October 12, 2009

Karl Barth Demonstrates the Insufficiency of Reformed Theological Prolegomena

In The Formation of Christian Doctrine, I discussed four major options for Christian foundations in theological method. These were the (1) Roman Catholic, (2) Liberal Evangelical, (3) Reformed Evangelical, and (4) Free Church models. At one point, I criticized Gerhard Ebeling for ignoring the Free Church model in his understanding of Christian history, wherein he offered only a threefold paradigm, subsuming the Free Church understanding under the "Enthusiastic" as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Reformed models. Here, I would like to extend the critique of insufficient paradigms toward that premier Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

In his Church Dogmatics, I/1, under his discussion of "The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics," Barth, similarly to Ebeling, presents only three possible models for Prolegomena: (1) Roman Catholicism, (2) Protestant Modernism, and (3) Protestant Evangelical. These three models correlate to the first three models that I set out in chapter 2 of my book. The fourth model, that of the Free Church, is, however, woefully underestimated by Barth.

Barth, incredibly, subsumes the Free Church understanding within Protestant Modernism. Indeed, without any historical justification for such a dependence, he states that the assumption of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that faith is prior to dogmatic formation, has its "origin in English congregationalism" (p. 38). He then cites articles 20, 23, and 24 of the Platform of the Savoy Declaration as proof, adding further, "They and they alone could authorise Schleiermacher to commence his basic work of introduction with statements borrowed from ethics. And of themselves they are sufficient to characterise these borrowed statements as dogmatics, i.e., dogmatically heretical statements" (ibid.)

So, there you have it, according to Barth, the Free Church theological method is really the basis for Evangelical Liberalism, and the result is "dogmatically heretical statements." Unfortunately, Barth does not justify these statements beyond his cryptic reference to the Savoy Declaration. Later, in the Church Dogmatics and in numerous other writings, Barth will pursue, repeatedly and without satisfactory finality, the problem of relating ethics with dogmatics, a subject treated exhaustively in many of the works of my old professor, John Webster, now at Aberdeen University. Barth never could make the transition from dogmatics to ethics, try as he might, because he was constantly worried that human agency just might impinge upon divine grace.

As I argued during a lecture delivered at Aberdeen a few years ago, Barth would have benefited by a close reading of the work of Pilgram Marpeck. Marpeck, in my opinion, was able to weave his way clearly through the problem of grace and discipleship by allowing the latter an integral function within his theological foundation. In doing so, Marpeck demonstrated a way past the knotty problem that has held Reformed dogmatics in an irresolvable philosophical grip, a grip demonstrated in Barth's own philosophical ruminations regarding the doctrine of election. (Yes, even Barth, in spite of his Christological reading of Romans 9, could not escape the Stoical bases of Reformed thought.)

What I find of especial interest in Barth's flippant dismissal of the Free Church tradition is that he utilized the Savoy Declaration, in its discussions of the Gospel and Grace (art. 20), Oaths and Vows (art. 23), and the Civil Magistrate (art. 24). The Congregationalists/Independents who adopted the Savoy Declaration were, in many ways, just as enamored as Barth with Reformed speculations regarding divine election. However, in article 20, an article that they added to the Westminster Confession, they did leave some room for human response and personal transformation: "for the producing in them a new spiritual life."

And in articles 23 and 24, this opening is explored again. In discussing the taking of an oath, the human person is protected from external coercion with this statement: "neither may any man bind himself by oath to any thing, but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform." Again, though in an apparently post-conversion context, the idea of a fully involved personal response by a human being is advocated.

Barth's reference to Article 24, on the Civil Magistrate, is highly disturbing, for in the Westminster Confession, the government is called upon in no uncertain terms to enforce the godly faith. The Savoy Declaration, however, respectful of human responsibility, qualifies the role of the government, bringing the liberty of individual consciences into direct conversation with government authority, protecting the former, in a limited sense, from impingement by the latter.

Let me wrap up this little exercise by noting the problems here with Reformed theological methodology, as exemplified in Karl Barth. By divorcing discipleship from doctrine, Reformed theology has created an irresolvable dilemma that prefers speculation about election to dependence upon scriptural affirmations. By citing his difficulty with the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is uncomfortable with personal responsibility and personal transformation, which are integral to any biblical doctrine of faith. Finally, again, by citing the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is, in its genesis, grossly dependent upon the coercion of consciences through, though here he is later equivocal, infant baptism.

October 5, 2009

Is Communion for Sinners?

Recently, a friend passed me the link to a video promotion for a DVD entitled "Communion." It is an interesting video (and painfully slow, so be warned!) It is interesting in that the author(s) seems to present the Lord's Supper as indiscriminately intended for all sinners. But this is too simple of a solution, and does violence to the biblical witness.

It is an indisputable truth that all human beings, other than Jesus Christ, are tainted by sin. This is what makes us worthy of the eternal punishment of death. Death, of course, is separation from God. And the Son of God took on our humanity in order to suffer the penalty of death for us on the cross and rise from the dead so that we might have eternal life. Christ came to save sinners from sin and its consequence of death, which ends in eternal punishment away from the comforting presence of God. One is saved through being born again, which accompanies faith in Him and repentance toward God (John 3).

Unfortunately, the video's author, in this short promotion, presents the Lord's Supper as being intended for all sinners indiscriminately. But is this the case? Is communion intended for all sinners? Absolutely not!

When the Corinthian church demonstrated a penchant for gross immersion in the sins of the wider culture of their day, Paul rebuked them in no uncertain terms. The point he repeatedly made in the Corinthian correspondence was that the Lord's Supper was to be reserved only for the regenerate church. Those who were still infatuated with the sinful culture of Corinthian paganism were reminded that communion with God and communion with the devil are incompatible (1 Cor 10:20-21). The Corinthians were warned that they must be separate from the world: "'Come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord, 'and do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you'" (2 Cor 6:17).

In other words, I believe that, according to Scripture, the ordinance of communion, practiced by the churches at the direct command of Jesus Christ, is to be reserved for sinners who have been born again and are pursuing a life of repentance. Are the unholy invited into communion with the Holy One? Yes, indeed. But, first, there must be a transformation prior to communion. Sinners must repent and believe; otherwise, they are still sinners subject to the judgment of God. Moreover, such repentance from sin and faith in Christ must continue to characterize the Christian's life.

Paul warned that those who continued in sin are subject to divine judgment precisely because they were unrepentant sinners. "For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly" (1 Cor 11:29). The body must be judged. "The body," of course, is a common Pauline metaphor for the church. Individual Christians, in other words, must examine their own consciences (1 Cor 11:28), and Christians in the local church must hold one another accountable for one another's doctrine and conduct (1 Cor 11:29).

A concrete example in Corinth occurred with a young man involved in gross sexual sin. The speech of the Corinthian church had become so saturated with vice that she overlooked a situation by which even the pagans would be shocked (1 Cor 5:1). But rather than pass over the matter in silence, or make excuses for it, Paul called the church to take immediate action. As an Apostle, Paul recognized the need for the congregation itself to exercise governance through the application of discipline. The church must repent of its habit of condoning gross sin and excommunicate the sinner. When the church gathered, it must remove the sinful person "in the power of the Lord Jesus" and return him to the realm of Satan, i.e., the world (1 Cor 5:2-5).

The action of the Corinthian church in disciplining the unrepentant sinner was necessary, in spite of the difficulty it might bring to all involved. Yet, the difficulties were worth what seems to have been the result. Rather than continue condoning sexual sin, the majority of the Corinthian church seems to have obeyed and applied church discipline. This resulted in getting the sinner's attention, bringing to him great sorrow, and as a result, he repented. Paul then called the church to restore the repentant sinner to fellowship (2 Cor 2:1-9). Through discipline, an unrepentant sinner who thought he was already a Christian but did not act like it, was brought to repentance and faithfulness towards Christ.

My friends, our churches must seek to maintain their public purity. On the one hand, the church will never be perfect until all Christians gather (for the first time as one) at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-8). On the other hand, the members of the church are commanded by Christ to help one another towards repentance and a faithful lifestyle even now. If an individual Christian will not repent of publicly-known sin, then he or she must be excluded by the church (and only by the church--there is no room for elders arrogating to themselves the power of church discipline) for the purpose of loving redemption (Matt 18:15-17).

Let it be clearly noted that the intended outcome is, ultimately, the redemption of the sinner. Punishment is entirely in the purview of God alone, but loving discipline is given by the Lord to the church to practice when necessary. The church is to separate from unrepentant sinners in order that they might prompt one another through the covenantal life of the community to follow Christ completely.

So, we come back to the question prompted by the subject video: Is communion for sinners? Yes, but not without discrimination. Communion is only for sinners who have been born again. We know we are truly born again only because we are repenting of sin and are seeking to live lives faithful to the high call of Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Perhaps the video that prompted this short essay goes further into these matters. Unfortunately, the website does not clarify. I hope the full content is better than the presentation available publicly, for what they have posted online presents a highly distorted picture of the scriptural witness. For more on the biblical understanding of the regenerate church practicing close communion, see the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 articles on the church (art. 6) and on baptism and the Lord's Supper (art. 7).

Jesus is the Lord of His churches, which means that He is to be followed in what He commands them.