The Church in the Image of Christ :a book review

Karl Barth is the giant of 20th Century theology. He is credited with stemming the tide of theological liberalism and recovering a Christological and theological hermeneutic. Others regard Barth with suspicion seeing in his theology a dangerous trend toward univeralism and an undermining of the authority of scripture. Still others are troubled by his ‘theology from above,’ and his dismissal of natural theology (theology from below). For my part, my forays into Barth’s theology have been fruitful, though not without difficulty. Barth is a prolific and complicated theologian and it is helpful to have a guide who illuminates the significance of his theology for my context.

Kimlyn J. Bender (Ph.D, Princeton Theological Seminary) is associate professor of theology at Truett Seminary (at Baylor) and has previously published a book on Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (subject and title). In Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology he explores a range of topics: ecclesiology and ecumenical relations, Canon and confessionalism, Creation and Natural Theology. Karl Barth remains his chief interlocutor but he also looks at the work of Fredrick Schleierlmacher, as a counterpoint to Barth, and several contemporary voices.

Confessing Christ for Church in World divides into three parts. Chapters one through four make up Part One and explore Karl Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with American theology, evangelicalism and the Catholic church. Part Two (chapters 5-9) explores Barth’s understanding of Canon and the chastened role of confessions in Barth’s theology. Part Three (chapters 10-11)  explores Barth’s doctrine of Creation and rejection of Natural theology as exemplified in his 1938-39 Gifford lectures. Bender concludes in chapter twelve with a ‘postscript’ on Schleiermacher’s Christology.

Part one begins with a brief summary of Barth’s ecclesiology. Barth sees the church as the body of Christ in his ‘earthly-historical form of existence’ (22). As with any other point of contact between God and humanity, Barth speaks, by analogy, using the Chalcedonian formula to speak of  what the church is (29). That is, the church is to be understood as a divine institution and a human one (fully human, fully divine). Christ is not fully identified with or dependent upon the church, but the church shares in his life and bears witness to his coming (32). As Bender states:

Barth’s own position is to speak of the church as both divinely constituted and historically situated, a reality comprised of both an inner mystery of the Spirit and a society of human persons in fellowship and joint activity. The Church is for Barth both invisible and visible, so that the inner mystery is not sacrificed to the external form, or vice versa, thus maintaining the integrity of each. Barth seeks neither to confuse nor separate the divine event and the historcal and sociological form, presented in a highly dialectical construal of the relation between divine action and historic duration. (36-7).

Bender then surveys recent critiques of Barth (that he subsumes pneumatology into Christology, how his soteriology makes the church appear non-concrete or unnecessary (43-51). However Barth, agrees that the church is a concrete reality, but is concerned that our definition of church doesn’t collapse into its visible expression solely (55). Furthermore,  Barth sees redemptive history coming to close with the cross but that doesn’t mean that he dismisses all human agency(58). Barth’s  high Christology means the church is always subservient to him. As Bender notes, “While the church is necessary for us because God has freely chosen it and freely joined himself to it, it is not necessary for God, nor is God’s salvific activity limited to the church by some type of necessity (62).

In Chapter two, Bender brings Barth’s ecclessiology in conversation with evangelicalism showing where Barth would critique it and  its practice, where he may contribute something of value for evangelicals, and where Barth’s project is sympathetic to its aims. Bender argues that Barth would critique evangelicals for substituting a movement for a church, the ways we may be anthropologically grounded rather than theologically grounded, our triumphalism and secular methodology, our ‘cults of personality,’ and our reliance more on testimony than the gospel (77-78). Bender sees Barth as contributing to evangelical ecclesiology by providing a rich theology of church (rather than a concession to sociological categories or Catholic substance), a critique of evangelical individualism, and a theology which sees church both as divine event and human institution (79-87). Bender sees common ground between evangelicals and Barth in their shared embrace the scandal of the gospel (87), and believe in commitment to a particular congregation (ibid.). and the commitment to mission (89).

In chapter three Barth delves into Reinhard Hütter’s critique of Barth, from a Catholic perspective, and illustrates how Barth provides a radical alternative to Roman Catholic ecclesiology. While Roman Catholicism (in Hütter’s understanding) sees the church as an ’embodied pneumatology,’ which undergirds the ‘great Tradition’ in the Nemanesque sense (109-110), Bender observes this is opposed to not only Barth but  Protestantism (116). Like many other Catholic theologians Hutter sees a ‘Catholic substance’ in the church’s ecclesial life where the church is the continution of Christ’s work making the church a ‘steward of grace.’ In contrast, Bender observes:

Herein lies the difference between Catholic substance and the Protestant principle. For there is an irrevocable insistence by the latter that the gift never be seen as a transferable entity entrusted to a steward who possesses it, that the church can be a servant and not a steward of grace, and a permanent distinction be made between Giver and recipient, between Christ and his bride, between Spirit and temple. In effect, this insistence is made because a Protestant vision is predicated on a refusal to grant that the church is, itself, an extension of the incarnation. This refusal is in turn joined to a basic recognition that Jesus Christ is present, and not absent, and is so though the power of the Spirit. The church does not “make” Christ present, but Christ makes himself present through the power of his self-attestation (118).

Bender brings this Protestant-Catholic distinction to bear on ecumenical discussions between Evangelicals and Catholics in chapter four. While conversation between the two is increasingly friendly and mutually edifying, too often Evangelical Protestants have conceded their lack of ecclesiology and looked to Rome. Bender sees in Barth a mature and thoughtful alternative to Catholic Substance (133).

Part two examines Barth’s Canon,  his understanding of scripture and ecclesial confessions. Barth’s theological education schooled him in liberal theological assumptions and the historical-critical method. Bender traces Barth’s move away from his training in his early theological works (chapter five) and as a mature theologian (demonstrated by his published dialogue with Harnack discussed in chapter six) to an understanding of scripture rooted in its particular witness to the coming of Christ. In chapter eight, Bender turns to the work of Barth Ehrman (our modern day Harnack?)  and illustrates the problem of reading scripture (and the canon) non-theologically. Chapter eight shows how Barth’s understanding of creeds and confessions brings him into fruitful conversation with Baptists and other non-creedal, free churches. Barth banged out his understanding of Creeds against Lutheranism (not Catholicism). In Lutheran Orthodoxy, the Augsburg confession took on scriptural authority whereas Barth found, in the Reformed tradition, the various confessions were offered provisionally. Bender argues that free church can learn from Barth an appreciation for confessions without a capitulation to a forced subscription (264). While Baptists will find points of tension with Barth, Bender illustrates several points amendable to them in his theology (265).

I particularly enjoyed Bender’s chapter on Barth and atheism (chapter nine). Barth did not see secularism and the growing antipathy toward God as a new problem. For Barth, this was a new spin on an old issue. Religion and Atheism were but two sides of the same coin; both were an idolatrous rejection of Christian particularity: the gospel of Jesus Christ (275). Barth’s response to Atheism was to emphasis the peculiar person of Christ, to subject atheists to critical negation, not allowing them to set the terms of the debate, and to continue to hold out grace toward them through Jesus (271-280). Barth could even see a value in the growing secularism and Atheism in helping the church clarify its identity over and against the wider culture.

Part three discusses Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) Christological understanding of creation and his rejection of some-sort of universal natural theology. As Barth’s Gifford lectures demonstrate, Barth was much more interested in the particularity of special revelation.  This Christocentric particularity (and contra-Schleiermacher, an objective Christology) is instructive for us and the church’s proclamation of the God in Christ.

What should be evident from the above summary, Bender is a sympathetic reader of Barth (though I would hasten, not uncritical). I found this book helpful in helping me hear how Barth would critique our age. I recommend this book for students and theologians. As a pastor, I found Bender’s discussion helpful for clarifying the purpose and witness of the church. Whatever differences I may have with Barth (and I am a neophyte in his theology), I appreciate his challenge to secular and sociological modes of church. I also think that Bender argues convincingly that there is a such a thing as a Protestant ecclesiology with substance. The Church is the invisible-that-becomes-visible, bearing witness to our redemption through Christ. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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