Monday, March 9, 2009

Of that which we cannot speak we should be silent

Reading a book review by Andrew Barry in The Briefing on a book of essays Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange (2009) I find myself gobsmacked. Barry begins like this,

"While reading this selection of essays, I've also been reading the prophet Jeremiah. Both are stretching, edifying and hard going, and yet it has struck me that both deal with theological disagreement—that is, dare I say, false teaching—in very different ways."

OK. Got that. Barth is a false teacher. Barry knows Barth is wrong. To an extent his conviction is strengthened by the book being reviewed. Yet the book itself falls short because it is not tough enough on Barth.

"If the conclusions that most of the contributors reached are true, the weight of those conclusions seemed to be lacking. There was a lot of light, but not much heat; most of the essays tended to frame Barth's theology as being wonderful, but also inadequate or unsatisfactory, rather than pastorally dangerous."

Barth is Barth. Not quite kosher evangelical: not Stott nor Packer nor Piper. More N.T. Wright, evangelicals could say, than right. So able to be judged a false teacher, as well as pastorally dangerous. But what about Calvin? Is he ever deemed a false teacher by evangelicals? (No doubt some commenter will provide evidence, but I do not know of it). Yet Calvin's teaching has given rise to pastorally dangerous nonsense such as 'double predestination'. And, while I am on my high horse, there is a lot of pastorally dangerous nonsense around in the evangelical world that can scarcely be upheld by a plain reading of Scripture. But, as an aside, is it helpful to cast the label 'false teacher' around? Is theological disagreement not possible without incurring this denotation? Does our fellowship in Christ as fallible sinners improve with name calling?

Barth is incomparable, as human theologians go. He thinks, reflects, digests, and slowly, painstakingly shares his conclusions. So slowly that, as Barry rightly observes, 'Barth is an almost unassailable mountain'. At least he is a mountain when so much that passes for 'truth' in the evangelical world are mole-hills.

Barry takes Barth to task on the doctrine of election. "From almost every angle, it is Barth's view of election that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Barth's innovation is that rather than people being elect, Christ is both the elect one and the rejected one. Therefore, all humanity is given a ‘yes’ in Christ that negates our ‘no’ towards God. While the arguments are complicated, it is not hard to see that the trajectory Barth's theology follows leads to universalism (i.e. that all people will be saved)."

I wonder what Barry would say about Calvin and his doctrine of election - in its own way an immense stumbling block to many? This is no idle theoretical point about the high places of theology. When bad things happen to good people our hearts cry to God for an explanation. A doctrine of election provides such an explanation. But that explanation in the hands of some evangelicals can add to the terror of human pain rather than relieve it. Especially when it gives a sense, however unintentionally, that God authorises our torment.

Perhaps we should be silent about election and leave it as a divine mystery. That could leave us free to not speak when we have nothing to say that makes any sense when our world is shattered and we know not where God is.


Anonymous said...

"But what about Calvin? Is he ever deemed a false teacher by evangelicals? (No doubt some commenter will provide evidence, but I do not know of it)."

I know plenty of people who would consider themselves 'evangelicals' ('Bible people') who would reject Calvin's predestinarianism if they knew of it. They're called 'Arminians'. Is 'double predestination' "dangerous pastoral nonsense"? I suggest: only if you make the untenable claim to know for certain who the elect are (and no Calvinist would say that). Double or even Single Malt Predestinarianism is a heady drink with all kinds of questions - so are all the alternatives (like 'open theism'). But Biblical theology can't stand just by itself, because there is an endless number of Bible readers. Who is nearer the truth? Theology and Philosophy should have a symbiotic relationship - not a parasitic or antagonsitic one.
I like Barth, not for recasting the question of election (where I find him doubtful), nor for his dismissal of natural theology (he's too reactive there), but for reasserting the Trinity at the heart of revelation.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Excellent points-thank you.
In rejecting Calvin's predestinarianism I wonder if Arminians would uniformly describe Calvin as a 'false teacher'?

Anonymous said...

"In rejecting Calvin's predestinarianism I wonder if Arminians would uniformly describe Calvin as a 'false teacher'?"

Well, that would be a stretch, but quien sabe? Insofar as they even know the term, Arminians have historically been Methodists (and then Pentecostalists, which grew out of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition), and the best line on them I recall is from the Robert Redford film 'A River Runs Through It', about sons of a scholarly Presbyterian minister in 1900's Montana. When elder son gets engaged to Methodist girl, father demurs: 'Methodists? They're Baptists who can read.'

(Ouch. I used to attend a Baptist church.)