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Barth to Thielicke

Upon reading Helmut Thielicke’s Über die Angst des heutigen Theologiestudenten vor dem geistlichen Amt (published in English as A Little Exercise for Young Theologians), Karl Barth had this to say:

I read your book at once at a single sitting and in its totality, and I can only endorse its essential thesis and its tenor. For a long time I have been rather disconcerted by your great ability to say anything and everything to our fellowmen in a precise, definite, and instructive way that I could never match (Karl Barth, Letters: 1961-1968, p. 277).

That’s very high praise, and I think it’s accurate. Thielicke’s work is not only eminently accessible; it speaks directly to its own time and to times that follow. This is especially true of his book Nihilism: Its Orgin and Nature with a Christian Answer. That book, written largely for those whose lives lost meaning in the aftermath of WWII, speaks to the anxieties of each generation so far. Like Barth, Thielicke’s most useful material is in his sermons and popular essays, not in his theology. Theologically he is, in the words of a friend of mine, “just another good German theologian.”

This characteristic of Thielicke’s is a good sign that he is doing something right, whatever one thinks of his theological prowess. Indeed, might his ability to be useful to more than one generation and context reflect something of the character of God? I’ll close with Thielicke’s description of Jesus after the temptation.

Does he stride from this battlefield as we would expect: with head high and renewed might, crowned as the victor, and bearing a name which henceforth and visibly is to be set above every name (Phil. 2.9)? By no means; how different is this victory from those of men! He rises to his feet, and immediately sets forth on his via dolorosa. He, too, goes forth into the world. Once again he will have to contend with the powers of evil which rise against him. He goes through this world, which is a theatre of war and a battlefield between God and Satan. By winning his first victory he has entered this world. Christ will fight for the souls of the men he meets, whether they be publicans or Pharisees, fools or wise men, rich youths or poor men, working-class men or lords of industry, the hungry and thirsty or well-fed and safe – he will fight for the souls of all these men alike, and he will die for all of them (Helmut Thielicke, Between God and Satan, p. 2).

Addendum: For the legions upon legions of Thielicke fans who follow this blog, this post is good.

Craig and Crossan

I recently listened to an older debate between the apologetic robot called William Lane Craig and the contrarian but amicable John Dominic Crossan. Craig is so predictable, overconfident, shallow, and obnoxious that I can’t help but prefer Crossan, despite his implausible views. Very likely, the debate could be on virtually any topic and my verdict would come out the same against the otherworldly “person,” Bill Craig. Craig’s mindless and mechanical ability to recycle the same material he’s been arguing for 20 years with the exact same inflection and style is all by itself enough to make me want to kill myself. I’ve reached the point where each time I listen to or watch a debate involving Craig, I can safely skip past his entire presentation, because after the thousandth time one has accidentally memorized it. It is always the opponent, not Craig, who might say something you haven’t heard before.

Some person named Sze Leng is correct to say that Craig is “all out to apologize” and that his debating style is “polemical.” But Leng left out the other crucial adjectives, “idiotic,” “superficial,” and “meretricious.”

The debate is moderated by William F. Buckley, which nicely completes the tedious circus. At one point they together challenge Crossan to explain how he is really a Christian, given his denial of the bodily resurrection. While Crossan should have said, “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition,” he instead gives a reasonable and personal answer. Crossan says essentially, “I find God in Jesus,” indeed to the exclusion (for him at least) of other sources. This is good enough for me, and very likely good enough for the merciful Lord; it was not good enough for theological dominatrix William Lane Craig.

I am reading the second edition (1994) of the late John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. So far chapter 4 (”God will fight for us”) impresses me the most. It is a somewhat more summary version of what Millard Lind argues in Yahweh is a Warrior. Yoder acknowledges this book in his chapter epilogue (the new edition contains epilogues on recent development). Although Yoder doesn’t mention this, both he and Lind are Mennonites. The basic outline of their argument is that although the Hebrew Scriptures are indeed full of “holy war,” the emphasis of the stories is on God’s saving power outside of Israel’s military efforts. The argument suggests an almost inversely proportional relationship between Israel’s reliance on God and their need to fight. Yoder even mentions those who think that “if Israel had been fully faithful, the other peoples in Canaan would have withdrawn without violence in line with this promise” (p. 79 n. 5). Yoder sees this suggestion as being grounded in the multiple instances where God causes Israel’s enemies to flee without violence, e.g. the mysterious something-or-other that causes Sennacherib’s army to exit. Yoder (along with Lind) also points to the various passages that show God’s desire that Israel not rely on its strength of arms, indeed that Israel purposely not upgrade their weaponry.

I am fond of this way of looking at the war narratives. Although it might be a little too simplistic as an all-purpose exegesis, it is compellingly effective. In a polemical context, this interpretation may satisfy both the troubled Christian who looks at these passages with disgusted bewilderment, and the livid Hitchens-esque atheist who sees the “God of the Old Testament” as being a war God, bent on violence. Lastly, I find that this interpretation fits the best with the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13. The message of that parable is precisely that it is not the role of the people of God to separate the good from the evil, and that God and his messengers will accomplish the task. This is consistent with God wanting Israel to let him deal with their enemies.

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