Thursday, December 24, 2009


It means God cares about the world he made.

It means God isn't distant, but is so close as to be one of us.

It means a perfect human being is directing the universe.

It means that atheism may be an honest and respectable intellectual position, but also one that happens to be untrue.

It means that everything I see is significant because God himself entered his created universe.

It means that humanity will always live.

It means that I can live!

It means God united to us forever.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mediaeval and Modern

Barth rounds off his treatment of the Reformed confessions with an account of the Synod of Dort. Whereas the earliest Reformed confessions were primarily directed against Roman Catholicism, and then Lutheranism, Dort deals with a new opponent: Modernism. The Remonstrance, brought by the Arminian party, was based soundly on modern principles, modern views of humanity, modern approaches to the Bible. At Dort, we see the Reformed churches locking horns with what would become modernist, or liberal, Protestantism.

But Barth sees nothing new here. In fact, he sees this modernist Christianity as having just the same foundations as mediaeval Christianity: faith in reason, a high view of the human being, the freedom of the will. In short, both begin with the autonomous human being, and end up with a co-operative view of salvation which can be labelled semi-Pelagian. On both fronts, against mediaevalism and modernism, the Reformed stress the sovereignty and majesty of God, who in Christ is the sole agent in redemption. God, and only God, saves.

In short, Dort was fighting the battle that has always been fought when God's Word comes up against intelligent, refined human philosophers and theologians.

In the conclusion to his lecture series, Barth asks: how do things stand with us? His answer, in 1923, was not encouraging: "If we look at our theology, then what we see first of all is a pile of ruins". Certainly, that was true then, as liberal modernist Protestantism carried all before it. We have done some rebuilding since, but I wonder whether I am alone in thinking that sometimes the rebuilding looks like a museum rather than a house to be lived in. We can say the words of the old confessions, and mean them, but do we grasp (have we been grasped by!) the beating heart of their theology? Do we have the courage to be exposed to revelation, to hear the gospel again, and to wrestle with the issues our fathers wrestled with in the language and concepts and context of the 21st century?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Visible and Invisible

Barth's longer section on the substance of the Reformed confessions is interesting in lots of different ways. The way he paints the historical picture is intriguing. He sees a rapid decline from the objectivity of the older confessions into a more subjective stance in the later - roughly, a movement away from talk about what God does, to talk about how I am saved. The Westminster Confession comes in for a lot of flack here! I don't know to what extent Barth is correct, but certainly I have observed in the English Puritans a certain subjectivism and emphasis on my assurance of salvation which does not seem to be so much of a problem in Calvin.

But that's not the main point.

Barth argues that what really ties the Reformed confessions together and makes them distinctively Reformed is that they hold together faith and obedience. Because the emphasis is on God, not human experience, the Reformed are able to see more clearly than, for example, Luther that faith and obedience flow from the same source - the Holy Spirit - and therefore they are able to stress both together in a way that Luther could not. This also allows them more substantial and enlightening engagement with the law than was possible on Lutheran soil. Barth uses the analogy of the incarnation. We hold that Christ has a human nature and a divine nature, and we do not confuse the two but neither do we divide them. In the same way, the Reformed confessions see God's action on the human being as bringing about faith and obedience - and they do not confuse these (faith justifies, obedience does not), nor do they divide them (faith without obedience is no true faith at all, because it cannot come from God - the author of obedience).

In other words, the Reformed hold the invisible (faith/justification) and the visible (obedience/sanctification) together because of their doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He is the personal source of both.

This overflows into ecclesiology - the invisible Church and the visible churches are held together, but never confused. Church discipline ensures that the visible church is conformed to some extent to the invisible Church, but there is never any attempt at complete purity because that is a trait of the invisible Church.

This tension is hard to hold, but I believe it must be held. The Christian life is a life of obedience and war against sin, not just peaceful basking in justification. The Christian church is a community of obedience and peace, not a live-and-let-live society of ease. The Holy Spirit, who creates justifying faith and therefore the invisible Church, also creates sanctifying holiness, and therefore the visible church.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Reformed vs. Rome

Barth moves on to discuss the substance of the Reformed confessions. What holds them together? What makes them distinctively Reformed?

One thing which the confessions have in common, although it is particularly pronounced in the earlier confessions for obvious historical reasons, is opposition to Roman Catholicism. "In the bitterness and disgust with which they speak of the pope and the mass, there is scarcely any notable difference between the Swiss and the German, the Eastern and the Western confessions". Barth argues that this opposition to Romanism is more deliberate, and more central, to the Reformed confessions than to the Lutheran, although all Protestant confessions carry the awareness that Rome is the undoubted enemy.

Barth sees two subtly different positions at work here. The Lutherans are cross with Rome because Rome robs Christians of assurance and despoils Christendom (thus dishonouring God); the Reformed are cross with Rome because Rome dishonours God (by robbing Christians of assurance etc). The Lutheran confessions stress salvation by faith in Christ; the Reformed confessions stress salvation by Christ through faith. The Lutheran position is pastoral first; the Reformed position is theological first.

Now, I don't know how accurate a portrait that is of Lutheranism, but I think it captures Reformed concerns perfectly. The point is that, contra Rome, the Reformed maintain that God does everything. Hence the typical (almost stereotypical) Reformed concern for the sovereignty of God, expressed in the doctrine of predestination.

Here is theology I can get behind!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Principle of Scripture and its Grounds

The second part of Barth's lecture series on the Reformed confessions looks particularly at the Scripture Principle. The principle is expressed by Barth thus: "The church recognises the rule of its proclamation solely in the Word of God and finds the Word of God solely in Holy Scripture". In other words, this is what has been called the 'formal principle' of the Reformation - Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone.

Barth again develops a contrast with Lutheranism. In many ways the Lutheran Church is the church of the 'material principle' of the Reformation - justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This is the organising 'idea' of Lutheran theology, and it is noticeable that this has an effect on the way the Lutherans approach the Bible. Consider Luther's attitude to James, for example: it doesn't teach justification by faith alone, therefore it is secondary, unexciting. This also allows for the privileged position accorded in Lutheranism to the Augustana and to the work of Luther generally.

The Reformed churches, on the other hand, took up the 'formal principle' as their particular emphasis. That ruled out the possibility that they should become 'Calvinist churches' or 'Zwinglian churches' in the same sense as the Lutheran Church. Scripture alone also ensured that the Reformed confessions took on a very different role to the Augustana. The Reformed churches could only see their confessions as pointing to Scripture. They were not the light, but they pointed to the light (Barth develops the analogy with John the Baptist, an important one for his theology generally). In essence, Reformed Christianity is simply this attitude to Sola Scriptura.

He goes on to trace the idea of the grounds of this principle. In Calvin, the grounds of the Scripture Principle is simply the Spirit speaking in Holy Scripture. The Bible is God's Word because God address me in it. The Spirit in me and the Spirit in the Word are one. The early Reformed confessions generally take this line. Even at this early stage - and even in Calvin - it is acceptable to append arguments from the style or circumstances of Scripture, but they are understood as just that: appendices. The main point is Inspiration, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The sad history of the Reformed churches is a move away from this basis in two directions. Firstly, there is a tendency to make the arguments which had been appended to the Scripture Principle the real basis for taking Scripture as God's Word. A loss of confidence in the basis of the Principle in the doctrine (and experience!) of the Holy Spirit led to more emphasis on the arguments, and eventually to the arguments taking over. Scripture is made subject to the judgement and reason of human beings.

Secondly, there is a tendency to make the Bible just one thing amongst many others. Obviously, this goes hand in hand with the first. There is a movement away from seeing God revealed only in the Bible, to seeing the Bible as merely the pinnacle of God's revelation in creation and the human spirit.

In both cases, the door is opened to Protestant liberalism and modernism. That door is shut again only when we say that the Word of God in Scripture is self-authenticating. God witnesses to God. The Word of God is not chained, but speaks clearly and powerfully by the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Theology of the Reformed Confessions

I've just started reading Barth's treatment of the Reformed confessions, delivered as lectures in 1923. The first section deals with "the significance of the confession in the Reformed Church", and is extremely interesting to me, and I hope to other people.

Barth tells the story of the Reformed confessions by contrasting their reception with the place of the Augsburg Confession (the 'Augustana') in Lutheranism. The Augsburg Confession was very quickly considered to be on a level with the ecumenical creeds of the Church. The Lutheran Church was still very much wedded to the old Imperial ideal - one Empire, one Church - and so the Confession could hardly be received as anything else. Moreover, the Confession had been presented to the Emperor - albeit only as a protest, since it was not received. It was therefore a public and ecumenical confession, in the eyes of Lutheran theologians at least. It was only a small step from there to the Book of Concord, which upholds the Augustana, along with various other Lutheran products, as the standard of faith never to be shaken. As Barth points out, this leads to the exaltation of the Confession to the level of Scripture - the Formula of Concord makes regular reference to "the Word of God and the Augsburg Confession" as things which are hardly separable. Luther is seen as essentially a new apostle; the Confession is the product of the Holy Spirit.

This should never happen in a Reformed Church. The Reformed churches were happy for there to be numerous confessions, not fixing on one form of words, because they saw that the confessions were the products of particular churches. They confessed the faith which churches had received from the Scriptures. As such they were always in principle open to correction. Thus Zwingli: "where I have not now correctly understood the said Scripture, I am ready to be corrected and instructed from the aforesaid Scripture". Confessions in the Reformed tradition were understood to be provisional, even when loyalty to them was demanded of the church's teachers in the strongest terms.

It seems to me that (if Barth's view of Lutheranism is correct), the Lutheran Church views authority as coming from Scripture, via the Confession, to the Church. The Confession stands above the Church, as a kind of subordinate Scripture. Barth's picture of the Reformed view has authority come directly from Scripture to the Church, which produces the confession as a result of what it has heard and understood from Scripture. Because it is what the church has heard, the confession cannot then be set aside lightly, but it can be modified and even replaced in time.

Barth concludes that we don't have new Reformed confessions of the standard and profundity of the older confessions simply because we do not have Christians and theologians who are being reformed by the Scriptures. Reformed confessions come from Reformed Christians, and Reformed Christians are brought to birth by Holy Scripture.

"The current situation [now as in 1923!] does make it especially advisable that the Reformed church should set its only hope (truly its only hope) on the prayer 'Come, Creator Spirit!'"

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Hermeneutic of Trust

Just some thoughts, not yet processed into proper prose.

1. A hermeneutic of trust approaches a text with the intention of taking it at face value, assuming that a text is a means of communication between (at least) two people.

2. A hermeneutic of trust takes seriously the nature of the text in question, looking carefully for indications of genre and statements of purpose (implicit or explicit). It seeks to read and interpret a text within the established 'rules' of genre.

3. A hermeneutic of trust is justified de facto by the need human beings have to rely on the testimony of others for both everyday and scientific knowledge; it is justified de jure by the revealed fact that ultimate reality is personal, making personal testimony of ultimate significance.

4. A hermeneutic of trust rejects individualistic approaches to epistemology. Knowledge is a collective enterprise, and testimony is central to that enterprise.

5. A hermeneutic of trust takes the character of the author seriously, at two levels. Firstly, it privileges the author in interpreting the text, seeking to discern the author's intention. Secondly, it asks concerning the moral character of the author, in so far as this has a bearing on the trustworthiness of the text.

6. A hermeneutic of trust steers a middle course between naivety and cynicism, following Ricoeur's principle: "first, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so".

Sunday, December 06, 2009


There aren't many books out there on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not books that you could carry in your rucksack without injuring yourself, anyway. And the books there are tend to be focussed mainly on the evidence for the resurrection rather than the meaning of the resurrection. Of course there is huge value in the former. But isn't the resurrection of Jesus meant to be more than just a handy tool for Christian apologetics? Shouldn't it have an impact on our lives?

Sam Allberry's new book (so new it's not yet available, although you can pre-order it with Amazon) addresses the issue of the meaning of the resurrection, and for my money it does the business. Lifted is only four chapters long, but in those chapters I found again and again that I was getting more excited about the resurrection. The book made me believe in Christ's resurrection more - not because it produced new evidence, but because it explained what it meant to believe that Jesus not only died but also rose.

Sometimes it's simple stuff that hits you hardest. Like this from Sam's first chapter: "the resurrection is the consequence and demonstration of our salvation because death is the consequence and demonstration of our sin." Of course! But as Sam goes on, you'll find yourself struck by how obvious it is that sin leads to death, and how ridiculous you are every time you follow sin instead of the risen Lord. And how much assurance I can derive from the fact that Jesus is raised: "The cross is not a starter pack. It is not God stumping up even most of what we need so that we can fish around in our pockets and make up the rest. By dying and rising for us Jesus has closed the deal. God has signed for it, and his signature is the resurrection." The chapter on transformation takes this and runs with it - I can live differently, because Jesus is raised!

I also found the section on mission particularly useful. Mission is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus. It is the natural outworking of the fact that, by his resurrection, Jesus is exalted as King and Lord of the universe. Everything and everyone must bow to him. Mission is the royal summons of the exalted Christ to his creation. Powerful motivation for us as we seek to speak the gospel.

Any criticisms? Not really. I could have happily read another few chapters, so perhaps my critique would be that it's too short! But if that gets more people reading, so much the better. This is a witty and engaging, yet also hard-hitting, book. I am challenged to believe in and live out the resurrection of Jesus Christ in my own life, and I am thrilled that one day I will see the Lord in my renewed body, in his renewed creation, all because he died and rose.