A Unity Prior Would Be A Lie
I am still reading Karl Barth's The Great Promise. I wanted to share some more highlight quotes as well as provide some interaction. I don't have too much to add though. Many are unaware that Karl Barth distinguished himself from other theologians by providing detailed exegesis in his lectures. One of the things that also set him apart was how his exegetical goal was always a message for the church.
The Great Promise is such a set of lectures. The hermeneutical method of Karl Barth may not be common to modern conservatives. The value in his insights should be obvious.
Speaking about the unity of Israel in response to the ministry of John the Baptist,
"Here we have again something of the concreteness of the Gospel. The thing is to bring people together. This bringing together, this unity to which the people are assembled, this is not just any unity, not unity at any cost, but one part of them must give up something their disobedience and must enter into the faith of the others. Before this is done there is no unity of the people of God. A unity prior to this would be a lie, and whatever came of it would in no case be a people prepared for the Lord." (The Great Promise, 14-15)
John will have the spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of the people in readiness for Jesus Christ. This requires conversion from disobedience to "wisdom of the just." It is both from foolishness to wisdom as well as unjust to just. The church is not a "unity at any cost." It cannot cost these two elements. For someone as ecumenically minded as Karl Barth, this is a fun statement. Unless disobedience and foolishness are given up there is a false unity. It may be a unity of people but not the people of the Lord. The accusation this holds over the institutional church is staggering. The promise this entails for the church of Jesus Christ is staggering.
Speaking about the response of Zachariah/Zacharias to the announcement and promise of his son,
"What has happened? Obviously—and that must be at the beginning of the story of the witness—man has failed. Even man under orders, the blessed man. Insofar as his faith fails him, he cannot speak. And even if he spoke ever so much, it would be words, empty words, and he would really be mute. And even if ever so much dogmatics and ethics were expounded: words, empty words! That is the possibility, that is the threat, which accompanies the office of the witness. Let us by no means forget this Zechariah, even if it does not affect us to the extent that we are mute. Perhaps we are the mutest when we are the most eloquent!" (The Great Promise, 16)
Speech without faith is merely muttering. In the case of Zachariah, it is muteness. With these words, Barth reminds us of why he should not be considered a liberal theologian. Faith for Barth comes from an encounter with God. It is not a mere assent to doctrinal dogma. Faith is apart from "dogmatics and ethics" in so far as one can pronounce the latter without the former.
There is an element in which one must encounter the risen Christ to perform theology and speak. Instead, the more eloquent the faithless speech the more evidently mute it is regarding the proclamation of Jesus Christ.
And finally, an interesting existential moment surrounding the Theotokos Mary,
"We all know something about the mystery of our self, about the ultimate loneliness in which we find ourselves. And he would lead a superficial life who had never been astounded at the abyss which is implied by the experience that I am I, that such a one exists. Again and again there is nothing more astonishing in the world than we ourselves! But now we see that this is nothing at all when compared with the totally other experience which concerns us here: that I indeed encounter God, that God concerns himself with me, and that God wants something from me, that I am not too small for it, that God needs me. I would say that perhaps we have not yet understood who God is unless we know this wonder." (The Great Promise, 24)
I will admit that I was surprised to read this from Barth. On the surface, this seems like some psycho-babble meant to keep people happy and satisfied with themselves. Perhaps it really is. The crucial point for Barth is "who God is." "God is God" is irrelevant without knowledge of who God is and what He does. This is something evangelicals principally do not understand. The historical gospel narrative of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection is a beautiful thing. But if God remains there in the past then the church has returned to deism.
Barth correctly argues that only knowing God as the one who is concerned with us here is the true God of Scripture. There is an existential reality to the Christian faith. The disciples encounter Jesus Christ in the flesh and testified. So also the church experiences the resurrected Lord. In this experience, the fullness of God's gospel is known. God is known in the resurrected Messiah.