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Posts Tagged ‘Karl Barth’

9781844744954-reeves-on-giants-shouldersREVIEW: Michael Reeves, On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing great theologians from Luther to Barth, IVP: 2011.

He’s done it again. Following on from The Breeze of the Centuries, Mike Reeves goes on to look at Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Schleiermacher and Barth, and once again incredibly manages to condense their life and writings into 20 or 30 pages each. It’s worth clarifying that he doesn’t affirm everything they affirm – Schleiermacher in particular is the father of modern liberal theology – but he is presenting us with ‘giants’ of theology who we need to reckon with and engage with.

This is a brilliant introduction – an absolute must read – my copy is covered in underlinings and scribbles. A few things that particularly struck me:

  1. Luther’s great insight that justification (and the sacraments) are about a Word and a righteousness coming to us from outside – they are external, alien to us.
  2. The discussion of Calvin’s life and particularly his family, sorrows, terrible health, role in mission and in the execution of the heretic Servetus, and his emphasis on knowledge of God touching the feelings is very helpful in clearing away some of the caricatures of the man.
  3. The concern of all the theologians discussed (with the exception of Schleiermacher) to understand not just an abstract, philosophical ‘God’ but the LORD of Scripture, the distinctively Trinitarian God revealed only through Christ. “And those who in their worship or [prayer] attempt an approach to the divine nature as absolutely considered, without respect to… the distinct persons of the holy Trinity, do reject the mystery of the Gospel, and all benefit of it. So it is with many” (Owen, quoted on p. 77).
  4. All of these theologians (again with the exception of Schleiermacher) see Christ present throughout the OT, speaking, appearing, saving as well as in all sort of types and patterns. Luther goes so far as to call OT believers, “Christians” and Edwards says, “When we read in the [OT] what God did from time to time towards his church and people, and what he said to them, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read after this of God’s appearing time after time in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily if not universally to understand it of the second person of the Trinity.” (quoted on p. 114)
  5. Feelings and affections are key to all of these theologians. But with Schleiermacher experience and feelings become everything. With Owen and Edwards revelation/Scripture gives rise to affections. With Schleiermacher the order is reversed and experience/feelings give rise to scripture/doctrine. History becomes irrelevant and faith becomes a personal, internal, subjective thing rather than (as Luther saw it) focussed on an external Word. The Cross is just inspirational and forgiveness is about not feeling guilty.
  6. While the first 1000 years of the church saw a gradual slide away from the Word as foundational and an increasing confidence in human reason and philosophy, with the Reformation (and with Barth) you see a return to the Word of God as the fountain of all our knowledge of God and ourselves and creation. In particular Barth’s brilliant move was to recover the 1 Cor. 1-2 doctrine of the unknowability of God through human reason and wisdom. “He wanted to reject all Pelagianism in our knowledge of God (i.e. actually contributing to it ourselves) to show that our knowledge of God is a divine gift… Thus Barth rejected all ‘natural theology'” (p. 154).

I’m worried that these theologians are not at all well known in our context here. Luther and Calvin everyone has heard of but few have read. In fact many of the sermons and statements of Luther, for example, if you were to preach them in a pulpit in Kenya would be thought of as a heretical new teaching. The others – John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth – have rarely even been heard of. Our ignorance of these guys (and I include myself in that ignorance) is dangerous – because we fail to learn both from their greatest insights and greatest mistakes.

Once again, Mike Reeves wants us more than anything to get back into the sources themselves – “That at least has been the aim of this utterly unoriginal book” – and fortunately a lot of this stuff is online:

And a final word from Owen:

Do any of us find decays of grace prevailing in us; deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? And would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases?

Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea no other way but this alone, namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory putting forth its transforming power unto revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case.

(Owen quoted on p. 85)

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