Sunday, February 19, 2017
This morning I was reflecting on the current state of the church and our Christian faith, when I thought of Karl Barth and what he possibly would say to us. I went back to this essay from decades ago -- and found so much that speaks to us in our current situation. Barth's focus on Jesus Christ as the center, and all else as peripheral, holds much truth for those of us who are trying to navigate a way in the midst of perilous waters. Ours is not the first generation to go through chasmic struggles in the church, nor will we be the last.
This entire essay can be found at:
Starting Out, Turning Round, Confessing
Dear Catholic and Reformed fellow-Christians:
In this hour I want to talk to you about starting out, turning round, and confessing in the church. Of course there is much starting out, turning round, and confessing, or talk of it, in the world as well. The church is in the world and the world is also in the church. Thus we should never ignore or despise what goes on in the world or is at least discussed in it. If we are not to overvalue it, we are also not to undervalue it. Nevertheless, I am certain that starting out, turning round, and confessing—that of Christians—will serve us best and bring us into the deepest solidarity with what is called the world if we concern ourselves energetically with starting out, turning round, and confessing in the church.
The three concepts mentioned are not marks or essential features or structures of the church. From three different if related angles they are the one movement in which the church finds itself. There are all kinds of movements in the church. There always have been. There can and should be today. But these movements are important and good only if they derive from the one movement of the church and serve this movement. Let us speak today of the one movement of the church’s starting out, turning round, and confessing by which all individual movements, if they are important and good, are determined and limited. This one movement of the church takes place. It does not happen for the first time today. In many ages it took place in an underground way, perceived only by the few. Even today it still takes place for the most part in this underground way. In its essence it is noticed by relatively few. Nevertheless, it is taking place today much more perceptibly than in earlier times, and the number of those who perceive it in its essence is greater.
The distinctive mark of this one movement of the church, of its starting out, turning round, and confessing, consists today in the fact that in the contemporary church it is taking place in many, although not all confessions. Our particular interest here and now is that it is taking place or is visible today in the Roman Catholic, or, as I would prefer to say, the Petrine Catholic and the Evangelical Catholic confessions—for we are Catholic too. For the moment it is surprisingly more visible and even spectacular in the Petrine than in the Evangelical confession. But however that may be, there is this one movement of the one church, in our case of the two confessions. We shall have occasion at any rate to focus our attention on both of them together. But let us get down to business.
The movement of the church is in the first instance a powerful starting out. (I should like to say something specific about the word “powerful” at the end of this address.) Starting out takes place when something already there has grown old and must be left behind, when the night is past, when something new replaces it and a new day dawns. When this is true, and is seen to be true, starting out takes place. Ancient, medieval, modern, and present-day church history is continually an open or hidden history of such starting out, sometimes greater it would seem and sometimes smaller, sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful. The model of all starting out—a model which can never shed enough light or be studied enough—is the exodus of Israel out of Egypt for the promised land.
Starting out takes place in a crisis. A resolute farewell is then said to what is familiar, what is close at hand, what has its own advantages, as in the form of the well-known fleshpots of Egypt. And there is a resolute turning instead to what is distant, to what is affirmed in hope, to what has disadvantages, to what is still largely unknown in its glorious form. When the church sets out, it has made a choice, a decision. It refuses to be homesick for what it leaves behind. It hails and loves already what is before it. It is still here and yet no longer here. It is not yet there but there already. It has a long journey ahead of it -- battles too, and suffering, and hunger and thirst. Unmistakably it sighs. Yet unmistakably, too, it rejoices. It thinks and speaks and acts accordingly. The starting out of the church takes place in this crisis. It is that of the people of God which is still in bondage and yet already freed. But let us look a little more closely. The true and authentic starting out of the church is first and supremely an acceptance of the future and only then and for that reason a denial of the past. Mere weariness or criticism or distaste or scorn or protest in relation to what has been thus far, to what would now be called the establishment, has nothing whatever to do with the church’s great movement of starting out. When Moses killed and buried that wicked man, that was not by a long way Israel’s liberation from imprisonment. In both confessions today we often hear a justifiable but empty negation—empty because it is not filled with affirmation of the better future. An empty negation will always have a more or less disagreeable and melancholy sound. When the church genuinely negates what has been thus far, it will be a clear negation, but one that is also friendly and cheerful.
It follows, then, that the church’s true and authentic starting out takes place only when it sees the new as promise and therefore as future, as clear and definite promise and future. Some years ago a young man in a gathering of clergy startled me by saying, “Professor, you have made history but you have now become history. We young folk are setting out for new shores.” I replied, “That is good. I am glad to hear it. Tell me something about these new shores.” Unfortunately he had nothing to tell. The exodus from Egypt began when Moses came down from the mount of God and away from the burning bush, where he had heard God’s Word, and was thus able to tell the people and Pharaoh something about where they were going. In the church today there are many likable young people, including young pastors and priests, who tell us very loudly that almost everything must be changed. If only God would tell them, or if they would let God tell them, and if they would then tell others, what is to replace the present set-up, then and only then their activity would have something authentically and credibly to do with the starting out of the church.
Just a final remark on the first point. The true and authentic starting out of the church will have to take place in an orderly way. Naturally until the caravan is reorganized and the march has begun, there will be some confusion. The more conservative and more progressive groups in the church will not be in total agreement as to how things should be done. The former will sadly demand that as much as possible of the old should be taken along. The latter in an onrush of joy will tell them that everything must be different. There will also be Christian hippies whose mouths the ecclesiastical police will find it very hard to shut, not to speak of dropouts and the like. But these transitional phenomena must not be allowed to degenerate into permanent confusion. The departure of the church has to be a more or less disciplined event in which there are no winners and no losers. The charism of gyberneseos, the gift of government or leadership, comes into its own here. In the Old Testament story of the exodus Moses was a classical bearer of this gift, and at the time of the reformation so, too, was Calvin, as distinct from Luther and Zwingli. It is not for nothing that in our time a Roman Catholic historian [has devoted] a fine volume to Calvin as seen from this angle. The only pity is that on the Petrine Catholic side there was no likeminded Aaron who had to be taken with equal seriousness. If there had been, perhaps the church could have started out then with comprehensive instead of divided ranks.
The church has its origin in the command of Jesus Christ. It looks and moves toward his new and glorious coming. This is why its starting out, indeed, its whole movement, is such a positive, goal-oriented, and orderly event.
Secondly, the movement of the church is a powerful turning round. The word “Forward” and the word “Back” are not self-contradictory in the church. Instead they denote the one movement. In the church the word “conversion” means turning in one’s tracks and then starting off toward the new thing, the goal that is ahead. It is a turning back toward what has already happened originally because only in movement toward this oldest thing of all can there be a right starting out for what is new and future. One of the basic notes of the Old Testament sounds out unmistakably here: “For ask now of the days that are past . . . Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard. . . ? Has God ever attempted to go and take a nation from the midst of another nation . . . according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (Dt. 4:32f.); or again: “Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, what the way of salvation is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).
One must consider carefully, however, what is meant by this common backward movement of the church to see if it is true and authentic turning round. True and authentic turning round will always see the old to which it turns back as the new for which it is on the point of starting out. By the fact that it is the new, the old here is distinguished from the old things that must be left behind if the church is to start out. For Evangelical Christians that means that it will not be identical with the liberal theology and piety of the nineteenth century from which we have come, nor even, and this has been true since 1517, with the reformation of the sixteenth century and its offshoots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Again, and this applies to you, dear Petrine fellow-Christians, it will not be identical with the world of Trent and Vatican I and what for the last one hundred and fifty years has been rather romantically called the philosophy and theology of the former days, namely, medieval scholasticism, the fathers, and the first Christian centuries. Listening to the past might be a beautiful idea, but it is not a churchly one either among you or us. On both sides the old to which the church turns back in true and authentic conversion is valid only as in and with and under it there takes place the new for which the church is starting out. Mark you, what we have been saying applies even to the so-called primitive Christianity whose contours as something old may be seen by us in the New Testament. The church does not turn back to primitive Christianity but to the new which is, of course, primarily, directly, and normatively attested for all times in its first records. Paul did not proclaim himself but the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. So, too, in their own ways did Peter and John and also the Evangelists. He, Jesus Christ, is the old and is also new. He it is who comes [to the church] and to whom the church goes, but goes to him as him who was. It is to him that it turns in its conversion.
But now we must underline the other side too. Seeing that the starting out of the church is a starting out to its origin, the turning round of the church that takes place in and with it is always an act of respect and gratitude in relation to the old which for its part has proceeded in some sense from this origin: not because it is old, not in relation to everything that is old, but in relation to much of the old in which the new, closely viewed, already intimates itself, and in which, carefully handled, the new may also be detected. Israel had before it the patriarchs: Abraham, who in faith left his country and friends for the land that God would show him and did show him; then Isaac and Jacob and the fathers of the tribal league which after a time was brought into the land. And this land that was promised and given to Israel was itself, according to the tradition, none other than that in which the patriarchs as guests had lived and sinned and suffered and set up altars here and there to the Lord. In the the church that is in the process of turning round the saying is true that “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” “All live to him,” from the apostles to the earlier and later fathers. They have not only the right [but also the relevance] to be heard today, not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively. The church would not be the church in conversion if, proud and content with [?] its sense of the present hour, it would not listen to them, or would do so only occasionally, loosely, and carelessly, or if it were to rob what it has to learn from them of all its effect by [accepting] what they want to say to it....