Atonement in Barth's Forgiveness
A few weeks back I was excited to receive a review copy of Jon Coutts's A Shared Mercy from IVP Academic. The book seeks to illuminate the topic of forgiveness via the theology of Karl Barth. Writing on Karl Barth is something of a hobby for me. Naturally, the book has been a pleasure to read. As I near the finish line I feel it was time to provide some interaction and insights from the book.
As I venture into this process, I must start with the foundation. Reading Jon Coutts's A Shared Mercy allows one to delve thoroughly into the process of forgiveness unhindered by limited atonement. Barth's theology certainly presents a Reformed approach to "unlimited atonement." But it is important to qualify — to summarize Barth's theology as "unlimited atonement" would be a gross oversimplification. As with all things, Barth's understanding of the satisfaction performed on the cross is rooted in Christology. Who Jesus Christ is defines for Barth what Jesus Christ does on the cross.
For Barth and thus Coutt, this emphasis on Christ's atoning work removes any attempt to ground forgiveness in a shared "good" humanity (something I think Calvin may be guilty of),
"It is not simply the case that Jesus is the prime example of the human ideals that we are independently capable of discerning and achieving. In showing us true humanity Jesus also shows us the insurmountable impediment of our fall from grace that could only be overcome by God on our behalf. All humanity is judged at the cross of Christ, and there all humanity is atoned for in God's self-giving love" (32)
This opening lets us know that forgiveness is not found naturally in humanity. It is is an impossible possibility for only in faith to Jesus Christ (though echoes of it are found through common grace of the Spirit). So forgiveness is essentially only ever Christian forgiveness. This sets a foundation that rejects any grounding of forgiveness in sociology, philosophy, or psychology. This should be exciting for Christians. But is this grounding available to Christians who do not affirm unlimited atonement? Coutts attempts to answer that early in A Shared Mercy,
"Could a person share Barth's account of interpersonal forgiveness who held alternativly such as limited atonement, double predestination or open theism? The short answer is 'probably, yes,' but it is worth noting that Barth's emphasis on the universality of Christ reconciliation affords him unique opportunities." (33)
Though this might scare off some Reformed readers, it is encouraging to see the topic discussed openly up front. Barth's Christology is the basis for his evaluation of forgiveness. God's effort to reconcile with humanity through Jesus Christ becomes a tremendous encouragement to work through reconciliation with one another.
Though I won't be returning to this point in every post on A Shared Mercy, it is worthwhile to keep Barth's unhindered perspective on this issue. It truly is the basis of the book's title shared mercy.