Archives For Karl Barth

For those who believe in absolute freedom, any “no” spoken to humanity from outside humanity, is repressive, and unfairly restrictive.

In the shadow of this logic, even a lighthouse or global positioning navigation is offensive. Both the lighthouse and GPS direct humanity. They protect freedom, because in their very confrontation with us, they invite true freedom.

They remind us of individual responsibility. Their existence shows us the necessity and power of decision. They direct us to make responsible choices.

The existence of the lighthouse warns us that danger awaits. To act in absolute freedom and ignore this warning, is to deny freedom. The light which shines forth from its lantern encourages us to not see freedom as being without the necessary choice guided by self-limitation and external direction.

The presence of a lighthouse warns us about the consequences of living out the false doctrine of the nihilist.

In the shadow of this false doctrine, the lighthouse is viewed as anachronistic.

The lighthouse is viewed as an oppressive social construct from a by-gone era. So violence is done to it. Alongside well positioned propaganda, walks the advocate with placards demanding that the lighthouse be torn down. Through ridicule and raw emotion, the lighthouse is mocked, sentenced to the museum and ignored.

The ruling is that the lighthouse should be denied its right to speak; its right to signal danger and direct a pathway to safety. The lighthouse is viewed as something to be denied its right to confront us with it’s “no, not that way”.

In the case of the nihilist Captain and his ship, the lighthouse is ignored.This is until the unmovable brunt of a reef tragically rips apart the hull of his ship, and the shadow of absolute freedom is exposed for what it is: a denial of freedom. The reef is hit and lives are lost. Freedom is sacrificed to the abyss.

The ability and permission to say “no”, is as much a part of freedom, and love, as is the ability and permission to say “yes”. If someone is without the ability and permission to say “no” to themselves or to others, it cannot be said that this person is truly free. This is because direction and self-limitation are ultimate necessities for survival and healthy progress. Direction and self-limitation are necessary for freedom to remain freedom. In other words: No self-control, no freedom. Know self-control, know freedom.

The responsible parent will say “no” to an infant wanting to play with a loaded gun, sharp knife, and hot stove or in the middle of a freeway. The loving limitation of the infant’s freedom protects the freedom of the infant.  The loving parental “no” directs the infant towards true freedom. Absolute freedom denies this[1].  It denies that freedom exists in limitation[2].

This is because freedom-in-limitation is counter to the flawed logic of advocates who believe in absolute freedom (such as the nihilist). The denial of self-limitation, and rejection of direction, both form the cornerstone of a false doctrine which preaches that freedom can exist without limitation; without direction.

Advocates who believe in absolute freedom have no time for discussion about issues such as self-control, perseverance, and commitment. Their “Yes” is always spoken; permission always given, and their “No”, if spoken at all, is a quiet, uncertain “no”.

Under the nihilist doctrine of absolute freedom, the only one who is free to say “No” is the nihilist himself. In this way advocates of absolute freedom assert themselves as lords over others.

We saw this in Australia, when the State Government in Queensland, with the support of a broad list of representatives from different parties, passed a bill that would legalise abortion up to 22 weeks. The bill also allows for a mother to abort her unborn child right up to birth. This latter option is, however, conditional. The mother must have the signatures of two doctors. (Even if she does obtain two approvals, the doctor isn’t even required to view her file or meet with her.)

No amount of arguments in favour of abortion changes the fact that abortion is the deliberate violent interruption of pregnancy[3]. It’s where women (and some men on behalf of women) demand the absolute freedom for pregnant women to”miscarry on demand”.

With abortion, absolute freedom claims the higher moral ground. The battle cry is that absolute choice, and gender equality, must be won, no matter what the cost. Freedom of choice reigns over against any forms of, or reasons for, moral restraint. Like the lighthouse,  the warnings from those who fight for, and seek the protection of life, are pushed aside as irrelevant. The value of human life is shattered on the reef. Abortion is made into a commodity, where human life is bought and sold, at the command of doctor, parent or state.

Like the nihilist Captain who ignores the lighthouse, the reality of man and woman’s new dilemma is brutal. They are unaware of what they’re entertaining and what they’ve bought into.Absolute freedom negates freedom.

Industrial abortion is another manifestation of lebensunwertes leben (The Nazi ideology of life [deemed] unworthy of life). That’s good reason for why it should be rejected, not embraced. It’s certainly not to be celebrated as liberation, and abortion clinics should not be paraded as liberators – where all who are opposed to abortion are painted as anti-freedom or oppressors.

The false doctrine of the nihilist should be fervently rejected. In its theological form, this false doctrine spawns the false interpretation of grace as freedom to sin, as opposed to grace being freedom from sin; freedom to be for God and for others[4].

Consequently, under the shadow of nihilism, the light of God’s “no” spoken to humanity from outside itself is rejected. The power and sovereignty of God over life, is subsumed into the hands of men and women; patients, the government, family and professionals.

Man takes up the power of life and death, and (as he has done from the beginning of his choice against God, in order to be God), man puts himself in the place of God.

As summed up by anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth:

‘he who destroys germinating life kills a man and thus ventures the monstrous thing of decreeing concerning the life and death of a fellow-man whose life is given by God and therefore, like his own, belongs to Him. He desires to discharge a divine office, or, even if not, he accepts responsibility for such discharge, by daring to have the last word on at least the temporal form of the life of his fellow-man. Those directly or indirectly involved cannot escape this responsibility.’ (CD.3:4:416)

God is thought to be dethroned or an unconcerned spectator. His absolute power is now viewed as a weapon in the hands of the nihilist. Power handed to them by man and woman’s selfish and self-destructive quest for what they have accepted, without question, as being true freedom.

Absolute freedom negates freedom. We cannot afford to ignore the lighthouse. For what we face without it is an age of darkness.

To be so convinced that true freedom is existence without the One who birthed that existence, is to give in to an arrogance which rejects grace, and chains humanity to the Dark agenda of total extinction and self-annihilation.

‘Blessed is the one who hears instruction and responds wisely to it’ – (Proverbs 8:33-34)


References:

Barth, K. Respect For Life, Church Dogmatics 3:4 Hendrickson Publishers

[1] My conclusions here rest on those of Albert Camus. To paraphrase, ‘absolute freedom is ultimately a lie.’ (The Rebel)

[2] Karl Barth

[3] Ibid, CD.3:4:416

[4] Karl Barth

©Rod Lampard, 2018

Photo by Sleep Music on Unsplash

Karl Barth is viewed by many as being one of the 20th Century’s most important theologians.The chief reason for this is the renewed focus on Jesus Christ that he brought back into all aspects of theology. Barth’s approach to Jesus Christ and the Bible, involved letting Jesus Christ and the Bible approach him. He “let the Bible speak for itself.”

I see a great deal of humility and joy in that approach. Not only do I aim to savour every bit of time I set aside to read Barth, I aim to let Barth’s approach to theology be an example, which I can borrow from in my own journey towards an ever maturing theological education.

So it’s with some reluctance that I outline and seek to explain my three core criticisms of Karl Barth. From the outset it’s important to point out that these criticisms are not in regards to persevered contradictions in his theological conclusions. The goal here is to work from the ground up, covering aspects of his work which provide certain difficulties for his students today.

My first criticism of Karl Barth is his extramarital affair with his secretary and primary researcher, Charlotte Von Kirschbaum.  Second is his reluctance to criticise the brutal nature of Communism and third is the question about whether Barth did enough to avoid his work descending into a closed community; a kind of pious and esoteric, Barthian social club.

My first criticism is straight forward. Barth found himself between two loving women, but he crossed lines. This was something his family was silent about, until recently, when they opened up access to correspondence between Karl, Nelly (Karl Barth’s wife and mother to his five children) and Charlotte (his secretary/fellow researcher and theologian in her own right). Up until this time, Barth’s extramarital affair had been quietly mentioned by biographers, but was always footnoted as conjecture.

The positive take away from their letters is that they show Nelly Barth, hurt, but still shining the light of Christ through her reactions and responses. Nelly presents an example of resilience, determination and faith in difficult and trying circumstances.

In addition, Karl Barth wrestled with his situation and choices. He never publicly boasted about his relationship with Charlotte. The extramarital relationship reminds us that Karl Barth was just a man. He was susceptible to the same issues as every other man, no matter how great they are. As others have pointed out, his own theology speaks it’s own criticism of his decisions. He wrestled within himself and with his own theology. Any accusation Barth used his theology to justify his spousal abuse is inconsistent with what is encountered in Barth’s words and work. What we encounter is a man who was constantly confronted by the contradiction between his own theology and the consequences that stemmed from the decisions he made. None of this, however, removes Karl Barth from being accountable for engaging in a relationship that he would have known was a betrayal of his wife, Nelly.

My second criticism is not so straight forward. Barth was an outspoken anti-Nazi theologian. So much so that he was deported from Germany for refusing to take the Hitler oath, unless changes were made, whereby the ideology and its leader were not deified. Unfortunately, when it came to Communism, Barth refused to show the same fierce consistency. He is silent about Marxist killing fields in Asia, and about its oppressive totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe.

Two possible reasons exist for this. Reason number one was Barth’s age and circumstances. He wasn’t in the position he was in when living in Nazi Germany; being a lot older he probably considered the fight against Communist terror to be well covered and didn’t want to lend support to an ever-increasing hysteria or phobia of the Russian people. If that protest is well established and achieving its goals, why add your voice to the “howling of wolves”? To do so would have been more about self-promotion, than promoting awareness about the suffering of others.

Reason number two is the possibility that Barth figured his theological statements and work, would stand for itself as a restrained critique of Marxism. In view of Church Dogmatics 3:2, it’s probable that Barth saw his theology, particularly his “Nein” to natural theology, as being also an inherent nein to Marxism. Barth’s anthropological theology in 3:2 contains a subtle rejection of Marxism’s deification of class war, social division, the state, subjugation of theology (into the service of an ideology), the reign of terror and potential global reign of terror attached to it.

One example of many is this statement which is contra to Marxist historical materialism/determinism:

‘Man & woman’s historical determination is that God wills to be with them and they with God.’
(Karl Barth, CD. 3:2:427)

It’s naïve to suggest that Barth was simply ignorant of the oppression and violence faced by those living under Marxist rule. Just as naïve would be the assumption that Barth did know, but simply brushed it off as a “capitalist conspiracy.” While it’s possible that Barth took the same approach as the French Communists in their denial of Gulags, purges and the fear of the Cheka, it’s unlikely that Barth was so deliberately dismissive.

Equally unlikely is the implication which stems from this, that suggests Barth was dedicated to protecting a political party and its toxic ideological platform. Although Barth refusing to ”howl with the wolves”, was him simply refusing to add to the hysteria of the mob, his absence from genuine criticisms of the crimes of communism is inconsistent with his stand against Nazism.

My third criticism is split between Barth and his students. On Barth’s side, there’s an effort to detach himself from becoming an idol, but did he do enough to avoid people reading his work before the Bible? On the student’s side there’s a tendency to idolise Barth and turn his theology into a rigid systematic method; or support a rigid oppressive system[1], rather than view Barth’s theology as a helpful travelling companion[2].

Trying to grasp Barth’s theology is like to trying to hold water in cupped hands. The water can’t be easily grasped, and is even harder to hold. This lends itself to explain the problem when people try to build their own systems around Barth’s theology. The biggest example of this is found in what I would call a pompous, Barthian Gnosticism.

Whilst this definition is not definitive, it’s the best description I can find for the closed community, which has built up a dam like castle from which ordinary people are prevented access. Barth is only reachable for an elect few. Everyone else is doomed to hearing Barth through their lens, or the lens of their choosing. Consequently, we hear more from theological journalists, than we hear from Barth.

Whether intended or not, there are ‘towers of Babel’ built up around Barth[3]. Like the not so easy to grasp Church Dogmatics, it’s difficult to contribute or participate in a Barthian realm. The tower is defended by those who often proudly identify ideologically as “Leftists or progressives”.Some of whom are are “privileged”, Ivy League scholars, who tend to blurr the line between Karl Barth and Karl Marx; as they take to the perch of Marxism to preach a kind of Barthian social gospel[4]. Anyone with a different view is viewed as a threat, and the offender is subsequently dealt with.

Hence the pompous Gnostic nature of the closed community, they only let in those who choose to conform to the agreed upon special knowledge they might claim to have found in Barthian theology, or become subservient to the prevailing ideology that is built up around it. For this elect few, knowledge of Karl Barth is special, and only available to those deemed worthy of being able to hold it. Therefore it’s perceived to be a given that a conservative cannot be a Barthian, but a Barthian must be a progressive or a socialist[5].

The Socialist hold on Karl Barth comes from the fact that he was a member of the Social Democrats. Another part of this socialist hold on Karl Barth is that he was called the “Red Pastor” during his ten-year tenure as Pastor in Safenwil. However, he wasn’t a sold out fan. He distanced himself from the rhetoric and movement[6]; and “Red Pastor” was fed partly by suspicion, partly by frustration, but is mostly sarcasm. This is to be taken more cum grano salis, than as a literal description of Karl Barth’s political and ideological allegiances. The title “Red Pastor”, to my knowledge, was a title that Barth never wore with pride, let alone promoted or wanted promoted.

Herein rests the crux of my criticism. If this socialist cementing of Karl Barth as a Marxist hero goes unanswered, he will become more unreachable for the average lay person. The closed community that surrounds Barth is under lock and key. Like the hysterical hounding[7] which surrounded Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, access to Barth would be denied to the “working class”.  Metaxas, a conservative, entered a modern liberal world, and invited the masses to hear about an important historical figure. It was more Metaxas’ conservatism than the content of his book, which led largely left leaning academics to reject it. It seems that only those with permission from Leftist academics, and who can prove that they have the “correct” political leanings, can comment on or write about subjects that Leftist academics think they own, or have been granted a kind of divine special knowledge about.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, but this similar lens is applied to Barth. His works and words are encapsulated in a kind of sacred Leftist packaging. Everything which differs from the political narrative built up and forced onto Barth is downplayed, mocked or rejected.The perpetual Marxist war between an “us & them” ejects conciliation, as it propels the elect few into rejecting-without-just-cause all opposing viewpoints from anyone outside the socialist paradigm. Without examination, opposing viewpoints are met with suspicion written off as tainted, ignorant or worse. The exceptions to this include some more of balanced aspects of Princeton’s Centre for Barth Studies, authors such as John Webster, Daniel Migliore, Ebherhard Busch, Frank Jehle, and the Social Media site Karl Barth for Dummies.

The impression I received when trying to engage in the Barth community is that the elect few read Barth, and cheer others on, as long as the material justifies their own ideological positions. They take ownership of Barth and become guardians of a mythos[8] that the closed community has built around him and his theology. This is something Barth refused to cede to the conservative evangelicals of his day. I believe he would be of the same mind, with regards to socialists and progressives today.

In conclusion, it was with some reluctance that I set out to explain three core criticisms of Karl Barth. These criticisms are core concerns that function as a guide post on how to navigate a community closed to foreigners[9] and theological orphans. These three criticisms include the disconnection between parts of Barth’s theology and his life choices. The sole example of this was Barth’s extramarital relationship with Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. Secondly, I made a point of criticism about his silence when it came to the crimes of communism and the suffering of those who live under its regimes. The third criticism is that Barth didn’t intend to create a Barthian school, and discouraged others from creating one, but unfortunately, his silence about communism seems to have worked against this goal. He might have refused to be owned by any faction[10], but a faction has risen in his name all the same. This shows that Barth was either too trusting or didn’t adequately anticipate the cult like movement that would use him, and his theology, to promote a utopian ideology responsible for the oppression, death and suffering of millions.


Notes & References:

[1] Examples include: moralism and Marxism (which is, in praxis, a form of moralism in and of itself)

[2] (Think of the jovial Friar Tuck, flawed Father Mulcahy and the gracious, but assertive paternal voice of Gandalf.)

[3] This is a tiresome subject and is wrought with holes. Nothing is clear cut, because there are overlaps. This said, for anyone looking to engage in the community of theologians who read Barth, they will come up against a closed community; one that resembles a pious and esoteric social club.

[4] I will agree that Barth uses a lot of the similar language of Marx. I would not agree that a person needs to be an expert on Marx, to properly understand Barth. Barth was a product of his age. This doesn’t mean his theology itself is written through the lens of Marxism – “us & them” – there is a clear difference. For Barth it’s “God & us” and the unbridgeable divide between proletariat and bourgeoisie in Marx, is for Barth the qualitative distinction “God is God and we are not”. Although other examples exist, the distinction made here between Marx and Barth could not be any clearer.

[5] I consider myself neither a conservative nor a progressive. I would only own the statement that I currently share in the concerns that conservatives have about the direction of Western society and everything in between.

[6] As in Barth refused to be a poster boy, much to the dismay and frustration of many who were Social Democrats.

[7] It’s interesting to note that this was before Trump was elected, but has the same ungracious “resistance” and hate attached to it.

[8] A set of assumptions and beliefs.

[9] Those who hold an opposing view or are seen as different and unacceptable because of their ideological/political leanings.

[10] Placing his profile, as some have done, on a red background next to the Bolshevik leader Lenin, and the like, can be nothing other than a brutal betrayal of Barth.

* ‘Bureaucracy is the encounter of the blind with those whom they treat as blind…It is not the man who works in the bureau, for to some extent we all have to do this, but the bureaucrat who is always inhuman.’ (CD. 3:2:252)

** ‘Those who try to fight the Gospel always make caricatures, and they are often forced to fight these caricatures. Nietzsche’s own (and not all that original), was to equate Christianity with Socialist teaching.’ (CD 3:2:242)

*** ‘Marxism with its exclusively economic view of human affairs and all the theoretical and practical consequences, is a violation of history which in its way is no less bad than [the social Darwinism] which Haeckel and his associates imposed on human nature.’ (CD:3:2:386-389)

**** ‘The New Testament does not look for an amelioration of present conditions or for an ideal state, but for the coming of the Lord – Maranatha.’ (CD.3:2:486-487)

**** ‘Man can owe no creature what he owes to God – himself in his totality. Nothing [created] can claim from humanity, servitude. When a created thing imposes this demand on man, and when man recognises the demand, we have nothing but the invalid claim of false gods. No created thing can substantiate the Creator’s right over [what and who He created].’ (CD.3:2:414)

Header image credit: Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

©Rod Lampard, 2018

Dismantling Babel…

September 5, 2018 — 2 Comments

…in light of the Bible.

Barth Credo God makes his way to us

 


References:

Image: RL2013; tagged “Stormy Sunset”

Quote: Cited by Sawyer, M. James (Kindle Ed. 2012). Neoorthodoxy: an Introductory Survey

Originally published 14th Nov. 2013

Rembrandt_1633 Christ in the storm on the sea of GalileeAlthough I’ve browsed through ‘City of God’ and ‘On Christian Doctrine’, my main interaction with Augustine’s work centres on his ‘Confessions’.  (A phenomenal read if you ever get the chance to dig into it.)

I like many of the things Augustine says and wrestle with some of his more introspective reflections.

One of those is his statement:

‘The appearance of what we do is often different from the intention with which we do it, and the circumstances at the time may not be clear’[i]

Augustine seems to be saying that what we intend is not always what we do. Circumstances pending, what we do is sometimes only for the sake of what we want others to see and therefore say about us.

Avarice overrides responsible action as pride corrupts intention. Thus leading us onto a path where we turn ‘the loss of confessing self in order to be for others, into an all consuming self, an expressivist exhibition’[ii]

The divide between appearances and intentions, then, forms the basis of his point. This existential division creates an ethical-theological tension perpetuated by the sometimes fog of circumstances.

This is identified by Jean Bethke Elshtain in ‘Augustine and the limits of politics’:

 ‘Augustine lays the miseries of human life at the doorstep of sin, our division (within selves and between self and others), our enthrallment to cupiditas[iii] and our all-too-frequent abandonment of caritas[iv]. We are, in other words, ignorant but it is ignorance of a particular kind, not innocent naiveté but prideful cognitive amputation.[v]

What Elshtain means by ‘prideful cognitive amputation’ is ‘philosophical solipsism’ (extreme subjective idealism)[vi]; thoughtlessness (not to be confused with mindlessness), but understood as ‘the banality of evil.(Hannah Arendt’s controversial assessment of Adolf Eichmann) [vii]

Elshtain, a feminist, presents her analysis of Augustine as an attempt at rescue. Saving Augustine from the ritualistic frown passed on to our forebears by the hubris and suspicion of post 60’s modernity.

For her, Augustine is relevant and worthy of a second look:

‘He confesses what he knows and what he does not know. He does know that the world isn’t boundlessly subjectivist; it does not revolve around the “me, myself and I”[viii]

Augustine himself thunders the point home:

‘I flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it so that you might bring healing to a soul that had sinned against you. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner’[ix]

Elshtain brilliantly adds, ‘when we start to regard ourselves in our own light, our light dims’[x]

Reading this in the emerging light of advent we might be called back to Karl Barth’s assertion

‘To thank means to accept with confession,… to acknowledge the gift, the goodness and the kindness of the Giver’[xi]

God makes himself known in Jesus Christ, ‘the sign of all signs[xii]

In Augustine’s sigh we hear that the heart has ears. Before the beauty of Christmas this can only mean an awakening to an awareness of our own need for grace; an acknowledgement that we are carried, firmly, lovingly held above the abyss.

Confronted by such a grace we learn that God is God and we are not. Yet, by Divine decision; a fierce and free decree. In Jesus Christ, we are spoken to, spoken for and therefore not given up on.

In His example we see in part, the point of Christmas. That the ‘principle of charity requires nothing less than to make one’s best effort.’[xiii]

Jesus is Victor!


Source

[i] Augustine, St. Confessions Penguin Classics III/XIX 1961:67

[ii] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.6

[iii] Latin for desire, eagerness, enthusiasm; passion; lust; avarice; greed; ambition; partisanship (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)

[iv] Latin for charity, grace, dearness, high price; esteem, affection (Source: Collins Latin Dictionary App)

[v] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 ‘Augustine & The Limits of Politics’ p.37

[vi] Ibid, p.59

[vii] Ibid,

[viii] Ibid, p.5

[ix] Augustine, St. 1961 Confessions Penguin Classics V/X p.103

[x] Elshtain, ibid pp.11, 66 &62

[xi] Barth, K. 1940 The Limits of  the Knowledge of God C.D II/I Hendrickson Publishers p.198

[xii] Ibid, p.199

[xiii] Elshtain, ibid p.55

*I’ve borrowed the second part of the title to this blog post from Elshtain, who uses it on page xiii in her introduction.

Image: Rembrandt, 1633 ‘Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee’

Originally published 14th December 2014

From the mind of Martin Luther, the desk of Karl Barth and the easel of Matthias Grünewald.

‘The model of the biblical witness in his unity form is John the Baptist, who stands so notably at midpoint between the Old Testament and the New, between the prophets and the apostles…In this connection one might recall John the Baptist in Grunewald’s Crucifixion especially his prodigious index finger’ (Barth , CD.1.1:112)

 

Grunewald, 16th Century Crucifixion scene

 

‘For we have John the Baptist’s Word and Spirit, and we parsons, preachers; Christians are in our time what John Baptist was in his time. We let John the Baptist’s finger point and his voice sound: ‘’BEHOLD, THE LAMB OF GOD THAT TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD’’

We deliver John’s sermon, point to Christ and say: ‘’this is the one true Saviour whom you should worship and to whom you should cleave. Such preaching must endure to the last day’

 (Luther cited by Barth, CD.1.1:102)

 

John the Baptist

.
John’s finger does not point in vain but really indicates when and where we are enabled by means of his word to see and hear what he saw and heard’ (Barth, CD.1.1:113)

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:1-3)

‘Speaking stands in correlation to hearing, understanding and obeying…it is faith that hears, understands and obeys God’s speech’ (Barth, CD.1.1:135)

May. It.  Be. So.

Maranatha.


References:

Barth, K. 1936 Church Dogmatics: Vol 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1 Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts

Artworks: The Crucifixion. Detail. St. John the Baptist. 1510-1515. Oil on panel. (Karl Barth had Grunewald’s picture placed above his desk.)

Originally posted 13th September 2013

Jacques Ellul’s books have moved up on my ladder of reading priorities with an ever increasing pace. My acquaintance with his work began last year when, after reading Roger Scruton’s, ‘The West & The Rest’, I was prompted to dig further into the relationship between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. From there, I’ve continued to casually seek out Ellul’s work and study it. Since I voluntarily publish a lot of discoveries, and discuss their impact on my own theological study here, I thought it appropriate to introduce Jacques Ellul and explain my interest in his work.

Ellul was a student of Karl Barth[1]. This discovery was a bonus and it’s padded the desire to explore Ellul’s work. Out of particular interest is finding the point of contact between Ellul and Barth. (Political theology is ground zero, but the topic is large and best left for an essay solely dedicated to the subject.)

Ellul was a French theologian. He majored in philosophy and made a career out of lecturing on Marxism.

He was once involved in the French resistance, but unlike the equally fantastic breakaways from the Left, such as Simone Weil and Albert Camus, Ellul never appears to have been granted the same status (read: given the same time of day) by the predominantly Leftist French and Western academy.

I gather that the reasons for this dismissal come down to the fact that Ellul was a critic of Islam and wasn’t a Marxist[i]. In addition to this, he took orthodox Christian theology seriously.  Ellul wasn’t without his own criticisms of the institutional church or Christendom, but he never abandoned Jesus Christ for Karl Marx. The content and response to his works ‘Islam and Judeo-Christianity: A Critique of their Commonality’ and ‘Jesus & Marx: from theology to ideology’, present evidence of this.

Ellul worked with the understanding that every human, even if that man or woman wasn’t aware of it, has a theological viewpoint. Whether a person is agnostic or atheist, both hold to theological conclusions about the world around us, within us and beyond us.

For many, those conclusions are usually arrived at via loose information and deliberate misinformation. They have some basic knowledge of Christian theology, but this knowledge is limited, and often built on fragments, gossip or whatever ideological lens they’ve been taught is superior to all the rest.

Elluls work, so far as I’ve deciphered, sought to engage that inherent theological knowledge in conversation with relevant topics. So much so, that under the microscope placed over contemporary Western politics, it’s tempting to look at a good portion of his subject matter and consider it prophetic.  However, like Karl Barth, Ellul, was no prophet and so it’s a temptation that proves to be an unhelpful trivial speculative distraction.

Whilst Ellul took orthodox Christianity seriously, he wasn’t someone who was absorbed by any particular Protestant denomination. He wasn’t a puppet of the Left, nor a product of conservatives or sectarian dogma. He lived out his faith, and applied the science of dogmatics to his own theological viewpoints. Living out what he termed, Christian anarchism[ii], Ellul came to his own conclusions based on the bible and a working dogmatics.

As David W. Gill’s, (President of the I.J.E.S[2]), recent lecture pointed out,

‘Ellul was of the view that “we must come to Scripture asking “what does God wish to say to us through these texts? He insisted [as did Karl Barth] that the Bible should be read with Jesus [the revelation of God] at the Center. Any separation of a text from the totality of God’s revelation will inevitably cause us to distort the Bible.” (Gill, 2018. Words parenthesis are mine)

According to Gill,

‘the grounding of Ellul’s conversion was in reading Scripture. One day at the age of twenty-two, Ellul was reading the Bible, and “it happened-with a certain brutality.” Not a sermon in a church, not a celebration of the sacraments, not a mystical vision, bu the private reading of the Bible was decisive in Ellul’s decision to become a Christian.’ (Ibid, 2018)

Ellul wasn’t a blind follower of high-minded Biblical Criticism. Gill reports that Ellul ‘took biblical scholarship including historical criticism seriously, but was feisty in challenging its excesses’[3]:

  “I fail to see the justification for accepting as legitimate all the questions about the revelation while at the same time refusing to question those systems, methods, and conclusions from the point of view of Revelation.” (Jacques Ellul, Hope in the Time of Abandonment).

Gill concludes his lecture with two main areas of consideration for those being introduced to Ellul. First, not everyone will agree with Elull’s theology. Second, one area we will agree on is ‘one of Ellul’s most powerful points about the Bible: let it put us in question rather than for us to constantly put it in question.’ (Gill, 2018)

It’s here that Jacques Elull first finds some shared ground with Karl Barth. As a result, I’m keen to read more.

I think that Jacques Ellul picks up where Barth stopped (had to stop]). I wouldn’t go as far to say that Ellul finished what Barth started, only that, from what I’ve read so far, Ellul gives Thomas Torrance some serious competition for the top spot as Barth’s successor.


Notes & References:

[1] ‘After his conversion, Ellul was drawn to the Reformed Church and to the theology of Karl Barth.’ (David.W Gill, Scripture & Word In Ellul’s Writings, 2018)

[2] International Jacques Ellul Society

[3] Ibid, 2018

[i] This is a tentative conclusion I base squarely on Roger Scruton’s tenacious and meticulous research about the French and Western Academy in, ‘Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, 2015’.

[ii] At this point, Christian Anarchism is where I depart from Ellul. I need to read more about what he thinks Christian Anarchism is. His chapter in ‘Jesus & Marx’, whilst it explains some of his ideas about Christian Anarchism, I’m yet to be convinced that it’s a good thing.

Gill, D.W. 2018 Scripture & Word in Ellul’s Writings, IJES Conference, Vancouver BC Canada (Sourced 3rd July 2018 from http://ellul.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Scripture-and-Word-in-Ellul%E2%80%99s-Writings.pdf)

Parents can tend to place their kids on a pedestal.

It’s not that children take the place of God nor that parents deify their children. The pedestal is more akin to that of an illusion; a fog of false security which assumes our children are perfect, and if not perfect, at least better than we are.

In sum: without sin.

Of course, parents know deep down that it’s naïve to think children are excluded from a sinful world.

We know by our own childhood and teenage years that they aren’t. Those years teach us that we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that our children are not prone to the affects of sin, in the same way that we are, and once were.

The condition of the human heart, as described by Jeremiah 17:9, says that we can expect ‘the human heart [to be] deceitful above all things’. This goes right back to the retro-prophetic witness in Genesis, whereby the archetypal humans, together as male and female, through temptation, broke humanity and at the same time, broke fellowship with God.

In the beginning was God and relationship with God. This relationship was initiated by God and nurtured by boundaries. By breaching those boundaries, man and woman broke fellowship with God. Having already outlined the consequences, God brings humanity to account: “Where are you? Why are you hiding? What have you done?” (Gen.3:8-13).

In a great act of love, God punishes the serpent, makes clothes for the man and woman (Gen. 3:21), then removes them from the Garden. Where, if they were to remain and eat of the second tree (the fruit of the tree of life), as they had the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, death – this break with God; its lifeless godlessness; the nothingness of the abyss[i] – would be forever.

The cherubim and flaming sword (Gen.324) are set in place to save humanity from the condition they now find themselves in. God doesn’t cut and run. He sees the consequences and redefines the relationship. He removes them from the Garden, but not from His fellowship. For ‘God does not flee to man for refuge – man flees to God and lives by God’s grace’ (Barth, p.187).

By removing man and woman from the Garden, God removes them from their own destruction. That God does this proves His love for His creature. He doesn’t separate the man from the woman. Any separation of male from female; man from woman, at God’s command, or any others, would bring about the same thing that God is protecting humanity from – its own absolute and final self-annihilation.

By choosing to help them, in the midst of God’s judgement, we see His wisdom and mercy. This decision helped humanity, it was never about depriving or hurting humanity.

God never stops being graceful, merciful or just. This is who He is. No where greater is this seen than in the constant care God shows towards His people, through His people, and with decisive finality, in His son. In Jesus Christ, the entire world sees His glory. Jesus Christ is God revealed; God in revolt against the disorder of the world. God, the light of the world, pushing back against eternal darkness; against the potential forever of lifeless godlessness, and the nothingness of the abyss.[1]

By choosing to help us, we see wisdom and mercy, in the midst of God’s judgement.

‘sin means that man [and woman] is lost to themselves, but not to their Creator’. That ‘true freedom is in the act of responsibility before God […] it is never the freedom to sin’ (Barth, pp.196-197)

Contrary to God’s parenting style, parents can tend to place their kids on a pedestal. One indication that we might have put ourselves, or our children, on a pedestal is thinking that “our kids can do now wrong”. This is dangerous because the pedestal is high. The inevitable falling-off can lead to a serious falling-out between mum, dad and children. One way that we can remove ourselves and our children from that pedestal, is by acknowledging human limitations.

It stands as a well established fact, that parents are limited in being able to protect their child from the consequences of their child’s rejection of parental advice or poor decisions. We cannot wrap children in cotton wool, nor completely protect them from the affects of a sinful world.

As much as parents may want it to be different, Children are not excluded from a sinful world. As much as parents fight for their kids; teach or desire to walk with them. Just as the archetypal humans did, children may choose to walk away. They will choose not to listen to advice. They will choose to run too fast on a slippery floor, deceive from time to time, and be reckless with a knife, boiling water or worse. When these things happen, the pedestal shatters and the child comes crashing down.

Parenting then is not about pedestals, but about recovery, joy and improvisation! Being there to nurture, correct, create with, love and empower those entrusted by God into our care. Giving a firm “yes” and loving “no”, and allowing wisdom and mercy to inform when to give them.

God has no grandchildren; just as we are children, our children are God’s children. Therefore, parents are caretakers (Gen.2:15). We are given a great gift, and entrusted with the ‘training up a child in the way he should go; [so] even when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6). .

Parenting is a gift. There can be no pedestal for us or for them. There can only be protest and petition. Protest for them against the disorder of the world [ii]; prayer for them, as they walk with God against it and all that sets out to destroy them.

Ultimately, parenting is receiving what God has to teach us. Learning what God has done for us. Learning from what God does and will have us do, then doing our best to walk in that; to help pick up the pieces of our children’s poor decisions, when they make them; to pray like breathing [iii], to ‘love justice, love mercy, [and together], walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8).


References & Notes:

Barth, K. 1960. Church Dogmatics III/2 Hendrickson Publishers

[1] ‘With the creation of woman God expected man to confirm and maintain his true humanity by the exclusion of every other possibility [of a partner].’ (Karl Barth CD. 3:1, 1958 p.294) ; ‘Every supposed humanity which is not radically and from the very first fellow-humanity is inhumanity’ (CD. 3:2, p.228)

[i] As are the terms given to this breach by Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[ii] I’m adopting Karl Barth’s phrase: ‘Prayer is a revolt against the disorder of the world’ from CD Fragments IV:4 

[ii] because to pray is to act. Prayer is action. Prayer is not stoic detachment.

‘far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray to you, and I will instruct you the good and the right way.’ (Samuel’s “Parenting Speech” 1 Samuel 12:20-25)

©Rod Lampard, 2018

Photo credit: Liane Metzler on Unsplash