Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christmas with the Dymythologisers!

My colleague, Michael Lloyd, just emailed me this Bultmann poem penned by Eric Mascall OGS (1905 – 1993), sent out as his Christmas round robin in the 1950s. I thought my blog readers would appreciate this one!


Christmas with the Dymythologisers



Hark, the herald angels sing:

'Bultmann is the latest thing!'

(Or they would if he had not

Demythologized the lot.)

Joyful, all ye nations rise,

Glad to existentialize!

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and Science reconciled.


Lo, the ancient myths disperse.

Hence, three-storied universe!

Let three-decker pulpits stay:

Bultmann has a lot to say,

Since Kerygma still survives

When the myths have lost their lives.

Hark, the herald angels sing:

'Bultmann shot us on the wing!'


Dr Farrer we detect

Somewhat lacking in respect,

Launching, with his puckish arts,

Tiny well-directed darts;

While Herr Luther's lumpish sons

Overload their massive guns,

Blowing, when the barrel splits,

Bultmann - and themselves - to bits.


Let us with a gladsome mind

Leave the ancient world behind.

Modern man, rejoice with us!

We have read Copernicus.

While the herald angels sing:

'Bultmann ist ein gutes Ding!'

We respond in simple trust:

'Demythologize or bust!'




(Air - Good King Wenceslas)

Dr. Bultmann ventured forth

Boldly from his study,

When the wind was in the north,

and the roads were muddy.

All his thoughts were in a maze;

This was not surprising.

He had spent some weary days



'Hither, pupil, strain thy sight

If thou canst, descrying

Yonder folk who shove and fight -

What can they be buying?'

'Sir, 'tis cards with scraps of verse,

Pictured with a fable:

Shepherds and astrologers

Kneeling in a stable.'


'Bring my writings, if you please,

in the last editions.

Du und ich we'll stifle these

Outworn superstitions.'

Sage and pupil forth they go,

Braving every stigma,

Shedding myths like billy-o,

Clinging to kerygma.


'Sir, my thoughts begin to stray

And my faith grows bleaker.

Since I threw my myths away

My kerygma's weaker.'

'Think on Heidegger, my lad,

That pellucid Teuton;

Then you won't feel half so bad

When they talk of Newton.'


Existentially he thought,

as his master hinted.

All the learned works he bought

Which the sage had printed.

Therefore, folk, when science sends

Doubts and fears depressing,

Demythologize your friends -

Then you'll win their blessing.


(Many ancient authorities read flakes of snow instead of billy-o.)

More on McGrath’s critiques of Barth

Some more reflections on Alister McGrath claims about Karl Barth, in "Karl Barth's doctrine of Justification for an Evangelical Perspective", in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Paternoster; Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 172-190


"Soteriology is necessarily secondary to the fact of revelation" (McGrath)

Is it? Or is it rather that soteriology is bound up together with revelation, for Barth. In other words, Barth challenges the distinction that McGrath seems to press.


The following comment really jarred me:

"For Barth, the death of Christ does not in any sense change the soteriological situation, in that this has been determined from all eternity" (McGrath)

I suspect this may underestimate the way time itself is reconfigured by Barth around Christ. It is not straightforward, working from eternity to Christ at some point. Rather, Christ’s time is the fulness of time, the time of God.


McGrath reasons: because "all people will be saved eventually" (the necessary logic, he claims, of Barth’s theology), it follows that "[h]umans are saved, but do not realise it". Therefore Barth has an inordinate stress on epistemological matters rather than soteriological. It follows that "Barth operates within much the same theological framework as … Schleiermacher and the liberal school at this point"

But I don’t think this follows the logic of Barth’s presentation (Barth, of course, famously resists Universalism, too, however problematic this may be. I refer to Tom Greggs on this!). I don’t think it is “universalism therefore the stress must be all about epistemology”, for Barth. Rather, his thinking is shaped by and begins with the Word of God.

I must say, I do not have half the theological mind of the incredibly learned McGrath, and perhaps I read Barth with too generous a hermeneutic. But McGrath’s comments seem questionable to me. Or am I missing the point?

I shall have to ask him myself as he is one of our illustrious visiting professors, after all!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Who gets it wrong? Barth or McGrath? Aide moi!

I don't claim to be a scholar of Barth, so any help from experts would be appreciated. I have just read an article by Alister McGrath on Karl Barth's doctrine of justification in which he argues:
“Whereas for Luther, the gospel was primarily concerned with the promise of the forgiveness of sins to sinful humanity, for Barth it is primarily concerned with the possibility of the right knowledge of God” (McGrath).
My problem with this criticism is that it underestimates the topics of sin and forgiveness inherent in Barth's understanding of the knowledge of God. Of course, key to this discussion will be CD II/1, and especially § 25. There, Barth explicates the knowledge of God in terms of faith and obedience, love and the fear of the Lord. Reading this, it seems highly dubious to me to isolate the knowledge of God, in Barth, from forgiveness and sinfulness. Epistemology, in Barth, is not simply cognitive, but embraces the whole of life. So Barth’s paragraph heading for this section runs:
“The knowledge of God occurs in the fulfilment of the revelation of His Word by the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the reality and with the necessity of faith and its obedience. Its content is the existence of Him whom we must fear above all things because we may love Him above all things”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

More demythologising please!

Here’s a proposition for you to ponder: Demythologising is an activity of godly wisdom. Further, I think it is one which most Christians do without even realising it. Really? Well, think about the Apostle’s Creed, and the “ascent” and “descent” language. So, "He descended into hell". What kind of cosmology does this reflect, do you think? I'd be interested to know if anyone thinks they don't demythologise this.

Justification: Five Views

My thanks to friends at IVP for a review copy.

I started Justification: Five Views yesterday, and I enjoyed the essay "Justification in Historical Perspective" by Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby and Stephen E. Enderlein. This chapter is an ambitious attempt to cover a lot of ground, so I wouldn't ever want to be too fussy about what they don't cover. They cram a lot in approximately 50 pages already. Their overview of Pentecostal contributions to the debate was particularly interesting and it is always good to see engagement with my two heroes, Bultmann and Barth.

Having said that, they hedged their bets a bit too much on their reflections on Barth! In a footnote they write:

"Even so, perhaps it says something about the current state of Barth studies that this is the only section of this historical survey about which the authors are nervous to say anything for fear of being shown not just wrong, but pitifully wrong. Then again, we find a small bit of comfort in the fact that no matter what we say here, most likely someone in the Barthian world will come to our defence!" (37 n.96)

I think they hit upon the crucial point at this juncture, however, when they note that, for Barth, Jesus Christ accomplishes the reality of reconciliation with God, and not merely its possibility. Yes! And amen!

As it seems that most have not understood Douglas Campbell's thesis, I was not surprised to find misunderstanding in this overview. They write: "Douglas Campbell, for example, agrees wholeheartedly with the new perspective that the old perspective—which he refers to as the ‘Justification theory’—is ‘a paradigms with multiple flaws’" (63). However, Campbell categorically does not equate the old perspective with “Justification theory”. In fact, as DC puts it in his conclusion: “the solution that I am aiming toward is deeply Protestant if not Lutheran” (The Deliverance of God 934)!

With contributions from Michael S. Horton, Michael F. Bird, James D. G. Dunn, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Gerald O'Collins and Oliver Rafferty, this promises to be an extremely helpful book on a very complicated set of debates.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Quick book review / notice

Okay, I have read enough of the new Edition Olms book, Fighting Chess with Magnus Carlsen, to realise that we are dealing with something really special here. Well done Adrian Mikhalchishin and Oleg Stetskio for producing a real gem! Just the right mixture of background information, analytical variations, and exclamatory prose within a game to make this a real delight, and not just for real chess experts, but also for the likes of me. And all of this on the best active chess player in the world.

Chess fans: buy this book

Here is one of my favourite early Carlsen games against the experienced Russian Grandmaster, Sergey Dolmatov. As White, Carlsen was only 13 years old and won in beautiful style (Mikhalchishin and Stetskio try to show that allowing Bc4 in the opening was the wrinkle which gave Carlsen the edge. But what a way to capitalise!).


Carlsen-Dolmatov, 2004

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

How to engage in debate with “capital C” Conservatives

T Michael Law and Chris Hays have responded to Kevin DeYoung's (unhelpful) blogpost: "10 reasons to believe in an historical" Adam. I don't think that there is a real debate here (on this issue, if T&C are Manchester United FC, DeYoung is Sutton Coldfield’s under 11s FC), so what I wanted to draw attention to, apart from the numerous terrific points T&C make, was their courteous and patient manner. It is so easy, when reading the kind of things DeYoung claims to either ignore it, or mock it. But apart from the fact that such a response does not demonstrate love for an intelligent Christian brother, it doesn't help anybody! T&C are modelling precisely the kind of scholarship that could be of real benefit to many evangelicals who are struggling with guilty consciences, watching the conservative worldview seem to crumble around them, propped up only by certain Bible verses pressed through a modernist/historicist mill. They avoided commenting on irritating language (e.g., DeYoung’s writes of those who question the historicity of Adam and Eve as “self-proclaimed evangelicals”!), and kept things as factual as possible. I think that there is a challenge here for many of us. It is not that we should make time to respond to every neo-fundamentalist unhealthy "defence of the faith", but T&C are pointing us in the right direction.

Go have a read of their post, and ponder these things!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Knowledge of God on God’s terms

Barth reminds us that in ‘the doctrine of God we have to learn what we are saying when we say “God”’. Who is God? Do we speak rightly about this Subject? I am of the opinion that there is great confusion within evangelicalism concerning this very question. Given certain theological commitments regarding the atonement, and the rampant naive biblicism I see in so many quarters (something I consider to be Evangelicalism's greatest weakness), I suspect that behind many evangelical confessions that "God loves us" is more than a sneaking suspicion that God is not entirely for us, that there is a part of God which would sooner destroy us than embrace us.

Karl Barth, in CD II/1, § 25, kicks off his discussion of the knowledge of God by maintaining that this knowledge begins with God, a fact which involves a number of negative correlates. First, we cannot therefore ask whether knowledge of God is real "from some position outside itself", which would effectively create a position and standpoint to adjudicate on the matter outside of the actuality (an important word for Barth) of God's revelation of His Word by the Holy Spirit. As he argues:

‘[T]he possibility of the knowledge of God and therefore the knowability of God cannot be questioned in vacuo, or by means of a general criterion of knowledge delimiting the knowledge of God from without, but only from within this real knowledge itself’

Second, to begin analysis of what we mean when we say "God" outside of the revelation of God, will ultimately lead, through doubt and anxiety, to idolatry and even atheism.

What is required is the constraint of the Word of God, which is our only basis for considering the doctrine of God. It is precisely this wonderful constraint which is often lacking in the devoted biblicism of much evangelicalism, such that sincere “Bible believing” Christians, attempting their best to work out the "original meaning" or "plain sense" of given scriptures, can end up saying almost anything they want to about God. In the next post (in the Barth CD II/1 category), I will cite an alarming example which demonstrates this point.


Guess the author!

“[The Apostle Paul] breathed an air that is too rarified for us. And most of us find that air stifling - suffocating even. And so we seek to domesticate him, to make him more like us. But he continually resists such efforts”

I’ll give you a clue: his name will forever be associated with Karl Barth (and no, it isn’t Doug Campbell!)

Quote of the Day

“Adoption is the eternal point. Creation is the beginning, the first step toward its fulfillment, which prepares the way for the incarnation of the Son and the accomplishment of our adoption in him”

C. Baxter Kruger (in Jesus and the Undoing of Adam)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Requirments for a successful reading of the Bible (sort of)

No, actually this is not an attempt at an exhaustive list of requirements for reading the whole bible, but Doug Campbell makes some really good points on this subject in relation to Paul, which certainly bear worth considering.

Campbell’s four criteria for a successful reading of Paul
Reading the Bible is a complex activity, one that involves multiple levels of interpretation. A plausible reading of Paul’s letters, Doug Campbell argues, needs to attend to a variety of requirements.

It must offer:

1. A coherent account of the lexical and syntactical data of a given Pauline text (the ‘exegetical level’. See The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009], 224).

For example, An account, e.g., of 1 Cor. 8:1-3 must negotiate textual variants, seek to relay whether and when citations from interlocutors begin/end, the existence and syntactical significance of the presence of conditional constructions, the relation between verbs and nouns etc.

2. A coherent account of the necessary ‘framing requirements’ (general, proximate and circumstantial. See Ibid., 225–28). That is, a reading needs to demonstrate integrity with respect to its cultural and linguistic context, its relation to immediately adjacent texts (Campbell, influenced by Derrida, studiously avoids simplistic notions of ‘context’), and the historical situation surrounding its production.

Does, e.g., a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-3 cohere with the nature and function of pagan religion in 1st century Corinth, the developing argument in 1 Cor. 8-11, and the rhetorical strategies in 1 Cor. generally?

(One will perhaps find practical assent to these points in most works concerned with academic biblical studies. Certainly, not all will be as circumspect in their reference to and handling of ‘context’, because still common is what has been called ‘atomism’. Kavin Rowe has called ‘atomistic’ readings ‘the perennial peril of the modern exegete’ [see his World Upside Down, Oxford: OUP, 2009, p.6]!)

3. A plausible construal of the argumentative dynamics in a given text (if they are present, as they tend to be in much of Paul, at least). The point is this: if an exegetical proposal presents the reader with a coherent argument, it ought to be preferred over a construction which suggests fundamental confusion.

Does a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-7, e.g., demonstrate a coherent argument, with respect to its subject concerning food offered to idols, love and knowledge? Or does a reading portray a fundamentally confused argument?

(Some of the best exegetical works are obedient to this requirement. But still, a related issue is often missing, for reasons hinted at in the previous post!)

4. A coherent reading must also supply a plausible theoretical account of the ‘object’ under discussion. As Campbell writes: ‘The arguments in certain texts reach out beyond their own strings of signifiers and adjacent frames and purport to grasp features of broader reality – what a long European tradition tends to speak of as “the object”. Such texts attempt to communicate to others about his object, giving an accurate account of it. They are fundamentally referential’ (Deliverance, pp. 228–29).

For example, though to oversimplify somewhat, does a reading of 1 Cor. 8:1-3, provide a coherent account of the God-human relation, and is it a plausible account in light of the homoousios, etc.?

This last level is perhaps the most neglected in NT scholarship, and one could argue that the misunderstandings of Campbell’s work by many of his reviewers boils down to the scholarly ‘amnesia’ and the ‘disappearing subject matter’, eloquently lamented by Bockmuehl in Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). At this level, a host of important issues pour in, such as Wirkungsgeschichte, creedal confessions, etc.

The key point for Campbell is to stress that a successful reading of a Pauline text must possess integrity at all of these levels; failure to consider one jeopardises the whole. I can’t help but think of Barth’s words at this point:

‘My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary. Recent commentaries contain no more than a reconstruction of the text, a rendering of the Greek words and phrases by their precise equivalents, a number of additional notes in which archaeological and philological material is gathered together, and a more or less plausible arrangement of the subject-matter in such a manner that it may be historically and psychologically intelligible from the standpoint of pragmatism’. But we must ‘press beyond this preliminary work to an understanding of Paul’ in such a way that ‘involves more than a mere repetition in Greek or in German of what Paul says: it involves a reconsideration of what is set out in the Epistle, until the actual meaning of it is disclosed’ (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968], 6–7).
So, exegetical, framing, argumentative, and theoretical. Convinced?