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Barth, the church, and the world

As many of you all know, the Karl Barth Conference is currently going on and it sounds like a great time. WTM has some comments posted about it and hopefully more are to come. In the meantime, for those of us unable to make it out to Princeton, here is an excerpt from the conclusion of Nate Kerr’s paper which was presented yesterday at the conference, entitled “Das Ereignis der Sendung: The Word of God, Apocalyptic Transfiguration, and the ‘Special Visibility’ of the Church”:

Thus, the way properly to consider “the church” and “the world” is not in terms of “inside” and “outside,” of “inclusive” and “exclusive,” but in terms of “in Christ” and “in itself.”  We could put it this way:  The church is indeed the world where the reign of God is breaking out and is made visible as such.  The church is still the world, but it is the world participating in the kenotic, self-giving love of God in Christ.  The world is no longer “in itself” but is now itself reconciled to God “in Christ.”  A world that is curved in upon itself, that is delusively “in itself,” is “the world” in the negative Johannine sense.  So, the church does not exclude the world, but is the world “in Christ.”  Also, the church does not include the world, but rather the church happens as the perpetual opening of the world to the coming kingdom of God.  The world “in-itself” has been overcome and is a delusionary abstraction; but precisely as such the church cannot think of itself as a reality that exists “in itself” as over-against “the world.”  And this is precisely what makes the church the church:  it is that community which is given to live unreservedly for and as the world reconciled to God in Christ.  And precisely therein is the church obedient to the Word of God and so rendered visible in a way no given world-historical entity, including the empirical church, could ever pretend to be, in-itself.


  1. Rob L wrote:

    Just saw the tagline. I’m not sure how you’re a ‘gadfly’… everything seems pretty standard, really.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    I am strongly tempted to respond to this quotation, Halden, but I will resist as I don’t want to start that discussion all over again.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  3. ken oakes wrote:

    Dogmatically speaking, I’m tempted to think that the contrast between ‘in itself’ and ‘in christ’ should bear as little doctrinal weight as possible (even if it is still necessary at certain, limited points). This is mainly because this contrast contains such a potential to become some crazy idealist generating machine. The ‘world in itself’? When and where, if ever, did the ‘world in itself’ exist? If the response is ‘well, that’s the point, it’s an abstraction!’ then it becomes some negative epistemological point from which to generate my metaphysics anyways. Talk of the world in itself vs. the world in christ seems too likely to start creating different realities and worlds that no one really inhabits, but that are helpful for various (idealist) dialectical purposes. (Indeed, I think the limitatins of this contrast are readily apparent in the earlier sections of CD II/1).

    Aesthetically speaking, too much talk of ‘the world (dramatic pause) in itself,’ starts to remind me of talk of the world (dramatic pause) of warcraft.

    That being said, I still like many of the intuitions of the passage; I just think they´d be better with ‘less in itself, in christ’ contrast.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  4. I’m with Brad A. All the same concerns still hold for this quote.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  5. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I think it might help if Nate were to comment upon this paragraph from Yoder’s The Royal Priesthood (from the chapter titled, appropriately enough, “The Otherness of the Church,” 54–64):

    “We begin by seeking to isolate the concepts ‘church’ and ‘world’ in their pre-Constantinian significance. ‘World’ (aion houtos in Paul, kosmos in John) signifies in this connection not creation or nature or the universe but rather the fallen form of the same, no longer conformed to the creative intent. . . . Over against this ‘world’ the church is visible; identified by baptism, discipline, morality, and martyrdom. It is self-evident for the early centuries as a part of this visibility of the fellowship of disciples that the church’s members do not normally belong in the service of the world and a fortiori in that of the pagan state.”

    Under this particular way of exegeting the terms, the church must in fact exist over against “the world.” So we could say: Hauerwas’s “church” can only serve Nate’s “world” by being against Yoder’s “world.” All of which gives the impression that we’re dealing with semantic confusion.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  6. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I’m going to have to wait until I get home to be able to look at this quote in context. But the ways in which I would be critical of Yoder’s identification of the church here should be able to be discerned on the basis of my critique of Yoder on pp. 169ff. of my book. My suspician is that Yoder is allowing a certain ideological (in this case “pre-Constantinianism”) empirical identification of the church “by” these practices actually to determine both the way in which he is conceptualizing the “world” and his interpretation of Scripture here, rather than the apocalypse of Jesus Christ to which this Scripture witnesses.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  7. Billy Daniel wrote:

    This is beginning to sound like an anti-lockean approach to theology. How is the church at once a participant in divine kenosis yet absolutely non-empirical? Does this not deny participation? Sounds at once gnostic and nestorian.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 4:53 am | Permalink
  8. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Thanks for this Nate. I hope you’re enjoying the Barth conference at PTS, and I look forward to reading the entire lecture.

    This comment and what I’ve re-read on 169ff. don’t help ease my sense that we’re dealing largely with semantic confusion. Yoder stipulates what he’s going to mean by church and world in the essay I cite. You want to stipulate alternative meanings. I suspect that the differences flow largely from this alternative set of stipulations. One response might be that these are not stipulations but arguments about how to read scripture. But then I think your alternative stipulations/exegeses actually entail many of the same things you’re critiquing in Yoder.

    For example, “living independently of the idolatry of the powers,” is, on your own account in the book, to live against “the world” that you say is held under the sway of the powers (175). How could in-dependence not entail such an overagainstness? It’ built into the word! I’m not sure why it’s wrong, then, to construe “living independently” in terms of a “contrast-society,” unless this sort of independence is radically individualistic. But my hunch is that we both think of “radical individualism” as precisely the world under the sway of the powers; so, again, one object of your criticism seems to dissolve under closer analysis.

    Moreover, if we return to Yoder’s stipulations for a moment, he claims that “the world is always half of the reconciling event” (somewhere in The Priestly Kingdom, I think). That single claim, unpacked in the context of everything else he says about church and world, would seem to address many of the concerns you have about church, world, and mission. If reconciliation actually happens, then what comes out on the other side of such an event has been transformed. Yoder thinks the church exists because of this work—God’s work of reconciliation that has also been given to us—so there is no “church” for Yoder that “precedes” the world ontologically, only “church” that exists as enacted reconciliation of the world by God in Christ. This makes even the fallen world central—internal!—to the church’s identity, to say the least. Yet the church, as something that can only “be” on the other side of the event of reconciliation, still embodies a certain against-the-world-ness because reconciliation is only needed where hostility exists. And it’s precisely the hostility of the world—the world as “enemy of God”—that the church stands overagainst, yet always overagainst-for-the-sake-of. It’s not as if hostility itself is redeemed, so that we can now love and hate in the Kingdom of God.

    This, it seems to me, is the very same dynamic at play in Yoder’s critique of H. R. Niebuhr’s caricature of the “Christ against culture” type. Yoder points out that there’s no way to transform culture (or “the world”) without representing an alternative, without in certain instances being “against it.” I see all of this as entirely consistent with the stuff from The Royal Priesthood that I cited above.

    Perhaps the biggest remaining question for me has to do with what seems to be a reticence to speak of the church as the Body of Christ. Am I right that you’re reticent to so speak? I think others have asked about this as well.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  9. Nate Kerr wrote:


    My apologies for being so delayed in responding to this. I appreciate the critical engagement for the sake of mutual understanding. I’ve always thought that the most helpful critical questions are those which help you to understand better what you are saying, for the sake of discerning what of it you need to go on saying as well as how it is that you are to go on saying it. At any rate, your engagements are helpful for me in that way, and insofar as that is one of the most important things that theological conversation is to be about, I am grateful for it.

    Now, to the issues. Having now re-read Yoder’s essay, “The Otherness of the Church” and your comments in light of that essay, I understand how it is that what we might be dealing with here is largely a semantic confusion. I think point is well-taken as in every case we must be clear to define how we are using the terms “church” and “world” lest either of them be taken as conceptual abstractions. Furthermore, I think I agree with about 99% of what Yoder is saying in that essay and about the relation of “church” and “world” througought his oeuvre. And I think I agree with about 99% of what you are saying in your comment upon Yoder above, and the points of resonance with what I am saying therein. And I should be clear that I think Yoder is by far the most helpful in problematizing the presumed categories of “church” and “world” precisely because of the ways in which he refuses to dichotomize church and mission.

    The disagreement, here, however, turns on this sentence from my excerpt above: “The world ‘in-itself’ has been overcome and is a delusionary abstraction; but precisely as such the church cannot think of itself as a reality that exists ‘in itself’ as over-against ‘the world.’ And this is precisely what makes the church the church: it is that community which is given to live unreservedly for and as the world reconciled to God in Christ.” On this point, Yoder and I agree: “we cannot ask what the world ‘really is,’ somehow ‘in itself’ (Yoder, Royal Priesthood, 57). That is, we must refuse to grant to the world its own “intrinsic ontological dignity.” If the “world” that has been defeated in Christ’s cross and resurrection and is passing takes the form of “structured unbelief,” then it is does this precisely in that it exists in an attempt at self-orientation and self-justification. However we think of the church as existing “against” the “world” that is passing away as such, this over-againstness cannot be construed in such a way as to make it possible to think of the church as something that it “is” in-itself as over-against the world. This is to invert the problematic. And my point (an argument that I’ve begun making in my book and that I make in the paper that precedes the paragraph you read here) is that to identify the church as itself a “polis,” or its own “counter-society” or “counter-culture” is to identify the church in such a way that it requires just this kind of self-preservation and self-justification by which the passing-away world futilely tries to exist. And so my contention is with Yoder’s suggestion that we can locate the church’s otherness to the world by way of identifying the church by a certain set empirically visible practices, or by way of a certain empirically (by which I mean sociologically) visible culture or polis. We need a more nuanced and complex understanding of the church’s visibility, which does not divorce such visibility from its empirical concreteness, but which also does not identify that visibility with its sociologically empirical concreteness. I am, of course, following Barth on this point, which is to say that what makes the church distinct is that she “has no cause of her own which she must represent” (CD IV/3.2, 830). This is not to do away with structures, or institutions, or practices, moralities, etc., but to insist that the church is not directly identified by those institutions, practices, moralities, etc. Where the church is identified as such, mission can only finally be a matter of “self-promotion” or “propaganda” (Barth). Structures, institutions, practices, etc. are inevitable and necessary, but they take shape as the church is continually conformed to the ongoing mission of Christ in the world by which it exists and lives. My point is that where we stop short with a certain “cultic” or “political” configuration as identifying the church in the world, we have failed to think the idea of Christ’s “independence” (and the church’s own analogous independence) from the powers radically enough.

    Now, as to the big remaining question for you, I’m not sure why you see a reticence on my part to speak of the church as the body of Christ. My reticence has to do with ways of identifiying the body of Christ with the church such that Jesus Christ’s ongoing existence in history is structurally a predicate of the church’s direct visibility in history. I want to say this: the church is the body of Christ, but it is not empirically and directly identifiable as such. To quote barth: “Woe to the community if what she is is directly identical with what she is as generally visible, or if she accepts her concrete historical form as her being, equating herself with it and trying to exist in it abstractly!” The church is confessed to be the body of Christ in what Barth calls her “very special visibility”; she is this as she is the “earthly historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ” which is given to be seen as such only in faith, by way of the credo ecclesiam. Furthermore, what I’m wary of are inversions of the statement. We can say, in credo ecclesiam, that “the church is the body of Christ.” What we cannot say is the vice versa: “the body of Christ is the church.” This is a point that Barth actually shares with Thomas Aquinas, though he inflects it differently. When the statement gets turned around so that “the body of Christ is the church” is what is getting said when one confesses that “the church is the body of Christ,” we have a conception again of the church as existing as something in-itself, and so her true distinction from the world as such is forfeited precisely thereby.

    Alright. I’ve gotta run. Kristina and Zoe want are waiting on me to go out for dinner. I hope this helps a bit. These are precisely the questions that I am trying to work out and to parse in the paper in question, though, so you are tracking precisely the questions that I think are central and are at stake in all of this.

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

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