When You Do Not Obey, You Are Mute
This is will be my last blog post on Karl Barth's The Great Promise. I need to move forward and write a complete review. Keep your eyes open for that. In the mean time enjoy some of the valuable nuggets that I've pulled out of this phenomenal book.
"About the other gods we may reflect, we may bow gloomily to fate, we may pursue our ideas in self-made comfort and fanaticism. But where is joy? Joy is the most rare, the most scarce commodity in the world. We have enough of fanatical zeal and enthusiasm and humorless fervour in the world, but joy? That is an indication that knowledge of the living God is rare." (The Great Promise, 46)
This little passage hints at something relatively obscure in Barth's writing — knowledge of God results in obedience that is joyous and fun. I have covered Barth on the glory of God and how that leads to joy. And I have presented that for Barth, art and play before God are our "work."
This quote just brings everything back to the surface. The "frozen chosen" jokes didn't invent themselves. Barth's point is merely a point. It deserves to be fleshed out especially in a day and age where self-fulfillment from sin is gaining ground. Joy in Christ and joy in working for God needs to be fleshed out by the church.
"Progress in our life can only consist in my understanding a little better every day that I am greatly in need of God's mercy; and when I am at the end of my glorious life, then I will have to say with finality: Now I am undone unless I find mercy. And if God then granted me another day, this last day would only tell me once again: I am dependent on grace. This would be progress, real progress!" (The Great Promise, 50)
Never let it be said the Barth denies salvation by grace alone. Barth almost takes it to the extreme, but his point is incredibly valuable. Even on our death bed's it should be the grace and mercy of God that we seek. Even in the comfort of our justification, reliance upon God's grace as found in Jesus Christ must be the plea of our hearts. As Barth says shortly after this quote, "For just by clinging to God we let him be true."
"Being put down from our thrones quite simply happens, I believe, in this way that God turns away from us and that is the most terrible thing that God can do to us, simply to let us proceed. From our point of view it can simply mean to have arrived at the top rung of the ladder. This would be the downfall when I perceive that at the end of my career, of my untiring climbing, I have become what I wanted to be; it is achieved, but achieved without God. That is the most terrible hell when our planning succeeds, our goal is reached. Let us not by any means imagine hell as a place where one is permanently beaten or roasted. There will be gathered indeed great lords and nice people, but great lords and nice people without God. Who now may persist in what they wanted in life and have attained, must persist from eternity to eternity." (The Great Promise, 52-53)
I know that these lectures came very early in the theology of Barth. There are many places where this is evident. This is one of the biggest. There is a strong affirmation here that there will be individuals in hell. Though Barth's later views on Election and Christology would seem to imply universalism, Barth has a haunting view of hell.
What a haunting view it is — "it can simply mean to have arrived." This may seem half-baked at first. This might reveal a tendency in evangelicalism to over emphasize the external nature of eternal punishment. Instead, in magnifying our restoration to God through Jesus Christ, Barth is able to speak of a hellish state simply because there will be eternity without God — "persist in what they wanted."
"Nature is not destroyed, history is not interrupted; but within natural, historic human life wherever God acts upon man, there is nothing that could claim dignity of its own as against the aggressive, justifying and valid words of God. But what is natural and historical is now entirely acted upon by the word of God, is wax in his hands which is molded clay in the hand of the potter." (The Great Promise, 60)
In speaking on the movement of God in John the Baptist and his family, Barth makes some great comments concerning predestination and God's working in time and space. In so doing, Barth is completely in agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith which states, "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass...nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established" (WCF III.I).
The number of times I run into "Calvinists" who are really just deistic determinists is rather high. This position is especially popular in Reformed Baptist circles. Both Barth and the WCF make it clear that "nature is not destroyed." Heck Barth goes a step further and says, "history is not interrupted." God's movement is a natural movement. His election is a natural and historical election entirely based upon "the word of God."
"Be assured that when you do not really obey, then you are mute and have nothing to say. But at the moment when unbelief is taken away, then the mouth of man is opened again...But it becomes possible that a man witnesses for God because God himself is ready in his incomprehensible goodness and fulfills what he promises even if man's faith is weak. God stands by his word, and then even faith becomes possible as a miracle. Then man has the power of speech. " (The Great Promise, 62-63)
The ferocity of Barth's comment might take some by surprise. Reading Barth incorrectly might lead some literalists to believe that all Christians are inherently mute because we are always in a state of disobedience.
This would certainly be true without Barth's doctrine of miraculous faith. That "God stands by his word" is the greatest force of the paragraph. It is upon this that "man has the power of speech." Not because we have believed, but because belief has been given to us. Our unbelief must be "taken away" for our mouth to proclaim anything about God. This occurs in spite of "man's faith [being] weak." This is the miracle of God in Jesus Christ.