All posts in “Book Reviews”

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.

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.

“The Eternal Covenant” by Daniel James Pedersen (a Review)

Book: The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science (Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann) by Daniel James Pedersen [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter [PUBLISHERS LINK]

Overview: An excellent and carefully written study, Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant is indispensable for serious scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. The arguments are masterfully constructed and logically presented as the book moves from one point to another before arriving at an impressive conclusion.


I must admit, I am a newcomer to the world of Schleiermacher. My interests in theology have tended to revolve around Karl Barth, but it is also because of Barth that I feel inclined to dive into reading Schleiermacher. So far, I can make no claims of mastering even the smallest aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy him and am beginning to recognize his mountainous significance.

Even though I have only begun to explore the vast literature surrounding the great 19th century theologian, I have no doubt that Daniel James Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant should be counted among some of the best available. It is possible that some of the more nuanced points went over my head, but I found it so masterfully argued that I could not help but to be impressed.

It was certainly a challenging book to read, but in a good way. There are books that are difficult because they are so poorly written, but then there are book that are difficult because they are so precisely articulated and carefully constructed that you can’t help but feel challenged by their depth. This book is undoubtably the latter.

The text reads somewhat like a hike up a mountain. There is a logical procession from step to step, as every chapter draws out important insights taking us one step closer to the peak (to the book’s conclusion). Like a hike up a mountain, the middle chapters were the most challenging, yet they were also quite essential to the whole. Here Pedersen examines at great length the necessary scientific and philosophical contexts so that we might properly grasp what Schleiermacher means by the eternal covenant. This includes fascinating discussions of evolution, Kant, nebulas and the stars, Leibniz and Clarke, miracles, Divine necessity, and Spinoza. But as fascinating (and well articulated) as these sections were, they certainly demand much from the reader. At the time of reading these, it could be easy to think it will not pay off in the end—kind of like how a climber might not see the point of scaling yet another cliff until they see the peak—but once the conclusion is reached, it all becomes clear. It is well worth the effort it takes to get there.

I say all this because it is important to be clear about precisely what sort of book this is. It’s not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the impatient who are unwilling to put in the conceptual work of each step. But neither is Schleiermacher, really. And do you really want to spend your time reading books that never challenge you, that merely support your own presuppositions? It is challenging to read Schleiermacher, as well as Pedersen’s book, but it is also well worth the effort.

Pedersen sets out to clarify what Schleiermacher meant by an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith, and completely free, independent, scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith.” 1 Pedersen thinks that this eternal covenant has been misunderstood, both its content and its basis, and argues for a new understanding of it.

The conclusion Pedersen arrives at is best appreciated in its own context, by first reading the chapters which proceed it. So I will not spend any time in this review explaining what precisely his conclusion is. Instead, I want to highlight an important insight Pedersen stresses in his book that I think is well worth repeating, especially as it relates to how we should read Schleiermacher.

As a student of Barth’s theology, Schleiermacher was often presented to me in a subjectivist light, but this has been widely debunked by scholars of his theology. Part of the problem is too much of a focus on the controversial introduction of his theological masterpiece, Christian Faith. But as Pedersen notes, “Like a word, the meaning of Schleiermacher’s introduction is its use.” 2 It is the actual material content of Schleiermacher’s theology that should interpret the method, not the reverse. This is extremely important, since interpretive errors have arisen from attempting to read his content in the light of his method, while in fact his method is best understood in the way it is implemented.

In this sense, Pedersen’s book is not only an excellent study on the eternal covenant, but a fantastic example of how to properly read Schleiermacher. There are so many unscholarly opinions about Schleiermacher that circulate in books and in classrooms (I have been party to some of these errors myself!), but Pedersen’s book presents an account that is truly faithful to Schleiermacher’s theology. As such, if we want to learn how to read Schleiermacher by example, then Pedersen sets a very high standard worth following.

Conclusion: While the price and difficulty of this book might lead novices to avoid it, serious scholars of Schleiermacher will do so only at their peril. There is little doubt in my mind that Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant will become indispensable for future scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. A book of such careful attention and articulation can hardly be ignored. And as a novice in the world of Schleiermacher myself, I would also hope that other newcomers would take up the task of learning from Pedersen’s book, even if it demands much patience and diligence. I know I learned a great deal from reading it, and plan to return to it in the future as I continue to read (and eventually write about) Schleiermacher.

Click here to purchase The Eternal Covenant by Daniel James Pedersen

My thanks to Walter de Gruyter and Daniel Pedersen 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. On the Glaubenslehre, 64; quoted in Pedersen, iBooks loc. 17
  2. The Eternal Covenant, iBooks loc. 49

“Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny” by Mark French Buchanan (a Review)

Book: Embraced: Many Stories, One Destiny: You, Me, and Moltmann by Mark French Buchanan [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Wipf and Stock [PUBLISHERS LINK]

Overview: It’s uncommon for a book to be at once profoundly moving and theologically stimulating, but this is precisely what Buchanan has achieved with Embraced. By using personal stories to explore the profoundly pastoral insights of Moltmann’s theology, this book is a home run.


This is a beautiful book with an innovating premise and a big heart. Buchanan weaves together stories from his life with deep theological insights mined from the works of Jürgen Moltmann. It is rare for a theology book to have this much potential for emotional and spiritual impact, just as it is rare for a spiritual book to have this much theological depth—but this is the great accomplishment of Embraced. 

Buchanan’s stories are full of life and hope, but they also touch on the deep questions of suffering and death. This is theology written from the heart of a pastor. Some of the most moving stories came towards the end of the book, which tended to focus more on loss and grief. I won’t spoil them for those of you who plan to read the book. But I will say this: I rarely tear up from a book, but I did when I read these touching accounts.

Buchanan explains the purpose of the stories he tells:

My stories illustrate the central insights from Moltmann’s theology and narrate what is fundamental to his work; that God dwells in every person as an inward guide, and that God encompasses everyone and everything. The stories illustrate how by dwelling in and encompassing all things, God is drawing all things into his own future.

I am now convinced that every time a hopeful story is told, God is the unseen storyteller, “whispering” his empathy, encouragement, and guidance for life. 1

This is a book that takes seriously the practical and pastoral implications of Moltmann’s work. Through these stories, the reader is inspired to recognize the love and life of God in their own journeys.

This is described well by one of my favorite quotes from Moltmann’s work:

I expect the presence of God in everything I meet and everything I do. 2

This expectation produces in us a Yes to life, a Yes that stands against the apathy that is all too common in modern life. In all things we have the expectation that God is with us. The stories that Buchanan shares, and the theological insights he explores through them, are a refreshing reminder of this expectation and this hope.

Conclusion: I could see this book serving a number of purposes. It would be great for group discussions, and it might even work as a preliminary introduction to Moltmann’s theology. Overall, it was simply an enjoyable book to read, and I highly recommend it.

Click here to buy Embraced by Mark French Buchanan (on Amazon)

My thanks to 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 reflection on this work.

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