What people are saying:

William Barr

Professor Emeritus of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary


[The following review by William R. Barr, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, appeared in Encounter, vol. 64, no. 1 (2003), pp. 655-74. Response by Jones is posted at the end of the review below. Posted 10/2/03.]

[The following review by William R. Barr, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, appeared in Encounter, vol. 64, no. 1 (2003), pp. 655-74. Response by Jones is posted at the end of the review below. Posted 10/2/03.]


Karl Barth once remarked that theological discourse must be declarative and bold, because it is based not in human speculation but in the revelation of God. Forthright and bold statements clearly characterize this major theological work by Joe Jones, the summation of a lifetime of study, reflection, and teaching. The author, now professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Christian Theological Seminary, taught theology for many years at CTS, and prior to that at Perkins School of Theology and then at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University, where he also served as dean and later as president.

In this systematic statement, the author’s aim is to analyze and clarify the language, and thus also the thought, of the church in its exposition of the gospel. In so doing, he wants to help remedy what seems to him significant areas of “disarray” in the speech and life of the church; in particular, that such speech is often merely empty talk without relevance to life-shaping and redemptive practices. Jones refers to the speech of the church in word and deed as the “grammar” of Christian faith, and he concentrates attention on the way this grammar works: in terms of its syntax (meaningful connection of words), semantics (reference to an object or subject matter), and “pragmatics” (what actions the speech aims for and helps accomplish). He wants to show that Christian speech is not just the expression of the individual’s feeling or experience, nor of the church’s cultural context—although these are inevitably reflected in Christian discourse—but that the church has a primary responsibility to articulate clearly in the present situation those defining practices that constitute the Christian community as church.

The first part of the work addresses the task, sources, and norms of systematic theology. Jones insists that the basis of Christian theology is God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ as the God of Israel and creator and redeemer of the world. On the basis of such texts as Psalms 19 and Rom 1:18-21, as well as the restlessness of the human spirit seeking God, Jones acknowledges a general revelation of God through creation, but he contends that our knowledge of this revelation is generally clouded and rendered ineffective by the spiritual blindness that results from human sin. It is clarified only by God’s special revelation in the salvation history of Israel, in Jesus Christ, and in the church guided by the Holy Spirit. In this history, God’s self-revelation is always an event, an event that evokes and includes a personal affirmative response in and by those who receive it in faith. This, says Jones, involves the response of the whole person: mind, as well as heart and life. He contends that this also includes the response of a community of faith that witnesses to and communicates the gospel of God’s revelation. In carrying out this witness, the church undertakes theology to test and clarify its explication of the gospel in and in relation to the contemporary situation. Thus, Jones argues, Christian theology must be confessional church theology, a theology that presupposes and serves the church.

Jones specifies the following as the basic sources of Christian theology: scripture, church traditions, contemporary learning, and past and present human cultures. Scripture and those church traditions that rightly interpret scripture are said to be “deputized signs” that witness to and communicate God’s truth, but are not to be taken as an inerrant deposit of doctrine, since in them God works through historically-conditioned and fallible human witnesses. Jones says the church that listens to hear the gospel through these witnesses is both freed and bound by them: freed, because the gospel of God’s free grace is always living and energizing, never merely a dead letter; and bound because this witness is the indispensable means through which the gospel is transmitted to later generations.

However, the author takes issue with George Lindbeck’s view (in The Nature of Doctrine) that theology should only be descriptive of the rules governing the church’s discourse. He contends that such a view elides recognition of the essential truth-claims inherent in the church’s witness and overlooks that theology is itself part of this witness.

The second section of the work has to do with the nature and activity of the God revealed focally in Christ. The author argues strenuously and incisively that God is revealed here not as a metaphysical substance nor as a metaphysical process bound by necessity to the world but rather as a personal, living subject, in triune interaction and participation both with the world and in God’s own being; a God whose life is lived in an interactive communion of love; and who freely and graciously is self-giving to and for the salvation of the world. Drawing on Barth’s and Rahner’s notions of modes of being, Jones conceives God as one person-subject, self-differentiated in three distinctive modes of being-in-act. He rejects the Eastern and more recent social trinitarianism, which conceive God as a society or community of persons, believing that this implies tritheism, the notion of three gods, and makes impossible the affirmation of God as one subject. Jones accepts the traditional trinitarian terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but seeks to be responsive to feminist criticism by arguing that these terms do not divinize the male, nor sanction male dominance, but rather designate an order and intimacy of relationships within the divine life and in the relation of God to the world. He suggests that an appropriate formulation would be: “We believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mother of us all.”

With Barth, Jones’s basic definition of God is “the Triune One Who Loves in Freedom.” This becomes the criterion for understanding the divine attributes, and leads the author to reject classical notions of divine immutability and impassibility, since a God who passionately loves the world is surely affected by what happens in it and by the response of (in any case) the human creature.

From this follows a discussion of God as Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler (Providence), and in connection with this, the problem of evil. Rejecting both creationism and a naturalistic view of evolution, Jones argues for a view of God as gracious Companion who interacts with and works within the world to achieve God’s purpose for the flourishing of life. Evil is both personal sin (turning away from God) and the multiple consequences that follow from this, including the formation of what the author calls “force fields of evil”: systemic and entrenched cultural attitudes and social arrangements that demean and destroy human life and damage creation.

Countering what he sees as tendencies in some sectors of recent theology to blend or posit a metaphysical continuity of God and the world, Jones insists that the “otherness” of God and the creature is the condition for God’s having free and gracious relationships with creatures and with the creation as a whole. Yet Jones also wants to avoid a deistic separation of deity and the creation. He argues that the creature has “an appropriate creaturely independence of God,” is respected and valued by God, and has the freedom to respond to God’s revelation. Yet, while Jones rejects any notion of creaturely autonomy over against or apart from God, he seems to make a limited space for a “relative independence of the creature” in relation to God, although it is not clear how this fits into his discussion of the Holy Spirit as God’s empowering presence within the life of the creature that grants true freedom and faithful response.

In connection with the doctrine of creation, the author engages in a wide-ranging and discerning exploration of the human being as created embodied spirit. Acknowledging that the question of the nature of human being in its totality and depths is as elusive and finally incomprehensible as the mystery of God’s love for and commitment to the human creature, Jones adopts Calvin’s rule that true knowledge of the human being cannot be separated from the true knowledge of God. He adopts Barth’s view that humanity can only be understood rightly in the light of Christ; that is to say, in terms of God’s revelation of human being as well as divine being in him. It is thus Jesus’ humanity that provides the norm for understanding our own. This leads, in Jones’s view, to an understanding of the human being as created being, as sinful, as reconciled in Christ, and as redeemed, or being redeemed, in the Holy Spirit.

The author’s discussion of the human as embodied spirit in these respects is especially rich. Jones points out the interdependence of human beings with the rest of creation, the distinction between sexual differentiation and gender roles, the dynamics of personal being and interaction. His discussion of personal being as emotive, as well as rational and agential, leads into a perceptive probing of the power of passion, desire, and erosic attraction in human life.

Jones contends that it is at once a qualitatively new act, but also in basic continuity with God’s relationship with the world and calling of Israel to be God’s witness among the peoples, that in Jesus Christ God comes in person as this particular person to take up and reconcile sinful and lost humanity. Jones interprets the “self-emptying” of the Son in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11) as signifying that in Jesus God humbly condescended to become one of us, without thereby abandoning or limiting or concealing God’s essential attributes (contrary to many kenoticist views). For it is in this event that the divine attributes are most clearly revealed.

Because the person and work of Christ are intertwined, Jones argues, neither can be adequately understood apart from the other. Following and at the same time modifying Reformed/Calvinist tradition, Jones explicates Christ’s work in terms of the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and Resurrected Victor. Jones’s discussion of these offices is insightful and provocative.

For, example, Christ’s priestly office is interpreted not as an appeasement of God or as an unjust imposition of human sin and punishment on Jesus (the charge of “cosmic child abuse” completely misses the point), but as God’s own voluntary assumption of the consequences of human sin and defeat of them as the ultimate determiners of human life. Here Jones attempts to walk a fine line between affirming God’s presence in Christ (in trinitarian terms: the perichoresis of the Father in the Son and in the Spirit) and the apparent distance or even absence of God epitomized in Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross. Attempting to hold both of these together, while grappling with Moltmann’s view (particularly in his work The Crucified God), Jones contends that God the Father “is present as absence but present as will.” However, both the meaning of this statement as well as its implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death seems to this reader highly problematic. Furthermore, it seems to undercut the crucial affirmation Jones goes on to assert, that the Father suffers directly, not merely at a distance, as an empathetic onlooker, in the suffering of the Son.

By substituting the terminology of Jesus Christ as risen victor for the older designation of the royal office as Christ’s kingly work, Jones not only avoids anachronism in speaking of this aspect of Christ’s work, but he also wants to emphasize the importance of the resurrection and the decisive yet also ongoing work of Christ in confronting the powers of evil. Jesus’ resurrection signifies that the chief of these powers, death, a power that manifests itself in all the others, is itself rendered powerless by its incapacity to hold Christ victim. This is not only a conviction of his followers who believed him to be risen; their joyful declaration is based on something they witnessed and that happened to them, the risen and life-giving presence among them of the one they followed.

Jones insists that because Jesus was raised “in a bodily form,” (although one that has unusual characteristics and properties, a new body yet at the same time recognizable in disclosure situations), the eternal life the risen Christ communicates to others through faith is also a transformed life in body and spirit. Clearly, though, there remain unresolved issues here, even on the christological basis on which Jones addresses these matters.

In sum, the soteriological doctrine culminates in a view of Christ’s saving work as the merciful enactment of God’s forgiveness and renewal of human life “ordered to the flourishing of humanity.” The author points out that this has cosmic significance as well since it requires an environment in which such flourishing is both possible and actual.

Yet God is not only Creator and Reconciler, but also Redeemer, through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Jones reviews biblical and traditional theological views of the Spirit, and in response to more recent discussions of the Spirit by Moltmann, Welker, and Elizabeth Johnson, and others, works out his own view of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit as God’s free presence within the creature, implementing the reconciliation wrought in Christ and empowering renewal, liberation, and redemption.

The Spirit also generates, sustains, nourishes, guides, and leads to completion the Christian life. The gift of faith is its primary element, not simply as belief but as a total response to encounter with the gospel of Christ, and thus as a “way of being-in-the-world.” Jones distinguishes between the many routes of faith (the various ways in which people live out faith) and the essential structure of faith as grateful acknowledgement, believing, trust in God and knowledge of oneself, intentional action and an orientation of the heart to God. Further, in Jones’s exposition the Christian life also includes freedom in Christ, sanctification, discipleship, and works and passions of agapic love. Jones’s discussion of these topics is penetrating. In this exposition, he develops a notion of what he calls “erosic love,” in which within agapic love for others there often is attraction toward the other, not necessarily sexually but in the desires that pull people forward toward common goals and energize their decisions and actions.

While the author at various points draws out ethical implications of theological doctrines, it is in here in his discussion of the Christian life that he gives his most concentrated and sustained attention to ethical issues. Drawing on the work of John Howard Yoder (especially his volume on The Politics of Jesus), Anders Nygren, Paul Ramsey, Gene Outka, and others, Jones works out an ethics of Christian discipleship. Grounded in Christ, and reflecting the triune life of God, the Christian and the community of faith are called to a life of mutual love, of mutual self-giving and receiving. All decisions and actions are to manifest such love. However, there are many situations in contemporary life where it is not clear how such love is best expressed: whether to save a fetus or to abort it, whether to continue life-support systems or to disconnect them, whether to employ or abolish the death penalty, etc.

The church is the context and nurturer of the Christian life. Jones proposes a conception of the church as a liberative and redemptive community of persons in Christ and in the Spirit called “to witness in word and deed to the living triune God for the benefit of the world to the glory of God.” This means that the whole of the church’s life is to be a profession of the gospel—in its worship, education, communal care, evangelism, and social outreach.

Seeking to show that theology is concerned with the practices of the church, as well as its essential nature, the author gives specific attention to the proclamatory, nurturing, outreach, and administrative practices of the church. He discusses at length the meaning and practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Reflecting his own Free Church tradition, he urges practice of believer’s baptism, contending that the recipient does not realize the full meaning of this without personal reception and appropriation. Indeed, Jones goes so far as to allow that if one’s “first baptism” did not involve the recipient’s personal commitment in faith, then it was not an “authentic” baptism and “one could be baptized again for the first time” (author’s italics). Jones argues this point, even though he counsels that the church and its leaders should not ask those who have been baptized at early ages to wonder anxiously whether they had been sufficiently intention in the act. There is obviously some tension here between the author’s concern to maintain the priority of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ which is the foundation of Christian baptism and which must find expression in it, and the believing appropriation of this grace and its becoming effectual in the life of those who are baptized.

Jones’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the celebration of the freely enacted encounter with Christ in and through the elements of bread and wine, but he emphasizes also the work of the Holy Spirit in gathering the community and creating communion with Christ and among the participants. Because the Lord whose table this is reached out to and welcomed sinners, Jones recommends that “all who ‘desire’ to participate” be welcomed to share in this act. He believes that the discourses at the table are sufficient to clarify what participation in this event means and requires, although he acknowledges that this involves growing understanding and deepening of faith over time.

Included in this section is a brief but important discussion of the meaning and practice of prayer. Because God is affected by as well as active toward the world, prayer is heard and taken seriously by God, although God’s will and work may not include granting all of the wishes of the one who prays. Prayer also helps align those who pray with the will of God and allows God to work more effectively in and through them. Thus the practice of prayer, in Jones’s view, indicates that the relationship of God and the believer (and the community of faith) is not coercive but voluntary, a relationship of receiving God’s guidance and responding with gratitude, petition, intercession for others, and silent listening and openness—also at times with groans and tears.

However, essential to the life of faith is hope. In the concluding section, Jones turns to an examination of the hope that animates and guides Christian life. He begins with a description of hope as a general human phenomenon and states that the “Christian life is a special style, type, and content of human hoping” (author’s italics). But he immediately goes on to say that the “linchpin” of Christian hope is specifically the risen Christ as victor who reigns over creation time and historical becoming. This, he states, is true both “vertically,” as Christ’s present radical reshaping of life, and “horizontally,” as the goal toward which our lives and creation are moved in the power of the Spirit. Here Jones boldly asserts a christologically-based universalism. He states, “Christians look to an absolute future in which God will bring all sinful humans and the whole creation to eternal fulfillment in God’s own eternal life.” But surely this is more a matter of hope and trust in God’s unforeseeable free grace which encompasses and empowers the free response of the creature than it is logical conclusion drawn from christological (and theological) premises.

In conclusion, it must be said that this is a work rich in summary of biblical and historical background of the doctrines of Christian faith and incisive in its interpretation of them in the contemporary life of the church. Though for the most part Jones follows closely the lead of Barth’s theological interpretations, at some points he does not hesitate to depart from his mentor and go his own way. He does so, for instance, in his notion of a relative independence of the human creature in relationship to God; in his restoration and revision of the older Reformed doctrine of the three-fold office of the work of Christ; and in his confident assertion of a final universalism of salvation. The author’s assertive, stipulative style may cause some readers to wonder how he arrives at the positions he takes, but the ensuing discussion often clarifies and shows the basis of earlier assertions. To be sure, this is a work that will prove helpful to all concerned for a clearer and deeper understanding of the meaning of Christian language in our time.

Copyright©Encounter. Used by permission.

Response by Jones:

I am deeply grateful to Professor Barr for the extensive and generous exposition of my systematic theology. The care with which he exposits and interprets my work is admirable and discerning. It is especially gratifying that Professor Barr is a retired professor of theology from a seminary, Lexington Theological Seminary, in my own denominational tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He not only knows his way around in our shared tradition, but in the larger theological traditions of the church as well.

There are, however, a few points in Barr’s review with which I want to wrestle further. First, with regard to my interpretation of Jesus’ cry of dereliction [pp. 449-51], Barr writes:
“Jones contends that God the Father “is present as absence but present as will.” However, both the meaning of this statement as well as its implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death seems to this reader highly problematic. Furthermore, it seems to undercut the crucial affirmation Jones goes on to assert, that the Father suffers directly, nor merely at a distance, as an empathetic onlooker, in the suffering of the Son.”

Let us grant that Jesus’ cry of dereliction seems to suggest Jesus’ sense of being abandoned by the Father. In the history of the church this cry has been largely ignored because it implies some sense of disjointedness or separation between the Father and the Son. How are we to interpret this? If we are firmly trinitarian in our interpretation, then we will not suppose there is, as Barr says, an “implied separation of the divine will and personal presence in Christ’s final suffering and death…” Why not? Because the divinity of the Son is already granted and is not dependent on the Father’s “presence” in order to be divine. Yet the Son is doing the will of the Father in accepting the cross, and therewith the Father is present to the Son as will. But the Father does not himself go to the cross, is not crucified; it is the Son who is crucified. It is in this sense that the Father is ‘absent’, and I do not think that undermines the perichoretic presence the Father has in suffering with the Son’s suffering, even though the Father does not suffer and die on the cross as the Son does.

Our language here is difficult and lacks a certain precision. Perhaps my language and grammar can be improved in clarity, faithfulness, and truth. But in ways the traditions of the church could not say, with their adamant insistence that God is immutable and impassible and therefore cannot suffer, I am simply trying to follow what I take to be the ‘incarnational narrative’ of the NT with its undeniable description of the Son not only dying on a cross and suffering its brutality but experiencing the absence of the Father. We can only unfold these matters theologically if we have an understanding of God in which God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in both unity and diversity and of a Son who can become incarnate in a human being who suffers and dies at the hands of the principalities and powers of evil. So, there might be some tension between Father and Son in the cross, but that is the unfathomable tension of the triune God taking the sins of the world into the divine Life for the sake of the redemption of the world.

Second, with regard to my grammar of baptism, Barr thinks there is some tension in my account between my emphasis on the priority of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and my emphasis on the importance of the baptizee being an active and intentional participant in the event. I am arguing both with those traditions that so emphasize the priority of God’s grace that the action of the one being baptized is insignificant to the performance of the event of baptism and with those traditions that so emphasize the believer’s action that it looks like an action of works righteousness that earns the grace. O, how confusing the church can get!

I am concerned that the ecclesial practice and performance of baptism can be so characterized that the one being baptized is no more than a passive recipient of something: grace? It is only because this description of baptism is accepted that the baptism of infants could even be entertained. But there is really no biblical sense to so emphasizing baptism that it is a practice done to the baptizee and never a practice performed by the baptizee. While it is surely important that the church does the baptizing, we cannot so describe the whole event of being-baptized without describing the public yes-saying and promise-making of the baptizee. Without the baptizee’s active consent we could never say that baptism is the beginning of the Christian life and membership in the church.

Consider the analogy to the performance of a marriage ceremony. Surely the officiating minister is a sine qua non of the event of marrying, but so too is the consent of the two being married. We could not say that the ecclesial intent of the practice of marrying is only a performance of the church and not in any sense a performance of the persons being married. There is no event of marrying without the consent of the persons in their making vows and affirmations.

The startling point is that the ecumenical traditions of the church can talk as though there is one baptism when the theologies of the practice are so starkly at odds. So with regard to Barr’s comment that there is some “tension” in my view of baptism, I must say that there is absolutely no tension whatsoever. I am perfectly clear that baptism is both an action of the church and an action of the person being baptized, and this has not even the faint odor of works righteousness. In the same way that a person cannot perform a baptism on herself, so too the church does not successfully perform a baptism without the consent and yes-saying of the person being baptized.

Third, Barr is concerned with my argument for universal redemption, contending that I am relying too much on a “logical conclusion drawn from christological (and theological) premises” and thereby ignoring the personal hope and trust in God. This comment is puzzling, as I would have thought drawing eschatological and soteriological conclusions from christological and theological premises is just what is to be desired. Apparently Barr thinks I am tying God’s hands by arguing that beliefs about an ultimate dual destiny leave matters utterly murky as to how anyone is ultimately saved. However, even if we say we leave ultimate salvation up to the judgment of God, who is this god in whom we say we are trusting our ultimate hope? Are there no theological beliefs here?

But apparently Barr also thinks I am diminishing the existential hope that a person might have by my proposing there are good reasons for the hope Christians and the church have. Well, I do think there are good reasons, given other beliefs Christians have about God and human life, for believing and thereby trusting that all persons will ultimately encounter the sheer grace and beauty of God in a way that is irresistible.

I am writing this response in gratitude for Barr’s review as he exemplifies that the church and the Christian are always in a quest for understanding and that such understanding cannot live without active conversation and questioning, even if there are no absolute arguments that meet everyone’s objection. It remains true that Christian discourse is ad hominem: directed to the individual person and requiring decisions about how he is to live and construe God and the world. Yet the ad hominem address does not occur except through the truth-claiming character of the discourses of the church.