Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review of R. Dale Dawson's The Resurrection in Karl Barth

The Resurrection in Karl Barth. By Robert Dale Dawson. Hampshire: Ahsgate, 2007, 246 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is of central importance to Barth’s theology. It is therefore striking that Dawson’s is the first book-length study in English to focus solely on the resurrection in Karl Barth. Dawson takes the first step toward addressing this lacuna by providing a series of close readings of key texts in Barth. Through the course of this exposition, Dawson advances the thesis that Barth consistently understood the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. Dawson traces this theme through five major discussions of the resurrection spread over Barth’s career.

Before delving into these expositions, Dawson reviews the literature concerning the resurrection in Karl Barth. He correctly argues that its systematic significance is seldom acknowledged, let alone understood. He organizes previous accounts of Barth into three categories: the historical-hermeneutical, the theological, and the developmental. The first category is represented by Peter Carnley and Richard R. Niebuhr, who mistake Barth for a historical skeptic because they are guided by themes foreign to Barth’s own thought. The question of the historicity of the resurrection must be understood within the larger theological significance of the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. As such, it is special kind of history, though certainly not a-historical as many of Barth’s critics suggest. The second category includes many of the major interpreters of Barth (Berkouwer, Balthasar, Torrance, Jungel). Each falls short in expounding Barth’s doctrine of resurrection by either over-emphasizing some other aspect or failing to develop their insights. The third category focuses on the developmental work of Bruce McCormack. Dawson suggests that McCormack’s four-phase developmental scheme must be refined in light of what Barth says concerning the resurrection at different points in his career. For instance, Barth’s early eschatological time-eternity dialectic is not so much replaced by the Christological God-humanity dialectic as it is transposed into the soteriological Christ-others dialectic. Although it is unlikely that these sorts of developmental arguments can be sustained by the mere exposition of selected texts, Dawson at least underscores the genetic-historical significance of Barth’s resurrection discourse.

In order to establish Barth’s consistency, Dawson begins with Barth’s 1924 exegetical study of I Corinthians, The Resurrection of the Dead. He argues that the work cannot be pressed into received eschatological categories but must rather be understood as Barth’s “discovery” of the centrality of the resurrection in Paul’s theological method. Dawson expounds the centrality of the resurrection in terms of its primordial function, its revelational character, and its realistic status. Although there are some hints here of the theme of movement, it is far from dominant, calling into question the place of this chapter in Dawson’s developmental argument. But, as a stand-alone exposition of Barth’s text, it is accurate and illuminating and therefore contributes to an understanding of the resurrection in Karl Barth.

Dawson turns next to a brief study of Church Dogmatics III/2, §47.1, “Jesus, Lord of Time.” Here the theme of movement emerges clearly in terms of the contemporaneity of Jesus Christ achieved in his resurrection. Dawson’s focus on the theme of Christ’s forward movement to others leads him to overlook Barth’s fascinating discussion of Jesus’ pre-existence (CD III/2, pp. 474-85). Perhaps this chapter could be read as a background study to the main body of the book dealing with CD IV. Yet Dawson explicitly places it within his larger developmental argument as an examination of “Barth’s most important mid-career depiction of the resurrection” (p. 81). He refers to this material “the first extended treatment of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Church Dogmatics” (p. 65). This is a misleading statement, given the significance of resurrection discourse throughout CD I/2. The twenty-year leap from The Resurrection of the Dead (1924) to Church Dogmatics III/2 (1948) renders suspect Dawson’s developmental claims. Of course, Dawson’s thesis cannot be reduced to its developmental aspect. However, the extent to which his developmental argument serves to tie together his series of studies endangers the coherence of the book as a whole.

Dawson is at his best when discussing the transition sections of Church Dogmatics IV, the exposition of which makes up over half of the book. Here is where the theme of movement comes to fruition. Within the doctrine of reconciliation, the resurrection functions as the movement of Jesus Christ to others, the transition from the Christological to the anthropological sphere. Although reconciliation between God and humanity is fully achieved and actual by means of the life-history of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, the resurrection opens up this inclusive reality by revealing it to other human beings. This revelatory movement calls forth a new human way of living in correspondence to the true humanity of Christ. After summarizing these themes in chapter four, Dawson reiterates and unpacks them through independent close readings of the three transition sections: “The Verdict of the Father” (CD IV/1, §59.3), “The Direction of the Son” (CD IV/2, §64.4), and “The Promise of the Spirit” (CD IV/3.1, §69.4). In so doing, Dawson highlights the architectonic significance the transition sections in CD IV, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. His exposition would have been made even stronger by greater attention to the role of transitional language (verdict, direction, promise) as organizing motifs in Barth’s survey of the doctrine of reconciliation (§58). Dawson also speaks of the problem of faith and history as a “pseudo-problem,” by which he means that the problem has already been solved by Christ, but this gives the false impression that Barth was unconcerned by the issue. Here Dawson’s analysis would be enriched by placing Barth in his historical context, both in terms of his liberal forebears and his ongoing debate with Bultmann.

In a final chapter, Dawson ties together some critical comments scattered throughout the foregoing exposition. He argues that Barth should have made a more consistent distinction between Auferweckung and Auferstehung in order to indicate in what senses the resurrection does and does not “add” something to the crucifixion. The Auferstehung (self-revealing presence) of Christ is primarily noetic and therefore does not “add” to Christ’s finished work. The Auferweckung (awakening from the dead) of Christ is the ontic work of God and therefore completes the passion of Christ. Whether or not driving a wedge between these two terms ultimately helps or hinders the main theme of movement, this line of criticism does raise important questions about the complex interrelationship between death and resurrection in Barth’s thought.

Less fruitful is Dawson’s attempt to develop a trinitarian theology of resurrection. With reference to the Father’s role in the resurrection, Dawson is both too radical and not radical enough. He argues that the “resurrection of the Son of God is nothing other than God’s reassertion of his own eternal trinitarian being.” (p. 219). He is too radical in that he reduces resurrection to “nothing other” than this divine self-referential action. He is not radical enough in that he explicates this divine self-referential action in terms of mere self-affirmation. Perhaps the notion of God corresponding to Godself would help sort out these difficulties. With reference to the Spirit’s role in the resurrection, Dawson criticizes Barth for not giving an independent agency to the Spirit. This sort of criticism signals a clear break from Barth’s own trinitarianism. Barth never wavers in his commitment to God’s singular subjectivity in the midst of God’s triune self-differentiation. God is God in three modes of being, not three independent agents. Does the distinct role of the Spirit in the Father’s raising of the Son require a more thorough development than Barth provides? Yes. Does such a development require one to abandon Barth’s most basic insights into God’s triunity? Not necessarily. Perhaps one might come to such a conclusion, but only after a serious attempt to understand what talk of the Spirit’s role in the resurrection would look like in terms of Barth’s own trinitarianism. Here Dawson has identified a very interesting problem, even as he takes the wrong road in trying to solve it.

Detailed exposition of Barth’s texts is always valuable, even when the larger developmental and constructive arguments they serve are less than compelling. Dawson performs a great service to Barth studies simply by exposing the sheer quantity of resurrection discourse in Barth. Identifying the movement motif as the key to Barth’s mature theology of the resurrection is also a significant contribution. Only Barth specialists, on account of the cost of the book as well as its workmanlike style, will likely appreciate Dawson’s contribution. Such limitations in audience are to be expected in light of its genesis as a dissertation. With these limits, this book is a major investigation into the significance of the resurrection for Karl Barth and is therefore a must-read for those who wish to converse with Barth in the ongoing task of theology today.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review of Matt Jenson's "The Gravity of Sin"

The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se. By Matt Jenson. London: T & T Clark, 2006, 202 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years of the importance of relationality for theological anthropology. Unfortunately, this trend has too often spoken of humanity in abstraction from the doctrine of sin. Matt Jenson's new study is a crucial step towards filling this gap in contemporary theology. In this revision of his St. Andrews doctoral thesis, Jenson traces the use of the metaphor of humanity curved in on itself (homo incurvatus in se). His thesis is that this metaphor provides 'the best paradigm for understanding sin relationally' (p. 4). What makes this image the best is its descriptive breadth: various sins can be understood as different manifestations of the gravitational pull away from humanity's constituitive relationships. But this descriptive breadth does not come automatically with the emergence of the metaphor of incurvature. Therefore, Jenson traces the development of this metaphor from its beginnings in Augustine (ch. 1), through its radicalization by Luther (ch. 2), to its broadening by Barth (ch. 4) in conversation with its feminist critics (ch. 3).

Jenson draws on a close reading of Book XIV of the City of God to display Augustine's relational account of sin. Since the goodness of humanity rests in its participatory relationship to God, sin must be understood as a privation of this relationship. Driven by prideful orientation of the will towards oneself, humanity "falls" or "turns" in on itself. This disruption of the proper order of loves (love God and love all things in God) leads to falsehood, pride, and isolation. The remedy for sin is reverent humility before God, brought about by participation in the humility of Christ. Jenson registers a concern that Augustine's profoundly relational account of humanity and sin seems to contradict the inward turn of the second half of On the Trinity. One wonders whether this dissonance could be accounted for developmentally, perhaps as an instance of Augustine's consistent development toward a more pessemistic anthropology. Nevertheless, this ambiguity in Augustine is fruitful for Jenson's narrative, as it paves the way for Luther's radicalization of the metaphor of incurvature.

Based on a study of his early lectures on Romans, Jenson shows how Luther deploys the language of homo incurvatus in se more consistent and thoroughgoing manner than Augustine. Luther's understanding of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator means that sinful incurvature persists throughout the Christian life. Original sin is understood qualitatively as affecting the whole person. The sinner has a propensity toward evil beyond mere privation of the good. One's whole being is inclined in the wrong direction. Such a total understanding of sin requires any equally total understanding of salvation wherein humanity is killed and resurrected. Repentance means turning wholly outside of oneself and therefore away from natural reason, enjoyment (rather than use) of the world, and especially a religious concern with one's virtue. This radicalization of the incurvatus to include the homo religiosus is Luther's most important contribution, according to Jenson. It this kind of move that shows the fecundity of the metaphor. It also reveals the risks of an approach to sin that undermines human flourishing. If all self-seeking is sin, then those who are oppressed are barred from overcoming their oppression. Jenson explores this criticism of the incurvatus in the following chapter.

Jenson dedicates chapter three to a summary of and response to Daphne Hampson's feminist critique of Luther's doctrine of sin. Hampson argues that sin understood as prideful incurvature is not true to women's experience of self-loss. It is therefore an incomplete account of sin. Furthermore, such an account is harmful because it discourages women from seeking the automony they need. Hampson's alternative is to promote a spirituality of "coming to oneself" that emphasizes anthropological continuity. Jenson identifies three problems with Hampson's critique: (1) a strictly gendered account of sin is deterministic, narrow, and ideological, (2) the location of continuity in autonomous persons undermines the seriousness of sin, and (3) the metaphor of incurvature includes but is not reducible to the sin of pride. This last point sets up Barth to enter the story as the theologian who broadens the range of the metaphor of incurvature and thereby anticipates feminist concerns.

Jenson's inclusion of a generous engagement with feminist criticism widens the appeal of his constructive proposal. However, the tension in Jenson's narrative might have been heightened by focusing more on the feminist unmasking of the reduction of sin to pride and less on the particular inadequacies Hampson's alternative. Perhaps he could have selected a less radically post-Christian feminist as a dialogue partner. This would have made Barth's triumph a little less easy and therefore all the more laudable.

In his final chapter on Barth's doctrine of sin, Jenson demonstrates how the metaphor of incurvature can be broadened to include pride and self-loss, therefore vindicating its adequacy as a paradigm for sin. Jenson carefully describes Barth's Christological method for understanding humanity and sin, relying heavily on Church Dogmatics III/2. He then turns to a close reading of the three parallel sections on sin in CD IV/1-3. After summarizing Barth's treatment of pride and falsehood, Jenson gives extended attention to the section on sin as sloth. In keeping with the dialectic of Jesus Christ as servant and Lord, Barth understands slothful self-loss as the dialectic pair of prideful self-seeking, both of which are variations of humanity's incurved resistance to Jesus Christ. This thorough exposition of Barth is offered as evidence that the metaphor of incurvature, if applied carefully, has sufficient explanatory power as a broad paradigm for sin.

Jenson's exposition of Barth is insightful and detailed despite its brevity. He is fair to Barth even as he fits Barth into his own constructive project. On one point, however, his constructive appropriation of Barth creates a blind spot. Jenson chooses to discuss the three aspects of sin out of order. This is understandable in light of his constructive intentions, for Barth's inclusion of sloth alongside pride is Jenson's main point. But it is also unfortunate, for in this case his proposal would have been advanced by a more relentless attention to structural details. For Barth, falsehood as the sinful resistance to Jesus Christ as the true witness leads naturally to the kind of missional ecclesiology that Jenson recommends in his conclusion. Aside from this missed opportunity, Jenson's exposition of Barth is excellent.

As for the book as a whole, Jenson succeeds masterfully at recommending the metaphor of homo incurvatus in se as a sufficient paradigm for sin. In so doing, he has taken a major step forward toward the development of a relational hamartology. Along this constructive path he also offers a rich account of three major figures in the history of theology. Conspicuously absent are any medieval voices that speak of sin as incurvature (e.g., Anselm's Proslogion), though it must be acknowledged that Jenson does not pretend to be offering a full-blown reception history of the motif. Along with many constructive comparisons of figures, developmental concerns get shortchanged. For instance, is it really appropriate to compare the early Luther with the mature Augustine and Barth? Also, the singular focus on one metaphor leaves some interesting themes under-developed. For instance, Jenson repeatedly notes the ironies inherent in human sinfulness, but he does not tie these insights together.

Such problems are dwarfed in comparison to the riches of this book. With crisp prose, Jenson tells a good story and argues a convincing point. The footnotes initiate the reader into a larger conversation. The lack of an index is a disappointment, given that this is the kind of book to be referenced repeatedly. The Gravity of Sin would make an ideal textbook for seminary and upper-level college courses. It is a much-needed book for shaping current developments in theological anthropology, precisely because it takes sin so seriously.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (III): Gift-giving vs. Cherry-picking

It has become a commonplace to describe ecumenical encounter as a gift-exchange. We come to the table and share what unique gift each tradition has to offer the church universal. Cardinal Dulles made much of this metaphor in his lecture. Some people find that they learn more about the unique gift of their own tradition through the very process of this exchange.

A number of younger ecumenists, many of whom were present at the Oberlin conference a few weeks ago, experience ecumenism differently. For many of them, ecumenical dialogue is already going on in their own heads. When asked what tradition they represent, many younger ecumenists answer with a hodgepodge identity along these lines: "Well, I grew up Methodist, became a fundamentalist Baptist, then went to a liberal Presbyterian seminary, and now I am a catechumen in the Russian Orthodox Church." Even those who have a more consistent ecclesial identity often draw from a wide range of theological resources, signaled by strange monikers like "high-church Mennonite" or "Holiness Barthian." Diversity is no longer just about living with others, but living with ourselves.

Although this internal diversity may make us more open to dialogue, it may not in fact make us better dialogue-partners. Why? Because we are so prone to cherry-picking the ideas and practices we like from other traditions that we are often blinded to the different logic undergirding them. To cite just one example, some low-church protestants make use of Roman Catholic liturgical practices while rejecting or even ignoring the account of authority that underlies them. Now such cherry-picking may be entirely legitimate, but it can spoil ecumenical dialogue because what the Roman Catholic wants to offer as a gift (let's say, Roman primacy) is overlooked while the dialogue-partner simply takes what they want. The result is that we never get around to dealing with the knotty issues that divide us. So, we need to be careful to not get stuck cherry-pick but also exchange gifts.

Any thoughts?
What have you learned through an ecumenical gift-exchange?
Do you cherry-pick?
What are the benefits of cherry-picking?
What are the dangers?