Reforming or Conforming?
- Thursday, November 06, 2008
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in his famous debate with his neoorthodox ally and onetime close friend Emil Brunner over the question of natural theology. Brunner came out in defense of it, and Barth responded with his thunderous Nein!
His opening remarks would make most postmoderns shudder:
“I should like nothing better than to walk together with him [Brunner] in concord, but in the Church we are concerned with truth, and today with an urgency such as probably has not been the case for centuries. And truth is not to be trifled with. If it divides the spirits, they are divided. To oppose this commandment for the sake of a general idea of “peace” and “unity” would be a greater disaster for all concerned than such division.”6
Oh, my, Barth is concerned with this thing called “truth.” Postmoderns will squirm at the thought. But this should come as no big surprise to those familiar with Barth, who viewed Schleiermacher and his enterprise with what borders on contempt.
Mark Patterson, in a perceptive article on how relevant Barth’s Nein! is today says:
“As much as Barth was adverse to controversy and disputes, he nevertheless believed that there were times when they were necessary. When the truth of the Gospel was at risk, when the church was in danger of losing the reason for her existence, it becomes not only important but necessary to boldly enter the fray and stand for the Gospel. As Barth wrote his response to Brunner, the church in Germany had almost completely succumbed to the populist theology of its day, a belief that was built not upon the unique revelation of God in Christ but a theology built upon human feelings, presuppositions, aspirations, and prejudices. In other words, a natural theology of the very type Brunner espoused. That is not to say it did not use the right words—Jesus, faith, grace, and all the others—or to say that they had flagrantly or openly rejected the church’s theology and historic perspectives. What they had done was turn to a new revelatory center, and from this center redefine classic words and reinterpret traditional perspectives. Barth watched in horror and grief as the church rejected its astonishingly unique message of God’s mercy, love, and grace in Christ, and replaced it instead with an all too common message that simply affirmed the biases and opinions of the culture. The populist ideas and values were given a theological vocabulary, dressed up as divine, priceless, and authoritative and presented to a people who had little interest or ability to discern the true and drastic changes that had occurred. Barth was astonished to find his friend and theological partner furthering it by defining grace as more a part of the natural order than a specific act of God uniquely tied to the person and work of Christ."7
This stands in sharp contrast to the proposals we are now hearing from those self-identified postmoderns who are part of the emergent conversation. One of the reasons Barth so disliked Schleiermacher and natural theology is that Schleiermacher collapsed natural revelation and special revelation, and then gave priority to the former over the latter. In particular, the cultural paradigm served as the grid through which theology was constructed. This was Schleiermacher’s approach and is now being duplicated by those wearing the post-conservative badge.
In a recent commentary commending a new book by two prominent voices in emergent circles (Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones), Fuller Seminary professor Barry Taylor gives us this Schleiermachian panegyric:
“What it means exactly when a person declares himself or herself to be “spiritual but not religious” is a matter of some debate. Some people find spiritual an irritating term that means nothing of any real substance, a marker for a sort of “wishy-washy” sentimentalism that passes itself off as real faith. Others have embraced it wholeheartedly, and the rise of spiritual language in sermons and discussions, as well as a growing interest in spiritual directors in many churches, point to an embrace of the term on some levels even amongst the ‘religious.’
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