Friday, July 30, 2010

Radical Historicity and the Disclosive Word of God

In order to help facilitate a discussion on the Confessing Christ listserv and to hopefully extend the discussion to a wider group, I will be placing within the next week or two my article titled Radical Historicism and the Disclosive Word of God in sections on this blog. This somewhat technical article is important, I believe in probing into a broad set of issues especially related to "confessing Christ" movements within mainline Protestant denominations. The primary protagonist in this chapter is the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth who sought to open up "the strange new world of the Bible" among an early 20th century audience for whom the Bible was a strange old world indeed.

In the process, Barth was taking on over a century of Christian liberalism grounded in the work of Frederick Schleiermacher in the emphasis placed on the human experience of the Christian revelation. Barth did not dismiss this importance and a radical quest for the presence of the Holy Spirit underlay a great deal of his work and even more important, his religious passion. Still what he did labor against is any position that privileged belief and felt experience over the objective truth, however dimly we perceive it, of the Christian revelation. For this, he turned to the Bible in which human experience needed to ground its own identity and to draw on the Bible as the basis for interpreting the culture rather than the revserse as a pervasive tendency in 19th and 20th century Christian liberalism. I draw on the Barthian turn because I believe it highly relevant to some of the key issues the contemporary church faces as well.

What follows are the short quotations from various sources with which I open the essay:

Theologians are historically conditioned persons whose attempt to comprehend the eternal are relative.

Barth maintained throughout Church Dogmatics that theology is a work of Christian proclamation. It does not defend the reasonableness of Christianity to outsiders, nor does it look for a common ground on which the superiority of Christianity over other perspectives might be defended. Theology cannot move to neutral apologetic ground without forsaking its basis in the circle of Word-inspired faith. Neither can it prove the truth of God’s Word ‘either directly or indirectly,’ Barth argued. ‘It can only trust in the Word’s demonstration of itself.’

The Christian message is, let me repeat, not one truth among others; it is the[original italic] truth.

The whole man stands before the whole earthly and eternal reality, the reality which God has prepared for him in Jesus Christ. Man can live up to this reality only if he responds fully to the totality of the offer and the claim. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that the Jesus of history actually created the Christ of faith in the life of the early church, and that his historic life is related to the transcendent Christ as a final and ultimate symbol of a relation which prophetic religion sees between all life and history and the transcendent. In genuine prophetic Christianity the moral qualities of the Christ are not only our hope, but our despair. Out of that despair arises a new hope centered in the revelation of God in Christ. In such faith Christ and the Cross reveal not only the possibilities but the limits of human finitude in order that a more ultimate hope may arise from the concrete recognition of those limits. Christian faith is, in other words a type of optimism which places its ultimate confidence in the love of God and not the love of man, in the ultimate and transcendent unity of reality and not in tentative and superficial harmonies of existence which human ingenuity may contrive. It insists, quite logically, that the ultimate hope becomes possible only to those who no longer place their confidence in purely human possibilities. Repentance is thus the gateway to the Kingdom of God.

It is not essentially the problem of Christianity and civilization; for Christianity, whether defined as church, creed, ethics, or movement of thought, itself moves between the poles of Christ and culture. The relation of these two authorities constitutes its problem.

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