Barth, Historical-Critical Methodology, and Figural Readings of Scripture

Because Barth was writing for the church, rather than for the academy, his use of historical-critical methodology “could never be an end in itself.” As Craig Carter notes:

“For Barth, the [biblical] text conveys not only the historical effects of God’s actions, but witnesses to God himself because God’s being is in His act. The text itself is Barth’s focus, as opposed to a reconstruction of what supposedly happened behind the text, to which the text allegedly refers, or to the experience of the biblical author…Barth viewed the modern historical critics as being too hasty with Scripture, too ready to impose modern assumptions on the text and not humble enough to sit quietly before the text until it disclosed its own concerns. He tried not to impose a system upon Scripture and then seek proof texts for what is known in advance to be the case. Instead, he sought to develop a theology that organically arises out of the witness of the Bible and that reflects the shape, limits, and preoccupations of the biblical witness, rather than the demands of logic or the prejudice of culture.” the literal sense cannot be reduced simply to the historical sense for Barth is convinced that [the] OT speaks literally about Jesus Christ.” (122-126).

“The difference between pre-modern interpreters and Enlightenment interpreters is that most moderns hold that the literal is nothing more than the historical. This crucial assumption was not held by pre-modern interpreters…In modernity, any attempts to do figurative or spiritual exegesis are left to the department of homiletics and biblical scholars piously avert their eyes at such ‘homiletical embellishments.’ Thus, the theological interpretation of Scripture is disconnected from historical exegesis and a wedge is driven between the scholarly study of the Bible and the ecclesial proclamation of Scripture” (126).

Carter, Craig. “Karl Barth on the Imago Dei: Typology and the Sensus Literalis of Holy Scripture.” In Go Figure!: Figuration in Biblical Interpretation, edited by Stanley D. Walters, 121–36. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.

Yearning and Christian Hope


Empty TombBarth talking about the early Church, the apostles and the witnesses to the Resurrection:

What they  saw and heard and felt was certainly the word of proclamation, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper the fellowship and gifts of the Spirit between brothers and sisters, but also the great “not yet,” the almost overwhelming difficulties and tasks arising from their witness to Jesus in the world, the convulsions of the Roman Empire moving to its climax and fall, the frailty of Christian flesh requiring constant exhortation and comfort and warning and punishment, much weakness and tribulation in which even the voice of the Spirit could only be a sigh and a stammering, a cry of yearning.

Yearning for what? This is where Christian hope comes in: not as a Deus ex machina or a piece of wishful thinking; but as a grasping of the promise which was the basis of the community and which stood firm in the face of all human weakness and tribulation. For the revelation of Easter was the origin of the community and therefore the beginning, actualised already and therefore past, of the full, conclusive, general revelation of the man Jesus, and therefore of His direct and comprehensive visibility for and to all those for whom as the Son of God He became man, the beginning of the visibility of their participation in His glory…

The Christian community has necessarily to be a gathering in this hope. The Christian has necessarily, then, to be the man who seizes this hope and lives in it. There is no other possibility either for the community or for the individual. The origin of both in the resurrection of Jesus makes it necessary that there should be not only faith in Him who was, and love for Him who is, but also hope in Him who comes.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 488-489.

The Word Became Flesh


“To understand the miraculous act of this becoming, we must reach back to what we have acknowledged [earlier], that it is to be understood as an act of the Word who is the Lord. As from its own side the humanity has no capacity, power or worthiness by which it appears suited to become the humanity of the Word, there is likewise no becoming which as such can be the becoming of the Word. His becoming is not an event which in any sense befalls Him, in which in any sense He is determined from without by something else. If it includes in itself His suffering, His veiling and humiliation unto death — and it does include this in itself — even so, as suffering it is His will and work. It is not composed of action and reaction. It is action even in the suffering of reaction, the act of majesty even as veiling. He did not become humbled, but He humbled himself.”  ~Karl Barth, “The Mystery of Revelation” CD 1.2, 160.

“That’s Jesus!” A Counter-point to Megan Hill’s “Why Jesus Doesn’t Belong in Christmas Decor”

The church that we attend has a lot of stained glass. Wrapping around the sanctuary are beautiful stained glassed panes. If you start in the corner at the front of the sanctuary and walk around counter-clock-wise, you can follow the life of Christ, one pane at a time. Where we sit every Sunday (yes we are those people who sit in the same pew every week), the stained glass pane directly behind us is of Jesus hanging on the cross. Every week we sit under the same pane, with Jesus hanging over our shoulder. When my two year old gets antsy as two year-olds are wont to do, she likes to turn around and fold herself over the back of the pew. One day, as she was trying to pull herself back up after folding too far over, she stopped.

“What’s that?” She asked, pointing at the stained glass.

“That’s a picture made of glass,” I replied.

“No, who’s that?” She pointed directly at Jesus.

“That’s Jesus.”

“Why?” Ah yes, the inevitable why. In as simple a way possible, I tried to explain that that was a picture of Jesus saving the world. The two year-old stopped, for a minute, tipped her head to one side, and then matter-of-factly said, “Jesus is a superhero!”

Now, every Sunday she points to the stained glass  behind our pew. “That’s Jesus!” She tells everyone. And of course, my four year-old, not wanting to be left out, makes a point of telling her sister that Jesus is not just in the stained-glass windows, but more importantly, he’s in the Bible.

In our church service there is intentionality in how we worship. The entire liturgy is designed to draw upon all our human senses. We watch a cross being carried in during the processional. We hear the Word proclaimed. We respond to the Gospel reading by singing “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” In unison we affirm the life and work of Christ as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. When the pastor preaches on an aspect of the life of Christ, he draws our attention to the stained-glass panel, so that we not only listen, but also visually contemplate the significance of Jesus’ actions.

In a recent article at Hermeneutics, Megan Hill argues that physical images, be it drawings or figurines, of Jesus does not belong in our Christmas décor. She appeals to the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…You shall not bow down to them or serve them….”

Yes, physical images can lead to idolatry, especially if we cast Jesus in our own image and then proclaim that he must only look that way. But guess what?  Verbal constructs can lead to idolatry as well, especially if we translate the words of Jesus and then proclaim that Jesus must have used King James’ English! The creation of physical images does not have to necessarily lead to the worship of said images, just as the translation of the Scriptures does not necessarily lead to the worship of said Bible.

Hill suggests that it because Jesus is fully divine, that we should not and cannot create images of him: “Though fully human, his humanity cannot be separated from his divine person, which means visual images of Jesus are, in fact, attempting to picture God.”

I want to suggest that the opposite is also true: Jesus’ humanity cannot be separated from his divine person (hence, not only his bodily resurrection, but also his bodily ascension into heaven), which means that visual images are, in fact, attempting to understand the reality of Jesus’ humanity.

If Jesus is just a vague, unphysical concept in our head, he becomes an abstraction. When his humanity takes a back seat to his divinity, he becomes more like a demi-god rather than the second Person of the Trinity who took on the flesh and blood reality of the human experience. In becoming an abstraction, we forget or water down the significance of the event of revelation, namely, that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And the Word taking on flesh was not a temporary thing. After his death and resurrection Jesus did not abandon his flesh, but in the ascension he bodily returned to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.

What well-done images and portraits of Jesus do is what the Bible does just in a different medium: they tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, who was, in the words of Karl Barth, “the object and theatre of the acts of God.” The images of Jesus, be they stained glass  windows in a church, a figurine of baby Jesus in a nativity scene, or an actor portraying Jesus in film, tell us the story visually. When paired with the oral tradition of hearing and telling, physical images of Jesus help us to not only tell the story, but also to respond to the story.

When we go to church each Sunday, my four year-old can “read” the Bible in the pew (recognizing letters but not understanding how the letters go together to tell the story of this Jesus who saved and is saving the world) and confess her belief in Jesus as she recites the Apostles’ Creed. My two year-old may not be able to read and may not be able to say the Creed, but she can point to the stained glass panel of Jesus hanging on the cross and confess her belief in Jesus: “That’s Jesus!”

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Upcoming Barth Project

Jessica DeCou is working on a book on Karl Barth’s trip to the United States in 1962. She has launched a Kickstarter project to help fund her travel expenses to several library archives.

“A Fantastic Affair”: Karl Barth in America, look 1962 (a.k.a. “KBUSA” – under advance contract with Fortress Press, ISBN: 978-1-4514-6553-2) provides the first detailed chronicle of Barth’s sole visit to the U.S. in 1962. Barth arrived at a tumultuous moment in American history and found himself embroiled in some of the nation’s fiercest conflicts: touring prisons and inner city neighborhoods and meeting with communist groups, State and Defense Department staff, civil rights activists, business leaders, and White House officials – just to name a few. The book, therefore, will not only shed light on Barth’s later life and work, but also provide a snapshot of American culture in the early ‘60s – from the highest levels of government to the tourist cultures built along with and alongside the developing Interstate Highway System; from Seminary campuses to high security prisons; from Napa Valley to East Harlem.

Of course, completing this project requires extensive travel to various institutions around the country where relevant archives are housed. Research funding in the humanities can be difficult to come by these days, but I will not let that stop me!!  I’m turning to Kickstarter in the hope that, with your help, my research can continue unabated in order to meet my publication deadline (Summer 2014).

There are gifts for those who contribute to the project (yay for gifts!). You can pledge your support for this project here.


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Karl Barth’s Lectures and Seminars 1921-1930


WS 1921/22 Der Heidelberger Katechismus – Heidelberg Catechism
Erklärung des Epheserbriefes – Ephesians

SS 1922 Die Theologie Calvins – Theology of Calvin

WS 1922/23 Die Theologie Zwinglis – Theology of Zwingli
Erklärung des Jakobusbriefes – James

SS 1923 Die Theologie der reformierten Bekenntnisschriften – Theology of Reformed Confessions
Erklärung von 1.Korinther 15 – 1 Corinthians 15 (The Resurrection of the Dead)

WS 1923/24 Die Theologie Schleiermachers – Theology of Schleiermacher
Erklärung des 1. Johannesbriefes – 1 John

SS 1924 Unterricht in der christlichen Religion. Prolegomena – Teaching on the Christian Religion:
Erklärung des Philipperbriefes – Philippians

WS 1924/25 Unterricht in der christlichen Religion I – Teaching on the Christian Religion I
Erklärung des Kolosserbriefes – Colossians

SS 1925 Unterricht in der christlichen Religion II – Teaching on the Christian Religion II
Erklärung der Bergpredigt – Sermon on the Mount

WS 1925/26 Eschatologie – Eschatology
Erklärung des Johannes-Evangeliums – Gospel of John

SS 1926 Geschichte der protestantischen Theologie seit Schleiermacher – History of Protestant Theology
since Schleiermacher

WS 1926/27 Prolegomena zur Dogmatik – Introduction to Dogmatics
Erklärung des Philipperbriefes – Philippians

SS 1927 Dogmatik I – Dogmatics I
Erklärung des Kolosserbriefes – Colossians

WS 1927/28 Dogmatik II – Dogmatics II

SS 1928 Ethik I – Ethics I

WS 1928/29 Ethik II – Ethics II
Erklärung des Jakobusbriefes – James

SS 1929 Freismester – Sabbatical

WS 1929/30
Geschichte der protestantischen Theologie seit Schleiermacher – History of Protestant Theology
since Schleiermacher


WS 1925/26 über Calvin – Calvin

SS 1926 Anselm von Canterbury: Cur Deus homo? – Anselm of Canterbury: Why God became Man?

WS 1926/27 Schleiermachers Glaubenslehre – Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Faith

SS 1927 Lektüre des Galaterbriefes an Hand der Kommentare Luthers und Calvins – Lectures on Galatians
based on the Commentaries of Luther and Calvin

SS 1928 Albrecht Ritschl – Albrecht Ritschl

WS 1928/29 Thomas von Aquino, and Summa theologica I – Aquinas, treat Summa Theologica

WS 1929/30 Die reformatorische Rechtfertigungslehre – Reformed Doctrine of Justification

Taken from: Karl Barth, Karl Barth – Eduard Thurneysen Briefwechsel, vol. Band 1921–1930 (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zurich, 1974), 741–743.

What if Barth’s Commentary on Romans had Been Published in the Age of Twitter?

(This post is inspired by Richard Burnett’s discussion of the release and response to Barth’s commentary on Romans. See,Burnett, Richard. Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001. p. 14-23)

A Meditation on John 1:14 by Karl Barth

I think I like Karl Barth best not when he’s a theologian, sale but when he’s a preacher. There is something about his writings aimed at a general rather than academic audience that draws me in and wants me to become a good charismatic shouting “amen” in response to his witness to Jesus Christ.

From 1926 to 1933 Barth wrote a series of Christmas devotions/meditations/homilies for German newspapers. My favourite is the one from 1926, site a reflection on John 1:14 entitled, “The Word Made Flesh.” And as Christmas fast approaches, I wanted to share a few excerpts from it:

The Word:

            It is an event which happened and which is still happening; to the evangelist it is as certain as his own existence, and as self-evident as the truth of an axiom. God has spoken and still speaks. All abstract thought and metaphysics, everything one might know and say of God as Thought, Power, and Deed is summed up and completed by the fact that God has spoken and still speaks.  Yes, God! In the verses which precede our text, the evangelist has made it clear what he means by God’s speech: This is a Word which is thought and spoken in the eternal “beginning” of all things, God Himself being present, a Word which unreservedly possesses God’s own attributes, nature and being and which is – really, not parabolically – His Word.


            This must be immediately interpreted as: “He came to be flesh then and there,” which excludes any wrong conception the word “became” might suggest. John means not a transformation but an incomprehensible coexistence. Without ceasing to be the eternal divine subject the Word is there in time, concretely, contingently and objectively, recognisable as man’s vis-à-vis, for only man can really confront man. The reality of revelation is according to the general meaning of our text just this: The Word of God to which the Gospel witnesses, is a man. To put it the other way round: the man of whom the Gospel speaks, is neither the “symbol” nor the “appearance” of God’s Word to man, nor the highest expression of the Word in a relative sense, but the Word of God Himself, His one and only, His first and His last Word. This “is” the Christmas Gospel.



Flesh in the New Testament is not human nature generally and ideally, but concretely this human nature in which I find myself, the nature of “Adam,” the nature man possesses under the sign of the Fall, in the realm of darkness and in his principal opposition to God and to his own self. It does not say: the Word became a super-man or a personage…He does not appear in the form of an angel nor of an ideal man (how can anyone who is not as real as we are, address us?) but as Paul writes, in “the form of a servant” (Phil II.7), so that we who ourselves exist in this form, are able to hear Him. He encounters the riddle of our “darkness” on its own ground.

And Dwelt Among Us:

Inasmuch as the Incarnation fulfils the time, it is also limited by time. Inasmuch as it is epoch-making, it is also an episode which points beyond itself to the Holy Ghost who proclaims the Incarnate Word in other ages as well, and to the Resurrection of the body which includes all ages.

(You can read the whole meditation in Karl Barth, Christmas. translated by Bernhard Citron. London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959).



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Vampires, Zombies and Theology

The Undead and Theology. edited by Kim Paffenroth and John Morehead. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, treatment 2012.

The Undead and Theology was, site I thought, my best find at the ETS book exhibit this year. I was really excited about buying this book. And then I started to read it. My enthusiasm was quickly deflated as I read the first two essays, and I was seriously reconsidering my purchase (which for me and books is very rare). To put it bluntly, the first two essays were dreadful. But, I persevered, and if you ignore the first two essays, this book is fantastic.

The book is divided into three parts or themes:  vampires, zombies, and other undead. (For the sake of brevity, I will only be discussing the sections on vampires and zombies. I hope to interact with the “other undead” in a future post).

In the first section there are four essays. The first two essays, “Vampires and Female Spiritual Transformation: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” by Vicky Gilpin and “Crossing the Spiritual Wasteland in Priest” by Joseph Laycock function no so much as essays looking at the intersection between vampire-lore and theology, but instead are more like essays on religious themes in vampire-lore. These essays were weak, focusing more on describing the story rather than analyzing them in relation to some theological tradition. When they do touch on “theology” it’s more to point out “look here, a religious allusion.” The second essay by Laycock is even worse because on top of it spending most of its time just describing the movie Priest, it is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. The worst example of this, one that calls the author’s expertise into question is his repeated reference to the lead actor in the movie Priest as “Paul Brettany” (his name is Paul Bettany). Frankly put, these first two essays are not even worthy of being published as a series of blog posts let alone being chapters in an edited book.

BUT, saying all of that, there is a dramatic jump in quality in the essays after the first two. Jarrod Longbons’ essay “Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse” looks specifically at the character of the vampire Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while I wish he would have included the last of Spike’s arc after Buffy season 7 that occurs in Angel season 5, the essay is strong, engaging and actually engages with theology and not just religious themes.

W. Scott Poole’s “The Vampire that Haunts Highgate: Theological Evil, Hammer Horror, and the Highgate Vampire Panic in Britain, 1963-1974” was a fascinating read. Here, Poole looks at the theological and pop-culture factors that led to the very real vampire panic, including the influence of the rise of British evangelicalism including the preaching and writing of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, as well as the popularity of the Hammer Studios horror movies that were produced starting in 1957. This essay immediately created a new “to do” to add to my list of further reading, namely to read up more about the events that took place at the Highgate cemetery.

The second section on zombies includes four essays. All of these essays are strong, and starts off with a creative essay by Jessica DeCou “The Living Christ and the Walking Dead: Karl Barth and the Theological Zombie.” Now of course, you may say that of course I’ll like this essay because DeCou focuses on Barth, but it is more than that.  Instead of a point-by-point analysis, DeCou chooses to instead put herself into the story of the Walking Dead, creating a first-person narrative of a theologian who is trying to survive the zombie apocalypse and her reflections of the events that have happened. Specifically, DeCou’s narrator explores the ethical implications of killing zombies. Are they human? When did they cease to be human? Is it okay to kill them even though at one point they were fully human?

John Morehead’s “Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh” looks at the rising popularity of zombies and what it represents for our North American culture that is increasingly secular in orientation. John Morehead suggests that one of the reasons for the fascination with zombies is the sanitization of death, in that “eventually Western culture shifted from a time in which death was an intimate part of daily experience, to the present period, where most people die in sanitized places removed from the presence and experience even of loved ones.” (pg. 109). Morehead suggests that the phenomenon of Zombie walks “represents an expression of the postmodern eschatological imagination. It draws upon the Christian metanarrative…but also subverts it. The result is that the dead reanimate, but the form of resurrection is one in which personal identity is lost…” (pg. 118)

In “When All is Lost, Gather ‘Round: Solidarity as Hope Resisting Despair in the Walking Dead”, Ashley John Moyse looks at the themes of hope and despair as presented in the t.v. show The Walking Dead.  Moyse argues that the key to defeating despair and cultivating hope is the importance of community. Moyse looks at despair and hope by engaging with not only philosopher Friedrich Nietzche but also with philosopher Gabriel Marcel, and theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Kim Paffenroth’s contribution, “Apocalyptic Images and Prophetic Function in Zombie Films” is a reprinted essay, which may be familiar to readers, but is still a strong addition to this anthology. Here, Paffenroth focuses on the George Romero zombies of the “Night of the Living Dead” series, and argues that what makes zombies so scary is the fact that they are “overwhelmingly ordinary…they are terribly and fully human. This ultimately, I think, is their appeal, for they seem so much more “real” to us than more superhuman monsters, such as vampires and werewolves.” (pg. 147).

The final essay in this section is J. Ryan Parker’s “Negotiating (Non) Existence: Justifications of Violence in Robert Kirkmans’ The Walking Dead”, where he too looks at the ethics of killing zombies, though here he focuses not on the t.v. show, but on the graphic novels that were the inspiration for the popular t.v. show. This essay is the weakest of the zombie essays, but provides a good overview of the graphic novel series and points the reader to several other essays on zombies and violence that are must-reads.

So would I recommend this book? If you skip the first two essays yes. Though, I will say that, in general, the book is in need a more thorough edit, as I found typos even in several of the strong essays. Stay tuned for a post interacting with the last three essays in this book that looks at other examples of undead.


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Sunday Meditiation

To say that evangelicals have neglected ecclesiology is not to say that they have neglected the church altogether. What they have neglected, treat rather, medical is a rich theological account of the church. An honest evaluation of evangelicalism must conclude that evangelicals have oftentimes conceded ecclesiology to sociology, history, and, in the worst instances, to entrepreneurship. Evangelicalism to a great degree does not have a richly Trinitarian, Christological, and pneumatological understanding of the church (though there are ever-increasing attempts to address this deficiency).

There are at the very least two reasons for this lack of rich theological description. First, evangelicalism is most often understood as a sociological and historical movement. This view of evangelicalism in turn translates into a sociological view of the church rather than a theological one. Second, practitioners more interested in pragmatic and numerical success than theological reflection are often the ones who shape evangelical ecclesiology. In the words of Barth, they are often more impressed with extensive rather than intensive growth, numerical rather than spiritual increase (though, as Barth himself noted, these need not be mutually exclusive). Nevertheless, to treat the church as a society among societies, as an organization among organizations, as a sociological entity marked by visible success accounted for by secular methods, is to take flight into the visible church and sacrifice its theological identity. What is required is a much more robust theological doctrine of the church.

~Kimlyn Bender, “The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism: Conversations across the Aisle.” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, 192-193.



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