Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
The difficulty with being “in the world but not of it” is frequently overlooked. One can fully engage the beauty and suffering of this world, being a person of this world. Or one can manage the ups and downs of daily existence with a light touch, embracing an other-worldly existence. It is tough, though, to be “in,” and “not of,” both at the same time. As P. L. Metzger explains it, the problem with us is that we either “divinize” culture or “secularize” it. As people of this world, we mistakenly seek that which is sacred in culture in such a way that the Word and the world are, finally, indistinguishable. Or we err by understanding culture to be completely unrelated to that which is sacred, so that Christian believers have nothing to learn from it, nothing to gain.
Karl Barth is often criticized for secularizing culture in his efforts to avoid the hazards of natural theology. Metzger insists, in contrast to this reading, that Barth’s emphasis on the distinction between the world and the Word is not a categorical rejection of synthesis. Rather, Barth is interested in correcting a “faulty” synthesis “so that a more wholesome synthesis [might] be established” (p. 87). The great contribution of Barth, Metzer argues, is his Chalcedonian approach to relating the Word of Christ and the world of culture. As the two natures of Jesus Christ are joined “without confusion and without change” and “without separation and without division,” so the world and the Word are neither indistinguishable nor separable. Because Barth is writing in a context in which world and Word are being dangerously mingled (Hitler was being confused with the Messiah, and his program with the Kingdom of Godsee ch. 5), Metzger argues, it behooves him to emphasize the distinction between divine and human, the infinite qualitative difference between God and the world.
A point too often missed by Barth’s critics, Metzger rightly insists, is that emphasis on the transcendence of God in relationship to the world does not argue against the integrity, value, and contribution of the created order, but rather preserves it. When the God/world distinction is maintained and culture is “dedivinized,” explains Metzger, “humanity is free to be human, and not divine” (p. 232). Culture can be “the human, creaturely reality it is intended by God to be” (p. 81). And Christian believers can then be in the world (as those who deeply appreciate, for example, the beauty of a Mozart sonata) without being of it (remembering that a Mozart sonata is not in the business of proclaiming the Word of God).
Metzger develops his argument in three parts, devoting two chapters to each. After suggesting that Barth offers an alternative to secularization and deification (part I, “Foundations”), Metzger moves on to describing this alternative by positing that Barth understands grace neither to destroy nature nor to perfect it, but rather to elevate it (part II, “Connections,” p. 139). For example, Barth understands the Eucharistic elements of the bread and the wine neither to be replaced by nor transformed into Christ’s body and blood, but to be “lifted up” (sursum corda) to participation in the ascended Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 140-141). In his third and final part (“Distinctions”), Metzger discusses Barth’s understanding of the relationship between church and state (ch. 5), as well as his celebration of creativity beyond the sphere of the church (ch. 6). Creation in its secular form bears witness to God when it is what it is “as created . . . not as a sacramentalist stepping stone,” he argues, again underscoring the freedom and integrity of culture (p. 220).
One of the few weaknesses of the book is Metzger’s consistent reference to our words being “commandeered” by the Word of God (see, especially, ch. 4). Such terminology implies that God manipulates words/humanity/culture/the world in such a way that the integrity of the created order is violated, thereby undermining Metzger’s thesis to the contrary. Related to this is the question one is left with at the end of the book: Does culture qua culture ever offer a prophetic word? Andif notthen is the synthesis between Word and world that Metzger has worked out truly a synthesis? Perhaps this question parallels those often asked about the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ. If we guard against saying that Jesus actually learned from the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 (for example), is it because we would rather err toward separating the two natures than by confusing them? At moments in his book Metzger errs toward secularization. But he is, clearly, working on the problem.
Metzger’s book offers even more than an important rearticulation of Barth on a crucial matter so often misunderstood. In a post-9/11 United States in which many Christians, desperate to be protected from terrorism, are convoluting political rhetoric and hope for the Kingdom of God, Metzger offers a needed correction. Again, as in the 1930s, the church is charged with forswearing divinization, renewing its commitment to being a prophetic voice in relation to culture. And yet Metzger, via Barth, is not suggesting that we shut ourselves off from the world around us, as people who honor the complete otherness of God. On the contrary, in and through the synthesis known to us in Jesus Christ, we are free to engage “the serious and masterful play” of the world (p. 218).
Cynthia L. Rigby
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2007, VOL. 7, #1.
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