A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Available at Amazon.com
Reviewed by Felicity Clift
‘This is a book about forgiveness, and as such it is a book about the church.’ In this opening line of his introduction to A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church, Jon Coutts captures the point of his efforts. The church is the church because of forgiveness – both received and given. As Coutts says, ‘it is in the midst of forgiving as they are forgiven that believers come to know God, seek his will together and present a witness to the world’ (p.91). It is in community and through reconciliation that the kingdom of God is exemplified on earth.
While outlining Karl Barth’s theology of forgiveness, A Shared Mercy challenges the current assumptions and practices of the church and society with regard to forgiveness. In agreement with Barth’s belief, Coutts suggests that the ‘prioritization of private piety [is] more indicative of the fallen nature than the one unified to Christ’ (p.65); a challenge to our individualistic minds. Yet the ‘personal import’ of Christianity is not diminished by claiming it is public in nature, Coutts says. Instead, Barth spoke of integration ‘into the communion of saints’ which Coutts reiterates as the very thing which makes us ‘genuine persons… under the new direction of the Holy Spirit’ (p.66). A right understanding of forgiveness, Coutts reveals, hinges on the recognition that the church is not merely a gathering of forgiven people but is identified by its ‘forebearance, forgiveness and self-giving love’ (p.70) which requires community. The church, it seems, has misunderstood forgiveness, which Coutts unpacks. Churches today tend to present service and forgiveness as means to personal growth, as disciplines motivated by love of self rather than the ‘love… commanded by Christ and born of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 73). Coutts is quick to acknowledge that service and forgiveness are essential in the Christian life, however, he challenges the priority and the underlying theology that drive people to serve or forgive.
Jon Coutts’ years of study of this theology have enabled him to create a book that is concise (243 pages) given the enormity and importance of the subject. His writing is intellectually complex from the outset, yet Coutts has endeavoured to make it accessible through offering shortcuts to those readers who are less interested in Barth and more interested in the implications for the church today. Coutts directs readers to skip to Chapter 4 if disinterested in reading detailed accounts of Barth’s theology, offers a table of summary (p.28) to outline the arrangement of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV, and he points to his final two chapters as the climax of his discussion for those unable or unwilling to devote time to the reading.
For those prepared to commit time, the whole book provides important food for thought and action and for this reason A Shared Mercy is a valuable book to invest in both financially and temporally.
Flyck Clift studies theology at Ridley College in Melbourne alongside working as a nurse. She is committed to involving herself at church and enjoys encouraging people to integrate their belief in God with their daily living.