The Barth / von Kirschbaum Letters

Karl Barth and Charlotte von KirschbaumRoutledge doth tweeteth

The correspondence between Christian theologian #KarlBarth & Charlotte von Kirschbaum: #freeaccess article:

Enjoy, Barthian sycophants.

In this contribution, Susanne Hennecke considers the theological meaning of biographies on the basis of the correspondence between Christian theologian Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum as it has been edited by Rolf-Joachim Erler in 2008. After a brief introduction into this correspondence, she divides her article into three parts, namely a biographical-historical part, a complementary biographical part, in which she examines the autobiographical material of the correspondence with regard to the self-manifestation of the relationship between the correspondents and a systematic-theological part, in which she examines in four sub-items the correspondence for the theological self-interpretations of the relationship contained therein.


christosisAmid increasing interaction between Eastern and Western theologians, several recent biblical interpreters have characterized Paul’s soteriology as theosis, or deification, harking back to patristic interpretations of Paul. In this book Ben C. Blackwell critically evaluates that interpretation as he explores the anthropological dimension of Paul’s soteriology.

Blackwell first examines two major Greek patristic interpreters of Paul — Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria — to clarify what deification entails and to determine which Pauline texts they used to support their soteriological constructions. The book then focuses on Paul’s soteriology expressed in Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 3-5 (with excursuses on other passages) and explores how believers embody Christ’s death and life, his suffering and glory, through the Spirit. Blackwell concludes by comparing the patristic view of deification with Paul’s soteriology arising from the biblical texts, noting both substantial overlap and key differences.

Eerdmans have sent a review copy.  Unfortunately, try as I might, I cannot truly recommend this volume for one overwhelming methodological reason: the author, after ‘setting the stage’ in his first chapter (in which he divulges the history of research of the question which occupies him; i.e., deification) moves not to investigate Paul’s understanding of the deification of Christ but rather how a few of the Church Fathers understood Paul’s understanding of deification.  He, naturally, has his reasons for doing so and he spends a good amount of time telling us why he’s following a sensible and coherent methodology to do it.  But he fails to convince.

The subtitle of the volume would lead potential readers to believe that the topic will be examined by first carefully ‘engaging Paul’s soteriology’ and only then, once that’s been done, ‘with his Patristic Interpreters’.  In point of fact, the subtitle more properly should be ‘Examining Paul’s Soteriology Primarily through the Lens of Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria’.

The volume’s error lies in the belief that Irenaeus and Cyril got Paul right.  Perhaps they did, or perhaps they didn’t, but in point of methodological fact one really has to give pride of place to Paul’s own works and only then turn to the Fathers to see how they have understood him rather than the other way around.

Mind you, Blackwell is a good, a very good writer.  Unpleasant as it is to admit, his writing lacks the power to persuade simply and primarily because the foundation of his argument is the roof of the structure.  In short, he has everything exactly turned on its head.

To his credit, he has persuaded at least a few notables of the rightness of his cause.  John Barclay literally glows in his praise of the work in his really informative Foreword.  But he also, intentionally or not, points out the premier flaw of the volume in the very first sentence of his effervescent look ahead:

Blackwell’s Christosis is a bold and highly successful experiment in the effort to read Paul not only with, but even through, his patristic interpreters (p. xvi).

Barclay’s right, it is bold and it is an experiment and it is an effort to read Paul through the lens of his patristic interpreters.  And that’s why it just doesn’t work as an examination of Paul’s thought.  The deck is stacked.  The outcome is predetermined.

To be sure, ‘Reception History’ is an amazingly fruitful field of investigation and this volume is precisely that.  But when reception history is the focus and the exposition of a theologian like Paul’s thought is seen through its eyeballs, then we don’t hear Paul.  We hear people talking about Paul.  It’s as though we’ve returned to 1919 and Karl Barth’s really idosyncratic reading of Romans where we get all Barth and no Paul.  It’s as if we have moved back in time to eisegetical impulses where the biblical authors are ignored and their words only used as springboards for the thought of the present ‘interpreter’.  Eisegesis, it seems, has returned and taken the field of battle in a coup against more reasonable methodological approaches.

Accordingly, Blackwell’s approach will please many.  It just didn’t and doesn’t me.  And when Blackwell does finally get around to talking about Paul (in chapter 5, 117 pages in), the well is already tainted.  The case is already closed.  Paul now serves as mere window dressing for the readings of Paul already predetermined by Irenaeus and Cyril.  Irenaeus and Cyril have told us what Paul thought and Paul has been, in essence, shouted down by them.

Finally, one last annoyance reared its ugly head at the end of the volume where Blackwell assembled his bibliographic material.  Under the first heading he lists what he calls ‘Primary Sources’ and then every item listed under this category is not a primary source but a translation in either English or French of ancient Greek and Latin sources.  Primary sources are sources in the language of the theologian or historian who wrote the material.  Translations are never, ever primary sources they are always and forever secondary sources.  If one called the Bible in English a primary source one would be wrong.  One is also wrong to call a translation of any of the Church Fathers a primary source too.

Luther once took a book Melanchthon had written and had it published without the latter’s permission.  In commending it to readers, Luther wrote

For this book itself will boast that Philip is truthful and wise, unless Christ whom he breathes and teaches is not the Truth and Wisdom. For he himself may choose to be, and be called, a fool along with Christ. And would that we, too, were such fools along with them, so that we might boast: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” [1 Cor. 1:25].

I wish with all my heart that I could write the same sort of thing of Blackwell’s book that Luther wrote in that first line of Melanchthon’s.   Alas…

A Bit of the Backstory to Zwingli’s Call to Zurich

ulrich-zwingli-briefmarkeStrong as was the sentiment in Zurich in favor of Zwingli, there were not wanting those who from the start opposed his election. A personality so aggressive could not fail to make enemies. Many hated him because of his views on the subject of foreign pensions; others whose sympathies were thoroughly Roman suspected his loyalty to the Church, and caught a faint vision of what his coming to Zurich would mean. The opposition, though bitter and determined, because of the fewness of their numbers despaired from the start of accomplishing anything.

As soon as it was known that Zwingli was under consideration several candidates were put forward for the place, and among them one Lawrence Fable, who preached a sermon in the Great Minster, and of whom the report was circulated that he had been chosen. Zwingli at first was inclined to credit the report. Hitherto he had appeared quite indifferent to what was occurring at Zurich. The knowledge that unworthy persons were seeking to supplant him seems to have acted as a stimulus. At any rate, he now became interested to the extent of writing to Myconius in regard to his prospects.

In a letter under date of December 2, 1518, assuming the truthfulness of the report with respect to Fable, he says, “Well! I know the significance of popular applause. A Swabian preferred to a Swiss! Truly, a prophet is without honor in his own country.” Myconius in reply the next day removes his false apprehension. “Fable will remain a fable; for they have learned that he is father of six boys and holds I know not how many livings.”

He then proceeds to assure him of the number and strength of his friends, and of his own unceasing activity in his behalf. He does not conceal from him the doings of his enemies, and mentions certain charges that were being circulated against his character. “Although there is no one,” he says, “but praises your teachings to the skies, there are certain to whom your natural aptitude for music appears to be a sin, and thence infer that you are impure and worldly.”

Again, he assures him that he has great reason to hope. “It is right that you should take courage and not despair. Even the canons who are opposed to you predict to themselves that you will be the next preacher.” He closes with the exhortation, “Hope on, for I hope.”

The election took place on the 11th of December, 1518, and Zwingli was chosen by a large majority. This event caused great rejoicing among his friends, except those at Einsiedeln, for whom it was a matter of the keenest regret. The administrator of the Abbey, Baron Geroldseck, whose relationship with Zwingli had ripened into the warmest of friendships, was especially affected. Even the council of the canton were impressed to the extent of transmitting to Zwingli a letter of regret couched in the most respectful terms.1

1Simpson, S. Life of Ulrich Zwingli: The Swiss Patriot and Reformer (pp. 71–73).