2007 Karl Barth Conference Recap

The second annual 2007 Karl Barth Conference finished yesterday here at Princeton Seminary. The title of the conference was “Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?” There were excellent papers by some of the top evangelical and Barthian scholars in the world. In lieu of a thorough summary of each paper, I will simply identify the best papers.

Best Paper: Keith Johnson, “The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology”

Keith Johnson’s paper got everything right: it was a thorough engagement with Barth’s ecclesiology (focusing on the concursus dei) that addressed a contemporary problem (Francis Beckwith’s conversion) in light of a recent critique of Barth (Reinhard Hütter). Johnson succeeded in showing why Hütter’s critique misfires and why Beckwith’s reasons for conversion to Catholicism indicate the failure of evangelicalism to develop a robust ecclesiology. Johnson shows that Barth’s theology of the being and action of the church, rooted in the relation between divine and human action, refutes Hütter’s criticisms and undermines Beckwith’s reasons for leaving Protestantism.

Most Ambitious Paper: John Hare, “Kant, Barth, and the Predisposition to Good”

John Hare shot for the moon and hit the target! Barth’s appropriation of Kant’s philosophy is well known, but until this paper, I had never heard a detailed examination of Kant’s philosophy in connection with an examination of Barth’s reading of Kant. Hare began by examining the criticisms that Cornelius Van Til leveled against Barth in terms of his reliance upon Kant. Hare proceeded to offer a rigorous interpretation of Kant showing how Van Til’s criticisms of Kant were entirely off the mark. Then Hare analyzed Barth’s own reading of Kant in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century and demonstrated that Barth criticized Kant for the very same reasons that Van Til criticized him. Barth and Van Til, according to Hare, were actually allies in their opposition to Kant, not enemies. The problem, he went on to say, is that they were both wrong about Kant! In the end, Barth’s limited Yes to Kant in this essay anticipated the new interpretations of Kant that have recently recognized how favorable Kant’s philosophy actually is to theology. Hare thus concluded by praising Barth for understanding Kant better than anyone else of his time, but he stressed that Kant was a better theologians than either Barth or Van Til gave him credit for being.

Most Helpful Paper: Kimlyn Bender, “
The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism – Conversations across the Aisle”

Kimlyn Bender presented the most accessible and helpful paper at the whole conference. He was the only one to offer a succinct description of American evangelicalism, and it was probably the best I have ever heard or read. He then proceeded to identify the central features of Barth’s ecclesiology in terms of where Barth would critique evangelicals, where Barth might contribute to evangelical understandings of the church, and where Barth is in agreement with evangelicals. His paper was beautifully
organized and very well presented. If I had to recommend one paper to a general audience, it would be this one.

Most Promising Paper: Bruce L. McCormack,
“That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism”

McCormack’s paper is the most promising for a few different reasons: (1) he did not have a chance to read it all because of its length, so it will likely be a much better paper in print; (2) a large majority of the paper was devoted to his own constructive exegesis of Paul rather than exegesis of Barth, in which he explained how Paul’s own letters have a clear universalistic horizon that classical theologies (whether Reformed or Arminian) generally silence; and (3) his paper had one of the more interesting theses. His thesis had a few different levels: first, the Bible is much more universalistic than past Christians have been willing to acknowledge; second, the tension within Scripture is a divinely ordained tension that must be maintained in church dogma (thus churches go too far if they present limited atonement or universalism—the only real options—as dogma); and third, theologians who seek to explicate the doctrines of the faith in a more logical way should be allowed to smooth out some of these edges in a direction that favors universalism. He spent the most time arguing for the first part of his thesis. In the second part, he explained that the tension is divinely ordained because we are sinful humans. If the Bible definitely told us that all would be saved, we would fall into complacency; and if the Bible definitely told us that only some would be saved, we would fall into despair. Instead, the biblical witness presents an eschatological vision that has a clear universal horizon but refuses to determine the end of the story for us in advance of Christ’s return. For now, we must live within the biblical tension while allowing universalism to be a real theological option that actually makes better sense of Scripture than the alternatives. In the long run, I think this paper may prove to be the most important, but McCormack gave it in an incipient form that awaits further expansion and development.

Most Exciting Paper
: Kevin Hector, “
Ontological Violence and the Covenant of Grace: An Engagement between Karl Barth and Radical Orthodoxy”

Kevin Hector went for the jugular in his criticism of R.O., and it proved to be a theological tour de force. His paper had two parts: the first explored the problem of R.O.’s ontology and the second demonstrated how Barth’s covenant ontology accomplishes what R.O. seeks to do without committing any of the problems that R.O. inevitably does. According to Hector, R.O. seeks to ground ontological peace in the particularity of the Christian account of the world, specifically in the triune being of God as the source of a non-totalizing, non-nihilistic, original peace. Any reality or narrative not directly grounded in this explicitly Christian account is considered totalizing and nihilistic. R.O. holds three main views, according to Hector: (1) Christianity alone overcomes violence; (2) there is no grace not mediated by the church, nothing good outside of a direct reference to the Christian gospel; and (3) the church must universalize its narrative and thus out-narrate all competing narratives. As a result of these views, in its pursuit of ontological peace, R.O. ends up committing great violence to all competing narratives. Hector identifies a common pattern in R.O.: (a) identify a competing narrative, (b) assert the nihilism inherent in this competing view, and (c) bring in Christian neo-Platonism to save the day. R.O. thus consistently reduces all other views to the category of non-being; it is an inherently violent theological framework that disaffirms all competitors, reducing otherness to sameness, and removes difference in order to pursue peace. R.O. ends up becoming the totalizing force which it disparages. Hector thus argues that R.O. must either (i) abandon its violent approach to otherness, or (ii) abandon its claim to harmony. Against R.O., Hector argues that Barth provides a covenant ontology which (1) avoids the abstraction which forms the basis for R.O.’s ontological violence, and (2) harmonizes difference in a non-totalizing way, thus fulfilling what R.O. intends to accomplish but fails to in the end due to a flawed ontology. Barth posits a created sphere in which there is no secular space abandoned by God, no realm not graced by Christ. For Barth, unlike for R.O., we cannot assume that non-Christian narratives are not in some way referred to God. We cannot assume that alternative stories are by definition nihilistic. One’s action need not explicitly reference the triune God in order to be “good,” and even those actions and views that oppose God are themselves harmonized by the reconciling covenant of grace. In the end, while R.O. approaches difference with an a priori rejection of what opposes the Christian narrative, Barth’s covenant ontology approaches difference in the light of the covenant established by Jesus Christ.

Most Polemical Paper
: George Hunsinger, “Trinity and Election: Twelve Theses”

Hunsinger was unable to put together a paper for this conference (apparently because he was sick), so instead he offered his first public refutation of McCormack’s position on Trinity and election—a debate that has raged between McCormack, Molnar, Hector, Van Driel, and now Hunsinger. These theses were helpful in moving the debate forward somewhat, but they also highlighted where McCormack fundamentally disagrees with Hunsinger regarding Barth. These theses will supposedly appear in SJT next year along with a response from McCormack. I will refrain from comment until that time.

Most Disappointing Paper: Michael Horton, “
Does the Covenant Have a History? The Logos Asarkos in Karl Barth’s Christology”

I was expecting much more from Michael Horton. I knew he was going to be very critical of Barth, as an advocate for an infralapsarian double-predestination Reformed orthodoxy. But the paper came off as a rather inchoate attempt to understand Barth rather than a careful engagement with Barth’s theology. Horton’s basic criticism is that Barth’s theology collapses various realities into a singularity—time and eternity, election and reprobation, etc.—and thus fails to respect proper distinctions in theology. Horton’s paper was not very coherent, and he failed to provide a clear understanding of what Barth or evangelicals mean by the covenant or the Logos asarkos. Instead, he talked about these terms as if they were already defined on both sides and thus proceeded to discuss where he thinks Barth went wrong. During and after his talk, Horton made it very clear that he did not know if his reading of Barth was accurate, and afterwards McCormack and Hunsinger explained some areas where Horton was confused. I respect Horton a great deal as a theological thinker, and in light of his own work on covenant and Christology, I really expected much more from this paper. I certainly hope that the published version will be a substantial improvement in light of further dialogue with others on his paper.

Most Conspicuously Absent Paper: “The Word of God Is Living and Active: Toward a Renewed Understanding between Barth and Evangelicals on Inerrancy and the Threefold Word of God”

Surprisingly, at a conference on Barth and American evangelicals, there was no session or paper on the conflict between the two sides on the doctrine of Holy Scripture. The historical conflict arose in D. G. Hart’s paper, but there was no dogmatic attention to the question in light of Barth’s theology and the recent developments within evangelicalism on Scripture. The paper title above is just one of many that could have been given and probably should be given at some point. Perhaps the conference organizers avoided the topic in light of last year’s conference on reading Scripture with Karl Barth, in which the presenters examined how Barth views and exegetes the Bible. Even so, the omission of a paper comparing Barth and evangelicals on the Bible is a major gap in an otherwise superb conference.


Steve Martin said…
Do you know when / where these papers are going to be published? Are they or will they be available online?
D.W. Congdon said…
They will all be published in a book along with others I did not mention from the conference. It may take a couple years, but they'll be available eventually.
Halden said…
Hmm, I tried to post this yesterday, but I'll try again.

This sounds like it was a great conference. The essays by Johnson and Hector sound by far the most interesting to me. Bender's book it a pretty good treatment of Barth's ecclesiology, so I'm sure that paper was helpful as well.
Shane said…
i'd really like to take a look at the piece by Hare, although I remain deeply suspicious of Kant.

charlescameron said…
I was reading your comment about the most conspicuously absent paper. I've just finished writing a series of posts on "Berkouwer and Barth" in which I touch upon the matters you mentioned along with other issues raised by Barth's theology.
The full series ran to twelve articles. You can get to all the articles by clicking on Barth in the list of topics.
I have more material on Barth which may find its way on to the blog at some later point.
WTM said…
Good recap, David.

It did seem as though the disagreements about the doctrine of Scripture were ignored, but they were so because everyone recognizes that it is something of an impasse. Ignoring them during the conference helped, I imagine, in making dialogue about the other doctrinal loci more possible.
Christopher said…
David: Matt Milliner's blog, Millinerd, contained a link to this post. Has the 2007 Barth conference been turned into a book yet?
It's taken an inordinate amount of time, but the published version of this conference should appear, in theory, by the end of this year. I have been the student editorial assistant on the book, and we just submitted corrections to the page proofs this week. So the final product is on the horizon. The only remaining task is to create an index, which unfortunately has to be done manually. It looks like that task has fallen to me.