A piece of Sittler's debt to Barth

As the fellow of the Joseph A. Sittler Archives at LSTC, and a student of Barth theologically, I always have the question before me about how much these two figures go together -- and how much I am making up the connections between the two. Part of this problem is that we have a lot of oral records of Sittler, and not so many written pieces of background on courses and such. But it nags at my consciousness as I work with both of them, how much the one reminds me of the other.

At minimum, it is clear to me that Joseph Sittler was not a Barthian, in any way comparable to Torrance or Gunton; Hauerwas, Yoder, or Lindbeck; .... Not a man that follows the material with whatever exactitude and builds out of it in obvious indebtedness. Not a man on whose lips the name "Barth" is regularly taken. But nonetheless a man in whose remains bits and pieces of Barth pop to the surface, and more importantly a man in whom the methods of Barth's work are more seriously taken than their products. A "constructive theologian" whose work involves a remarkable depth of exegesis, church history and patristics, systematic analysis of doctrines in context, ministry and preaching, the freedom to integrate Luther and Calvin without "dogmatic" adherence to their followers, and the bonus elements of literary and artistic awareness of his surrounding culture, and a mind aware of the advances of science and technology changing the world. A theologian more worried about how what is said is to be said today, and how it is to shape preaching, than the adherence to what has been said in the ways it has been said. And for all that, a man profoundly faithful to the articles of the Christian faith. If that's not the mold of the man Karl Barth, I miss my mark. A far too curious and educated parish pastor who came up to the professorship without leaving the pastorate, driven to do theology, and driven to do it for the life of the church.

And yet this isn't all -- that makes one many things, but the bits of Barth that pop up here and there push the notion of Sittler as a student of Barth flying under the radar.

So, one point found today of the debt Sittler owes to Barth, in the first of his four 1959 lectures in the University District, Seattle, WA: the ecology of human being mirrors III.4 in its construction. The audio can be found here. The lecture opens with an excursus on biblical hermeneutics and the meaning of "the Word of God" -- an excellent choice among prolegomena. The Word of God is what God does, "the saving activity of God." (5:40) "God's self-disclosure as creator and redeemer, that's the heart of it." (6:02) Secondly the words of God given in testimony by the prophets, third the written record of these words, but all inseparable from that first meaning. Fourth, the incarnation (8:00). Then we proceed to Genesis as story. And here we have the key bit in minute 10: "When the Hebrew people wanted to put down the deepest knowledge that they had from God as to who they are, how a man's life is constituted, how he is triply constituted: toward God, toward his fellowmen, toward the world of nature, the Hebrew people ... tell a story." And in minute 12: "No amount of accumulated knowledge will ever make irrelevant what this story is talking about, because this tale is the Word of God saying to a man who he is, how his life is constituted, what is the amplitude of his endowment -- the breath of God, nothing less -- so that if he tries to cheat on his endowment, he calls it frustration; God calls it alienation. So that if he tries to act as if he were something less than he is constituted to be, he will have certain feelings of unfulfillment -- and the scriptures call it sin."

Comments