Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Karl Barth, "the World," and Evangelism

I am continuing to take a break from my study of Hell in Barth's though, but look for a third installment soon(ish).  If you missed parts 1 and 2, they can be read here and here.  For now I am foraying into volume IV of the Church Dogmatics, the Doctrine of Reconciliation.

The Pentecostal movement, from the very beginning, has been a missionary movement.  Whenever Spirit-empowered missions and the planting of indigenous churches is lost from view, I think that the true essence of Pentecostal Christianity is lost.  The tongues, the healings, the miracles, and the exuberant worship, are simply pieces of this larger goal: the church, in the power of the Spirit, preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth, that every nation, tribe, and tongue may hear, believe, and so be saved.  So the preaching of the gospel is central to Pentecostalism.  So is the belief that hearing the gospel and responding to the gospel is needful for redemption in Christ.  I will not go so far as to say that the early Pentecostals were uniform in their views on the eternal fate of those who have never heard the gospel.  They may or may not have been.  I don't know.  But I know that what was central to the Pentecostal vision was the "lost-ness" of the world and the need people had to hear about Jesus.  If Barth's theology cannot speak to this missions mindset, then it is a poor companion to Pentecostal experience.

In Church Dogmatics IV/1, "The Doctrine of Reconciliation," Barth begins his book with the assertion that the Christian message can be summed up in the name Emmanuel, "God With Us."  He goes on to make clear that this "God With Us" is true, not because of us, but because of God.  Reconciliation with God is based on covenant.  God covenanted with mankind.  It was his purpose in creating us.  He created us to love us, but we broke faith with him.  We disobeyed and cancelled our "right" to the covenant relationship with God, but since God had already determined to have us, he kept both sides of the covenant, and he did this through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, God and man are reconciled.  And this is where Barth's implicit universalism appears (not so much in this section of the Dogmatics as in the logic).

But universalist or no, Barth is making a valuable point.  Redemption Proper, that is, redemption itself, takes place "over there" in Christ, not so much "over here" in us.  We have forfeited the covenant, but outside of us and on our behalf, God in Christ has restored and maintained it.  Later on, in volume IV/4, Barth will explain Christian experience of the Spirit (which he calls "baptism in the Holy Spirit") as being brought into, or made aware of, what has happened for us in Christ.  A strong case can be made from Barth's thought that what we generally mean by "being saved" doesn't take place until this conversion, or Spirit baptism.  But because Barth wants to downplay the subjectivism which he saw as the great enemy to the gospel, Barth threw all his weight on the actuality of the redemption that happened in Jesus.  Salvation really happened when Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  And because Barth rejected a classical Calvinistic view of "limited atonement" (Jesus only died for the elect), actual salvation has happened for the whole world and for every man in it already in Jesus.  He didn't make salvation possible, he saved us.  But what does this do with the need to preach the gospel to people, and to actually believe it ourselves?...

On pages 70-78 of Church Dogmatics IV/1 (T&T Clark edition), Barth spends time exegeting two important passages for his understanding of the gospel, John 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:19.

In the first passage, of course, we are told that God has "loved the world" by sending Jesus Christ, and for Barth this love is effective.  God has loved the world, which is to say, he has kept the covenant on behalf of the world in Christ.  And Barth emphasizes that, in John, "the world" is the wicked world.  God has loved the wicked world in Christ.  The whole thing is loved.  Is there any distinction then between believers and unbelievers?  Yes, it seems there is:

"Those who believe on the Son are the members of the cosmos who, while they necessarily participate as such in its opposition, and are therefore subject to perishing and have forfeited eternal life, in the sending of the Son and therefore in the self-offering of God can and must recognise [sic] God as God, and His will as a will of love, a will to rescue and to save...
"They are those who without being in any way different from others are under the forceful permission and command to affirm God and the will of God as it has been revealed to them.  This is not because, as distinct from others, they are disposed and able of themselves, but because God is too strong for them...
"What happens to them, and as such is only theirs, applies to the whole world, as we see from the verse which immediately follows [i.e. John 3:17], and is connected to v. 16 by a "gar" [Grk. for "for"]: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved" (v. 17).  Within the world, and therefore as a witness directed and appointed to it, there are men who belong to it, yet do not perish but have everlasting life.  In the setting up of this witness within the world the atonement is shown to be an atonement for the world." (p.73, emphasis mine)
So Barth's understanding of the distinction between believers and unbelievers is not one of righteousness (we are all rebels), or of personal qualities (if anything, we believe because we're weaker than our neighbors).  Those who believe are those who have actually entered into what is the real situation of the whole world.  The atonement that has taken place in Jesus really is an atonement for the whole world.  Using Barth's logic of sin and damnation as "nothingness" and "absurdity," then, I would conclude that Barth is saying that when we believe we enter into truth as opposed to continuing in the lie of sin and lost-ness.  Our salvation in Christ is true, and our continuing in an unreconciled state is a ridiculous lie.

And what is fascinating and beautiful about Barth's though here is the role believers thus take.  Because salvation is for the world, to be a believer is to be a witness.  This is evident from the above quotes, but comes out even more forcefully in Barth's exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:19.  In typical Barthian fashion, and in keeping with his view of reconciliation in Christ, Barth takes the apostle Paul's statement that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself" and "not counting their sins against them" with utmost seriousness.  God has reconciled the world!  He has not counted our sin!  He has made us righteous in Jesus!  So where does preaching the gospel come into this?  In the "ministry of reconciliation":

"Between the apostle and the rest of the world there is the decisive difference that he has eyes and ears for the atonement which has been made, and therefore for the conversion of the world to God, for the new thing which has come and therefore for the passing of the old, whereas the world is still blind and deaf to it. . .But it is not this difference, and the tension of it, and the dynamic of this tension, which makes him an apostle.  What moves him in this difference, what prevents him from evading the tension as a kind of private person reconciled with God, what forces him to make it his own, to bear it in his own person, is the fact that what has come about for him in Christ as his reconciliation with God has come about for him for the sake of the world." (p.77, emphasis mine)
So for Barth, the salvation of the individual in Christ is part of the bigger whole: the real salvation that has taken place once and for all in Jesus Christ for every single person.  The individual's salvation is the actualization of this salvation, the entering by grace into a fact that is (potentially) true of all.  But when we enter into this fact, the joyful burden of being a witness to the world of it's salvation which has taken place in Christ becomes ours as well.  And in this way, Barth becomes a happy ally to the Pentecostal cause of missions and world evangelization.  Glory to God in the highest, and to his Son who has made salvation real.  Amen.

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