Psalmtweets 21-30

The third of the new psalmtweets posts. These tweets are part of a set of 150 which aim to define the Psalter with a contribution from each psalm.

Psalm 21:
The Psalms often speak of the King.
These words have taken on new significance in Christ.

Psalm 22:
The Psalms show how desperate need should be turned into desperate prayer.

Psalm 23:
The Psalms are elastic; their words become Word in diverse situations.

Psalm 24:
The Psalms are a prequel to the Gospel; let Jesus the King of glory in.

Psalm 25:
The Psalms tell us that though we walk with God we also have to wait on Him.

Psalm 26:
The Psalms show us the centrality of gathered community worship in the life of faith.

Psalm 27:
The Psalms emphasise that we can dwell with the living God, our sanctuary.

Psalm 28:
The Psalms reveal that Yahweh is a rock, but that He is not silent.

Psalm 29:
The Psalms instruct us about God’s word and its power.

Psalm 30:
The Psalms show us that continual thankfulness is a central plank of the life of faith.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 3

Barth’s Disdain for Discussing Hermeneutics
Some have dismissed Barth’s biblical ontology and gone no further. A central reason why Barth’s hermeneutics are poorly understood, or dismissed without any engagement, is that he made strenuous efforts to avoid discussing hermeneutics.[1] It is not, as some have claimed, that he makes ad hoc hermeneutical decisions that suit the moment;[2] at the outset we noted that as great a systematic thinker as Gadamer recognised Barth’s hermeneutical methodology as a coherent bombshell. It is rather that Barth’s hermeneutics give such centrality for the encounter with God, made possible by the Bible, that Barth sees any prolegomena that does other than start with the very being of God as disingenuous to the one God himself.[3]

At the heart of the understanding of Barth’s hermeneutics is the definition of hermeneutics itself. As Osborne points out there are two poles of meaning to ‘hermeneutics’. It can mean the principles of interpretation or ‘the act of appropriating a text’s “meaning” for one’s own situation’.[4] Much of the contemporary debate is focused on principles, whereas for Barth the centrality of the Act was more dominant. Given the priority of God in the Act of Revelation, Barth does not see fit to discuss or analyse this dynamic of hermeneutics.

Barth’s reaction to the marginalisation of God in Enlightenment and Romanticism influenced hermeneutics was to start with God as the only a priori. This led to ongoing criticism and misunderstanding.[5] Burnett provides a compelling guide to how these misunderstandings might have been less of an issue if Barth had published what remained draft prefaces to his Romans commentary.[6] He shows convincingly that Barth was very much aware of his hermeneutical approach (in terms of principles for interpretation) and how the unpublished prefaces make sense of what are only hints of his hermeneutics in published work of the time.

Barth’s principled opposition to Enlightenment-influenced hermeneutics continued throughout his life. Barth stubbornly resisted constant invitations to debate and discuss hermeneutical issues with contemporary theologians, for example, from those in the New Hermeneutic movement.[7]

Barth and the Historical Critical Method
Despite Barth’s unwillingness to engage in direct discussion of hermeneutics, key aspects of his hermeneutics are clear. His reaction to the Enlightenment’s effect on theology led to a challenge to the primacy of the historical critical method. In the preface to the first edition of his Romans commentary he clearly challenges those that give hegemony to the historical critical method, stating that: ‘. . . were I driven to choose between it [i.e. the historical critical method] and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification’.[8] This statement drew criticism from a host of scholars, such was the gulf between what Barth was seen to be advocating and those in the academy pursuing the diverse methods that constitute the historical critical method; though later in the Romans preface he says that he is no enemy of the historical critical method.[9]

For Barth the danger of wholesale adoption of the historical critical method was the adoption of the inherent presuppositions carried with it. The historical critical method calls for objectivity, for the reader to be impartial in deciding on a possible interpretation. Barth fundamentally opposes the possibility of such impartiality and does so from his 1915 turning point through to his death. For Barth there is the necessity of ‘reading in’ and ‘reading out’ of the Bible. This is not to be confused with more recent reader-response hermeneutics but rather the recognition that faith itself must be a hermeneutical key. In his words:

“The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall find in it as much as we seek and no more; high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if it is transitory and “historical” content that we seek –nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.”[10]

This is precisely why for Barth ‘there is no possibility of dogmatics at all outside the Church.’[11] Thus he halted his first dogmatics, the Christian Dogmatics (in 1927), in favour of the Church Dogmatics (first volume 1932). In this way Barth, it can be argued, stands in a trajectory of theologians who stress the necessity of a faith commitment for theological reflection: Gregory of Nazianus, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin and Schleiermacher.[12]

Barth was hostile to what might be termed anthropological starting points for hermeneutics. For example, Schleiermacher is famous for making use of empathy in his hermeneutics. A casual reading of Barth’s Romans preface might be taken to indicate Barth’s agreement with this ethos in that he wants to ‘become the author’.[13] Elsewhere, however, Barth denies the validity of an empathetic approach, instead he proposes the necessity to love and trust the author as a bridge to understanding the text.[14] Barth reverses the hermeneutic of suspicion into ‘one of trust’![15] Schleiermacher is famous for the notion that it is possible to understand an author better than he understood himself.[16] Barth’s aim is slightly less positivistic especially when some hyperbole is rightly recognised in his claim of becoming the author. This identification with the author is similar to Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’[17] which might be part of the explanation for Gadamer’s statement which was the point of departure for this essay.

For Barth the subject matter, context and substance of the Bible fundamentally dictate how it is to be handled.[18] Burnett helpful explores these three interrelated terms,[19] arguing that the original three German terms are, for Barth, effectively technical terms (Sachlicher, Inhaltlicher, Wesentlicher).[20] In short, recognition of the Bible as central to a loving God’s revelatory and redemptive plan speaks against historical criticism’s tendency to fragment the Bible.

Part 4 coming soon

[1] See, for example, Webster, Word, p.51.
[2] See, for example, Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.5, who cites an example.
[3] See Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.128 for the link between a doctrine of Scripture and a doctrine of God. See Gunton, Becoming, pp.127ff. for a concise exploration of the centrality of this theme in Barth.
[4] Osborne, Spiral, p.366.
[5] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.14-23.
[6] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, passim.
[7] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.33f.
[8] Barth, Romans, p.1.
[9] Barth, Romans, p.9
[10] Barth, New World, p.32.
[11] See CD I/1, p.17.
[12] See Gunton et al, Theology, pp.318-350 where Francis Watson and Robert Jenson are suggested as later thinkers in this trajectory.
[13] From the preface to the second edition, Barth, Romans, p.8.
[14] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.208ff.
[15] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.193.
[16] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.150-153.
[17] Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp.305ff.
[18] See Vanhoozer, First Theology, pp.215-216 for key comments on how form and matter are inseparable and also p.273 on so-called Anselmian hermeneutics, where the object dictates how it should be known.
[19] See Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.65-93. He argues that these three together represent ‘Karl Barth’s most important hermeneutical principle’, p.65.
[20] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, pp.65-94.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 2

Barth’s Break with Liberalism as Hermeneutical in Nature
Karl Barth’s break with the prevailing Liberal Protestantism of his ecclesial and educational context has been described as ‘the most important event that has occurred in theology in over two hundred years’.[1] Though some might question the singular magnitude of this assessment there is no disputing the scale of the personal shift made by Barth in 1915.[2] The factors that came together to effect this change in Barth’s thinking are numerous and complex in their biographical detail. However, three can helpfully be identified as central:

  1. A growing disenchantment with the ‘liberal gospel’ and in particular the efficacy of it when preached in his pastoral context.[3]
  2. The fact that the vast majority of both his theological teachers and other German academic theologians signed a letter in support of the war policy of the Kaiser.[4]
  3. The experience of God speaking as he studied Romans with his friend Thurneysen.[5]

For the purpose of this post it is important to emphasise that Barth’s change of theological direction was thoroughly hermeneutical in nature. As Gunton points out, the first two factors above are consequential on the failure of the historical critical method[6] to achieve unilaterally what its exponents had promised for ethics.[7] This is of central importance for Barth because he, firmly and consistently, did not separate theology from ethics.[8] The third point is related to the ‘discovery’ of the ‘venerable doctrine of Inspiration’,[9] which fundamentally challenged Barth’s ontology of the Bible and his epistemological framework. Barth put down his change of theological trajectory to a rediscovery of ‘the strange new world within the Bible’.[10]

Barth’s Trinitarian Schema of the Word of God
Barth’s doctrine of Revelation is famously Trinitarian in character, with the three forms of the Word of God standing at its heart:

  1. The Word of God preached.
  2. The Word of God written.
  3. The Word of God revealed.

This Trinitarian structure is based, in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, on an analogy with the Trinity[11] as well as an analogy with Anselm’s ‘three levels of rationality’[12]. It is easy to simplify Barth’s headline categories and remake them in a different sense to that intended by Barth. However, the fact that Barth works through this schema in some 36 pages in CD I/1 with a recapitulation and development in reverse order in some 884 pages in CD I/2 should warn against any hasty appropriation.

The Bible in Barth’s Schema of Revelation
Despite the dangers of abstracting a short summary of Barth’s view of the Bible this must be attempted before Barth’s biblical hermeneutics can be considered. Barth’s theology is commonly referred to as being dialectical. One aspect of Barth’s dialectical theology is the centrality (and consequences of) the huge gulf[13] between God and his creature, man[14]. The central consequence of this for Barth is that God is free and thus no understanding of the Bible is possible which constrains God.[15] The very nature of Revelation is that God speaks to man through an act.[16] It is God who ‘reveals Himself through Himself’.[17] Thus for Barth the Bible in itself is not Revelation in any direct ontological sense; God must act, there must be an event in which God, by his Spirit, reveals through the written word.[18] This means that Barth is hostile to the possibility of propositional truth being Revelation. Barth is thorough in seeing Revelation as about relationship between God and man, rather than information about God.[19]

Some sections of the Church have questioned Barth’s denial of verbal inerrancy.[20] For Barth, as much as the biblical authors are God’s chosen witnesses, their writings are still human and therefore subject to error.[21] Barth holds this in tension with the Bible as the key vehicle for Revelation from (in fact of) God.[22]

Gunton captures Barth’s doctrine helpfully:

“In scripture God’s event becomes God’s Word through human words. The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that he causes it to be God’s Word. Scripture is therefore, to Barth, a human word and can remain a human word unless God actually makes it a divine word.”[23]

 Part 3 coming soon.

[1] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.1.
[2] In this post McCormack’s analysis of Barth’s theological evolution will be assumed, i.e. that Barth had one break, in 1915, and then a gradual process of working through the theological consequences of this event. This is against von Balthasar’s ‘two break’ paradigm, see McCormack, Dialectical Theology, pp.1-14.
[3] See, for example, Torrance, Karl Barth, p.3 and Barth, Romans, p.9.
[4] See Barth, Schleiermacher, pp.263-264.
[5] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.35 and Torrance, Karl Barth, p.6.
[6] The term ‘historical critical method’ is used herein in a similar manner to that of, for example, Gunton, Revelation, p.4 and Watson, Text, p.3, as a singular concept embracing a plurality of methods.
[7] Gunton, Barth, p.24.
[8] See, for example, Biggar, Trinitarian Ethic, p.223.
[9] Barth, Romans, p.1.
[10] Watson, Bible, p.57.
[11] See CD I/1, p.121. See also CD I/1, pp.333-347.
[12] So Gunton, Barth, p.72.
[13] Barth hints at the centrality of this for his hermeneutics in the second preface to his Romans commentary, see Barth, Romans, p.10.
[14] The noun ‘man’ is used throughout as designating male and female as in Genesis 1:27, NIV.
[15] See, for example, Gunton, Becoming, pp.194-199.
[16] CD I/1, pp.125-186.
[17] CD I/1, p.296.
[18] CD I/1, pp.448-489.
[19] See Vanhoozer, for example, First Theology, p.134.
[20] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.133 helpfully contrasts Barth’s “indirect identity thesis” with Warfield’s “direct identity thesis”.
[21] See CD I/2, p.501 for Barth’s ‘two natures’ of the Bible.
[22] Vanhoozer, First Theology, p.136-137.
[23] Gunton, Barth, p.73.

Karl Barth’s Biblical Hermeneutics, Part 1

Introduction: Barth in his Context
It has been claimed that Gadamer said more than he realised when he suggested that ‘despite all his disaffection for methodological reflection, Barth’s Romans is a kind of hermeneutical manifesto’.[1] Precisely what he meant must remain open as he never elaborated on this in his lifetime.[2] During the course of these posts, two aspects of Gadamer’s statement will be explored. Firstly, the reason and nature of Barth’s disaffection for discussing hermeneutical method, which has often meant his marginalisation in our age in which so much is being said about hermeneutics. Secondly, the truth of Gadamer’s statement about the radical nature of Barth’s hermeneutics in his Romans commentary (and beyond) will be considered. However, before either of these matters can be adequately explored it is necessary to place Barth in his context lest the nature of his hermeneutical break with his age is missed or distorted.

It is a truism that all theologians need to be understood in the light of their historical context. Some have suggested that with Barth we should go further and see him as a contextual theologian.[3] What is clear is that Barth confronted his Enlightenment context head on.  For example, with regard to its claim for the necessity of presuppositionless theology and exegesis:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”[4]

Nevertheless Webster points out that: ‘If he dismantled modern Protestant theology as it developed in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he did so from the inside.’[5]

The Impact of the Enlightenment on the Doctrine of Revelation
The Protestant theology that Barth challenged had presuppositions that originated with the Enlightenment and Romanticism (a response to the former). These two ‘movements’ had an impact on the conception of, what had for some sixteen centuries of church history been essentially the unchallenged doctrine of Revelation.[6] Baillie explains this doctrine by pointing out that an intelligent medieval schoolboy would have been able to explain that there were two sources of information about God: rational reflection and Revelation.[7] Such a view was explained by Aquinas elegantly as an ascent by the use of reason (reflecting on creation) and descent (as revelation of divine truth from above).[8]

This binary epistemology was challenged soon after the Reformation. In short, as the Enlightenment developed, reason came to the fore at the expense of Revelation. It was Kant who was to take a final step in a trajectory favouring reason and demeaning Revelation, when he concluded that neither Reason nor Revelation can tell as about God.[9] Barth commends Kant for his consistency in following the trajectory to its logical conclusion, and living this out practically as he avoided involvement with institutional faith in a culture where Church was so much a part of life.[10]

Gunton helpfully divides the choices of German Protestantism post-Kant into three rival frameworks: (i) fundamentally Kantian, (ii) extensions to Kant, (iii) alternatives to Kant.[11] Ritschl, for example, essentially followed Kant’s conclusions. In agreeing with Kant, that neither reason or Revelation are options to find out about God, he adopted an historical approach to the life of Jesus in an attempt to recover Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching. The second response to Kant is typified in Schleiermacher, who saw Kant’s ‘reducing life to only physics and ethics’[12] as a misrepresentation of the very nature of human beings. For Schleirmacher religious feeling, famously termed a ‘feeling of utter dependence’,[13] is the vital link which brings physics and ethics together. In this way Schleiermacher typifies Romanticism’s reaction to Enlightenment intellectualism. The third response, which can be represented by Hegel, attempted to integrate everything by reason.[14]

In short, and in the light of these three categories, Barth’s doctrine of Revelation is an alternative to Hegel, which opposes Schleiermacher but takes Kant seriously. Barth accepts Kant’s point that theology is about Revelation but rejects Kant’s thoroughgoing scepticism about the possibility of Revelation.[15] Though importantly Barth is truly post-Kant, there is no going back to a pre-critical understanding of Revelation.

Part 2 will follow shortly.

[1] So Vanhoozer, Book, p.53 reflecting on Gadamer, Truth and Method, p.510.
[2] Burnett, Theological Exegesis, p.4.
[3] So Gorringe, Hegemony, pp.16-19 who argues that Barth had such a self-understanding.
[4] Barth CD I/2, p.469. See also CD IV/3.ii, p.821.
[5] Webster, Barth, p.15.
[6] Hart, Revelation, p.37 defines revealed as ‘something disclosed or given to be known to someone which apart from the act of revealing would remain hidden, disguised or unknown’. Throughout this essay Revelation follows this definition, where something is being revealed about and/or by God, hence the capitalisation.
[7] Baillie, Revelation, p.3.
[8] Baillie, Revelation, p.4.
[9] See, for example, Gunton, Barth, p.54.
[10] Barth, Nineteenth Century, pp.253-254.
[11] Gunton, Barth, pp.13-17.
[12] Gunton, Barth, p.15.
[13] See, for example, Barth, Schleiermacher, p.253 and Barth CD II/1, p.270.
[14] So Gunton, Barth, pp.16-17.
[15] So Gunton, Barth, p.51. See Barth, Nineteenth Century, pp.252-298.

Psalmtweets: psalms 11-20

This is the second post for my latest round of psalmtweets. The aim is that each tweet is faithful to a key aspect of a specific psalm, as well as pointing to a broader dynamic of the Psalter. This ‘design’ is an attempt to mirror the nature of the Psalter, in that individual psalms come together in a synergy which makes a greater whole.

Psalm 11:
The Psalms speak of a glorious future when we will see Yahweh’s face.

Psalm 12:
The Psalms explore the positive efficacy of Yahweh’s words and the destructive negativity of humanity’s speech.

Psalm 13:
The Psalms show that the life of faith is about relationships; with Yahweh, with His people and with our enemies.

Psalm 14:
The Psalms have harsh words for those of God’s people who do not live up to His instruction.

Psalm 15:
The Psalms speak of the need for clean hands. In Christ our hands are made clean.

Psalm 16:
The Psalms help us along the path; in God’s presence there is fullness of joy.

Psalm 17:
The Psalms tell us that we are the apple of God’s eye.

Psalm 18:
The Psalms give us language for personal prayer and corporate worship.

Psalm 19:
The Psalms tell us that both creation and Scripture testify to the glory and righteousness of Yahweh.

Psalm 20:
The Psalms need to be reread. For example, the name of our Lord Jesus is not found there. But He can be found there.

What’s in a Name: Psalter or ‘the Psalms’

The words psalm and Psalter derive from the Greek word, psalmos, which refers to the playing of stringed instruments in support of singing. In the Septuagint translation of the Psalms this word translates the Hebrew word mizmor, which means a song accompanied by music. The Psalter tends to be referred to in Hebrew by the term tehillim which originated from the verbal root for praise (hll). Thus, Sefer Tehillim, used in Rabbinic literature means book of praises.

In the English language, the 150 songs and poems that we find in the Bible are known as ‘the book of Psalms, shortened to ‘the Psalms’ or alternatively as the Psalter. In many modern church contexts the term Psalter is either seen as redundant or archaic. Yet is has something to commend it. Its singular meaning has the benefit of emphasising the unity and wholeness of this collection of 150 songs/poems. Why is this important? Until recently scholarship tended to see the psalms as individual compositions, the canonical order of which was inconsequential. However, more recently it has become apparent in scholarly circles that this collection is ordered and organised with intent. This scholarly move has simply rediscovered what many people of faith have appreciated for more than two millennia, that there is purpose here; the Psalter has a beginning, a developing ‘story’ and an end.

With this in mind I think the word Psalter has much to commend it in reflecting what the Psalter actually is. The longer term ‘the book of Psalms’ conveys the unity but in a more cumbersome manner. The shorthand ‘Psalms’ inadvertently highlights plurality. The term Psalter coheres with the value of the individual psalms as Scripture as it echoes, not just their individual value but also, the thought and purpose that went into collecting and ordering them. In this way the word Psalter, despite its conciseness fits with the remarkable claim, that these 150 songs and poems are Scripture. As Scripture they are in some sense complete and definitive.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 6

In this last post of six we draw some conclusions regarding Gutiérrez’s spirituality.

Conclusions: Strengths, Weaknesses and Legitimacy

With regard to biblical interpretation, Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians should be commended for some of their insights into socio-political aspects of Scripture. However, Gutiérrez’s prior commitment to critical reflection on the plight of the poor produces a ‘vicious’ hermeneutical circle which is anything but critical. In making the text secondary to modern socio-political context in the interpretive process marginalises the other dynamics of Scripture. Thus Gutiérrez moves to the opposite extreme of those who he criticises for over-spiritualising the claims of God’s action for humankind; he over-materialises the work of God. Gutiérrez is not alone in this, but contrary to contextual and materialistic theology’s claim to legitimacy in the light of the hermeneutical circle, such approaches tend to produce thin interpretations because they reflect back preunderstanding rather than understanding.

We can therefore conclude that Gutiérrez’s commitment to the poor, prior to Scriptural engagement is problematic. We have, however, also noted that there is a strong case for Scripture presenting a ‘preferential option for the poor’. This principle cannot, however, legitimately carry the epistemological freight that Gutiérrez gives it. This is not to suggest that the Western Church has fully taken up the call of Scripture in tackling the ethical and socio-economic issues that all too often ensure the poverty and suffering of so large a portion of the world’s population. Nor can we suggest that mission to the poor and marginalised has always been appropriately contextualised.

Whilst Marxist social analysis demonstrates clearly that the plight of so many of the world’s poor is a product of the economics promoted by the richest nations, it carries other aspects of association which are undesirable such as the singular focus on socio-political matters which when used as an interpretive lens leave other dynamics out of focus. A critical analytical tool needs itself to be self-critical.

Gutiérrez’s spirituality unfortunately, and unwittingly, falls into a trap of a very different theology, the so-called prosperity gospel. Both promise too much in the now. All too often the Western Church has tended to the opposite extreme, accepting the status quo uncritically and making biblical hope only a future hope that has made both these alternatives so popular. A biblical spirituality needs to do justice to the dynamic breadth of salvation which includes social justice as a dynamic of mission. Biblical spirituality is not based on a movement entirely within history with man as its agent; rather, it is a future hope which breaks into the present by the God of grace equipping his servants.

Gutiérrez argues that theology and spirituality should be coherent with one another and we commend this wholeheartedly. For Gutiérrez both theology and spirituality are also lived out, they are practical rather than internal and/or passively reflective. This spirituality echoes the challenge of the prophets in that they didn’t chide any lack of theoretical theology but rather the lack of a lived theology that failed the orphan, widow and stranger (see, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17-20). In this way Gutiérrez’s life and message are a profound prophetic challenge to us.



Barth, Karl, The Word of God and the Word of Man, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1928.

Biggar, Nigel, ‘Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic’, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 212-227.

Birch, Bruce C., Brueggemann, Walter, Fretheim, Terence E. and Peterson, David L. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, second edition, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Bosch, David, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991.

Brueggemann, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament Theology: testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Burnett, Richard E., Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The hermeneutical principles of the Römerbrief period, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Colwell, John E., Living the Christian Story: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.

Cone, James H., Black Theology and Black Power, New York: The Seabury Press, 1969.

Escobar, Samuel, ‘Liberation Theologies and Hermeneutics’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005, 454-455.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, second revised edition, London: Continuum, 2004.

Gerstenberger, Erhard S., Theologies in the Old Testament, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.

Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, The Power of the Poor in History: Selected Writings, London: SCM, 1983.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, revised edition, London: SCM, 1988.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, The God of Life, London: SCM Press, 1991.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, Las Casa: In Search of the Poor of Christ, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo, ‘The Task and Content of Liberation Theology’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 19-38.

Hebblethwaite, Peter, ‘Liberation Theology and the Roman Catholic Church’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 179-198.

Jackson, Tim, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, London: Earthscan, 2009.

Kapolyo, Joe, ‘Social Transformation as a Missional Imperative: Evangelicals and Development since Lausanne’, in David Hilborn (ed.), Movement for Change: Evangelical Perspectives on Social Transformation, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004, 133-146.

Kümmel, W. G., Promise and Fulfilment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus, London: SCM Press, 1957.

Marshall, I. Howard, ‘Eschatology at the Heart of New Testament Theology’, in Stephen Holmes and Russell Rook (eds.), What Are We Waiting For? Christian Hope and Contemporary Culture, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2008, 35-47.

Muskus, Eddy José, The Origins and Early Development of Liberation Theology in Latin America: With Particular Reference to Gustavo Gutiérrez, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002.

Myers, Ched, Binding the Strong Man, twentieth anniversary edition, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008.

Newbigin, Leslie, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, London: SPCK, 1995.

Rowland, Christopher and Corner, Mark, Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

Segundo, Juan Luis, The Liberation of Theology, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977.

Thiselton, Anthony C., The Two Horizons: New Testament and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 1980.

Thiselton, Anthony C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Thiselton, Anthony C., Hermeneutics: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the reader and the morality of literary knowledge, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

West, Gerald, ‘The Bible and the Poor: A New Way of Doing Theology’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 129-152.

Williams, D. H., Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005.

Yates, Timothy, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 5

In this 5th post we consider the third and fourth principles of Gutiérrez’s spirituality that we identified in the 2nd post.

Can Socio-Critical Tools Produce ‘Critical Thinking’?

Having questioned the role of Marx’s concept of praxis in Gutiérrez’s spirituality we now turn to the use of socio-critical tools such as Marxist hermeneutical suspicion. Liberation theologies, including Gutiérrez’s, turned to Marxism because of its ability to unmask social injustice in socio-political systems. We can agree that aspects of Marxist analysis have made a compelling case that Capitalist economics tends to increase the gap between rich and poor both between the nations and within the nations.[1] Gutiérrez, however, goes further because of the coincidence of vision between the socio-political Utopian goals of Marxism and his eschatological understanding.

This distinction between Marxism showing the injustices of Capitalism and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis of history is an important one. The former raises precisely the questions that the Church has often not taken seriously enough, in particular the Roman Catholic Church in South America, which thus provided the context in which liberation theology was a voice of protest. Even at this level, however, its value is limited as there are plenty of voices in the West that admit that materialism and the Capitalist status quo produce social injustice.[2] The problem with social injustice is not lack of awareness of the problem but the willingness to change it (Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach again). Might a prophetic restatement of biblical views of social justice as a process of conscientization be a more legitimate than the proclamation of Marxist analysis with all its unhelpful baggage?

The possibility afforded by a fuller Marxist analysis of history brings us to the question of eschatology.

Is Gutiérrez’s Eschatology Biblical?

We have already seen that for Gutiérrez his spirituality is one that has the transformation of the world at its heart. We have seen that he speaks of the time, or kairos, frequently in his writings in a tone that can only be, and indeed probably is intentionally, eschatological. Elsewhere he speaks of signs and ‘painful birth’ which hint of this eschatological dynamic.[3] More explicitly he commends positively the ‘rediscovery’ of eschatology in the message of Jesus by Weiss and Schweitzer, although we should note his judgement that theirs was a false start.[4] What he commends is the recovery of the ‘now’ dynamic of eschatology.  For Gutiérrez the call of liberation theology and the spiritual commitment to the poor is about transforming society so that it is just, and this process is the eschatological enterprise of kingdom growth. He goes as far as equating history and salvation history.

Gutiérrez’s view stands in stark contrast to the heavenly focused spirituality of some theologies.[5] We would want to affirm that the sort of spiritualities that Gutiérrez derides were (and are) deficient. Gutiérrez’s spirituality goes however to the opposite extreme, it raises the hope that social justice for all is within our grasp and, more than that, that it is the poor themselves who need to achieve this end that they so desire. If Gutiérrez is wrong in his reading of the times, or has placed too strong an emphasis on what is achievable in the near future, then at best the hopes of the poor will be damaged and such disillusionment might harm their faith. At worst it could incite not liberation but revolution. Even if the end could justify such means we know that the history that Gutiérrez emphasises teaches us that revolution does not tend to deliver social justice in the long term, as oppressed become oppressor.

This brings us to the heart of the problem with Gutiérrez’ eschatology. Where is the work of God in New Creation? Where is the biblical anthropology of humankind’s weakness in the face of sin? Where is Christ in this picture? Gutiérrez speaks of a hope that overcomes death,[6] but can this be bought by political means, however deserving the agents of change? What Gutiérrez opts for is a ‘now’ eschatology in reaction against those that he perceives as ignoring social injustice because of their ‘not yet’ eschatology. Both of these appear to miss the richer biblical message of an eschatology which is a tension between these two dynamics of present and future fulfilment.[7]

We have come full circle in our critique of the four principles that form a helpful overview of Gutiérrez’s spirituality; the deficiency of Gutiérrez’s eschatology is a failure to read Scripture adequately. If we read Scripture with a focus on the plight of the poor and a Marxist analysis we see reflected back something rather similar. This is actually not surprising but all the more troubling when we note that as Newbigin puts it, Marxism ‘is a secularized version of the biblical hope’.[8]

In the next, and last post, we will make some concluding remarks and provide full bibliographic details of the works referred to in all six posts.

[1] Following, for example, Newbigin, Secret, p.111.

[2] Jackson, Prosperity, p.172.

[3] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.199.

[4] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.160.

[5] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.200.

[6] Gutiérrez, Theology, pp.203, 223.

[7] Kümmel, Promise, pp.141-155 famously championed this view and this has since been a dominant view in contemporary scholarship, see Marshall, Eschatology, p.39.

[8] Newbigin, Secret, p.104.

An Exploration of the Spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez Part 4

In this post we examine the second of the four themes of the spirituality of Gustavo Gutiérrez that we identified in the 2nd post.

What are the Implications of Placing Praxis Ahead of Text?

Given that liberation theology ‘evolved in protest against the inability in Western church and missionary circles, both Catholic and Protestant, to grapple with the problems of systematic injustice’[1] it is not surprising that the ‘poor’ should be central to its very nature. However, the resulting so-called ‘preferential option for the poor’[2] is strongly rejected by some scholars and theologians.[3]

Gutiérrez is not alone in placing the poor at the centre of his interpretive paradigm; the preferential option for the poor is a central plank of not only Latin American liberation theology but other contextual and materialist theologies too.[4] Solidarity with the poor, for Gutiérrez, means something far more dynamic than some other uses of the term might indicate. For Gutiérrez we have the concept of praxis operating here: ‘The praxis on which liberation theology reflects is a praxis of solidarity in the interests of liberation and is inspired by the gospel’.[5] Praxis is used in the Marxist sense, as typified in Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach that we have already referred to (see post 1), albeit with a biblical twist: ‘This liberating praxis endeavours to transform history in the light of the reign of God’.[6] Gutiérrez’s writings are full of references to praxis and his call for all believers to live out a spirituality which is active in living with the poor, indeed in actually being poor as an active choice. Gutiérrez has lived out this spirituality since returning from his education in Europe but this approach requires further justification than just a subjective empathy for the plight of the poor and Gutiérrez’s selfless commitment to them.

At some level it seems that Gutiérrez is ascribing revelatory status to the call to live and practice poverty. He continually invests the time of writing with an eschatological flavour by, for example, referring frequently to this being the kairos.[7] Furthermore, for Gutiérrez praxis is a first step, what he calls a critical reflection, ahead of Scripture as a second step. We have already seen that such an epistemological choice has the danger of providing hermeneutical closure to any complementary or broader themes to those of socio-political liberation. All this is despite Gutiérrez’s use of Anselm’s Proslogion[8] which is often paraphrased as Faith Seeking Understanding. Contra Gutiérrez we might argue that his is a Praxis Seeking Justification. Anselm’s point is surely that he brings to theological reflection (including his spiritual life) nothing other than openness to God. Is this really the same as a commitment to the poor? There isn’t anything wrong with a commitment to the poor but is this not a consequence of the gospel rather than an epistemological a priori? The danger is surely a narrowing of the gospel by making liberation praxis a locus theologicus.[9] To put it another way such praxis has replaced the Rule of Faith[10] by prejudicing orthopraxis over orthodoxy.[11]

In addition to this epistemological problem there is also an ontological one. Gutiérrez’s makes so much of his preferential option for the poor that when reading Gutiérrez there appears to be a sense in which it is poverty that saves rather than Christ. Now to be fair there are passages of Scripture, in particular in the Old Testament, which as Brueggemann puts it, are consistent with ‘something like’ a preferential option for the poor.[12] But Gutiérrez, despite protestations to the contrary, seems to tend to equate the poor with the saved and a praxis of solidarity as a very singular reflection of the scope of salvation presented in Scripture. This is not to suggest that Gutiérrez’s conception of salvation is necessarily shallower than some in the Western tradition[13] but that both can learn from each other if a sounder hermeneutical circle, which questions presuppositions, is employed.

[1] Bosch, Transforming, p.432.

[2] The term was coined a the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico in 1979, see Bosch, Transforming, p.435 and Gutiérrez, Theology, p.17.

[3] See for example Muskus, Origins, pp.266ff.

[4] See, for example, Myers, Binding, pp.5-7 and his call to recognise the Locus Imperium and the need to listen to the ‘margins’ and Cone, Black, p.117 for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ of black people as ‘the point of departure for all God-talk’.

[5] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.

[6] Gutiérrez, Theology, p.22.

[7] For example see Gutiérrez, Theology, p.9, Gutiérrez, Wells, p.8 and Gutiérrez, Life, pp.100-101.

[8] See Gutiérrez, Theology, p.27 and Gutiérrez, Wells, p.36.

[9] So Muskus, Origins, p.15.

[10] On the function, inevitability and importance of a Rule of Faith see Williams, Tradition, pp.117-120.

[11] So Muskus, Origins, p.16.

[12] So Brueggemann, Theology, pp.144 and 422.

[13] See, for example, Kapolyo, Transformation, pp.135ff. who argues that Western Evangelicals are have made social action an optional extra because of their affluent context.

Psalmtweets: psalms 1-10

I have been composing a daily tweet on a psalm for over two years now. These tweets are in canonical order and I am now on journey number 6. I have made #psalmtweets a spiritual discipline as part of my daily devotions. In the current journey of tweets I am attempting to let the Psalms speak for themselves about what they are and what they do. Here are the first 10 from voyage 6:

Psalm 1:
The Psalms are a day and night meditative prayer school.

Psalm 2:
The Psalms explore the kingship of Yahweh and his anointed son.

Psalm 3:
The Psalms express absolute trust in Yahweh as a protective shield.

Psalm 4:
The Psalms give us words to call on Yahweh and reassurance that he hears us.

Psalm 5:
The Psalms show us that Yahweh cares about how others treat us. We can, and should, talk to Him.

Psalm 6:
The Psalms reveal that sometimes we must wait for Yahweh’s deliverance.

Psalm 7:
The Psalms help us reflect and confess by enriching our prayer vocabulary.

Psalm 8:
The Psalms celebrate Yahweh as Creator; they help us worship Him and delight in Creation.

Psalm 9:
The Psalms continually reflect on Yahweh who rules from Zion; a God who dwells with His people.

Psalm 10:
The Psalms teach us about both Yahweh’s faithfulness and the fickleness of His creatures.