Archive for the ‘Karl Barth’ Category

A Distinctively Christian Response to Abortion, Part One

Today we solemnly note the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This is largely a symbolic anniversary. Although much hype surrounds the 1971 Supreme Court decision, it simply guaranteed what individual states were already doing–giving women a right to have an abortion. If Roe v. Wade were revoked today, every state, in all likelihood, would re-institute that right on a state level.

Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of today remains. Abortion is legal and culturally acceptable. This country considers abortion a right. Abortion is also widespread. Today, approximately 3,700 women will have an abortion in the United States. This year, about 1.3 million abortions will occur.

There are lots of statistics one can refer to today. There are also many, many rational, secular, scientific conversations one could have, both in support of and in opposition to abortion. I have written about abortion in these terms before. But I want to do something different. I want to examine what a Christian response to abortion might look like, not according to the world’s standards, but according to the standards of faith and life in the church. My goal is not to contradict or downplay the importance of other arguments against abortion that are not explicitly Christian. I think that these arguments, based in natural law, in utility, or other standards of morality are necessary to fight abortion in the public square. However, I am troubled that the Christian response to abortion is divisive, that Christians claim they can follow the law of Christ and still support abortion. As part of this week of Christian unity, I want to examine how the theological resources in our shared Christian faith might formulate a unified, authoritative, and distinctively Christian response to abortion.

Due to length, I will divide my argument into three posts, modeled on the tripartite format of Thomas Aquinas‘ Summa Theologica. This first post will examine abortion from the perspective of the sovereignty of God; the second will examine abortion from a Christian anthropological perspective in light of the sovereignty of God; the third will posit a Christological argument against abortion.

I. God is sovereign Lord over life and death

We live in an era of rights. We are told that human beings have a right to life, to health, to happiness, to education, to our bodies, to property, to a nation. We also live in a culture that prioritizes control–control over our bodies, control over our lives, control over our destiny. Rights and control are what the world offers, but the Christian is called to recognize these as deceptions. Our faith demands that we recognize that we are not the ones in control over our lives, our plans, or our destiny. We are subject to the sovereign God, who is the Lord over life and death.

Scripture tells us over and over again that our lives are not our own. God tells Moses in Exodus, “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb? Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). The Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is really an extended sermon on God’s sovereignty: “Learn then that I, I alone, am God, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand there is no rescue” (Deuteronomy 32:3). Hannah dedicates her son Samuel back to God, recognizing that he was not her own: “I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I in turn give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:27-28). The sovereignty of God is the overarching theme of the wisdom literature, emphasizing that the root of human wisdom is acknowledgment of God’s lordship: “The pronouncement of mortal man: ‘I am not god; I am not God that I should prevail‘” (Proverbs 30:1).

The New Testament also emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Jesus tells his disciples to not worry about what they will wear or what they will eat because God is the one who provides for his creation: “Your heavenly Father knows what you need. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides” (Mt. 6:32-33). Paul writes that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17). Paul attests that Christians must know that their lives are not their own: “Who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?” (Romans 9:20-21).

Against the wisdom of the world, which offers us the right to life, the Christian is called to respond that we belong to the LORD who gives and takes life, whose ways are inscrutable. To the world which tells us that our bodies are our own, the Christian is called to respond that our body “is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom we have from God.” To the world that offers us freedom, the Christian is called to respond that we have been purchased at a price (1 Cor.6:20). To the world which offers us control over our destiny, the Christian is called to respond that “the world or life or death or the present or the future” belong to God, and we to Him (1 Corinthians 3:22).

Stanley Hauerwas says that as Christians, we are not to believe that we have a right to life, nor are we to think that life has any inherent dignity. We believe, instead, that life is a gracious gift from God. We believe that our life, and any life that comes from us, is a gift and a terrifying mystery. Our response to our own life, and the life around us should always be one of awe and hospitality and hope. God is sovereign, and we are his subjects. How are we to decide when life begins, who is to live, and who is to die? In his article entitled “Abortion Theologically Understood,” Hauerwas writes,

When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing? In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community.

Hauerwas’ argument bears much in common with the earlier argument Karl Barth made against abortion in his chapter on the “The Protection of Life.” Barth writes, “human life has no absolute greatness or supreme value, that it is not a kind of second god, but that its proper protection must be guide, limited, and defined by the One who commands it, ie., by the One who is a real God, the supreme good, the Lord of Life” (398). Barth goes on to say that the Christian response to abortion is not merely legislative change (although that is a noble, and necessary goal), but also the cultivation of a whole new attitude: “the only thing which can help is the power of a wholly new and radical feeling of awe at the mystery of all human life as this is commanded by God as its Creator, Giver and Lord. Legal prohibitions and restrictions of a civil, moral and supposedly spiritual kind are obviously inadequate to instill this awe into man“ (418).

What both Hauerwas and Barth recognize is that a properly Christian response to abortion must begin and end with the sovereignty of God, the living God who is Lord over life and death. The Christian realizes that our lives are not our own, that God judges our hearts, our plans, and our acts, and he is the source and goal of our life, our love, and our power. To restrict life to a definition, to make distinctions about who lives and who dies, and even to assert that our life is a “right” is a usurpation of God’s sovereign power. We thus end this first of three installments with a supplication from Augustine: “This alone I know: without you it is evil for me, not only in external things but within my being, and all my abundance which is other than my God is mere indigence.”

Christian Church and State: A Barthian Response to the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Martin Luther believed that God has two ways of ruling, known as the two spheres or the two kingdoms–the law, which is carnal, and the Gospel, which is spiritual. These two spheres were completely separate. The law, which the civil government belongs to, rules by coercion. Its existence is necessary to restrain the “ravenous wolves” of the world, which are always pressing at the Christian community and threatening to destroy it. The church, on the other hand, belongs to the spiritual sphere. This is a sphere characterized by freedom from the law, by love, and by peace.

One way to think of the two kingdoms in Luther’s thought is that they represent the right and the left hand of God. Each hand does a different task and rules in a different way. The two kingdoms, therefore, are God’s kingdoms, and both have a divine mandate to resist a third kingdom, the kingdom of Satan. Luther emphasized, however, that the spiritual realm could not prevail over the carnal, and that the two must remain separate. Thus he advocated for a rigorous separation of church and state as having different priorities and different concerns.

There is much one could admire about Luther’s political theory. He dismissed the idea that religious states of life were holier than secular, claiming that God favored both the holiness of the priest and the housewife. Against the Anabaptist radical reformation, Luther advocated participation, rather than withdrawal from society, and particularly the government. And he tried to find a way to hold both the church and the state as good parts of God’s creation, without collapsing one into the other.

The problem with Luther’s system is that it results in a heavy dualism between the church, ruled by Christian morality, and the government, ruled by whatever morality is expedient for keeping order. The Christian believer, who participated in both spheres, while only belonging to the spiritual sphere, had little recourse, and little motivation, to challenge injustice in the secular realm. This resulted in a passive and impotent church when it came to political matters. One example might be the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 1930’s which allowed Christians to lead a double life as both a believing and practicing Christian and a supportive Nazi. However, the quietistic implications of his two kingdoms doctrine became evident in Luther’s own day, which manifested itself in a complacency toward the injustices of the German princes (to give you an idea, Luther wrote a treatise called essentially, “Against the Ravenous Murderous Hordes of Peasants”).

You see a similar approach to church and politics in much contemporary American political discourse. The idea is that you can be a faithful Christian and still support political agendas wildly divergent from your Christian beliefs. Joe Biden, for example, has argued that he is a faithful Catholic who attends Mass regularly and holds to what the Church teaches, but that in his capacity as a public figure, he feels justified supporting legislation supporting abortion, which is completely inconsistent with his Catholic beliefs, based on the principle of separation between church and state. This is an excellent example of the pervasive and long-lasting influence of Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theory.

As an alternative, in honor of this week of Christian unity, I turn not to Aquinas or any other Catholic thinker, but rather to Karl Barth. Karl Barth once wrote that “wherever there is theological talk, it is always or implicity political talk as well.” Barth believed that Christians should approach politics as they approach all things–Christologically. In a 1935 essay entitled “Gospel and Law,” Barth wrote that Christ establishes the relationship between law and Gospel, such that “we can certainly make the general and comprehensive statement that the law is nothing else than the necessary form of the gospel, whose content is grace” (80). The state, therefore, is a Christological sphere.

As a Christological sphere, Barth has a somewhat positive view of the state (though he still subordinates it to the church), but more importantly, he insists that the state, like the church, serves Christ. In Church Dogmatics IV/2, he writes that the state is not just called to resist sin, but is called to be an instrument of divine service, with its ministers acting as God’s ministers. The state becomes a sphere of wrath, according to Barth, when is deviates from the path of salvation wrought by Christ.

The implications for the Christian is that he is called to participate in the state and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but always in a way motivated by and terminating in the service of Christ. This means that there is a harmony and coherence in the activity of Christians in the world. The Christian has a political responsibility to serve Christ, not by forming a “Christian political party,” but by serving the government in ways consistent with what Christ demands, and by supporting a political agenda consistent with Christ’s lordship. As Barth writes, “No neutrality with God is possible. We must choose between the true God and idolatry” (III/4, 307).

As we usher in a new president, and as we continue to reflect on and pray for Christian unity, I encourage my Christian readers to reexamine their opinions about church and state. Just as Christ is one, so too should the Christian life be one, not divided between secular and religious obligations and practices, but consistently and tirelessly oriented to the service of Jesus Christ.

One Lord, One Faith

Yesterday, January 18, began the week of prayer for Christian Unity, a week where Christians are encouraged to learn and pray about the issues that divide us, and work toward overcoming the obstacles that keep the Christian churches from being in full communion. You can see the pope’s comments on Christian unity here.

Everydaythomist fully supports the project of Christian unity and is participating in the week not only with her prayers, but also with her posts, beginning with this quote from her favorite Reformed theologian, Karl Barth:

“Nor, properly speaking, is there a Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed dogmatics…. Where dogmatics exists at all, it exists only with the will to be a Church dogmatics, a dogmatics of the ecumenical Church” (Church Dogmatics I/2 p. 823)

This quote made me think of what Aquinas would have to say about Christian unity. Instead of turning to the Summa, as I normally do, this time I turned to one of his Scriptural commentaries, the Commentary of the Letter to the Ephesians. The author of Ephesians writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all” (Ephesians 4:4-5)

Aquinas writes that Paul has exhorted the Ephesisans to ecclesial union, likening the church to a city, sharing certain things in common, but also sharing diversity among its various parts. He writes, “The solidarity of any city demands the presence of four common elements: One governor, one law, common symbols, common goal.” Then Aquinas goes to show how all who are in Christ share these four things.

Our governor is none other than Jesus Christ. Citing 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, Aquinas writes, “There be lords many; yet to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things . . . and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things.”

Second is the law, which Aquinas identifies as the law of faith, “which denotes the habit of faith by which all believe, [which is] specifically one–not numerically one–since the same faith is present in each one’s heart, just as when many persons want the same thing, they are said to be of one will.”

Third are the symbols, which Aquinas says are the sacraments, and most importantly, the sacrament of baptism, which is most important because it “is the first and the entrance to the rest. Hence, [Paul] says, one baptism. . . and the one who baptizes interiorly is one, namely, Christ.” Baptism is also one sacrament that almost all Christian churches share. See my comments on baptism here.

Fourth is the goal, which is eternal life with God in His Kingdom. “The Son leads us to the Father ‘when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God and the Father; when he shall have brought to nought all principality and power and virtue’ (1 Cor. 15:24). In reference to this, the Apostle adds ‘one God and Father of all.”

As we begin the week of Christian Unity, everydaythomist encourages here readers to reflect with Barth, Aquinas, and the Letter to the Ephesians on how we are one, sharing one Lord, one law of faith, one baptism, and one goal.

Barth and Aquinas on Theology and Public Life

As part of my studies for comprehensive exams, I was reading an article by Ronald Thiemann from The Thomist (1986) on “The Significance of [Karl] Barth for Contemporary Theology.”  Thiemann is a Lutheran minister and professor at Harvard Divinity School who works specifically on theology and public life.

Karl Barth (1886-1968 ) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, and some describe him as the father of Neo-Orthodoxy.  Barth based theology on God’s revelation alone, not on history, or religious feelings, or most importantly, philosophy.  He is famous for his rejection of natural theology, which attempts to speak about God based on how God has revealed himself in nature or history.  For Barth, the only true knowledge of God is God’s own self-definition in Jesus Christ, as attested to by the Scriptural witness.  The only task of theology, therefore, is testing the church’s proclamation of God against God’s own self-revelation.  Natural theology differs from something like Barth’s revealed theology because it attempts to talk about using reason, rather than revelation, as God is found in the natural world, not Scripture or salvation history.

Thiemann claims that modern culture is characterized by the collapse of Christendom, and by a theological and moral pluralism in which belief in God can no longer be presumed.  Moreover, the antithesis of belief in God–atheism–has become a logical possibility for increasingly more people.  The challenge to atheism is met by many with arguments based on natural theology, rational arguments for the existence of God, or other arguments that try and argue for the inherent religiousness of every human being (Thiemann cites specifically David Tracy‘s transcendental argument and Schubert Ogden‘s argument on experience and language).  Because Barth rejects such arguments, he seems passé to those who want to find a positive role for theological discourse within modern pluralism.

As we have already said, Barth does not think that human reason can prove God’s existence or anything about God.  Because of the primacy Barth attributes to revelation, he claims that the necessary condition for our knowledge of God is God’s movement toward us, God’s revelation of God’s self.  Barth is not a fundamentalist, meaning he does not think that the revelation of God is contained exclusively within Scripture, which would no longer make him a hidden God.  Rather, we come to know God through another external reality, which is the exclusive vehicle for revelation, namely the person of Jesus Christ, to whom Scripture bears witness.

Barth insisted that correlation between Christian theology and the language of culture threatened the integrity of the Christian faith.  In Thiemann’s words: “Christian language does, in its own halting and piecemeal fashion, describe the reality of the world in which we all live, a world whose origin and destiny are determined by the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ.  Insofar as the language does truly describe, its irreducible integrity and distinctive logic must be preserved.  Because that language describes our common world of experience, it must be related to other forms of human discourse, but the terms of that relation must always be ruled by the logic of the Christian gospel.”

Thiemann thinks that the situation of modern pluralism calls into question any attempt to ground the meaning and truth of Christian beliefs in any system outside the Christian faith.  He points to Barth, however, as an example of Christian theology may participate in the public square, “engaging the world of culture from within an integral vision of reality as formed by the Christian gospel.”  This does not mean rejecting science or philosophy or any other non-theological discourse, but it does mean placing  them at the service of Christian theology.

As a Thomist, I am sympathetic to much of what Barth is trying to do.  Part of his project, which I think the Barmen declaration reflects, is rejecting the idea that there are two spheres of existence for the Christian–a public and a private, a worldly and a religious, a faithful and a rational.  For Barth, the church does not serve the state, or science, or philosophy, nor does it change or water down its message in light of cultural pressure to do so.  The job of the church and the task of theology is to proclaim God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  To the extent that science and philosophy and other disciplines facilitate that goal, they may be used, but always as a means to theology’s end.

Thomas would agree with much of what Barth sees as the task of theology and its role in public life.  For Aquinas, theology is a sacred science which depends exclusively on knowledge revealed by God which “surpasses human reason.”  The knowledge that sacred science contains is essential to man’s salvation and must be accepted on faith.  Sacred science uses philosophy and the other sciences, “not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer.  For it accepts its principles, not from other sciences, but from God, by revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 5).  Aquinas’ theology, like Barth’s, is a revealed theology.

Aquinas, like Barth, also does not think that there is a realm of rational human existence, and a realm of faithful human existence.  Just as theology is the queen of the sciences, revealed knowledge is the height of all knowledge, and is the standard for judging all other knowledge: “The principles of other sciences either are evident and cannot be proved, or are proved by natural reason through some other science. But the knowledge proper to this science comes through revelation and not through natural reason. Therefore it has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them. Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false: “Destroying counsels and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).”

Theology for both Barth and Aquinas is the highest of the sciences, and the standard for judging all other human experience.  In the context of modern pluralism, especially in light of the rise of atheism, theology has a place only insofar as it does not compromise its integrity.  Both Aquinas and Barth think that the ability to participate in pluralistic discourse, therefore, is limited by the absolute and particular nature of the foundation of Christian life, which is God’s revelation.  No arguments for the revealed God of Christianity suffice.  No  philosophy can contain this God who has communicated himself in Jesus Christ.  Aquinas says on this note:

Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations” (I, Q. 1, art. 8).

Christians are not called to withdraw from public life.  Neither Barth nor Aquinas would support the idea that Christians could not be judges or politicians or biologists or even soldiers.  Both Barth and Aquinas would agree, however, that this participation must always be Christian participation, and unapologetically so.  It means that Christ must be the standard of judgment for all things, even worldly things.  Both Barth and Aquinas would say, for example, that an allegedly Christian politician could claim that he agrees with his church’s teaching on the dignity of all human life, including the pre-born, but could still support pro-abortion as a public figure.  For both Barth and Aquinas, Christian existence has an integrity and continuity.  There is no public realm over which Christ does not have authority.

What Barth pushes stronger than Aquinas, however, due to his historical circumstances which are especially relevant today is that not only does the church not subordinate itself to or separate itself from culture, it also cannot assimilate itself into culture.  For Barth, the identity of the church could not have its locus in a particular Volk or political movement, like the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s.  Barth vehemently opposed the German Christians who exalted Hitler as bringing salvation to Germany, and demanded that Protestant churches  should cooperate in national renewal under his leadership, not letting theological scruples prevent them from wholeheartedly supporting the project of National Socialism.  That people saw God speaking through Hitler must be categorically false, according to Barth.  God cannot be humanized in some department of history, nor does he speak in anything other than the one Word, Jesus Christ.

To bring this discussion to the practical realm, I cannot help mentioning my discomfort with the way Christian theology has been co-opted in support for Barack Obama.  Check out this blog as an example of what I am convinced is a widespread belief about Obama–he is the change we want to see.  MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews’s comment on Obama’s messianship have become almost legendary but they bear repeating: “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament. This is surprising.”  Barth would undoubtedly see too many parallels between the Christian response to Obama in 2008 and the Christian response to Hitler in 1933.  He would probably call for another Barmen declaration in response.  Not because Obama and Hitler are remotely comparable as politicians (I don’t think they are), but because the Christian response to them is so similar.

There is only one revelation, and this is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  Any person, or philosophy, or thing that replaces Jesus as the fulfillment of truth, as the object of hope, as the standard of judgment is simply inconsistent with Christianity, at least as Barth and Aquinas understand it.

The church must bring its theological scruples to the public square and not allow itself to be co-opted for any other purposes not the purposes of God.  Nor should it water down its proclamation to serve worldly powers.  Theology is the rule and measure of worldly powers.  Theology  is the criterion of experience, not vice versa.  The public square, therefore, is not a non-theological square, nor is it immune to distinctively Christian critiques.  On this point, Barth and Aquinas would wholeheartedly agree.

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