Covering Up Luther: A Summary

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Many have asked for a bit of a summary on my recently published book Covering Up Luther, well, here goes:

Near the end of his life, Karl Barth’s son gave him a rug from a recent vacation. For some strange reason, Barth took the rug and hung it in his study in Basel (as seen on the right). One doesn’t usually hang a rug up, and certainly not over a bookshelf. That is precisely what Barth did with this rug, though. The bookshelf he covered up contained the Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s Works. Barth would go on to call Luther’s works his Pandora’s box. As such, he wanted to remove them from his sight, but not to remove them from the shelves altogether. Curious. This book, is an attempt to understand why Barth made the decision to cover up Luther’s works in this way.

The book is titled, Covering Up Luther: How Barth’s Christology Challenged the Deus Absconditus That Haunts Modernity. It is available here on Amazon, and here on Kindle.  The same is true for those who might purchase the book in UK, for both paperback and Kindle versions.

The book is my doctoral dissertation, which means that it is a work of Systematic Theology, and one that is meant to be quite specialized. For those interested, I successfully defended my dissertation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on November 10, 2010, and graduated in May 2011. While the work for my dissertation began at Garrett, the bulk of my research was done while studying at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland in 2008-2009. When we returned home to the US in 2009, I began writing. That process took almost a year. I wrote chapters 1 and 2 while in Clovis, NM at my parents home. The rest of the book was written in Bentonville, AR, while serving as a pastor at Bentonville Church of the Nazarene.

You should also know that, first and foremost, this is a book about Barth, and not about Luther. Luther certainly plays a role in the book, but merely as seen through the later Barth’s eyes. The title is deceptive in that way.

Finally, before summarizing the book, I will confess to a few major motivations behind the writing of this book. First, my hope is to challenge the notion that Barth’s theology is best understood as dialectical. I am firmly opposed to dialectical reasoning in theology, primarily as a result of reading Barth. He was increasingly opposed to dialectics, a point that has not been given sufficient attention. Second, I am deeply interested in theological or dogmatic (dogma = theology from and for the Church) ecumenical work – particularly between Protestants and Roman Catholics. (I was originally planning to examine and write about both Barth and Henri de Lubac, but this proved to be far to “wide” for the narrow expectations of a dissertation. The research on de Lubac will have to be returned to later!) I believe Barth’s mature theology has been deeply influential on both, and has much to offer in such dialogue. Similarly, given the somewhat unique way that I read Barth, I believe that two groups in particular might want to examine or re-examine Barth: Wesleyans and those who self-identify with the theological sensibility known as “Radical Orthodoxy.” The former, because of Barth’s strong doctrines of revelation and sanctification, the latter because of Barth’s increasing pre-occupation with his Roman Catholic friends and critics.

I should also point out that I’m extremely happy and fortunate to have this book be included in the Veritas series, which is sponsored by the Centre for Theology & Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. The series includes several really amazing books and has an amazing reputation. My hope is that my book will only enhance this reputation. My good friend Eric Lee is hugely responsible for my good fortune here, for getting my dissertation in the hands of Conor Cunningham and Pete Candler. I can’t thank you all enough for your help, and for this great honor.

A Brief Summary

To understand why Barth wants to distance himself from Luther, it is important to examine the nominalist theology that Luther inherited, and, in turn, passed on. This is done in chapter 2. There, I argue that the one of the primary reasons that Barth grew disenchanted with Luther was the latter’s preference for the Deus Absconditus or the hidden God. Luther sought hard to maintain a dialectical tension or relationship between the Deus Absconditus and the Deus Revelatus (revealed God). I believe that as Barth grew older, he saw in Luther’s progeny that the former came to trump the latter, indeed, necessarily so. (Whether Luther himself was guilty of this or not, is not the subject of the book.) Barth was concerned with where Luther’s theology led, and it was this that worried Barth. In examining the theological origins of Modernity, I argue that the Deus Absconditus is actually the God (or the functional theology) of Modernity. In turn, the Deus Absconditus requires the theological system of nominalism (I’m mostly interested in Nominalism as the pure, random, and mysteriously powerful divine will – especially as seen in German Idealism), which itself requires the philosophical framework of dialectic (for Hegel: positive-negative-aufhebung or as is it commonly described: thesis-antithesis-synthesis). I argue that Barth wanted to distance himself from all three (Deus Absconditus, Nominalism, and dialectic), and I attempt to show why in chapter 2. Scrapping dialectic, therefore, I argue that paradox is a much more helpful and faithful category within which to understand Barth’s mature theology.

CASCADE_TemplateIf chapter 2 is even remotely successful, then it is clear that I am working with a somewhat novel reading of Barth. With this in mind, next comes an Excursus, in which I set out to challenge the dominant contemporary thesis regarding Karl Barth’s theology, namely, that Barth is a dialectical theologian. Bruce McCormack’s powerful work on the subject serves as the foil in this section. Here I continue to argue that dialectic is not only unhelpful, but that Barth himself rejects it. I demonstrate that the primary source that McCormack works with to develop Barth’s dialectical theology was, in reality, originally referring to varieties of paradoxes, rather than dialectic.

Chapters 3 and 4 are long, detailed examinations of Barth’s works. My hope in these chapters is to let Barth “speak for himself,” and to thus speak in a way that is quite different from the way that he is usually allowed to speak. In chapter 3 I examine how Barth deals with the way that humans know God, specifically the subjects of the Knowledge of God, the Analogia Entis (or analogy of being), and Natural Theology. In chapter 4 I examine Barth’s Christology, specifically from Volume IV of the Church Dogmatics. Here, I think that the paradoxical shape of Barth’s Christology is clearly on display. I playfully use one of Barth’s phrases to describe Barth’s paradoxical Christology as “the absurd possibility of the absurd.” As I understand it, dialectical reasoning assumes a fundamental antagonism, or conflict. Christologically speaking, this conflict is that of divinity and humanity. I am not satisfied with the notion that Jesus is the aufhebung or synthesis between divinity and humanity, for such a result entails antagonism or conflict. The beauty of the Incarnation is that in Jesus there is no conflict between divinity and humanity, for both co-exist paradoxically in the one whole Jesus – in a way that neither trumps or destroys the other. God remains God, humanity remains humanity, and Jesus is both, in a perfectly whole non-schizophrenic, or chaotic way. This is the paradoxical center of the Gospel, which I believe is central to Barth’s mature theology.

Finally, I conclude in chapter 5 with constructive thoughts on the direction Barth scholarship might now move, specifically in the areas of ethics and ecumenical dialogue (with Roman Catholicism in particular). In this chapter I attempt to parse out why all that I’ve written matters, and how I hope this work might change the way Barth is often encountered, and thus influence the direction for theology in general, and Barth scholarship in particular.

Thanks for your support. If you get a chance to read the book, feel free to comment here, or to email me with questions and/or comments at rustybrian@gmail.com.

Peace,

Rusty

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