Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not the Gospel?

Someone recently brought this passage in Eberhard Busch's biography regarding some comments Barth once made about Billy Graham's method of evangelizing to my attention. I was hesitant to post this, but I will say that I have not been able to get this passage out of my mind since I read it. It is shocking, and well, quite interesting to say the least:
"The same frontier was evident in a conversation Barth had with Billy Graham, in August 1960. His son Markus brought them together in Valais. However, this meeting was also a friendly one. 'He's a "jolly good fellow", with whom one can talk easily and openly; one has the impression that he is even capable of listening which is not always the case with such trumpeters of the gospel.' Two weeks later Barth has the same good impression after a second meeting with Graham, this time at home in Basle. But, 'it was very different when we went to hear him let loose in the St Jacob stadium that same evening and witnessed his influence on the masses.' 'I was quite horrified. He acted like a madman and what he presented was certainly not the gospel.' 'It was the gospel at gun-point . . . He preached the law, not a message to make one happy. He wanted to terrify people. Threats - they always make an impression. People would much rather be terrified than pleased. The more one heats up hell for them, the more they come running.' But even this success did not justify such preaching. It was illegitimate to make the gospel law or 'to "push" it like an article for sale . . . We must leave the good God freedom to do his own work'."

Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, 446.
On another but similar note, I read this "retweeted tweet" today (gosh, that sounds so ridiculous), and it really made me pause. It is from a fake Rob Bell twitter account and in an attempt to mock Bell's views of hell, the person wrote, "You know how hard it is to get on this stage at Mars Hill Church and tell people to start acting like they're saved w/ no threat of Hell? Hard." And I thought that ironically, this mocking statement (sadly) misses the point. I keep thinking that all of these little blurbs I hear or read about the necessity of God's eternal "No" to humanity misses the point. I also keep asking myself if I am missing the point, if I am sadly mistaken since isn't the common human experience to feel very alone in your thoughts, ideas, and struggles? But despite the doubt, I continually ponder the same questions: Do we preach judgment to motivate people from a place of fear in order to repent? Does the Apostle Paul not say that it is the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance? What kind of repentance do you get when it is motivated by an image of eternal languishing?

I remember when I first watched the following video from Trevor Hart (I'm going to transcribe it since I can't post in here). When the positive content of the Gospel is truly preached to the hearer, does it not finally offer a word of grace? Is Karl Barth correct when he says that God's "word to man from and to all eternity was and will be Jesus Christ"? (CD, IV.1, 57) In the same vein, Hart offers these sentiments in an interview with Grace Communion International. When I first watched this video, I remember feeling as though I had heard the Gospel again in a fresh way. I remember at one point coming to tears at the reality that God is fully and truly revealed in Jesus Christ. Don't we all fear, in some very real place, that when we come face to face with God after death, His word to us will be "Depart from me, sinner!" Hart's words reminds me that the Gospel offers hope to drown out the constant fear of questioning God's identity. In my opinion, Hart's words capture my issues with everything I said above and offer a word to humanity that is first and finally one of grace. Here is what Hart says:

"[In Karl Barth's theology] there is the sense of the God from first to last who is for us and determined to be for us no matter who we are, no matter what we've done, and no matter what we amount to. [This is the God] who values us not for our achievements but for who He has called us to be and of course who He has made us to be in His Son. That is so completely foundational to Barth's thought that it covers absolutely every chapter of the story he tells. I think people catch that and even if they don't understand it at first and they don't understand how it plays out in the larger structure of the Christian faith, most of the people that I have met who have read Barth and engaged with him at any length actually find that very attractive immediately and they find it is something they want to hear more of and really, of course, that's because it is the Gospel. It is the story of the God who gives all for us and who is determined to be for us ... there is no point of Barth's theology that this doesn't come up again and again ..."

The interviewer in the video then responds by asking with that said, many Calvinists might ask how do you know that you are among the elect of God without the evidence of your works?

Hart responds by beginning to talk about Barth's revolutionary doctrine of election of which some Reformed folks don't agree: "What Barth saw and shows is that you can't formulate a doctrine of election or any other doctrine simply by lifting verses from the page of Scripture and laying them out and putting them in a logical order. That is not how it works. It never has worked like that; you have to go further than that and relate doctrines to one another and asks questions about certain themes that have theological priority over others. Barth's fundamental conviction is that the theme of election, God's choosing, God's deciding and God's sovereignty is fundamental for how Christians conceive of God and should conceive of Him in biblical terms. It is the person of Christ that the center of theological gravity falls in Scripture and therefore in theology too (it should be). His thorough going insistence of what it might mean that God chooses concerning a person's eternal well-being in the light of Jesus Christ and [Barth's] refusal of the meaningfulness of talking about any God who is hidden behind Jesus Christ forced [Barth] to a very radical rereading of the doctrine [of election]. It's [Barth's] fundamental conviction that it is not in the text of the Bible pure and simple as some work of literature that God reveals Himself finally, it is in a human life lived, a death died, and raised to life again that God has made Himself known fully and finally and all the rest needs to be worked out in the light of what that means and the significance of that fact. And as Barth sees it, the significance of that fact is that this is who God wills to be and what He has done for each of us and whatever we say about election or any other theme has to reckon with that fact. That can't be something we've come to after we work out the other things, it has to be where we start. That God's purpose eternally was to be the man Jesus Christ and to do what He does in Christ for us."

The interviewer then goes on to ask "why is it so significant about when Jesus says if you have seen me, you have seen the Father? What is so important about that?"

This is where Hart delivers one of the most freeing word someone can hear: "One way of answering that question is pastorally rather than theologically. I am differentiating between them for a moment, but I don't want to drive a wedge between them. Let's look at it pastorally. Most people, if they think of God at all, have a question mark about what sort of God they are dealing with ... and it seems to me that even Christians sometimes live with this lurking suspicion that God might turn out to be rather unpleasant or to have a grudge against them or a case against them. What Barth sees and says so clearly is that the Christian life ought to be based solely on the God we see and the face of God that we see in Jesus - that actually we can be sure that God turns out finally to be like Jesus. That provides a huge ground for assurance because what do we see in Jesus? We see God forgiving sins, we see God loving the sinner, rehabilitating the sinner. And once we realize that the Father is no different than that from the Son He sends into the world to do it, then it banishes any spectors we might have of a God who even though Jesus is like that, [God] might turn out to be rather different. On a pastoral level in terms of the God we pray to day and night or the God we hope to meet at the end of our lives, if we live with a question mark it seems to me that we are going to live finally with fear, guilt and a suspicion and possibly be driven to some form of seeking to secure ourselves by earning salvation through good works or some form of that. It is very hard to shake that off completely when you don't know the answer to the question, "What is God like?" Once you come to the realization that God is no different than Jesus, that God's character - the Father's character - is fully reflected in the face of His Son, that sets you free from all of those fears, guilts, and suspicions and enables you to live life in a liberated way. A life that is born of out gratitude and joy rather than fear and guilt. So on a pastoral level, it seems to that we can say when it comes down to it, when it comes to talking about God there isn't anyone there who isn't fully reflected in the face of Jesus and Jesus' dealings with us.

[When talking about the vicarious humanity of Christ] we are talking about something which most evangelical Christians anyway will be fully familiar with as a category in one certain respect. That is to say, most evangelical Christians will be happy enough to think that Jesus did something in their stead. Most of them will think that thing that He did for them in their place is die on the cross and of course that is absolutely right. What is captured in the phrase "vicarious humanity" is the realization that is doesn't stop there. Actually, in Jesus, God stands in for us at almost every point of our relationship with Him because we fail Him at almost every point of our lives no matter how hard we struggle and strive even though most of us are very good as struggling and striving. We don't do it. We're not very good covenant partners for God most of the time. In vicarious humanity God stands in for us in all aspects of life and it is not simply in His death that God does we can't do, but it is in His faith and obedience, too and in His responses to the Father. And at each point, God looks in Him and through Him and together with Him and we are not standing together isolated on our own ... we are clothed with Christ. When the Father looks at us He sees Christ - Christ's response, Christ's obedience, Christ's prayer, Christ's faith - and the biblical category is not vicarious humanity but priesthood. Jesus is the great high priest who mediates our human responses to God through Himself to the Father ... but the flip side of this and its a vital flip side is that it sets us free to do it for ourselves. It sets us free to do it because we are not afraid of falling. We are not afraid of getting it wrong. Why? Because our eternity doesn't hang on whether we get it wrong or not. Our eternity rests on His response made for us. So we can get on and do it! Because if we fall, He will pick us up, and in the mean time we grow more like Him so that our faith becomes more adequate, and our prayer becomes more appropriate and our obedience becomes more identifiable as the Spirit gradually makes us more like Jesus. But our relationship on God doesn't rest on any of that, our relationship for God rests once and for all not just on the cross, but from every point from his birth through to His resurrection."

And in a moment of true honesty, the interviewer responds by saying, "that is so radical in terms of the way people think. Why is it that something that good is so difficult to accept? Why are we afraid of it? It is as though we think if I believe that, and I accept it, then it is like saying that I don't have to do anything, and Christ has done it all. If I accept that God won't like me because I am assuming on His kindness. Some preachers even get angry about it and say don't listen to that kind of nonsense because God calls you to obedience!"

Hart responds: "One reason why someone might be uncomfortable with it might be that it could be seen to encourage the approach that if Jesus is seen to have done it all for me, I don't have to do it myself, do I? What we call in theological terms, "antinomianism." That is a worry - we can do almost anything with grace, can't we? We can reject it, we can turn it to what we think is our advantage. But of course that is not proper to the idea or the reality itself and that is why I said Jesus does it for us precisely so that we can do it for ourselves and the work of the Spirit draws us into the Son's work and brings it to fulfillment in individual lives. And that is one reason I can imagine a preacher being nervous because maybe he can imagine how his people won't try so hard anymore. Well, maybe they are trying too hard in the first place. Maybe trying is not what it is about. ... it probably is an irrational fear and isn't it itself a little bit of a resurgence of sinful pride in us as preachers or individual Christian men and women? Because, you know, grace has this one massive advantage which is also a big galling in that it says that God isn't taking your response in a certain sense as the most important responses. So it devalues the things we think we like to take to God to deal with Him. I bring my little bit of righteousness along to God and say, "Here God, I have something for you." Don't get me wrong, I think God delights when we bring righteousness before Him but what He doesn't like is when we try and make it the basis of a trade as if we have something to give to Him and now He can give something back to us. The Gospel of grace understood in this way and this category of vicarious humanity really robs us of that because it gives us nothing left we can give to God and say "God you need this and here I am giving it to you so now you give me something that I need." That's gone. Everything has to be predicated upon the idea that God gives everything freely. Even those of us who believe this Gospel still on occasion find ourselves thinking, I suspect, that I'd rather like it if I had something I could give back to God. Well, you can give it freely and joyfully."

You can watch the whole video here.

1 comment:

Adam said...

The last section is a whole other thing that I need to think about more. But the beginning, when some seem to think that there must be a hell for there to be something to be saved from. It seems to me that they are turning their Christianity into a sort of dualism, one that almost makes Satan the stronger. I know that those that to me suggest that would be horrified at the thought. But if we cannot point to reasons for salvation apart from saving us from Hell, then it is a pretty weak thing that we are being brought into. What would Christianity mean in this life, if all we are as Christians is being saved in the next life. It makes me sad because I know that many really are trying to protect a doctrine that they hold as important. But it seems that their choice of protection is actually more dangerous to the gospel than what they believe they are protecting it from.

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