And now for our second installment of "What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth."
Every tradition has its distinctive doctrine. Christian sub-groups foster their identity through the cultivation of their pet doctrine. Not only do they have a distinctive take on this doctrine, but they also place distinctive emphasis on it. The unique gift that each tradition offers the church universal is its distinctive doctrinal emphasis. Yet, the unique temptation of each tradition is to turn their distinctive doctrine into a trump card that subjects every other Christian doctrine to its service. The challenge for each tradition is to offer their gift to others while at the same time reformulating their doctrine in light of the whole Christian faith.
It should be uncontroversial that the distinctive Wesleyan doctrine is sanctification. Not only do Wesleyans have a distinctive take on this common Christian doctrine, but we lay particular emphasis on it as central to our theological formulations. To be part of the Wesleyan tradition is to be committed to “spreading Scriptural holiness across the land.” But as we spread this message, we run into problems because we begin to second guess it. We have questions about the legitimacy and appeal of the doctrine. So we have a choice to make: either keep affirming it with our fingers crossed behind our back, dump the doctrine entirely to focus on something else, or roll up our sleeves to begin reformulating the doctrine in a true and compelling way.
Hopefully, we choose the third option: reformulation. But if we choose this path, how will we go about it? What is the best way to reformulate a doctrine? Enter Karl Barth. He comes from a tradition with a distinctive doctrine that has created just as much (if not more) problems for them. Barth is a Reformed theologian. He hails from the Calvinist corner of the Christian community. (By the way, it is this reformed heritage that raises an eyebrow among Wesleyans about my interest in Barth and thus occasions this series of posts.)
The distinctive doctrine of the Reformed tradition is predestination. Barth wanted to stay true to his tradition by affirming this doctrine, but desired to reformulate it in a compelling way that took care of some of the inherent problems in this doctrine. Now I won’t go into the details of his reformulation, because what is most interesting to me is his procedure: he recasts the whole doctrine of election in Christocentric terms. He takes the triune God revealed in Christ as his central point and reorganizes the material accordingly. Thus, the electing God is not some unknown God above Christ, but rather Jesus Christ is the electing God. And the elected and rejected human being is not particular individuals, but rather Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection is the elect and rejected man. Surrounding the electing-and-elect God-man Jesus Christ is his chosen community of witness,
The lesson here is not necessarily to follow Barth is his specific reformulations (although detailed study of the content is the best way to learn the procedure), but rather to cherry-pick his Christocentric procedure for doctrinal reformulation. The Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification is certainly in need of a shot-in-the-arm. Few will argue with this, although there are many suggested shots. My prognosis is that we take our cue from Barth to rework the doctrine sanctification from the bottom up with Christ at the center.
What would that look like? Well, I won’t go into the details here (this is a life-long project), but simply point out one aspect of the doctrine that would benefit from such a procedure. When we talk about sanctification there is a lot of talk about natures: human nature and sinful nature. How do we know about these so-called “natures”? It would seem to me that the best place to start in a Christian reflection on human nature, sinful nature, and what the divine nature does to them, is the meeting of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. I intuitively suspect that starting here will yield fruitful insights about the way our “natures” are cured.
So that’s the second reason why this Wesleyan has taken an interest in Karl Barth.
Would you agree that detailed reformulation is the way to go?
Is Barth’s Christocentric procedure commendable?
How might this play out in a Wesleyan reformulation of sanctification?
Specifically with regard to natures, what insights might be drawn from Trinity/Christology?