Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: Confessing Christ for Church and World

Kimlyn J. Bender.  Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.  See here for Intervarsity’s page about the book.

Confessing Christ for Church and World is a collection of essays that relate the insights of theologian Karl Barth to current religious issues.  Such issues include the significance of the church in the face of evangelical individualism, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s critique of Christianity, the new atheists, and the relationship between science and religion.  Author Kimlyn Bender also discusses Barth’s view on the canon of Scripture and historical-criticism of the Bible, and Bender compares Barth’s thought with that of another theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Bender’s book is excellent for one who wants to explore the nuances and implications of Barth’s thought.  Barth believed that revelation was God personally revealing Godself to people, but that stance can raise questions, such as “Can God only use the Christian canon of Scripture to do this?”   Still, as I read Bender’s attempts to correct Barth’s critics and to clarify Barth’s stance, there were times when I was asking myself, “Why look to Barth for answers?”   Bender seems to explain why Barth’s thought means so much to him on page 265.  Bender likens Barth’s project to what Thomas Aquinas did for the Middle Ages and predicts that “Barth’s star will shine brighter among the constellation of twentieth century theologians.”  Bender also depicts Barth as one whose theology was balanced and avoided extremes: it acknowledges that church confessions are historically-contextual while avoiding the pitfall of “cultural relativism or human subjectivity”; it is not the sort of fundamentalism against which Bart Ehrman rebelled, yet it is not liberal or accommodationist to the times; and it is Protestant in its emphasis on the believer even as it acknowledges the value of the church.  Bender’s comments on 265 placed his earlier discussions in the book in context for me.  While I wonder if Bender would have done better to include these paragraphs much earlier in the book, part of me actually enjoyed the journey of following Bender’s discussion, then later reading his passionate account of why he is having the discussions.

Bender’s discussion of Schleiermacher was intriguing.  According to Bender, Schleiermacher did not believe that humanity fell through the deeds of Adam and Eve, and yet he still saw Christ as a savior, of sorts.  This is relevant to current Christian attempts to reconcile Christianity with evolutionary history, even if that may not have been a reason for Schleiermacher’s stance, and even if Bender did not mention biological evolution in discussing Schleiermacher’s thought.  An area in which Bender’s discussion of Schleiermacher was unclear to me was when Bender was talking about Schleiermacher’s dismissal of miracle in favor of natural uniformity, even as Schleiermacher sought to depict Christ a special event, one brought about by God.  According to Bender, Schleiermacher believed that the religious experience of utter dependance was somehow contingent on excluding the possibility of miracles and seeing the natural processes and order as constant, but I did not grasp why Schleiermacher thought that was the case.

If I have a favorite passage in Bender’s book, it is on page 266: “Baptists speak unabashedly of the priesthood of believers, but at their best they have always recognized that you cannot be a priest by yourself.  Certainly each person can boldly approach the throne of grace; that is not the question.  It is rather that the idea of an autonomous priest is a contradiction in terms.  To be a priest is to be an intercessor.  And to be a priest you need someone to intercede for.  And Christians are called to intercede for each other, and together, to intercede for the world.”  I am one who is tempted to be very individualist in terms of my piety.  Some of that is on account of my religious background, and some of it relates to my Asperger’s Syndrome, which can alienate me from people and push me to be a loner.  That passage on page 266 ministered to me because it seemed to me to advocate a balance between individualism and community: yes, individual believers can approach the throne of grace, and yet part of our mission is to pray for others.

Bender’s discussion of the alienation between Barth and evangelicals, and the current acceptance of Barth’s thought by a number of evangelicals, is also worth the read.  I particularly liked Bender’s quotation of Barth’s reasons for not responding to certain evangelicals' critiques of his thought in Christianity Today.  Let me give you a taste of Barth’s comments: “None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all.  They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.”  (Source: Barth, Letters 1961-1968, pages 7-8.)

Overall, I found Bender’s book to be thoughtful, thorough, and relevant.

My thanks for Intervarsity Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book.

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