Thursday, 8 September 2016

Karl Barth on ‘I-hymns’ [2]

In my previous post, we saw that Barth (in Church Dogmatics I/2) objected to so-called ‘I-hymns’ on the basis of a perceived separation of the Holy Spirit from Christ. The result of this is effectively a turn from the objectivity of Christian faith as revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit to the subjectivity of the Christian’s own faith or relationship with God in Christ. On Barth’s account here, the ‘spiritual songs’ of Ephesians 5:19 have ‘given way to religious poetry.’ (CD I/2, p. 254)

However, in Church Dogmatics IV/1 (1953; ET 1956), Barth issues a retraction of sorts—or perhaps an intensification of his critique. First of all, Barth not only affirms that Jesus Christ stands in relation to the Christian community and to the world more generally, but in relation to the individual Christian, too: ‘from all eternity God has thought of me, elected me, acted for me in Him [Jesus], called me to Himself in Him as His Word.’ (CD IV/1, p. 753) Barth is not saying that the ‘I’ is the only person that matters, but that God in Christ truly relates to the ‘I’ in all his or her particularity: Jesus is my Mediator, my Saviour, my Lord. Thus Jesus is pro me—‘for me’. But this is no abstract pro me but the pro me that has to be seen in relation to the pro nobis (‘for us’) and the propter nos homines (‘for us humans’). As far as I understand Barth here, Jesus is pro me as the particular person, Terry, who is constituted by his relations within the Christian community (pro nobis) and humanity more generally (propter nos homines). So Christ not only died for humanity but—in a very real sense—just for Terry. (And for you in all your glorious particularity, I hasten to add.)

So how does this apparently quite extreme Christian(ised) individualism affect the Church’s hymnody? Barth notes that his earlier critique of ‘I-hymns’ (in CD I/2) can only be a relative criticism; there are too many ‘I-Psalms’ in Scripture to suggest otherwise. Moreover, the pro me needs to be genuine lest Christian belief degenerate into an abstract theory rather than a powerful witness to God’s action in Christ. But Barth goes further than this; he goes to great lengths to emphasise that Christ stands in relation to each individual Christian as though he or she were the sole representative of Christian faith in the world. In fact, my ‘as though’ might be misleading:

Each individual as such . . . stands in the place of many, of all, uniting and representing in himself as this man the whole race, and in himself as this Christian the community. In his existence as an individual he is not a particle or a sample or a specimen. He is the one who is and has and does and signifies the whole and everything. He is the one who is responsible for all and everything. . . . In all the work of God, in what God does and says as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, he is not merely envisaged in general, or together with others. . . . What God does is all of it done just for him, just for thee and me. What God wills is all expected just of him, just of thee and me. (CD IV/1, p. 756)

This is not the easiest passage to understand, at least not for me. The thrust of the passage seems to be that, for Barth, Christ’s relation to each individual Christian demonstrates that God is not only pro me, but that God, by virtue of being pro me, is also pro nobis and propter nos homines as well. And this seems to be Barth’s unpacking of the word Credo, ‘I believe’, which is in the first person singular to express the genuine unity of those who confess it as members of the Church. All this seems to point to a radical understanding of humanity that moves beyond mere individualism and simple communitarianism towards something more (shall we say) mystical. And this is what I think is the genius of Barth’s critique here in CD IV/1: the Church’s so-called ‘I-hymns’ don’t go far enough! In Barth’s own words, ‘Is there any I-hymn which can express this strongly enough? Is not the confession of faith itself necessarily the strongest I-hymn of all?’ (CD IV/1, p. 756) If my reading of Barth here is correct, then I suggest that few current ‘I-hymns’ can express this radical conception of humanity because the Western Church is either mired in a thoroughgoing individualism that posits the Church merely as individuals with a common interest, or is earnestly seeking some kind of socialist utopia that may or may not have Christian elements. But neither angle takes humanity seriously enough.

Given all this, Barth maintains that while I-hymns have a place in the Church’s hymnody, they can only have that place inasmuch as they testify to Christ. The pro me cannot be abstracted and systematised; nor can the relationship between God and the individual be ‘the basis and measure of all things.’ (CD IV/1, p. 757) Here, Barth seems to be saying that in the process of singing genuinely Christ-oriented ‘I-hymns’, Christ himself moves intentionally from being the object of the pro me to being the subject of the pro me. Barth concludes:

It will be acknowledged that Christian faith is an “existential” happening, that it is from first to last I-faith, which can and should be sung in I-hymns. But there will take place the necessary “de-mythologisation” of the “I” which Paul carried through in Gal. 220: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (CD IV/1, p. 757)

* * * * *

The danger I see in many of the songs we sing in our local churches is that either they focus on our relationship with God (rather than on God and what God has done), or they are an opportunity to emote—or, to put it more pejoratively, an opportunity to burble like a baby. But do we not see both of these things in the psalms? I confess I’d like Barth to have explained his comment about ‘I-Psalms’ a little more.


  1. I hope Matt Redman wants to take me back to a plate of warm chips...

    I was poised to comment on your previous post but I think you've covered most of what I was going to say - particularly the point about the many I-Psalms (or is that an Apple product for OT Prophets?).

    Barth's critique goes a little over my head in places, and I'm not entirely convinced that each of us is the representative of everyone else, though I can see *something* in it, in a mystical incarnational kind of a way.

    I'm also not convinced that there is a clear Scriptural precedent or blueprint for what congregational hymns and worship/praise songs should be like - and even if there were I'm not sure that should be the sole arbiter.

    I take the point about the danger of separating Christ and the Spirit, but I'm not sure that is going on in most contemporary hymns and worship songs.

    From my perspective as conflicted worship leader and songwriter, I think there's a place in our worship for I-hymns, or hymns that contain an I-perspective. But a near-exclusive diet of entirely subjective and overly-emotionally-based content probably isn't all that healthy.

    So would 'Shine Jesus Shine' work for you as a Trinitarian, mainly God-focused song, leaving aside its musical merits?

    1. To be honest, I've no idea what works for me any more. I likes what I knows, and I knows what I likes - and most of the time, I don't likes what I knows. A common complaint issuing forth from mine lips is the lack of coherence I perceive in many songs - too many just seem to be random words or phrases plucked from the Bible or the songwriter's head and strung together. 'The Splendour of the King' is one of those songs; 'Sovereign Over Us' is another. It might be unfair for me to think of these songs as incoherent, but well . . . I definitely detect a tacit but real difference between, say, 'Praise is Rising' and 'Come, you thankful people, come'.

      I had hoped that someone with more skill in interpreting Barth would have seen these two posts to comment on my own skills of interpreting Barth!

  2. Your skill in interpreting Barth is second to none Terry. Barth himself says so.

    However, your taste in contemporary worship songs is right up the creek. Not liking 'The Splendour of the King'? You baffle me.

    Joking aside, I do actually rate that song and would have used it as an example of a good contemporary worship number, so there you go - no accounting for taste.

    What's almost certainly true is that the lyrical quality of most modern praise/worship songs is significantly lower than that of most older hymns. However, that's not an entirely fair - the hymns that have survived and been passed down to us will mostly be the higher-quality, more enduring ones, and I suspect hundreds of second-raters have happily fallen by the wayside.

    Perhaps the inherent lyrical problem with contemporary worship songs is that they are almost exclusively written in the pop/rock song genre, which isn't best designed for high-quality verse. And the best pop/rock songs are generally ones where the lyrics are obscure or bizarre enough to sound deeply meaningful, which doesn't work too well in worship.

    I think there are some good modern Christian songwriters whose work will endure a bit longer - much as I hate to say it, Graham Kendrick at his best may be one of those, and Stuart Townend has produced some good songs even if I personally don't like them (or disagree with their conservative theology!). And even Matt Redman has his moments...

    1. Yeah, 'The Splendour of the King' just seems to attach pious phrase to pious phrase. I've no objection to singing it, but . . . well, given your comment about high-quality songs lasting the test of time, I'd be interested to see how many are still singing this in, say, a century's time. And if James K. A. Smith's stance is anything to go by, a lot of these songs will pass away quite quickly because many Christians equate novelty with authentic expression in worship. I remember singing 'He is the Lord and he reigns on high' quite a lot back in the 90s, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside. At least, I haven't mimed along to it since then. . . ;)

  3. Although there's always the phenomenon that once something gets old enough, someone may rediscover it and it will be novel again for a while... like the current resurrections of 'Ben Hur' and 'Pokemon'.

    Some more conservative churches are just catching up with 80s/90s worship songs now and are experimenting with them as daringly progressive... the church I take my parents to once a month majors on 80s classics and new Stuart Townend / Keith Getty songs.

    1. By '80s classics', are you meaning stuff like Duran Duran and Wham? I've never been to a church that sings 'Girls on Film' . . .

  4. Yes, it's all 'Club Tropicana' and 'Her name is Rio' at my parents' church. Hallelujah!

    1. Church Anglicana, spats are free,
      Strife and conflict, there's enough for everyone.

  5. This reminds me of one of the Adrian Plass diaries, where the organist gets carried away and starts playing 'Home on the Range' and one of the more enthusiastic participants cries out, "We want to be the antelopes for you, Lord!"

    This is a theological approach I can relate to - poking affectionate fun ;-)

    My husband's vague claim to fame is that he was taught by someone who was himself taught by Karl Barth.

    1. That's an impressive claim to fame, all the same . . .