|Spacebridge by longobord CC 2.0|
For you may have countless instructors in Christ, but you don’t have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Some of our favorite theologians are not only generically sinners, but ethically compromised in specific and, in some cases, atrocious ways. Who can read of many of the Puritans’ defense of chattel slavery without revulsion? Or, to put a finer point for me, the same issue with respect to the founders of my denomination and our first seminary? Or Luther’s anti-semitism? Or Calvin’s silence with respect to the theocratically-driven execution of Servetus? Or Zwingli’s herem campaign against the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists?
And the list could go on, from Zwingli to medieval popes and monks to Cyril to the Cappadocians to the “traditors” to Peter to David to Moses to Jacob to Abraham to Noah to Adam. Each of these spoke truth on at least one occasion in their life, the latter portion of the list even becoming authors of, or at least speakers of truth in, Holy Scripture. We would be left with very few theologians if the bar for their theology’s truthfulness was their own ability to remain above reproach.
Again, this does not excuse sin in the life of a theologian, especially egregious and unrepentant sin. Nor does it mean that certain persons should be disqualified from the office of elder. Regarding the latter, egregious, unrepentant sin like Barth’s should certainly disqualify one from serving as an elder, if they are still living. It does mean, though, that theology should be evaluated on its own merits, and namely its conformity to Scripture.
Here the Donatist error is confronted with sola Scriptura. We should not only look to God’s Word as the primary, ultimate source for our theology, but also as its primary, ultimate evaluator. It is not the life of the theologian that serves as the arbiter of whether or not her or his theology is correct, but rather Holy Scripture. Of course, not everyone agrees on how to evaluate, say, Barth on these grounds. Some are more positive about his theology; others, like me, are appreciative of some elements but ultimately find his theological program wanting in a number of important areas. The point is that these evaluations ultimately rest on our assessment of his (or anyone else’s) theological conclusions as they relate to the biblical authority.
And Yet . . .
I am still left here with the nagging feeling that there must be something we can say about Barth’s theology given Barth’s actions. I wondered aloud whether or not a theologian’s actions can strike at the heart of their theological program. For me, the obvious example here is John Howard Yoder. Yoder labored to convince his readers of a pacifist approach to ethical matters like war and the death penalty, based in large part on his own understanding of Jesus. And he did so while exercising unabated violence and predation against women over the course of his career.
Does this tell us anything about his theology? Does it help us in our evaluation of its truthfulness? Or, to bring it back to Barth, does Barth’s apparent use of dialectic theology to excuse his own adultery and emotional abuse of his wife tell us anything about or help us evaluate his theology?
At the moment, I’m honestly still undecided on how to answer this question. Given what I’ve said above, I’m inclined to say no. But then I remember that ideas have consequences, and ethical ones at that. So perhaps rather than asking whether a theologian’s actions necessitates the repudiation of their theology as untruthful, we should instead ask whether or not a particular theological position or program can, will, or usually does lead to lapses in judgment or unethical actions. I think at this point it is warranted to ask whether or not Yoder’s pacifism contributed to his unrepentant abuse. In other words, did Yoder’s rejection of divine violence lead him to feel excused from considering the eternal consequences of his actions? Or, with Barth, does his use of dialectic as an excuse for indecision and emotional abuse tell us about the ethical consequences of adopting such a theology?
I don’t and maybe never will have an answer to that kind of question. But I think it is worth asking.
Perhaps an even better to question to ask in response to the revelations of Barth’s behavior comes from his mother, who wrote to her son, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”
Most people know that traditional Christian churches of all types have traditionally said it is a sin. And some have said it is the unforgiveable sin because it ends the possibility of repentance.
However, in recent years, even many traditional Christian churches and leaders have reconsidered that position in light of evidence from modern psychology that most people who commit suicide are clinically depressed—a condition rooted in brain chemistry.
I will offer this nuanced answer to the question: If a person kills himself/herself without being in a state of depression (broadly defined) and for the purpose of hurting other people (for example out of spite), it is sin. Their eternal destiny after death is God’s decision and not mine. I will not make any judgment about that. However, if a person kills himself/herself out of despair due to depression (broadly defined) I cannot consider it sin. I consider it a final symptom of an illness.
Many people are tempted then to point out to me the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and argue that I am excusing murder (self-murder). I respond that there are many exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill” including (in the context of the Old Testament where that commandment is found) war and capital punishment. Most people who make that objection to my claim that suicide is not always necessarily sin believe that killing another person in self-defense, when necessary, is justified and not sin.
I assume that the vast majority of people who kill themselves are not in their “right mind” at the time. It is an act of desperation to become free from the horrible, debilitating disease of untreated or uncured clinical depression.
So, no, I do not believe most suicides are sin; they are acts of mental and emotional illness. I believe in a loving, compassionate God who understands such despair and welcomes people into his loving presence those who kill themselves in a state of extreme mental anguish but trust in him.
Having said that, however, I do not want my theological-ethical judgment about suicide to become an excuse or justification for suicide. I just do not think that teaching suicide is sin is helpful to people considering it or to their surviving loved ones. And it is not consistent with my view of God as loving and compassionate.
In the vision, the White House appeared to be shaped like a very old tree with its’ branches withering. Suddenly, the hand of the Lord came and pulled it from the ground. Another White House was put in its place that’s roots revealed righteousness and peace. The hand of the Lord planted it into rich soil and it began to flourish, it’s branches contained beautiful fruit. As I looked at this tree it seemed to be an olive tree.
I was again lifted up and taken to the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Supreme Court where I saw them uprooted as well and replaced with new trees that foundations were righteousness and peace. They too began to flourish and bear fruit and appeared to be olive trees as well with multicolored fruit. I heard the Lord speak, “I have extended an olive branch of peace to the United States of America and will extend Donald Trump’s presidency into a second term by the power of my right hand. What I have done in the White House will happen with every branch of Government in the United States for I will pull out corruption and plant trees of righteousness that will bear much fruit. Even now the ax is laid to the root of these corrupt trees. Every tree which does not bear good fruit will be cut down, pulled out and thrown into the fire! There will come forth new terms filled with peace, branches will grow out of righteous roots. The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon America again, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord will return once again across the land.”
I again looked and saw a massive red tsunami wave coming to America suddenly it crashed against the shores and covered the nation. I thought, “No. Does this mean a disaster will come?” I heard the Lord say, “I will come to America with another wave of revival, this will be the third wave and will crash against the shores so intensely that the nation will awaken to righteousness again. I will cover this nation with my blood, cities will experience the salvation of my hand. I will empower my church to preach the message of the cross and multitudes will run to alters on street corners and stadiums as I cover the nation with the blood of my son from sea to shining sea.”
The Lord spoke to me again, “As a sure sign of these things coming to pass there will be a wave of conservatives elected during the midterm election in November 2018, it will be Breaking News. They will carry the House and the Senate and I will uproot, replant and rebuild the nation. I will tie the three branches of government together for a person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. I will no longer allow your President to stand on his own. Even now I have called others to come along side and help bring the nation back from the dead and they will take their seats in the coming days.”
I saw the House of Representatives stay in the hands of the Republicans and will move much more to a conservative position. I could see into the Senate and saw the Republicans gain 9 seats, those that took their place were considerably more conservative then those who had previously been there. I heard the Lord say, “Yes, nine will be a sign; a sign that righteousness has been birthed in the nation and earth.” I saw three more constitutional conservatives were appointed to the Supreme Court by President before 2020.
I was so stirred in my heart at the sight of the nation, it was no longer surviving; it was thriving. Waves of outpouring, renewal and revival were all around. I saw tangible glory clouds coming down. God will have his way in the coming days, but we must stand and continue to pray.