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“Staking All on Faith’s Object: the Art of Christian Assurance according to Martin Luther and Karl Barth”

Olmstead, Richard H. | unpublished paper presented to members of The Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton Theological Seminary, autumn, 1999


pp. 1 - 2

Olmsted quotes an extraordinary exchange between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, which opened their correspondence of many years. It shows that giants of theology may struggle with their faith just like non-giants: “Brunner’s first letter to Barth was written in July of 1916, and was in part a response to a sermon Barth had preached and published that year entitled, ‘The One Thing Necessary.’ The sermon centered on a very Kierkegaardian complaint, namely, that academically minded theologians are forever postponing the decision for God by first of all insisting on getting their concepts clarified and their definitions set. Because they insist on doing these things first, Barth argued, they refuse to begin at the beginning; they remain on the circumference and never get to the center. Brunner wrote: ‘I don’t know how far I am guilty of what you mean about ‘definitions vs. decision.’ This is my experience: Either I will completely be in the center–God lives, let God matter, decide for God. But then I soon find that all I have in my hands are four letters [G-O-T-T], an abstract thought, with which I can neither understand nor master my life. I can say: let God matter. But, in reality, what matters is not God but my thought that ‘God should matter.’ Or, on the other hand, depressed from this experience, I fall into the other extreme: ‘God should matter’ becomes ‘the Good should matter,’ faith mixed up with a moral-cultural lifestyle, a system of ethics, that, up to a certain point, shines through one’s life, but naturally (as little as ‘the law’ in Paul) has no power. I’ve always had the feeling–and my moral experience confirms it–that I have still not made much headway toward God, that my faith has produced nothing. Theoretically, I know that everything depends on faith and how everything else has its source in faith. But then I find–and this is the vicious circle–that in order to have faith, one must become a completely different person. Again and again I find myself to be lazy and unfaithful; my faith is so weak that it often doesn’t make headway over against the robust old Adam. Therefore I first need to become a different person in order to have faith; but I have to have faith in order to become a different person! What do you say to all this? Perhaps you are thinking of responding with ‘It makes me glad that you are a “seeker” and that’s the important thing.’ But this is not helpful. There is a search which moves forward, but my search has gone around in circles for years. There are many thousands who are seekers and have found joy, while I have never truly had joy. With true regards, your still somewhat-fallen-short comrade on the way.’ Barth responded: ‘I understand you very well. It’s exactly the same for me as for you, in every point. You really don’t think that you are in some sense a special case? I really experience the same things–you are in no way a ‘fallen-short comrade.’”