have not read that three-volume text, so I learned a few surprising things from the reflections in this chapter. Two notable individuals whom Tice names are Howard Thurman and Charles Hodge (surprisingly). Tice dubs Thurman the “quintessential home-grown Schleiermacherian theologian in America during the twentieth century.” 5 This is on account of his depth of spiritual understanding, which included his fight for social justice that later inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly, King also seems to have been influenced by Schleiermacher, and a quick search in the MLK Jr. archives shows many references to Schleiermacher.

That Schleiermacher had some influence on Charles Hodge was surprising to learn. Hodge’s Systematic Theology is a classic text of Reformed theology from Old Princeton, though he is seldom perceived as a friend to Schleiermacher. But Tice notes how he tended to veer towards Schleiermacher’s place of experience, despite retaining an orthodox Reformed theology.

Chapter 4 offers a reflection on Schleiermacher’s On Religion. Tice gives a summary of each speech, and he corrects a few misreadings of the text. Some of these remain undeveloped, but others were helpful.

Chapter 5 ends the book with a rather strange, imaginary psychoanalysis of Schleiermacher’s final days. And then a series of random thoughts about how one might construct a biography of Schleiermacher is submitted, though again without being fully developed. The tendency to throw out an idea but to leave it undeveloped is a major flaw of the book.

Conclusion: Overall, I am disappointed with this book because of the high expectations I have for Tice as a scholar due to his previous work. It lacked vision and clarity. It could have been organized much better. And while there were many hints of insight, I wish they were more fully developed. However, in spite of everything, there is still value in the text, most of all in the translation of Schleiermacher’s sermon into English. The combination of the books expensive cover-price ($85) and the aforementioned editorial issues makes it difficult for me to recommend this book without much hesitation. However, if you happen to have access to the book through your library or through inter-library loan, then by all means, give it a read for yourself. It does offer value, just not as much as I was hoping for.

My thanks to Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group for a physical copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. Schleiermacher, 51
  2. Ibid., 52
  3. Ibid., 1
  4. Schleiermacher’s Influence on American Thought and Religious Life in three volumes
  5. Schleiermacher, 51

Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan (Review)

Book: Eternal Blessedness for All?: A Historical-Systematic Examination of Schleiermacher’s Understanding of Predestination by Anette I. Hagan (Princeton Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [PUBLISHER LINK]

Overview: Anette I. Hagan’s book is a careful and thorough examination of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election. She focuses on all the relevant historical and systematic contexts shaping Schleiermacher’s thought, resulting in a thoughtfully constructed study well worth reading.


I’ve been diligently studying up on Schleiermacher’s theology over the last five months (in preparing to write the next book in my Plain English Series). It has been a surprising experience! His work is often caricatured poorly, especially by Barth. But in spite of my love for Barth, I have genuinely come to enjoy and appreciate Schleiermacher’s work. One of the many surprises I have discovered from reading Schleiermacher is his profound doctrine of election, the subject of Hagan’s excellent book.

Hagan’s book is a superb study which clarified and expanded my understanding (and appreciation) of Schleiermacher’s contribution. She masterfully outlines both the historical and systematic contexts in which he developed his understanding of election. The historical insights she offers were especially beneficial. Schleiermacher’s essay, On the Doctrine of Election, is brilliant, but without an understanding of these historical contexts, it was difficult to grasp all of its significant points. Hagan’s book is helpful in this regard, as she provides clarity to better understanding why Schleiermacher wrote this important essay and the specific goals he had in mind.

Hagan’s book also explores a number of systematic considerations from Schleiermacher’s theology which bears weight on the doctrine, such as the doctrine of creation. She also offers an insightful survey of the sermons Schleiermacher preached which were relevant to his doctrine. These provide further details to understanding Schleiermacher’s contribution.

All of these considerations bring into focus the significance of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of election.

One of the brilliant aspects of Schleiermacher’s understanding of election is his emphasis on God’s decree for all humanity rather than for individuals. This emphasis results in a fascinating argument for the universal redemption of all. Hagan offers a succinct summary:

In Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the doctrine, the reprobate are those who have so far been overlooked and are not yet affected by the Spirit. They do not cease to be incorporated into the shared religious life and remain objects of divine love, and they therefore do not lose the potential of being regenerated at some point in the future—even after death. Reprobation is compatible with God’s love precisely because the reprobate fulfill a necessary role within the historical unfolding and development of the human race as an integral part of God’s creation. Schleiermacher thus turns both the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions on their heads: the issue is not whether perdition is ordained, or foreseen and permitted, but whether it is a necessary or a contingent part of God’s decree. If it is a necessary part, it has to be consistent with divine love, and the only way to reconcile both notions is by interpreting reprobation as temporal rather than eternal. […]

By claiming that perdition is a necessary temporary stage to be overcome by the ultimate universal reconciliation and restoration of all that has been lost, Schleiermacher has solved the conflict between divine justice and divine love. ‘The difference at the point of death, then, between the person of faith and the person not of faith is simply the difference between being taken up into the reign of Christ earlier or later.’ [Schleiermacher: On The Doctrine of Election, 94] 1

Schleiermacher’s contribution strikes me as an aspect of his thought that is not taken seriously enough. Hagan’s book is a noteworthy study which would be indispensable to a complete study of Schleiermacher.

Overview: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Schleiermacher particularly, but also to those who are interested in the doctrine of election more generally. This book is a carefully written and exhaustively researched study of Schleiermacher, and as such, it is a great book for those interested in his work.

Click here to purchase your copy of Eternal Blessedness for All? by Anette I. Hagan

My thanks to Pickwick Publications and Wipf & Stock for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Notes:

  1. Eternal Blessedness for All?, 116-7

Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1 (Review)

Book: Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1, 1959-1962 ed. by Eberhard Busch [Amazon link]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press [Publisher’s link]

Overview: A straight-forward, engaging collection of conversations, Q&As, and interviews, Barth in Conversation was a joy to read. This text is essential for students of Barth’s theology, whether you are new to it or already well acquainted with his work. Some of the most common questions asked about his theology receive direct, off-the-cuff answers, offering significant insight into his thought.


I’ve read a lot of books from Barth, but this one has earned a place among my favorites. I know I will be returning to it often.

This book collects interviews, conversations, and Q&A sessions which Barth gave between 1959-1962. This includes those from Barth’s visit to America. Notably, it records his Q&A sessions in Chicago and Princeton.

There is much to celebrate about this text, but I think its true value comes from the frank and direct answers Barth provides to some of the most common questions asked about his theology. These include answers to questions regarding universalism, hell, election, the Bible, communism, Billy Graham, Rudolf Bultmann, and the objective work of Christ.

To give you a taste, here are some notable quotes I enjoyed from the book:

[On Billy Graham:] I don’t think the Christian doctrine should be held like a pistol at man’s breast. Christian faith begins with joy and not with fear. Mr. Graham begins by making people afraid.

[On the Bible:] The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God.

[On the virgin birth:] I think I have good reasons not to discard Jesus’ virgin birth. But when someone is offended by it, I would not say, ‘You are, therefore, not a Christian.’

[On the experience of salvation:] I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel.

[On politics:] There is no possibility for a Christian to retreat from the political aspects of life.

[On military service and the bomb:] In the first three centuries it was impossible for a Christian to become a soldier. Today we are not yet that far again, but we are underway toward this goal. It must start with the fight against the atomic bomb.

[On the horrid conditions of American prisons:] These small cages were, for me, the sight of Dante’s Inferno on Earth.

[On his “unorthodox” reading of Calvin:] Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright.

[On existentialism and Bultmann:] If I had to choose between the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and that of Bultmann, I would, without hesitation, return to Schleiermacher. If liberalism at all, then let it be as Schleiermacher understood it! […] Existentialism is an arid affair.

[On alternative careers:] If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. […] And perhaps it wouldn’t be so far from what I am doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go.

And this was probably my favorite quote from the volume:

I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.

I also spent the last few weeks writing a series of blog articles which discuss quotes from the book. These include:

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall”

“The Bible is not Sinless”

As you can see, this volume is a treasure-trove of thought-provoking insights. The clarity and frankness of the text is also a great benefit for newcomers to Barth. The editors did a great job providing all the necessary background information, too. Overall, this book is a tremendous resource.


Conclusion: I highly recommend this volume. If you are at all interested in the theology of Karl Barth, then this book is an essential addition to your library. For an insightful look into Barth’s thought, but also for frank answers to some of the most common questions regarding his work, this is an incredibly valuable text. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Click here to purchase Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1

And keep an eye out for Volume 2, which is available for pre-order and out in September.

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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“The Bible is not Sinless” – Karl Barth (Barth in Conversation)

Biblical inerrancy—the belief that Scripture is completely without error—has become a central belief of evangelicalism. I am a member of several Facebook groups, including those in the Calvinist/Reformed perspective, and I have seen time and time again when a theologian or a preacher is dismissed solely because they have a “weak view of scripture”—meaning they do not profess inerrancy. In some cases, denying Biblical inerrancy is grounds for applying that dreadfully overused term, “heretic.” It is also why so many reformed Christians resist picking up a book by my favorite theologian, Karl Barth.

The issue of Karl Barth and inerrancy is a subject I discussed briefly in my book, Karl Barth in Plain EnglishThere my purpose was to show that Barth did not profess inerrancy, that, for Barth, the Bible is “vulnerable to errors,” and ultimately that his reasons for this are worth considering. Barth offers a carefully thought-out alternative to the rigidly dogmatic way so many have professed inerrancy: he at once highly-regards the Bible as normative for all theology, yet he does not have to deem it perfect to do so.

His reasons are clear: the Bible is not the Son of God. It is a human book. As a human book, it is vulnerable to the errors of human, historical limitations. It is not a divine oracle sent down from heaven. However, it bears witness to the Word of God, and it is thus an indirect form of the Word by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Bible points beyond itself to the Word of God; it does not contain within itself the Word. The Word of God is not bound to a book, yet this human book becomes God’s Word in its witness. We depend on the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, not on the “perfection” of a book.

Continuing a blog-series about the new volume, Barth in ConversationI wanted to share an answer Barth gave to the question of Biblical inerrancy. It provides us with insight into how Barth considered the Bible to be at once authoritative in its witness to God’s Word and yet limited as a human book.

Here is the question Barth was asked:

In this connection how does Dr. Barth harmonize his appeal to Scripture, as the objective Word of God, with his admission that Scripture is, indeed, sullied by errors, theological as well as historical or factual? (CD I/2: 507-12)

Barth responds:

The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God. No wonder that seen from the perspective of the worldviews and the concepts of other ages; the question may arise whether we have to conclude that the Bible is not solid. I should never say such a thing, but would admit rather the occurence of certain, let us say, tensions, contradictions, and maybe if you prefer, “errors,” in its time-bound human statements. 1

There are two significant moves Barth makes here that will be important for those wanting to consider the issue of inerrancy for themselves. The first is to recognize that the Bible is an instrument; it serves a particular end. That means it is not in itself such an end. The Bible’s role is to point human beings towards the Word of God, and Barth makes an important point when he says that the Bible has proven itself worthy of this purpose. It is a “true and fitting” instrument. Therefore, it is reliable and trustworthy in its particular purpose.

But we should not make it into something it is not. The second move, therefore, is that the Bible is not the second incarnation of the Word. Surprisingly, however, I have heard it argued from inerrantist that in the Bible the Word of God “inscripturated” itself. That is nonsense. The Bible is not God-on-paper in the same way we confess that Jesus was God-in-flesh. The Bible, therefore, cannot be deemed sinless and infallible in the same way that Christ was sinless. Even if we attempt to claim that it is “perfect,” it cannot be in the same way that God is perfect. Might it be “perfect” in the sense that it is a “true and fitting” instrument to witness to God’s Word? Yes! But it is not free from errors because of its historical limitations. It remains a human book, despite being ordained by God for special use.

Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is worth examining more closely if you have concerns about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. You can read his full treatment of the Bible in Church Dogmatics I/2 but can also find helpful material in Evangelical Theology: An IntroductionBarth’s approach is a useful way forward between the form-critics of liberalism and the inerrantists of fundamentalism. Here we affirm with Barth that the Bible is reliable, true, and faithful in its witness to the Word of God, and thus it is normative in the Church and for theology. However, we confess that it is also a time-bound book, a book limited by human history. It is not sinless, therefore, but it is a suitable instrument.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle Loc. 4382-4391

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.

Theology is the Business of All God’s People (Moltmann)

I am currently working on the next book in my “Plain English Series,” Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. I expect it to be available within a few months. While I was doing some research I came across an illuminating quote I wanted to also share here.

This comes from Moltmann’s methodological book, Experiences in TheologyHere he argues that theology is the business of all God’s people, including both the trained and the untrained, but also of both men and women. It is not a pursuit restricted to specialists in the academy or to the ecclesiastical leadership. In truth, theology is centered around the congregation and is shared in the life of all believers. Moltmann writes:

Theology is the business of all God’s people. It is not just the affair of the theological faculties, and not just the concern of the church’s colleges and seminaries. The faith of the whole body of Christians on earth seeks to know and understand. If it doesn’t, it isn’t Christian faith. This means that the foundation for every theological specialization is the general theology of all believers, which corresponds to the Reformation’s thesis about the universal ‘priesthood of all believers’. All Christians who believe and who think about what they believe are theologians, whether they are young or old, women or men. […]

I should not like to let this universalization of the priesthood and of theology stand in such general terms, and so I would prefer to talk about ‘the shared priesthood’ and therefore about the shared theology of all believers too. On this common ground, not everyone has to do and think the same thing. The fellowship of all believers requires that differentiation of assignments and functions which corresponds to the multicoloured diversity of the Spirit’s gifts, or charismata. Even in the shared theology of all believers there are particular commissions and delegations. Academic theology is one of them. But the community of Christians must be able to identify with its delegations. Otherwise alienations arise which have an oppressive rather than a helpful effect. 1

 

Academic theology is nothing other than the scholarly penetration and illumination by mind and spirit of what Christians in the congregations think when they believe in God and live in the fellowship of Christ. By scholarly I mean that the theology is methodologically verifiable and comprehensible. Good scholarly theology is therefore basically simple, because it is clear. Only cloudy theology is complicated and difficult. Whether it be Athanasius or Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin, Schleiermacher or Barth—the fundamental ideas of every good theological system can be presented on a single page. It is true that Barth needed more than 8,000 pages for his Church Dogmatics, and even then they were still unfinished, so that kindly disposed critics said, ‘surely truth can’t be as long as that’. But as we know, theological praise of the eternally bounteous God is never-ending. So the length of a work does not necessarily detract from the simple truth of what it says. 2

While not everyone will become professors, write theology books, or even study the most challenging theological systems of the Church, every believer is a theologian the moment they begin to think seriously about their faith. This is a helpful insight, especially in the Church today which has often been dumbed-down by reductionistic answers and unchallenging sermons. The need for theological education in the Church (not merely somewhere else in the academy) is great, because average Church members often struggle with difficult theological questions but are seldom given permission to ask them freely in an educational setting. In this regard, the task of academic theology is only as a service to the Church, to help facilitate and encourage the theology of all believers. Highly specialized academic work is necessary, but we should no longer think that this is the only, or even the primary, expression of theology. Theology is the shared task of all believers, not merely the specialists.

(For a list of books written by and on Jürgen Moltmann, see my newly updated list of recommended reading)

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