Monthly Archives: May 2014

Engaging with Barth: Faith as Trust


Barth begins his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed by unpacking what he understands by the phrase “I believe”. He’ll do this over the course of three chapters (which I think were probably 1.5 lectures originally) by exploring the nature of faith from 3 different perspectives:

  1. Faith as trust
  2. Faith as knowledge
  3. Faith as confession

And so in this second chapter of Dogmatics in Outline, Barth begins with faith as trust. Here’s Barth’s leading idea:

Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to his promise and guidance.

There’s a lot packed into this statement, but perhaps the most eye-catching part is the description of faith as the gift of a meeting. Barth says “In Christian faith we are concerned quite decisively with a meeting”. The Bible is clear that faith is a gift (Ephesians 2), but what is this idea of a meeting?

For Barth, this encapsulates his concern that faith cannot be understood apart from what it is faith in: “‘I believe in’ – so the Confession says; and everything depends on this ‘in’.” He points out with approval that apart from this opening phrase, the Creed itself is silent on any human response, focusing instead on God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In doing so, Barth says, it “speaks at its best, deepest and completest about what happens to us men, about what we may be, do and experience.” It seems fair to say that Barth would not be a fan of the focus on subjective experience found in many churches today:

Nor was it a good time when Christians grew eloquent over their action, over the uplift and emotion of the experience of this thing, which took place in man, and when they became speechless as to what we may believe.

So by beginning with “I” but moving swiftly on to the object of faith, Barth believes the Creed is emphasising the objective side to the God-man relationship. But that doesn’t mean he is sidelining a relational Christianity in favour of something academic and dry. On the contrary, because the meeting is with the persons of the Trinity, it is highly relational: “what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe.”

For Barth, this meeting is one in which God makes us free to trust in his gracious word. On our part we simply make use of the gift in which God has given me Himself. In a beautiful phrase, Barth describes faith as a kind of joyful breathing. I think the idea of being made free to trust describes well the biblical pictures – think of Blind Bartimeus being made able to see.

I found Barth’s overall stress on the objective and relational largely very helpful. However, what is really the doctrine of regeneration does at times feel slightly crow-barred into this phrase ‘I believe’, and the actual human response of holding to God’s word is in danger of being forced out. It was only as I was composing that that I realised I’d initially mis-read Barth’s definition of faith to be saying that “faith is a gift which is a meeting”. I wonder if it could be clarified by saying “faith is the gift that comes when God encounters men in such a way that they become free to…”

Having completed this essential groundwork of God’s grace, in the second half of the chapter Barth proceeds to elaborate on the nature of trust, and we see how the focus on the gracious meeting with God in the first half of the chapter leads naturally on to trust in God. This section is brilliantly pastoral, and rather than analyse it I’ll give a flavour of it with some of my favourite quotes:

‘I believe’ means ‘I trust’. No more must I dream of trusting in myself, I no longer require to justify myself, to excuse myself, to attempt to save and preserve myself.

Faith delivers us from trust in such gods, and therefore also from the fear of them, from the disillusionments which they inevitably prepare for us again and again. We are given freedom to trust in Him who deserves our trust: freedom by holding on to Him who in distinction from all other authorities is and will remain faithful.

We ourselves will never be true to ourselves. Our human path is, as such, a path from one disloyalty to another; and it is the same with the ways of the gods of this world. They do not keep what they promise. So with them there is never any real peace and clarity. In God alone there is faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold on to Him, to his promise and to his guidance.

Barth develops the idea of guidance to include in this area of faith as trust a discussion of the law. For Barth obedience to the law flows directly out of the meeting with God that comes through the gospel: “The Creed is always at the same time the gospel, God’s glad tidings to man, the message of Immanuel, God with us, to us; and as such it is necessarily also the law… To hold to God thus always means that we receive everything wholly from God and so are wholly active for him.”

I’ll close by just flagging up one issue. In his discussion of the “in spite of everything” part of his definition of faith, Barth says this: “We never believe ‘on account of’, never ‘because of’; we awake to faith in spite of everything.”

There’s some truth here, but I think we’d want to say that Jesus did provide many proofs of his identity (Acts 1:3) – so while God does awaken us to faith as he opens blind eyes, it’s not quite true to say that it’s “in spite of everything.”

I found this to be a powerful and persuasive chapter. I particularly liked Barth’s language about God giving us the freedom to trust him and I think there’s a lot to learn from it.

Next time we’ll look at Barth’s discussion of faith as knowledge.


Engaging with Barth: Dogmatics in Outline


If you’re anything like me, Karl Barth is the kind of theologian who you’ve heard lots about, but haven’t actually read. Often called the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, he sounds like he’s an interesting and provocative read. But his main work, Church Dogmatics, is a massive multivolume tome. Not only is it expensive (at least for an edition where the non-English phrases are translated), but you also risk missing the forest for the trees.

So when I first came across a slim volume of his called “Dogmatics in Outline”, I was intrigued. It’s Barth’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, delivered in the semi-ruins of Bonn University in 1946:

the hour seven a.m., always after we had sung a psalm or hymn to cheer us up. About eight o’clock the rebuilding in the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine for breaking up the ruins.

Barth lectured with basically a post-it sized set of notes (“the primitive conditions I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to dispense with a manuscript”). According to Barth himself this has the effect of making his writing more accessible: “this looser form [might] serve to explain things which I had elsewhere expressed more strictly and compactly but, for that very reason perhaps, less noticeably and accessibly for all.”

So, for that reason, and because his ideas are rooted in an exposition of a classic text, the Apostles’ Creed, I thought this would be a sensible place to start reading Barth.

Each of the chapters in the book begins with a proposition expressed in a sentence or two which Barth then unpacks. My plan is to blog about each of these chapters, giving Barth’s proposition and then highlighting and discussing what seem to be the main features.

The first chapter is called the Task, and it’s Barth’s view of what he himself is doing in Dogmatics in Outline, so I’ll end this introductory post with an overview of this chapter.

Dogmatics is the science in which the Church, in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confessions

In this opening chapter, Barth discusses his view of ‘dogmatics’. We might be surprised today at the use of the word science to describe the work of theology, but by that Barth means “an attempt at comprehension and exposition, at investigation and instruction, which is related to a definite object and sphere of activity.”

So Barth is not invoking the scientific method in a strict sense, but he is wanting to allude to both the rigour and provisional nature of human scientific investigation. He doesn’t see Christian dogmatics as something fallen from Heaven in a pristine state, but as the ongoing task of critically examining what the Church proclaims. In other words, he says the task of the science of dogmatics is to answer the question: “what as Christians do we really have to say?” I appreciated this emphasis on refining the Church’s proclamation – it means that the goal of dogmatics is inherently practical, missional and churchly. It ought to help keep us from descending into “meaningless talk”.

A related point that Barth stresses is that dogmatics is meant to be done by the Church. This might seem like an obvious point, but it serves to nicely begin to locate Barth for us. His background and early career was in the liberal university theology of early 20th Century German. Barth came to a place where he rejected that theology as empty and rethought nearly everything. Clearly in this opening chapter we can see how Scripture, proclamation and the Church are vital for him, but the fact that he has to stress these points shows just how different his context is to many of ours today: he is an ex-liberal (and who knows still how liberal) talking I imagine to liberals and ex-liberals. In his preface, Barth describes how he discovered in the rubbish of the University a bust of the ‘Father of liberal theology’ Friedrich Schleiermacher, which was “restored to honour again”. So when we read Barth we need to be aware that he may not be reacting to our debates, and that he has been coming from quite a different place.

Next time we’ll get into the Apostles’ Creed itself: Barth will begin to define faith, as he unpacks the first words of the Creed – “I believe…”

Review of “The Holy Trinity” by Stephen Holmes

It seems that, in the world of Trinitarian theology, Stephen Holmes’ 2012 overview of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament through to the 20th Century has been, in the best sense, controversial. A theological journal recently devoted an entire issue to the discussion of Holmes’ work, and fellow-theologian Karen Kilby endorses it on the back cover as “a real intervention in a debate”. But strikingly, she also endorses it as being at the same time “a textbook for serious students”.

As someone with little formal theological training, I am not in a position to comment on its impact on the debate (of which more in a moment), and am not even a serious student. However, I am someone with a keen interest in speaking about God in a way that is faithful to his Word, as it’s been reflected on by his Church through the centuries, and so the “textbook” part of Kilby’s endorsement appealed to me. On top of which, who doesn’t like a good debate? I read the book to get an overview and introduction to Trinitarian doctrine, particularly to see whether I’d been falling into any obvious traps. It’s with that agenda in mind that I want to offer a review of it: given its controversial and serious nature, is “The Holy Trinity” the best place to start?

To answer that question, I’ll briefly summarise the book, evaluate it in light of that aim, and then raise some questions it prompted for me to illustrate the kind of thinking it provoked.

Holmes’ thesis is that the biggest divide in Trinitarian theology is not between Eastern and Western versions, but between the modern account of the doctrine and the teaching of the Church Fathers. Holmes contends that the modern version of the doctrine is essentially unrooted from, and at points explicitly at odds with, the traditional one. To substantiate this Holmes seeks to offer objective and careful readings of both modern and ancient Trinitarian theologies. He claims that a strong modern/traditional division “arises naturally out of such readings without very much need for further argument.” And so after an introductory chapter outlining the themes of recent Trinitarian theology, Holmes works through chapters on the Fathers’ exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, debates between the Fathers leading up to and following the Council of Nicea, the reception and development of the doctrine in through late antiquity and the medieval period and then the radical questioning of the doctrine in the 17th-18th centuries. In a final chapter, Holmes shows how the 20th century’s Trinitarian theology is at least as shaped by the questions (“how can we recover a Biblical doctrine of God free from the influence of Greek philosophy?”) and redefinitions (particularly of the word ‘person’) of the preceding two centuries as it is by the first 16 since Christ. Along the way, Holmes gives helpful summaries of his argument and his findings. In essence he claims that modern Trinitarianism:

  • speaks univocally about God and created things
  • defines ‘person’ as a centre of will/volition
  • rejects the doctrine of simplicity (that is, God is without parts) as being philosophical
  • has an inadequate construction of God’s unity
  • is willing to entangle God’s being, and especially the Son and the Spirit, with his creation through an over-emphasis on the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption as a source for understanding God’s eternal life

In contrast, the traditional doctrine:

  • is careful to describe all speech about God as analogical
  • thinks of God’s will as being undivided, and therefore his “personality” is a property of the one rather than the three
  • regards God’s simplicity as the central and necessary glue holding our thought about God together
  • constructs a doctrine of unity through a careful distinction between what can be said of the nature/essence/substance of God and the persons/hypostastes
  • maintains the Creator/creature distinction as central, while affirming God’s ability to act immediately in the world, resulting in the placement of the Son and the Spirit firmly on the side of being uncreated

The above is just a rough sketch from memory of Holmes’ concerns and conclusions – for Holmes’ own, typically clear and forthright, presentation of these, see the final page (p200) of the book.

So, how did this book serve as an introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity for someone without formal theological training? “The Holy Trinity” is a short book, and so Holmes is often condensed. I found that I had to read this book actively, with a pencil in hand. Some frequently used words such as “hypostasis” were initially confusing but became clearer as I cross-referenced (I take it to be a way of saying ‘person’ without bringing the modern connotations of that word into play). I was helped by Holmes’ regular eye to serve the reader with conclusions and well laid out arguments within and between the chapters. The fact that this work is one with a specific agenda did not for me detract from it: like the gospel writers, Holmes thinks his purpose is best served through a simple laying out of facts, and so the work can still function well as an introduction to the history of the doctrine. I certainly had the impression that Holmes was engaging with the most representative or important parts of the tradition, acknowledging where the evidence was not always precisely in line with his thesis. In fact, the presence of a clear argument made for what was, given the sometimes abstract subject matter, a gripping read (the American title “The Quest for the Trinity” bears witness to this dynamic). Coming away from it, I certainly feel like I have a surer grasp of Trinitarian doctrine, especially as taught by the Fathers but also the modern version. And importantly, I feel that Holmes has made me aware of the points at which he has presented controversial views.

How about those Trinitarian traps I was worried about? Reading this as someone from a classically Reformed/evangelical tradition, I wasn’t always finding myself on the receiving end of Holmes’ criticism: as described by Holmes, modern theologians like Robert Jenson really do go a long way towards entangling the life of God with the world, in a way that I haven’t heard being expressed in the evangelical circles I’ve been part of. However, reading the first chapter’s summary of modern Trinitarian doctrine, I recognised a number of themes that I would be sympathetic to: the centrality of personality and relationship in God’s own life, the possibility of speaking of God’s character in ways which are essentially overlapping with our own existence, the relevance of the doctrine for our community life, and the validity of reasoning from the revealed actions of the Trinity to the eternal life of God, often known as Rahner’s Rule (“the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity” e.g. the Son pours out the Spirit once he has returned to his Father as a reflection of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son). In these areas, I think reading Holmes will help me to be more discriminating before speaking: I’ll certainly be wary, for example, of using the modern definition of the word person in reference to the Father, Son and Spirit.

Perhaps the best way to end this review is to give a list of questions I’ve jotted down for myself to look into as I seek understanding. These aren’t meant to imply criticisms. Instead, they show how this engaging book has stimulated my thinking on this vital doctrine. To anyone who is looking to be introduce to the topic and willing to work with Holmes through his argument, I recommend the book highly.

  1. God’s simplicity is “at the heart of Trinitarian doctrine” (p200). Can it be firmly grounded in revelation?
  2. What does it mean for God to be ‘personal’? Is ‘personality’ (modern def.) only a property of God’s one undivided nature/work, or can we say that each of the three are truly personal? (p200)
  3. The economy is determinative for Anselm (p149), Augustine and Aquinas (p157 n29) as well as Rahner (p10). But Holmes argues that consistent application of Rahner’s Rule has led to an entangling between God and creation (p24). What responsible rules are there for working from the economy to God’s eternal life?
  4. In sections on Eunomius (p98), Augustine (p136) and Calvin (p169-70), the issue of whether the Father’s ingenerateness can be said of the Son and the Spirit is raised. What does it mean to say that the Son is independent, yet begotten? Is the classical answer that begottenness is a personal property while independence is a property of the nature sustainable?
  5. Holmes refers repeatedly to “one God existing thrice over” (e.g. p109) and “three instantiations of the divine nature” (p200). Are these Holmes’ own formulations or traditional ones, and what do they mean?
  6. If ‘personality’ in the modern sense resides in the one rather than the three, what does it mean to have a relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit?