A Biography of Barth— Part Thirteen

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Q. When we talk about God’s Word exegeting us, even while we are exegeting it, what would Barth, or evangelicals really mean by this? Merely that the Bible can change our thinking? Or the Bible can shape us morally and ethically in terms of our behavior?

A. Both/and. We come to Scripture to find out, not what we think of it, but what it thinks of us. And once we find out it thinks we’re sinner in need of God and the working of the Holy Spirit, then we submit to its analysis and make changes accordingly.

Q. Barth’s theology of Christ as the elect one of God, plays out in interesting ways in his son Markus’ magisterial commentary on Ephesians. One of the difficulties with Barth’s approach is his assumption that Christ being the elect one means Christ is the saved one as well, but Christ didn’t need to be saved. The problem, it seems to me is the confusion of election with salvation. God’s chosen people in the OT were certainly elect, but according to the testimony of the OT, many of them were not saved. Election has to do with God’s purposes, plans, missions in history and it has a corporate sense— election happens in Israel in the OT, and in Christ in the NT. But the means of getting into Christ is by grace through faith in Him. There is the further problem, especially with his reading of Paul, because Paul has three tenses to salvation— I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved. It is not a package deal determined before the foundation of the universe, and particularly in stage two it is not a unilateral matter. We must work out our salvation which God is working into us to will and to do. So Barth’s reversal of ‘if you repent and believe, you will be saved’ into ‘you are saved therefore you must repent and believe’ does not do justice to a whole plethora of NT texts, including Paul. I agree with von Balthasar that despite Barth’s denials, the implications of what he says about the death of Christ and about election lead to universalism.

A. All I can say is to encourage readers to read chapter 12 in which I discuss this at length. I do think there is room to talk about the difference between election and salvation. That is, all are elect, as Barth put it, God has no obligation to save someone who stubbornly refuses to accept his election and decides to live a life apart from Christ.

Also, I think we have to take Barth’s reversal–you are saved, therefore repent and believe—as a theological statement. Meaning that this is really what is going on, even though we experience it in a different order. That is, why would someone decide to repent and believe if, in fact, they didn’t feel assured that they are talking to a good God who wills them to be saved? The fact that they feel assured they would be saved means that their salvation is already assured before repentance? To say otherwise—that God only saves when we believe—well, that’s Pelagianism, with salvation resting on a human action and human will.

I think we have to be humble enough to recognize that any solution we come up with to grasp the paradoxical and mysterious nature of faith and salvation is going to have serious theologian problems attached to it. Barth’s solution certainly does. But so does the traditional way of talking about these things.

Q. Reconciliation, as it is spoken of in the NT (and that is very rare), refers to the re-establishment of a relationship between two parties— God and humankind, or between humans and humans. When we hear about ‘God reconciling the world to himself’ emphasis has to be placed on the word ‘reconciling’ an ongoing process being played out in human history. So, while we can say that Christ’s death on the cross objectively made possible reconciliation between God and us, that benefit has to be appropriated through the gift of faith. Yes, it’s there in principle, but no, it’s not actual until the two parties are actually in a restored relationship with one another. That’s just basic to the meaning of that Greek word. So, while I agree we can affirm Barth’s view about Christ as the elect one, and about his death having universal scope when it comes to sin, and about reconciliation being achieved in principle then and there, so that all persons already belong to and in Christ, there is still the matter of being saved by grace through faith, active trust in God and active belief in Christ, the active receiving of the gift of salvation that is not a fait accompli. Think of it this way— love must be freely given and freely received, and freely returned otherwise it’s not love, but rather manipulation. What does Barth have to say about the nature of God’s love and our love for God?

A. As you can imagine, this cannot be answered in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that our response to God does, in fact, have to be utterly free. If it is gained by any threat whatsoever, it is not free. It is only free if, in fact, God has already done everything, if in fact, we are really reconciled, if in fact, we are already forgiven. Then all threats are taken off the table, and for the first time we really are able to respond in freedom.

Q. Your book is excellent but it made me wonder if you have seen and read John Barclay’s powerful book Paul and the Gift about the nature of grace in Paul’s thought. I think he takes us beyond Barth to a more Biblical place when it comes to understanding what Paul actually says about grace and whether it is irresistible or not. I commend it to you.

A. I have read summaries of it and parts of it myself. Before reading the whole book word for word, my quick reading suggests that he’s not a Barthian! Meaning, I don’t know that he recognizes the radical nature of grace as outlined in Romans 5-8, and in 2 Cor. 5. But I’m teachable on this point!


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