Wednesday, June 21, 2006

What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth (Part Two): Christocentric Procedure for Doctrinal Reformulation

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, Israel and the Church. The elect individual is the one who joins this community of witness to Jesus Christ’s election, e.g., the disciples. The reprobate is the one who fails to bear proper witness, e.g., Judas. This is only a sketch, so don’t make too much of it (see Church Dogmatics II/2 for the 500 page version). But you can see how this reformulates the doctrine of predestination in accordance with the central Christian affirmation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

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.

Any thoughts?

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?


Erik said...

Mmmmmm....Fruitful nature.

This is way too deep for me, but, you explained it well, and I got interested.

It did get me thinking what my personal theology is, coming from an independant church first, and then a Wesleyan Church second. Not to mention 5 years at IWU. And 5 years out. Ugh. Theological...head...hurting...

Nathan Crawford said...


I am wondering if, following Barth, the goal may not be to recast the doctrine of sanctification Christocentrically, but to recast it Pneumatologically? What Barth does is take the doctrine of election theocentrically, not anthropocentrically. What this does is to try and figure out a way to explain the doctrine through the Triune God. Enter Barth's Christocentrism. We see Christ as the elected one and the one that elects. There is a double reference.

What Wesleyans have traditionally done is to explain sanctification in terms of what happens to humanity, when we should recast it in terms of what God does. We usually associate this "God-doing" with the Holy Spirit. So, then we recast the entire idea of sanctification away from the notion of what happens in humanity into what the operations of the Holy Spirit are doing in relation to humanity.

Now that I have written this, I think I may have left the essence of Barth.

JohnLDrury said...

Good ideas, especially reminding us that the point is the focus on God rather than strarting with us. The only warning I would put on the table is that pneumatology should never be seperated from christology (the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ). If that warning is headed, then certainly sanctification is best presenting and thought out in terms of the one triune God. Spot on!

David Drury said...

An interesting and potentially fruitful line of thinking, John. I look forward to it's development.

On a fundamental level, I think the motivation to reformulate is what is most practically needed in most traditions. There seems to be a lack of passion for this in up-and-coming generations--perhaps they think it too needless, too frustrating, too demanding or too likely to be internally opposed. And in older generations there is a certain defensiveness that anyone reformulating who doesn't use the exact same terms, nuances and emphases as the historical version is instead starting us down the slippery slope.

I wonder if in this war of the worldviews most traditions unravel their impact on the rest of Christianity and the world, rather than continuing to weave the tapestry in the future. Glad to know someone as respected as Barth was somewhat successful.

But, ever the cynic, I'll point out that I haven't noticed this reformulation trickling down to street-level Reformers. My prayer and hope is that yours will for guys like me.

That's my word from the street at least...

In the words of someone great: keep on keeping on!


kerry said...

I loved your article and I agree with you that the task of reformulation (as you defined it) is before us. It struck me as I was reading that we would be better off grounding sanctification in a Trinitarian reformulation. Then I saw you had already arrived at that conclusion! Must be right!

Pastor Rod said...


I had an insight to this issue that I will expand on at my blog. In essence it has to do with continuity and discontinuity.

This can been seen in the relationship between the physical body and the resurrection body. These bodies have some important things in common, to the point where they can be considered the same person. Yet they have dramatic differences.

This can also be seen in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. In one sense, the NC is an entirely new thing. In another sense, it is simply the fulfillment of the OC.

Jesus gives us another example (and this is the most telling). His radical hospitality was based both upon his solidarity with the "sinners" and also upon his radical difference from them. As followers of Christ, we must identify with "sinners" (not just in the cheap "I feel your pain" way) and also stand out from them as different in some substantial way.

This is where a better understanding of holiness comes in. (I hope I haven't lost you in this sea of words.) Holiness must take into account our thoroughly-human nature (experienced as weakness) while identifying a clear break from the "fleshly" nature.

In the past, holiness proponents have tended to play down (or outright ignore) the continuity of human weakness even after sanctification. Others in an attempt to emphasize this continuity have ignored the discontinuity of holiness, thereby canonizing slavery to sin and the "Romans 7" experience as avoidable components of human nature.

I don't know if I did a very good job of expressing what I'm thinking or even if it makes a significant contribution to the discussion.

If so, I'd be interested in your reaction.