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The Road Goes On

Wednesday, February 09, 2005 at 9:14 PM

Barth on Faith -- part 1

Back while Among the Ruins was active, Keith once mentioned that he re-reads Karl Barth when he senses he’s lost his theological bearings. I have read Barth embarrassingly little. He was required reading for only one seminary course, and we didn’t get to him until the end of the semester when we were rushing to cover lots of stuff.

Because I definitely need to regain my bearings, and because what I have read of Barth has always been worthwhile, I’ve started Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline (read the Stanley Hauerwas review of it in this First Things column.)

It’s a series of lectures Barth gave at the University of Bonn in 1946, delivered as the students and city were struggling to climb out of the post-war rubble. Barth expounds on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed in succession, beginning with credo itself (“I believe”). To lay the foundation for all that follows, Barth takes three chapters to describe the contours of Christian faith: faith as trust, faith as knowledge and faith as confession.

Faith as Trust

Where the gospel is proclaimed, there too of necessity the fact will be proclaimed along with it that there are men [and women] who have heard and accepted the gospel. But the fact that we believe can only be, a priori, a secondary matter, becoming small and unimportant in face of the outstanding and real thing involved in the Christian proclamation – what the Christian believes . . .
This isn’t too controversial; few Christians would explicitly disagree with Barth’s claim. Although, I think many would prefer to say that it’s a both/and matter: what we believe is of little importance if we ignore who is doing the believing, and how our beliefs affect our lives – otherwise we’re just dealing with sterile intellectual propositions.

But Barth will have none of that, and that’s a reason I appreciate him so much. It’s refreshing to be challenged with either/or alternatives.
It is noteworthy that, apart from this first expression ‘I believe’, the Confession is silent upon the subjective fact of faith. Nor was it a good time when this relationship was reversed, when Christians grew eloquent over their action, over the uplift and emotion of the experience of the thing, which took place in [human beings], and when they became speechless as to what we may believe. By the silence of the Confession on the subjective side, by its speaking only of the objective Creed, it also speaks at its best, deepest and completest about what happens to us men [and women], about what we may be, do, and experience. Here too it is true that whoso would keep his life shall lose it; but whoso shall lose it for My sake shall gain his life. Whoso means to rescue and preserve the subjective element shall lose it; but whoso gives it up for the sake of the objective, shall save it [final italics mine].
I can testify to the truth of that last claim from personal experience (and yes, I appreciate the irony). I struggle mightily when I seek to live up to some vague and unspecified ideal of “intimacy” with God (intended or not, this is the message I often hear). The more I focus on my “personal relationship” with God per se, the more I descend into almost morbid introspection. Yet when I struggle to understand better God and God’s ways – and try to live in light of this – the problem is removed.

I’m reminded of how N.T. Wright has had to respond many times to attacks from fellow Protestants accusing him of outright heresy and of undermining the very heart of the gospel. Wright – a biblical scholar, first and foremost – has stirred up a firestorm by claiming that much of Protestant biblical exegesis (starting with Luther himself) has incorrectly read Paul as concerned primarily with a message of individual, post-mortem salvation:
By 'the gospel' Paul does not mean 'justification by faith' itself. He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message, to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has even heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith itself is a second-order doctrine: to believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Rom. 5.1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table-fellowship without distinction with all other believers (Gal. 2.11-21). But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith (this, I think, is what Newman thought Protestants believed), but by believing in Jesus.
(excerpted from this essay from the N.T. Wright page).

I am not saved by believing in a specific way to be saved, but in a personal confession that the news of the Christian gospel is true -- and that this truth has personal, social and cosmic consequences to which my confession ties me.

Here’s Barth again:
I believe – of course! It is my, it is a human, experience and action, that is, a human form of existence.

But this ‘I believe’ is consummated in a meeting with One who is not [hu]man but God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by my believing I see myself completely filled and determined by this object of my faith. And what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe.

I believe in, credo in, means that I am not alone. In our glory and in our misery we men [and women] are not alone. God comes to meet us . . .
I’m sympathetic to those (often conservative Calvinists) who lament the prominence within evangelicalism of therapeutic individualistic spirituality. But the responses often emphasize “doctrine” as a system of religious ideas that seem to just hang in the air somewhere.

Barth’s concluding comments on faith as trust are a good lead-in to what I want to write about soon: faith as confession – the public aspect of Christian faith.
Faith is not concerned with a special realm, that of religion, say, but with real life in its totality, the outward as well as the inward questions, that which is bodily as well as that which is spiritual, the brightness as well as the gloom in our life. Faith is concerned with our being permitted to rely on God as regards ourselves and also as regards what moves us on behalf of others, of the whole of humanity; it is concerned with the whole of living and the whole of dying. The freedom to have this trust (understood in this comprehensive way) is faith.

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