Christmas in Basel – Karl Barth’s sermon from 1954

Every year again I use to read two or three classic Christmas sermons. John Donne’s Nativity sermons are among my favorites, for example. This year however, I decided to take up the volume with ‘Predigten’, held by Karl Barth in the karl-barth1prison (Strafanstalt) of Basel. This fact is surely important. From 1947 until 1954 Barth’s preaching activities were interrupted. But in 1954 he started preaching again more regularly. However, he restricted himself almost completely to the prison of Basel as his pulpit. These sermons have become famous because of their pastoral nature. The sermon for Christmas Day 1954, about Luke 2,10-11, offers abundant testimony to this quality.

After a short, direct prayer Barth sets off: ‘My dear brothers and sisters!’ (‘Meine lieben Brüder und Schwestern’). This is a sermon on its own, in which he embraces those prisoners. ‘Now we have heard the Christmas story’, he says. ‘And how did we hear it?’ Barth specifies a few options. Some of us, he says, might have missed it, because they were distracted. Others will have heard it like a nice fairytale, which they deeply question. Yet others will have had cherished childhood memories, a wonderful Christmas sentiment which will never return. ‘I  just want to say, dear friends’, Barth continues, ‘this is what we make of Christmas. All of us’.
Until the angel of the Lord arrives… ‘The angel surely has gone through the streets and squares of Basel. He was there for those, who are lonely and sad or those who celebrated Christmas Eve perhaps too joyous and stupid. He is there for those, who are asleep now… And he will visit the churches from Basel this morning…’.

Barth’s pastoral introduction stands out. It might strike you as being at odds with his emphasis on the vertical dimension of the Gospel (‘senkrecht von oben’). In this sermon, however, Barth very consciously introduces his message in relation to the experience of his hearers. This does not mean that the vertical dimension is absent. On the contrary, Barth emphasizes it quite literally, refering to a picture that he had seen recently, on which the angel comes down like a thunderbolt. This is the truth about his message, Barth says, it really strikes us. There can be no doubt, that the Gospel comes to us from God and from Him alone.


In the remainder of his sermon, Karl Barth highlights three moments of his text. To start with he emphasizes the ‘to you’ (Euch) from the angel’s words: ‘For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’. It is this ‘to you’ that makes the message of the angel different from other messages. In the latter case we could think: it is not my business. But the angel says: ‘for you’. Barth doesn’t shun a bit of selfmockery. ‘The angel of the Lord was not a professor, as I am. A professor would perhaps have said: To the people the Saviour is born. That is spoken in general. It makes one think: it is not about me, but about others.’
Then Barth underscores the words: ‘this day’ (Heute). That does mean that we are not talking about a remote past event, Barth says. It means we are living in the present, in a new day, God’s day. We need to hear it, in order that we take courage!
Lastly, he marks the word ‘Saviour’ (Heiland). It is the core of the Christmas story. ‘The Saviour is the One who brings us salvation, who rescues us, who liberates us. He is the One who brings salvation to all! He makes no exceptions, because we are all in need of his salvation and because He is the Son of God, who is the Father of all of us. As He became man, He became our Brother!’ Here we see that the way Barth adressed his hearers in the beginning of the sermon was no coincidence!

In the closing part of the sermon Barth returns to the different experiences he evoked in the introduction. Do we stick to the distractions, our questions or nostalgic memories? Or do we really notice, get up and convert? ‘The angel of the Lord does not compel anyone – says Barth – and I really am unable to do so. A compulsive hearing and a forced participation in this history, that is our history, would be nothing. It is about a free obedience and a free participation in this history’.

‘Euch ist heute der Heiland geboren’ (Lukas 2,10-11, Weihnacht 1954, Strafanstalt Basel), Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe vol.12, reihe I. Predigten 1954-1967, Herausgegeben von Hinrich Stoevesandt, p.9-17.

Thomas Henry Louis Parker (1916-2016)

A few days ago, May 25th, John Webster passed away. He was 60 years old. I heard about his sudden death at the Refo500RC Conference in Copenhagen. Home again, I soon found out that his death is lamented at various weblogs: here for example, here, here and also here. His passing away has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Webster truly was an exceptional theologian.

However, in this post I want to pay attention to another theologian who recently diedT.H.L. Parker: the Rev. Dr. Thomas Henry Louis Parker. He died on Monday April 25th of this year, at the blessed age of 99 years. Parker was an outstanding scholar, both versed in Calvin Studies as well as in Barth Studies. His death has not attracted the same amount of attention as John Webster’s, but I gathered it was mentioned on Facebook, and also on the website of Refo500 and in this contribution by Lee Gatiss.

These contributions, valuable as they are, do not tell us much about his career. As far as I have been able to figure out, it looks like this:
1948-55 – Vicar of Brothertoft, Lincs.
1955-61 – Rector of Great and Little Ponton (near Grantham) Lincs.
1961-71 – Vicar of Oakington, Cambridge
1971-75 – University of Durham; Lecturer in Theology
1975-81 – University of Durham; Reader

T.H.L. Parker wrote important books about Calvin’s commentaries on the Old and New Testament. He edited some of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. He wrote a concise, but very informative biography about Calvin. He published studies on Barth and was involved in the editing of the Church Dogmatics, together with T.F. Torrance.

Especially his books Calvin’s Preaching (a profound reworking of his earlier book The Oracles of God) really has been a revelation for me, from the moment I started to read it. There are not many books in my library that I have used more intensively than this book. Not only does it offer a wealth of information, but it captures my attention by its lively style of writing. Writing for example about the lost sermons of Calvin, which were removed from the Genevan library in the 19th century, he recounts that some of Calvin’s sermons were refound. He then continues:

“A few years later (1963) the pulse of life in my quiet country vicarage was quickened by the receipt of a letter from the Librarian of Lambeth Palace, saying that he had recently bought a manuscript volume of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis from Bristol Baptist College; would I please see them and pronounce on their authenticity. This, of course, I was only too willing to do.” (p.70)

About a year ago (March 2015) I unexpectedly came in touch with him by email, because I informed after him at To my surprise the editor passed on an email [sic] of Dr. Parker himself. As a tribute to this outstanding scholar I’d like to cite a few sentences from this email, omitting the more personal details in it:

Twenty years ago I would have thought 98 was really very aged. Now that I am 98 it doesn”t seem much different from 58, 68, or 78, except, of course, that I can no longer indulge in the physical activities that I enjoyed then. I live on my own and more or less look after myself (…).

So, like the shepherd boy in Pilgrim’s Progress, I am content with what I have, little be it or much; and Lord contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.
Every good wish,
Yours sincerely,

The last sentences really impressed me and made me glad because of the steadfast faith and hope that speaks out of it. This ‘shepherd boy’ has come home. We thank God for his life and work.

Review ‘The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh’ by Robert J. Stamps

Robert J. Stamps, The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh (Wipf and Stock 2013); $ 39,- ($ 31,20 [web price])

In his book The Sacrament of the Word Made Flesh, Robert J. Stamps engages with the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. It was his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham, coStamp - Word made Fleshmpleted in 1986. It remained unpublished until 2007, when it was included in the Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology. And finally, in 2013 it was released in the USA by Wipf and Stock. The delayed date of publication seems not completely coïncidental, as the sacramental theology of T.F. Torrance didn’t catch much attention until the first decade of the 21th century. George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism (2008), preceded by his important essay ‘The Dimension of Depth’ (2001), is dedicated to the memory of T.F. Torrance and Hunsinger’s sacramental theology is deeply influenced by Torrance. Paul Molnar wrote about the same subject in 2005, in an essay (‘The Eucharist and the Mind of Christ. Some Trinitarian Implications of T.F. Torrance’s Sacramental Theology’) and, to mention just one more example, Myk Habets devotes several pages to the same topic as part of his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (2009). These and other recent publications are not mentioned in Stamps’ book, as its conception predates these books and articles.

Stamps starts his study with an outline of ‘the theological and cosmological framework’ for Torrance’s eucharistic theology. This first chapter functions as a very concise introduction of Thomas Torrance’s view on theology in relation with (modern) science and its epistemological implications. Not surprisingly then, we find in this chapter much interaction between the positions of Torrance and Barth. Stamps does a good job in his exposition of Torrance’s emphasis on God’s self-revelation, his aversion of dualism, and so forth.

The second chapter starts with a brief ‘rationale’ for the subsequent outline of the discussion of Torrance’s sacramental theology. Stamps chooses here for a revision of Calvin’s approach in the Institutes (IV,XVII,1): Signification; Substance of Matter; Effect or Action. In my view this approach is not completely satisfactory. Of course, especially in his early writings, Torrance often refers to Calvin’s sacramental theology and he employed Calvin’s outline himself, ‘though with considerable difficulty’ (60). However, as Stamps rightly remarks, Torrance offers an incisive reinterpretation of the material. Stamps consciously indicates these reinterpretations in the subsequent chapters. But they don’t become structurally visible in this way. And that’s a pity. To be fair, the strength of Stamp’s approach is that the points of divergence can be marked, step by step.

Chapter 3 ‘Sacramental Matter and Action: the Objective Christological Ground and Potential for the Sacrament’ maps the interconnections between Torrance’s christology and sacramental theology. The key to this is found in his most comprehensive treatment of eucharistic theology: “The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’. His christological emphasis on the homo-ousios is the key for the interpretation of his sacramental theology. That has deep epistemological implications: ‘for God cannot be known in the revelatory ‘sacramental relation’, either in word or formal sacrament, except from the integrity of his incarnation.” (99). Moreover: “the worship of Christ is the ground for the Church’s worhsip. We can also understand why the Eucharist in his theology, answering as it does the worship of Christ, should be central to the life of a reconstituted, new humanity.” (109). It is this position that makes Torrance’s contribution unique, pointing to, what George Hunsinger rightly called, the ‘dimension of depth’.

While chapter 3 is the heart of the book, in my opinion, chapter 4 is less convincing: ‘Sacramental Effect: the Subjectification of the Objective Christological Reality’. The subtitle indicates the problem already. According to Stamps “Calvin dealt with sacramental action and effect together in his outline, whereas Torrance’s sacramental theology separates the effect from the action” (144). I don’t think so. In Conflict and Agreement (1960) he makes the distinction between the ‘action of Christ’ and ‘its effect in our reception of it’. But, as Stamps rightly says, “[t]his does nog designate two distinct actions” (ibid.). But then he adds “but [it designates, AT] the difference between Christ’s formal action and its subjectification within the Church” (ibid.). To be sure, Stamps is a very careful ‘exegete’ of Torrance. For a few lines later he writes that Torrance elsewhere (in his shorter article ‘The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Eucharist’ in The Liturgical Review (1976) “treats these two aspects of our sacramental communion specifically as the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Therefore, we shall discuss Sacramental Effect under these two headings” (145). Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the tension between the title of this chapter and the subheadings. The chapter offers for that matter brief comparisons with Luther’s and Calvin’s sacramental theologies (partly in the footnotes) that are right on target.

The last chapter is called: “An Appraisal of Torrance’s Eucharistic Theology with Open Questions”. Stamps refers in the beginning of this chapter to an personal interview he had with Thomas Torrance.

“When asked in 1985 what he would change if his earlier works on the Eucharist could be rewritten, Torrance stated that he would like to alter their context, i.e. not to discuss the issues so much from the perspective of the Reformation, as from that of the Eastern Fathers.” (240-241)

In the light of this quote, it becomes even more puzzling why Stamps chose to make Calvin’s approach leading for the outline of Torrance’s sacramental theology. He gives the answer by arguing that – in the end – Torrance’s eucharistic theology “finally ought not to be judged by what it aspires to be, but by what it actually is, a Eucharist [sic!] in the Reformed tradition operating from a highly developed christology richly informed by patristic sources” (244). Stamps notes in T.F. Torrance (lecturing)passing that (especially the early) Torrance is in some respects heavily indebted to Karl Barth (“an ‘actualist conception of God’s Word” (250)), but in the end, his analysis of Torrance’s sacramental theology boils down to the dilemma: either Calvin or Eastern Orthodoxy. That seems to me a serious flaw in his analysis. Torrance’s sacramental theology certainly isn’t purely Barthian, but can’t be properly understood by omitting the Barthian ‘overtones’ in the thought of Tom Torrance.

This is not to deny that Stamps offers in his book a thorough study of the sacramental theology of Thomas F. Torrance. As indicated, its strenght lies in the ‘exegetical’ reading of all the relevant texts of Torrance’s work. Its weakness is its systematic presentation and evaluation. But for sure: anyone who is on his way to study Torrance on the sacraments, will have to read this book and will definitely find it useful.

I would like to thank Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing the review copy!

Union with Christ: objective and subjective

To round off this year, I offer you a voluminous quote on the union with Christ. Guess who wrote these words. You may be surprised… Speaking of the union of Christ, our author says:

There are objective and subjective sides here. The objective is primary and determinative. It is God’s grace. The subjective is secondary and becomes possible only on the basis of the objective side. It is man’s faith. The objective side of the union of Christ and his church is the Incarnation-that is, the becoming man of the Son of God and the reconciliation which he effected in his humanity. By his grace in becoming man the Son of God united himself to man and man to himself. Thus in Jesus Christ, the Son of God is united with man and man with the Son of God. This unity of divine and human in Jesus Christ is the foundation of the unity between Christ and his church, between the Head and the Body. But the union is not purely one of being. According to the Reformers, Jesus Christ was man in our place. In our place and for us he fulfilled the Law which man could not fulfil. In our place and for us he died as a sinner, under the curse, the rejection, of God. By thus taking our place he united himself with us as those under God’s judgment, and he united us with himself as the one judged and condemned by God. But the crucified man rose again to eternal life and glory. Because it was in his human body that he gloriously rose, the eternally glorious Son of God united himself with men and men with himself. All this is the objective side which, as God’s grace, is primary and determinative. It stands whether man knows it or not. Nor can man’s lack of faith negative it, overcoming God’s grace. If man does not believe, Jesus Christ is still the God-Man who has made himself one with man in sin and glory.
But there is the subjective union of man with Christ. And this union is faith. Note that the Reformers do not say that the union is by faith, but that it is faith. Faith itself is the subjective union of man with Christ. Sometimes they will speak of faith and sometimes of the Holy Spirit as being this union, but they plainly believed that they were saying the same thing in a different way. Faith, which is God’s creation in man, is the recognition and acknowledgment that the reality of man’s existence is to be found, not in his own antagonistic existence, which is not the truth but the denial of the truth, i.e. a lie, but in the existence of Jesus Christ. ‘Who am I?’ faith asks. And answers: ‘I am the man who joyfully and willingly has fulfilled the Law, the will of God. I am the man who died to sin once and over whom therefore sin has no dominion. I am the man who has risen from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.’ I, the breaker and hater of the Law? I, the sinner who prefer my way to God’s? Yes; the reality of my existence is in Christ, who united himself with my humanity and did all that he did for my sake and in my place. This is the recognition and acknowledgment ofthe reality, truth and validity of Christ’s uniting himself with man. And on the subjective side, it is the recognition of the possibility and the acknowledgment of the actuality of the person’s uniting himself with Christ. What is true of the individual is true here of the church. This corpus of men is the corpus Christi on the basis of this twofold union.

This is a wonderful quote, according to me. The author is obviously very familiar with the Reformers. But you can feel, he is also acquainted with Barthian theology. Is it T.F. Torrance? No. Maybe one of the other Torrances: James or David? No again. The author of these words is Thomas Henry Louis Parker. As far as I know, he is still alive, being now 97 years old. He lectured on the university of Durham, but was also for many years a country vicar, combining his pastoral duties with his studies of the Reformation. Outside the circle of Calvin-specialists, the name of T.H.L. Parker is not very well-known. [The only picture of him I was able to find is on the back of his extraordinary book Calvin’s Preaching (1992).] Books of his on Calvin are a biography (with Bruce Gordon’s biography still one of the best), writings on Calvin’s commentaries and two monographs on Calvin’s preaching. T.H.L. ParkerFurthermore, he edited one of the volumes of Supplementa Calviniana.  Less well-known: he was also a Barth-scholar, writing on Barth’s theology and editing a Festschrift on the occasion of Barth’s 80th birthday. Both strands of his theological stance become audible in this quotation: traces of Luther, Calvin and Barth are easily recognizable.

P.S. He wrote these words in an article, titled ‘The Reformation and the Church today’ Churchman 87.1 (1973); p.29-35. You can read it yourself here.

New Finnish Luther and Barth Interpretation?

Recently, I have been reading about the Finnish Luther Interpration. The last three decades a new Luther interpretation has been born in Finland. The founder of this line of interpretation, Tuomo Mannermaa, claims an alternative understanding of Luther’s writings. Instead of reading him as the advocate of an forensic concept of justification, Mannermaa holds him to be a theologian for whom concepts like the union with God, conceived as a union of being, and the (real-ontic) indwelling of Christ are at least equally important. In an article, titled ‘The Study of the Fundamentals of Martin Luther’s Tuomo MannermaaTheology in the Light of Ecumenism’, he introduces his findings. Besides his own work, he mentions the work of others in his trail. They have paid attention to the question why the interpretation of Luther became so fixated upon a forensic understanding of his doctrine of justification. Mannermaa’s colleagues and pupils (Simo Kiviranta; Risto Saarinen; Eeva Martikainen) detected and documented the massive influence of the German theologians Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). Mannermaa summarizes their findings into two lines of thoughts (quotations are given without reference to page or paragraph numbers, because they are lacking in the original (internet) source).

  1. The first is the ‘transcendental-ethical justification of religion’. The crucial distinction in this regard is that between ‘person’ and ‘nature’. “As ‘nature’ the human being is part of mechanical causality and belongs to the domain of theoretical reason. As ‘persons’, however, human begins are beyond nature because of their will, that is, because of their practical reason, which sets values.” In the light of this distinction it is illegitimate to speak about theosis as a union of being. Mannermaa once again: “I do not think that the reach of the influence that the transcendental-ethical justification of religion has had upon the later understanding of Christian faith can be overestimated. One example of the outcome of this influence is German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s (1851-1930) conception of the history of dogma, and his negative appraisal of the doctrine of divinization.” I find myself in full agreement with Mannermaa.
  2. The second hermeneutical tradition that according to Mannermaa has contributed to a mere forensic interpration of Luther’s doctrine of justification goes back to Ritschl as well. Ritschl adopted from the ontology of Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), German philosopher, “the idea that God can be known only in the acts (Akten) of God’s effects (Wirkungen) on human beings. According to Ritschl (and here he differs from Lotze), the origin of these effects, as well as their ontological nature an sich, remains unknown. From this selective adoption of Kant’s and Lotze’s positions arises actualism, ‘Aktualismus’, which has had a significant influence on the understanding of both revelation and the concept of the word in dialectical theology.”

So far, I’ve been chiefly quoting Mannermaa’s article. He points out how these two ‘hermeneutical traditions’, as he calls them, influenced the interpretation of Luther. But, as we saw, they had a profound impact on the development of Karl Barth’s theology and that of other representatives of dialectical theology. The first line of thought can be traced in Barth’s resistance against any form of theosis/deification (unlike T.F. Torrance, who was in this regard deeply influenced by the church fathers). The second line of thought is recognizable in Barth’s so called ‘actuallism’. Though it’s quite difficult to fully clarify what Barth is aiming at (this post on Out of Bounds might help you), it seems clear that Barth endorses the thesis that God can only be known in his acts, that is in history. All knowledge of God is determined by His revelation in Jesus Christ. So, there is no way to speak about God (and his being) apart from his acts in history. If this is correct, it shows that Barth not only criticized Enlightenment philosophical thoughts, but was deeply influenced by them as well. In short, the findings of the Finns are worth to be applied to the interpretation of Barth as well, although I’m certainly not an expert on Barth. You might call it a new Finnish Barth Interpretation.

But is it as new as it seems to be? As early as 1907, the Dutch theologian Isaäc van Is. van DijkDijk refuted Harnack’s thesis that: “Dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel” (History of Dogma I (1885; transl.1894), p.17. Instead, Van Dijk wrote: “Dogma is in its conception and development a word of the Christian spirit with Greek resources” (Gezamelde geschriften (1917), p.327). A few years later, in 1921, a pupil of Van Dijk, Maarten (!) van Rhijn wrote a short book with studies on Luther’s doctrine of justification (Studiën over Luther’s rechtvaardigingsleer). In the first essay he points out that the forensic interpretation of the doctrine of justification is due to later developments (e.g. the conflict between Melanchton and Osiander). For Luther, writes Van Rhijn, justification implies the ‘self-M. van Rhijn (jong2)communication of God, by the indwelling of Christ in the sinner’s life’ (p.35). So, this book anticipates in a certain sense the Finnish Luther interpretation. But Van Rhijn has also a keen eye for the development in Luther’s theology. He observes that in Luther’s first period (up to 1517) the idea of ‘Christ in us’ was the dominant theme, whereas after 1517 the thought of ‘Christ for us’ became more important. And that fits perfectly with an often made criticism with regard to the Finns, that their ‘new’ interpretation can only be held in the light of the early works of Luther, but falters with regard to his later works. How that may be, both the New Finnish Luther interpretation and its critics seem to be anticipated by the Old Dutch interpretation.

Torrance on the sacraments

In The School of Faith (1959) Torrance discusses the Reformed conception of the Covenant of Grace. He makes in this regard a sharp distinction between Mediaeval theology, thinking in sacramental terms and Reformed theology, thinking in convenantal terms. Whereas Mediaeval theology, according to Torrance, considered the church as the extension of the Incarnation, against the background of a sacramental universe, the Reformers employed the Biblical terminology of the Convenant of Grace and its total fulfilment in the Person and Work of Jezus Christ as the incarnate Son and Word of God (p.lii).

After citing Karl Barth’s formula of the Convenant as the inner ground and form of the creation and creation as the outer ground or form of the Convenant and Calvin’s statement that Godwrapped himself up in earthly signs and symbols, so that the whole of creation is to be regarded as a mirror or theatre, Torrance continues by saying:

“Thus while the whole of creation is formed to serve as the sphere of divine self-revelation, it cannot be interpreted or understood our of itself, as if it had an inherent relation of likeness or being to the Truth, but only in the light of the history of the Convenant of Grace and its appointed signs and orders and events in the life of the Convenant people, that is to say, according to its economy prior to the Incarnation and according to its economy after the Incarnation” (p.liii).

In short, Torrance seems to deny any intrinsic connection between the sacramental signs and their signification. That, however, raises several questions. Think, for example, of the Lord’s Supper. According to Torrance, it’s signification originates from Divine appointment, e.g. the words of institution spoken by Christ and repeated by the minister every time the Supper is celebrated. True as that is, does that mean that, say, its character as a meal is completely arbitrary? Could the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well have been instituted in the form of a shared dance around an old tree? Or would in that case the ritual have had a different meaning, at least partly? I think so.

It seems that Torrance, in his effort to avoid a sacramentalism based on a kind of natural theology, did cut off, not only the branches of the tree, but also some of its vital roots. Furthermore, while claiming to describe the Reformed position in sacramental theology, he seems to distantiate himself from the position of Calvin. For Calvin makes use of the analogy between our daily eating and drinking and the eating and drinking we have in the Lord’s Supper (for example in his sermon about Psalm 65, edited in Supplementa Calviniana VII (ed. E. Mülhaupt); p.32-40). Obviously, Calvin doesn´t want to know about an intrinsic sacramental operation. The signs and the rite don´t have an operation on their own, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that the relation between the sacramental signs and their signification, between the rite and its operation is completely arbitrary.