Search This Blog

Sunday, August 22, 2010

History a Warning to Sydney Episcopalian Diocese (Part 5)

In my earlier blogs I cited the shift which occurred in traditional evangelicalism in England in the Nineteenth Century as observed by R. J. Sheehan in Banner of Truth journal, Issue 278, November 1986. I then, in my blog (Part 4), introduced extracts of an article found in the July 2010 issue of Eternity by Dr John Woodhouse, Principal, Moore Theological College, Sydney, to show a comparison between the compromising evangelicals of England in the Nineteenth Century and the evangelicals of the Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney today.

There is a very real similarity and, sadly, it is rife in the Episcopalian Diocese of Sydney. How did it get here? Who was the host who slipped upon our shores unnoticed as the carrier of a theological 'virus' destined to destroy traditional evangelicalism or almost all of it within the Diocese. To achieve this outcome so quietly yet effectively the carrier had to present as healthy and the resort to shape evangelical thinking from the Twentieth Century to the present.

It was Karl Barth, a revered critic of Liberal Theology but within his 'baggage' of thought there lay the seeds of destruction for traditional evangelicalism. It is notable to hear and read of theological influences within the Episcopal Diocese of Sydney who declare their admiration for the work of Karl Barth. One current Bishop within the Diocese puts the works of Karl Barth at the top of his favoured reading. Indeed, this same Bishop unwittingly disclosed his Barthian condition by declaring on this blogspot and elsewhere his doubts about the supernatural miracle of the parting of the Red Sea and, in a less public discussion, questions about the Virgin Birth of Christ Jesus.

Well, what is it that Barth has put upon evangelicalism? I shall defer to Terry A. Chrisope's March 1991 review (Banner of Truth journal) of a paper written by J. Gresham Machen in April 1928. It is repeated here:

Among the papers of J. Gresham Machen (housed at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) there is a manuscript of unusual interest for the student of Machen's life and work. Running to nineteen pages of typescript, the manuscript bears the title, Karl Barth and 'the Theology of Crisis' A note at the foot of the first page indicates that the paper was 'read to a small group of ministers in Philadelphia, April 23, 1928'

What is so intriguing about the above paper is that J. Gresham Machen is commonly known as the leading evangelical critic not of Barthianism but of theological liberalism during the 1920s in America. Machen had thrown himself into an intense struggle on behalf of biblical Christianity and against the dilution of biblical teaching which he believed was inherent in theological liberalism. He was embroiled in this struggle, both within his own Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and on a broader front as well, throughout the entire decade of the 1920s. As the manuscript under consideration makes clear, however, Machen was keeping abreast of theological developments in Europe and had become aware of a relatively recent protest against liberalism led by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. That Machen, as an American evangelical, should take cognisance of this movement and publicly comment on it as early as 1928 bears testimony not only to his awareness of the European theological scene but also to his concern for the health and well-being of historic Christianity. Machen at that time was engaged in a severe personal struggle, both academic and ecclesiastical in nature, yet his range of vision was not limited to any narrow personal concerns; he addressed broader issues as he saw the need. In the light of attempts in our own day to promote the theology of Karl Barth among evangelicals, Machen's analysis of Barthianism (even in the latter's incomplete form of 1928) may be something to which contemporary evangelicals would to well to give he heed.

Machen began his treatment of Barthianism with a description of the man and the teaching behind the movement. A near contemporary of Machen, Karl Barth, was born in 1886 (Machen was born in 1881) and was educated in German universities before serving in pastorates in Switzerland. Barth eventually revolted against the socialism and liberalism to which he had formerly adhered, and he formed a school of thought which included such men as Eduard Thurneyson, Freidrich Gogarten, and Emil Brunner (though, Machen notes, there were some differences among the views of these men). The literary organ of the school was the journal Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times), from which Machen must have derived a good deal of his knowledge of its teaching and direction. With characteristic modesty, Machen in inserted a disclaimer at this point in his treatment, taking note of the difficulty of understanding Barthian teaching, alleging his own incompetence as a critic, and professing the incompleteness of his knowledge of the school. He then proceeded with a description of the Barthian teaching as he understood it.

Several elements of Barthianism emerge from Machen's treatment. First, at the root of the Barthian view was a conviction of 'the awful transcendence of God' (p. 2). This conviction demanded rejection of all forms of liberal theology with its nearly exclusive emphasis on the immanence of God. A second component of this theology was a new found stress on sin and the cosmic effects which sin had wrought, particularly the moral estrangement of the world from God. This estrangement resulted in a gulf between man and God, a gulf that man himself could not bridge; it was merely sinful pride that led man to imagine that he could do so. Thirdly, in the darkness and helplessness of this situation, God himself has bridged the chasm. God has come to man in the revelation of his Word, a word both of wrath and of grace. Fourthly, that Word of the grace of God has come supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh, must be received by faith; and only God by his Spirit produces faith in the human heart as the proper response to the incarnation (Machen observed at this point that Barth taught the doctrine of the Trinity, but one that is 'hardly the doctrine that has been held by the historic Church', p. 7). In the fifth place, the coming of the Word of God places man at the point of decision: How will he respond to God and his Word? With obedience or with rebellion? For God or for the world? It is this crisis of decision that gives the 'theology of crisis' its distinctive character and name. Sixthly, the Christian life continues as a life of faith. Christians do not yet live by sight, so Christian theology must be expressed in a series of questions, antinomies or paradoxes. This is what Machen called 'the strange "dialect" of Karl Barth' (p. 7); he confessed his inability to understand it. And yet, according to Barth, the church does have a positive message, a message derived from the Old and New Testament scriptures (which contain the Word of God) and centring on Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

What, Machen asked, are we to make of all this? It all sounds so orthodox, so like the evangelical Christianity of Calvin or Bunyan or the Shorter Catechism. Indeed, Barth claimed to be a follower of Calvin and of Paul, and, Machen noted, the Barthians had been attacked with the ignominious accusation that their teaching was nothing other than 'orthodoxy' after all. This charge the Barthians had indignantly denied. How then did they differ from historic Christianity? Machen found the difference in two central questions (ignoring for the moment other details of disagreement): 'they differ in the epistemology, and they differ in their attitude toward the plain historical information that the Bible contains' (p. 9).

With regard to the first point, the question of epistemology, Machen expressed uncertainty respecting the true nature of the Barthian position. He suspected that there was 'a large measure of agreement between the orthodox and the Barthians regarding the knowledge that is at the basis of Christianity' (p. 9). In particular, he appreciated their restoration of theology to a place of importance and dignity (in contrast to the centrality of religious experience in liberal thought). He also applauded Brunner's and Barth's serious attitude toward doctrinal differences among professing Christians, especially in the light of liberalism's theological tolerance.

And yet, despite Machen's appreciation of the Barthian reaction against modern theological anti-intellectualism, he questioned whether the knowledge of God contained in 'this new teaching' was 'real knowledge at all' (p. 11). Machen was particularly concerned about the claim that faith must be held distinct from all reasoning, that argumentation and apologetics are unnecessary. While he was more than willing to agree that 'argument alone never made a man a Christian' (p. 11), he was unwilling to concede that argument was therefore superfluous. The Spirit of God operates precisely upon human reason in order to overcome the effects of sin and enable men to grasp the truth. Machen's central concern here was with the objectivity of truth and he confessed to having an 'uneasy feeling' (p. 12) regarding the Barthian epistemology on this score. He was not quite certain that Barth's position did not incorporate a subjectivism which undermined the objectivity of truth by making Christian doctrines true only to the person who accepted them by faith. This, Machen believed, would constitute an 'epistemological abyss' (p. 12), and served to mask, behind Barth's seemingly traditional terminololgy, a profound difference with historic Christianity.

The second of Machen's reservations regarding Barthian teaching was related to the attitude entertained by that school toward the historical information contained in the Bible. In particular, he saw the Barthians as attempting 'to make the Christian faith quite independent of the findings of scientific history with regard to the life of Christ' (p. 13). (As witness to this tendency, Machen drew attention to the inclusion in Zwischen den Zeiten of the work of Rudolf Bultmann, who believed that it was impossible to know with certainty anything about the person of Jesus.) This position, Machen feared, did not mean merely that historical science, conducted on naturalistic principles, could not establish the essential facts upon which Christianity is founded, but rather meant that 'we can hear the Word of God in the New Testament, as addressed to our own soul, no matter what the facts about Jesus of Nazareth were' (p. 14). He thus understood the Barthian position (Brunner excepted, to some extent) as tending toward a sharp division between faith and the facts of history. This, of course, allowed the Barthians to accept the findings of negative historical criticism of the Bible while at the same time maintaining faith intact. But a biblical Christian faith, Machen held, cannot be indifferent to history or to the findings of historical criticism, for the New Testament bears witness to events that purportedly occurred in history.

The problem with the position of Barth and Brunner was not that it was too radical, but that it was not radical enough. Machen applauded their rejection of the 'immanence philosophy' (p. 15) which was at the root of theological liberalism, but he believed that they must go further. They also must attack the immanence philosophy as it was applied to historical criticism of the New Testament, and the particular point of attack must be the presuppositions that underlay modern criticism. 'Modern skepticism is, indeed, imposing, as it is applied to the New Testament field. But it may fall away like a house of cards if once its presuppositions are attacked' (p. 15). Machen was presumably referring to the naturalistic assumptions undergirding much negative criticism of the New Testament. Correct presuppositions, those of biblical supernaturalism, must replace false ones, thus allowing the message of the New Testament to be received at face value. But it was just at this point that the Barthians were silent. Here, then, in 'the attitude of Barth and his associates toward historical criticism', was 'a deadly weakness of the school' (p. 16).

Intimately related to this question was the attitude of the Barthians toward the deeds and words of Jesus as contained in the Gospel accounts. Machen thought he perceived (he expressed himself very carefully here) a tendency in the direction of indifference toward the historical acts and teachings of Jesus. While he again praised the renewed emphasis on the redeeming work of Christ, his death and resurrection, which he observed among the Barthians (though, significantly, he confessed uncertainty as to exactly what they meant by resurrection'), Machen was nevertheless uneasy about how little remained of a positive portrait of Jesus in Barthian hands. 'One has the disturbing feeling that Barth and his associates are depriving the church of one of its most precious possessions, the concrete picture of Jesus of Nazareth as he walked and talked upon this earth' (p. 17. The logic of their position, it seemed to Machen, fostered indifference regarding the question of the kind of person Jesus was during his earthly life. This was something in which he perceived danger. 'In their effort to avoid a clash with naturalistic criticism, these teachers must not be allowed to deprive us of the Jesus whom we love, the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus who spake words such as never man spake, the Jesus who went about doing good' (p. 18). For Machen, it was by just such a Jesus that modern people are confronted with terrible immediacy through the message of the Gospel and thus are brought to the crisis of decision. For all Machen's hesitation regarding the teaching of Karl Barth, he was thankful for Barth's reminder of that crisis. He was simply concerned that it be the full biblical Jesus with which modern people are confronted.

Much could be made of Machen's perceptiveness in treating Karl Barth as a major theological figure in 1928, his acuteness of judgment in suggesting that the Barthian movement may have inaugurated 'a new era in the history of the Church' (p. 15), and his initiative in offering an evangelical critique of Barthianism at a time when few other American evangelicals had taken note of the movement. Machen's response to Barth was timely indeed. And yet it may prove just as timely and relevant in our own day. Observers of contemporary evangelicalism have recently noted a slide away from former stoutly-held positions (see, e.g., 'Evangelical Megashift', Christianity Today, Feb. 19, 1990, pp. 12-17). And calls have issued from some quarters for evangelicals to use Barth's methodology as a paradigm for evangelical theology in the present (see Bernard Ramm's After Fundamentalism, 1983). In the face of such trends, evangelicals may do well to listen once again to the voice of J. Gresham Machen.

Another long post so I must end here without further comment, except to say I will pull it all together in my next and, hopefully, my final blog on the decline of evangelicalism within the Episcopal Diocese of Sydney.

Sam Drucker


John said...

I've read very little of Barth, and even less I can claim I understand (always a worry!), but his views on creation are vacuous and merely took the form of an exposition of Genesis 1 and 2. He did not grapple with, as far as I am aware, the science, and this fits in well with his quasi-gnostic attitude to faith. He also borrowed that rather unfortunate Enlightenment attitude of separating Scripture from the real world, of theology and science being non-overlapping areas of knowledge.

One other factor which may give an understanding of what was inside Barth's mind was his earlier attraction to the Kantian Wilhelm Herrmann. Although Barth divorced himself from Herrmann after he'd lent overt support for the First World War, one can't imagine that Kant didi not continue to have a lingering affect. Kant's “decisive” argument against natural theology by way of his anti-Design Argument was, and is, instrumental in paving the way for evolution to take hold in our modern society. Perhaps this also explains why SADs hold the traditional view of creation, of a young world, with such disdain. After all, as this thread has stated, Barth is very popular among SADs leading “lights”.

neil moore said...

Barth is influential in the Diocese of Sydney but as Sam has provided via Machen, Barth leads traditional evangelical conservatism down a dead-end on the historical Jesus Christ and provides errant justification for rejecting the historical narrative of Genesis.


John said...

What else characterises Barth's theology?

1. His ancestral line includes Kierkegaard. (Not surprised there!)
2. A mysticism: “Our task is to interpret the Yes and the No and the No by the Yes without delaying more than a moment in either a fixed Yes or a fixed No.” Again, “The truth lies not in the Yes and not in the No, but in the knowledge and the beginning from which the Yes and the No arise.” But there's more: “Our Yes towards life from the very beginning carries within it the Divine No which breaks forth from the antithesis and points away from what now was the thesis to the original and final synthesis. The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world.” And finally, “We are not capable of making reality correspond to what we say...God alone can do that. We shall not settle the mind of God, however neatly we settle the dialectic of the thought of God. That the question is the answer, the No the Yes, that doom is grace, that death is life – this may all be true, but it is not true because we think it and say it...There is no way from us to God.”
As that world-famous philosopher once said, “Holy Hegel, Batman!”
3. With profundities like the above, no wonder Barth could never understand how the Creator could ever reveal himself: “The finite is not competent enough for the infinite.”

Call me old fashioned, but God's revelation is far less complex than Barth was pretentiously making it out to be.

SADs, once again, you've been led away by the philosophies of men and not by the plain revelation of God. You prefer to believe that the world is ancient, that life preceded man by billions of years, that even life evolved by God winding it all up and, apart from a few miracles here and there, let the earth by itself bring forth everything, just like the pagans believe.

neil moore said...

Yet SAD's revere this man Barth just as that 'intellectual' (was it?) Quincy Gardener in the movie "Being There", captivated the minds of the world's leaders.


Eric said...

Perhaps we should refer to Barthians as Gardenerists!

neil moore said...

Eric, I just get it right in my mind the first name of the character in "Being There". It may have been "Chauncy" not "Quincy".

Doesn't make any difference to the tendency for certain Anglicans to defer to the thoughts of that type of character.


neil moore said...

Oops, again. That last comment should have read:

Eric, I just can't get it right in my mind about the first name of the character in "Being There". It may have been "Chauncy" not "Quincy".

Doesn't make any difference to the tendency for certain Anglicans to defer to the thoughts of that type of character.