Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
I am beginning to think that the most important contribution made by Karl Barth in his entire career was the insight that Christianity is about Jesus Christ. This might seem like an obvious statement. But it needed saying at the time, and it clearly still needs to be repeated. Because I have learned, much to my amazement and chagrin, that there are lots of people, even and especially in the church, who think Christianity is about a lot of other stuff in addition to, before, and even instead of Jesus Christ.
It is fallout from Christendom that makes us believe the church and Christianity have to do with these other things. People still think the church is about promoting patriotism and good citizenship, supporting economic growth and prosperity, maintaining and promoting “traditional family values,” encouraging loyalty to the State and its leaders, and generally providing a religious anchor for middle-class American society.
At least as important is the apparent belief that Christians are free to follow influences and lords other than Jesus Christ. They reduce Jesus’ teaching on, say, non-violence, to some kind of ideal we hope for in the far future or in heaven after we die. But when it comes to actual decisions and actions in the world, many Christians believe that ideas other than those of Jesus should be implemented. Jesus is not practical for the real world. When it comes to actual existence, we are content to use reasoning identical to that of terrorists. “I will win by using more effective deadly violence than my enemy.”
Barth’s famous statement at the beginning of the Theological Declaration of Barmen needs to be memorized and reflected upon regularly. Put these words on your desk and on your refrigerator:
as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,
is the one Word of God
which we have to hear
and which we have to trust and obey
in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine,
as though the church could and would have to acknowledge
as a source of its proclamation,
apart from and besides this one Word of God,
still other events and powers, figures and truths,
as God’s revelation.”
It is clear that the traditional church often allows itself to be given many other “events and powers, figures and truths,” as sources of authority for its work.
In Barth’s day, of course, he was issuing a stern warning to the German church in 1934 about following the policies of Hitler’s government. But it doesn’t matter what these other powers are. They don’t have to be the obvious manifestation of profound evil that the Nazis were. In fact, it is unfortunate that the Nazis were so comprehensively depraved. It allows us to continue in the illusion that we are qualitatively different from them. As if the “other events and powers, figures and truths” that draw us away from Jesus Christ are okay, since they are clearly not as bad as the Nazis.
Yet Barth’s point is that any “other events and powers, figures and truths” are dangerous and corrosive to the gospel if they are allowed to become a source of the church’s proclamation. Even the universally accepted good things in life, if the church starts to see them as essential to its proclamation, undermine the gospel and draw us away from Jesus Christ. Even the Nazis saw themselves as doing good, believe it or not. As do all oppressors and murderers.
If the church makes the gospel dependent on, equal to, or identified with a particular political, moral, or economic system, let alone a particular nation, family, gender, generation, race, party, company, or individual, then it is denying its Lord who demands unequivocal and exclusive loyalty. For all these things are about us. They may express our highest aspirations, our deepest hopes, and our greatest dreams. But they are still products or our creativity and ingenuity, corrupted by sin.
Throughout our history, when the church forgot its Lord and stumbled away after such “other events and powers, figures and truths,” disaster ensued. Forgetting Jesus Christ and following our own political and economic and moral reasoning is how we got the church advocating and rationalizing atrocities like the Crusades and the Inquisition, slavery and genocide, witch-hunting and torture, ecological devastation and apartheid, wars of conquest and “preemption,” nuclear proliferation and economic injustice.
Our faith, on the other hand, is about Jesus Christ, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Period. Anything else that elbows its way into the frame seeking to associate itself with him, or even pretending to be his sponsor or patron, is at best suicidal presumption and at worst catastrophic usurpation. Any other presence up in the chancel, any symbol of some other event, power, figure, or truth, any alien colors alongside the Pulpit, Table, and Font, is anathema, a desolating sacrilege, an abomination.
Not all the Reformation solas still function. But this one has to: solus Christus. Christianity is about Jesus Christ.