Friday, December 28, 2012

"Tohu Wa-Bohu" or Karl Barth and Hell pt. 1

Well, this blog has been a lesson in approach avoidance.  (For those without psychological training, that is a technical term for "being scared to do something and so not doing it even though you want to").  I have wrestled with Barth off and on for several reasons.  One, I have been concerned over getting too sucked into ivory tower theologizing when I have real, life or death ministry to be doing.  I have had to conclude that this objection is bogus.  Barth wrote his theology for the church, and primarily for the sake of upholding good preaching in the church.  So Barth did his theology for the sake of "in the trenches" ministry.  The fact that he is primarily only dealt with in the academy is a tragedy.  That, I have concluded, was never his intent.  (You may have also noticed a decided lack of any posting about Calvin.  A fellow minister in my community expressed interest in reading Calvin together with me and blogging on it together.  Again, after some doubts, I am hoping to pursue this opportunity.  That frees me up for just dealing with Barth on this blog)...

My second real struggle with Barth is his implicit universalism.  That will be the subject of this and subsequent posts.  I am not a universalist.  My theology is thoroughly orthodox-evangelical in this sense: that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and that without faith in Christ there is no salvation.  I like how Bernard Ramm, the American Baptist, said it: every true evangelical is a universalist at heart.  That is, every true evangelical has a real desire that all be saved.  But Ramm also states, "At this point it is very difficult for the nonevangelical to really tune in on the wavelength of the evangelical.  If being saved or lost is a real distinction among men, then theology takes upon itself utmost seriousness. The evangelical believes that not only are theological issues at stake, but the very substance of his own eternal destiny" (The Evangelical Heritage, p.148).  So I have struggled with Barth's deliberate tendency to leave the door open to universal salvation, not because I "want" there to be people in hell, but because if hell is a very real destiny for those who reject Christ then I don't want to pat myself on the butt and tell myself not to worry about it - it seems so much "nicer" not to think such things.

But anyone familiar with Barth will know that Ramm's words about one's "eternal destiny" being at stake are actually quite Barthian. Allow me one quote (there are many like it):

"It is true that God is with us in Christ and that we are his children, even if we do not perceive it.  It is true from all eternity, for Jesus Christ who assumed our nature is the eternal Son of God.  And it is always true in time, even before we perceive it to be true.  It is still true even if we never perceive it to be true, except that in this case it is true to our eternal destruction." (Church Dogmatics I/2, T&T Clark Edition, p.238, italics mine)

Barth is paradoxical in his theologizing because he never felt the constraint from, and in fact intentionally rejected, the law of non-contradiction.  In dealing with God and his self-revelation, Barth would say, we cannot impose our own rules.  This makes a lot of Barth's theology come off like a five cornered square.  But that is precisely how Barth felt God's Word in Christ comes across.  It is inconceivable and at times even violent to our own efforts to control and dissect.  When we come to the Bible, it is not that we study God but that God (if he so chooses) speaks to us.  God is the Subject and we are the object, never the reverse.  True, God is the "object" of our studies as he reveals himself - but that is simply to say he is really no object at all, but a living Subject.  This being the case, it is natural to be overwhelmed by God's Word and limited in our own abilities to express it or even to feel that it "makes sense" according to our own categories.  The Word of God only makes sense as we accept it, yield to it, believe it, obey it.  It is self-authenticating.

And it is this seemingly self-contradicting theology of Barth that, I have discovered, gives us a powerful theology of damnation.  Barth would wonder, I imagine, why I am looking so hard for a theology of judgment and eternal destruction.  But because he and I agree on the Bible and on Jesus Christ, and because his theology of election has some profound implications for pastoral ministry, I want to follow his logic out to the end and find a powerful warning from the Word of God which Barth himself shows us.  It is found in Barth's doctrine of the "absurdity" of sin and in his doctrine of creation and exegesis of Genesis chapter 1.  More to follow, God willing, in the future...

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