“We ought not to be concerned on account of this impossibility, for on its own account we are relieved of all responsibility. What ought to concern us is that again and again we so obstinately tend to look to ourselves instead of to Jesus Christ. In Him everything has happened for and to the Church, that it might be true that its proclamation is the Word of God, And it can only be a question of our not resisting the Holy Spirit who says just this to us, and who will uphold us in all circumstances through all the actual human accomplishment or failure which is visible in the Church. It is only when we hold fast to this truth that we can survey this sphere and exist in it with neither frivolity nor despair, and therefore critically, in readiness both to decide and to act. That there is a Word of God for the Church… and again that beneath the Word there is a genuine human authority and freedom in the Church: that is something that must first and foremost be apprehended, accepted and reckoned with. This… is not to be understood abstractly… but concretely: as the Church for which Jesus Christ has provided we are now able to struggle manfully against the great human impossibility."
– K. Barth, “Church Dogmatics” I.2, p. 749
It is here, as the conversation of “Dogmatics” turns the Word of God as it comes to be made manifest in the life, work, and proclamation of the Church, that Barth and I – I believe – come to understand one another in a new way. We’ve talked about the nature of revelation: we’ve spoken of God’s work in history and of Jesus - we’ve spoken of prophets and apostles and of scripture. But as a pastor and preacher it is here, as we begin to discuss the manner of God’s speaking in and through the Church, that the force and scope of Barth’s logical consistency throughout our conversation comes more clearly into focus. It is here that his Christ-centeredness shines through in the concreteness of application. It is here that Barth’s great Christocentric vision is offered as the rightful foundation of – and therefore, as a great gift to – the Church in the midst of its present-ness and locality in our own day and age.
Yes, for all the mind-bending complexity of Barth’s dogmatic logic and rhetoric, it is here, as we discuss the Church, that Karl and I begin, perhaps, to see eye – to – eye. Because, for all the undeniable humanness and brokenness and imperfection in the Church inasmuch as it exists as an all too human enterprise – a brokenness with which, unfortunately, Barth would be all too familiar as a first hand witness of the acquiescence of the German church to the whims of the Nazi state – Barth refuses to allow this perspective to be that which defines the truth of the Church and its essential nature. His Christocentrism simply will not allow him to do so. The strength, clarity and consistency of his theology will suffer no absolutizing of any reality or perspective apart from that self-revelation of God to mankind which culminates in the person/event of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus that we find the God who is free for us, and through Jesus that we are given the gift of our own freedom for God. It is in God’s own communication of Himself in Jesus that humanity is given the means – the vocabulary and voice - by which we are able to engage in the impossible calling of the Church to the work of the proclamation of this God in and to our world at all. Because the revelation of God is and can only remain His SELF revelation, the Church which is called into existence in and through Jesus Christ for the purpose of God’s continuing witness and revelation in the world can never be defined at all by the varying degrees to which our human efforts fall nearer to or farther from the fulfillment of this calling according to our own resources or on our own terms. For all the inescapability its humanity – its incarnational essence - the Church exists in, through, and for Christ, and its reality is therefore rooted in Christ in such a way that we can only speak of the Church constructively after apprehending its genuine nature as defined, not by our humanness – but by the will, vision, purposes and accomplishments of Christ on her behalf. Simply put, Barth presses us to understand that we come to know the Church as she truly is not by gazing at our own humanity, or upon the flawed humanness of its present form, but by setting our eyes upon Jesus himself, the God by whom and for whom the Church exists at all.
Barth has no reluctance to speak about the humanity of the Church, and in doing so to speak of our responsibility in the midst of Gods call upon us as those within it. He is, however, eminently concerned that, before we turn our conversation to the human expression of the Church and to our role and responsibility within it, that we have first done the work of establishing the proper foundation for all of our speaking. Barth’s pen spills thousands upon thousands of words in the service of ensuring that we have landed upon the right set of presuppositions for our conversation. Namely, that when God is rightly spoken of by human beings, this is no less than a present miracle of the Holy Spirit breaking through the impossibility of human apprehension of the eternal God to enable God to speak His Word through the vehicle of human proclamation which constitutes the call - the very “raison d’etre” - of the Church. And furthermore, that every purpose and work of the Church centers on the event, the person and the completed work of Jesus Christ on behalf of the Church, such that, understood rightly, every work of the Church is really only to do after Christ, imperfectly and incompletely, that which He has already done in the world perfectly and completely. As such, our responsibility as the Church consists not in producing some new great work on God’s behalf, or accomplishing on our own that which Christ has heretofore left undone. It is, rather, to press ever more deeply into the realization of all that has already been accomplished for us; to apprehend the greatness of Christ’s salvation of us and to grasp ever more fully the breathtaking reality of God’s purposes for us as the Church: to look beyond and through the humanity of the Church to set our eyes upon who we truly are in Christ in such a way that our humanity is itself transformed more and more into His likeness and our lives brought into truer alignment with His great and glorious will. For Barth, this is the essence of human freedom: namely, the freedom of Humanity for God in and through Jesus Christ.
In the end, perhaps there is nothing newer, truer or deeper being spoken here than what the Apostle Paul himself said to the Philippian church in Phil. 3 in his own rebuttal of human self-confidence and achievement:
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
This passage of scripture has always spoken to me in a profound way, and this is perhaps why I resonate with Barth here, as He holds to his Christ-centered understanding of reality to the point that every other perspective, claim and achievement is relativized by comparison. For me, this passage perhaps illuminates how Barth understands what it means to be the Church: a community of people, “pressing on (together) to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of (us)”.
In a world of suffocating consumerism, entitlement, and self-centeredness, there is something of the Gospel here that would be unto us life itself, if we could only come to take hold of it.