Confessing Christ for the Church and the World: Studies in Modern Theology
Bender is associate professor of theology at Truett Seminary, Baylor University. This collection of essays, some published previously, reflects on what it means to confess Jesus as Lord today. Bender’s major discussion partners are Karl Barth, whose ecclesiology was the subject of Bender’s Ph.D. dissertation, published as Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013) and, secondarily, Friedrich Schleiermacher.
In the introduction, Bender identifies several themes that appear in the essays but argues that they have one overarching idea: “The most important of all the themes is a deep commitment to the scandal of the gospel and to its radical particularity, expressed in its earliest and most succinct form in the confession that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’ At the heart of this commitment is a radical centering on God’s singular revelation in Jesus Christ reflected in an attendant understanding of the Spirit’s work and of the enduring place of Holy Scripture in the life of the church. This central conviction is accompanied by a quiet commitment to a humble ecclesiology that for all its humility is no less urgent in its call for the church to be faithful and obedient in its confession and life in and for our time” (p. 13). These essays were written over a decade and most were published previously without consideration of how they might be arranged in an anthology; yet they each do have this central theme.
The book has three sections. The first, “Church and Conversation,” focuses on ecclesiology and ecumenicity. Of particular interest to an evangelical audience is “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Church in Conversation with American Evangelicalism.” Bender observes, “Just as Barth could mellow in his old age, so evangelicalism seems to have mellowed (at least in some circles) with regard to Barth” (p. 67). To an evangelicalism that lacks a robust ecclesiology, Bender argues that Barth provides a corrective: “What Barth provides is an ecclesiology in which there is a true union of Christ and the church, but where this union remains ever differentiated and irreversible in nature, where Christ is never subsumed into the being and agency of the church, where the church is a witness to, but not an extension of, the incarnation, and thus a proclaimer, rather than a dispenser, of grace” (pp. 86–87).
The second section, “Canon and Confession,” discusses Scripture and the Christian tradition. Bender introduces the first essay with the claim that “no theologian of the twentieth century was as responsible for restoring Scripture to the center of the theological enterprise as Karl Barth” (p. 145). In “The Canon as Theological Category: Bart Ehrman’s Questions to Scripture,” Bender evaluates Ehrman’s position on the canon and then compares him to Barth. He writes, “Ehrman has been quite open about his journey from evangelical faith to liberal agnosticism” (p. 238). In contrast, “Karl Barth had another famous conversion from the faith of his youth but he moved in a very different direction. Barth never had a real interest in strict Protestant views of inerrancy, but he moved away from the liberalism of his early years with his own kind of fervor” (pp. 238–39).
In “Barth and Baptists: A Fellowship of Kindred Minds,” Bender puts “the thought of Karl Barth into conversation with contemporary Baptist life” (p. 244). He observes that many Baptists have focused on “Barth’s rejection of infant baptism and his embrace of believer’s baptism” (pp. 244-45). He argues that Barth’s view of baptism cannot be isolated from the rest of his thought but must be placed within his “larger framework of an ethics of discipleship, a word near and dear to Baptists” (p. 245). He concludes, “In Barth we see a truly unparalleled focus on Jesus Christ, a truly christocentric theology at work, with a firm commitment to the Holy Scripture as the unparalleled authority for the church’s faith and confession, and with an emphasis on proclamation and preaching as central to the church’s worship and practice, all within a theology dedicated to service to the church that focuses on themes of witness and discipleship” (p. 249).
A final essay in this section deals with “Karl Barth and the Question of Atheism.” Even though Barth was unaware of the arguments made by the “new atheists” of this century, Bender argues, “He wrote of an atheism of his time but presciently of an atheism now present with us, and perhaps one that is increasingly uneasy of its inherent deficiencies” (p. 277). He writes, “If Barth’s first response to atheism was a positive declaration of the richness of God’s revelation in Christ, then his second response was a withering word of judgment that seeks to expose atheism’s pride in its freedom from God but naïve slavery to other unrecognized gods” (p. 278).
The final section, “Christ and Creation,” focuses on how Christology and the doctrine of creation are related. According to Bender, for Barth, “Creation and Christology are thus intricately tied together because Christ is the Subject of both creation and incarnation. Furthermore, the relation between God and creation is itself established and revealed in God’s eternal election to be God for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, creation can only be understood in the light of Christ and redemption” (p. 304). An essay on Barth’s rejection of natural theology and another on Schleiermacher’s Christology conclude this section.
This collection of essays will be helpful for any evangelical theologian or historian interested in understanding the influence and impact of Karl Barth on theology in this century. One need not be an expert in Barth to gain valuable insights from Bender’s work. This Barthian scholar has made Barth’s work accessible to a larger audience and has thereby given a valuable gift to the nonspecialist.
About the Contributors
Glenn R. Kreider
Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and spending time together and with their rescue dogs—a terrier/greyhound mix named Chloe and a black lab named Carlile.