Monday, April 19, 2010

Christ's Forgiveness: Bound or Loosed?

In an upcoming paper I'll present to my peers I will give both a broad encapsulation of my dissertation topic and a detailed analysis of one of the exegetical moves Karl Barth makes in the late stages of his Doctrine of Reconciliation. There he takes as a unifying factor in the active life of the Christian community the notoriously difficult "binding and loosing" passages of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Interesting passages to me on many levels. In my finite preaching career I've already preached on them at least three times.

Whereas in history these verses have been interpreted to sanction everything from papal authority to church discipline regiments to the authority of the individual in biblical interpretation, Barth makes an interesting (and debatable) move with them by reading them in light of John 20:23---which essentially (not to mention provocatively) translates:

"If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not."

He then interprets binding and loosing not as two contextually discerned potentially feasible alternatives but as one negative, Pharisaical, option (binding) and another positive, truly Christian, option (loosing). Though his exegesis here has been flagged as suspect, as I have begun tackling it this week I have not found Barth's interpretive move entirely as incredible or unwarranted as I expected. Though I think his overall theological argument stands canonical scrutiny, I thought I'd find his use of these particular texts exegetically untenable. Good sermon, wrong text---that sort of thing.

This may still prove to be my conclusion. Nonetheless, as I searched other literature today I found that Barth's take on these verses is not quite as unique as I thought. In HR Mackintosh's 1927 study of The Christian Experience of Forgiveness I found not only a similar view of the above verses but a compelling account of the sort of conclusions I could see myself coming to in the outworking of my own Barthian project. Referring to John 20:23, Mackintosh writes:

Conceivably this is a late allusion to what came to be known as ‘the power of the keys’, a notion which afterwards blossomed or faded into the belief that the Church as an hierarchical institution has authority to admit to or exclude from the benefits of salvation, in this life and the next.

And to that as it stands grave objections, presumably, could be raised.

But is there no truth behind, to which experience bears witness? If a Christian has fallen into scandalous sin, does it not in fact, to an extent we dare not limit or define, depend on the attitude held towards him by his fellow-believers, that is by the Church, whether the realised peace of reconciliation with God will ever again be his? If in judgment they are merciless, if they draw away their skirts from the pollution of his touch, how can he again open his heart spontaneously to the compassion of the Father?

If he finds none here who can give and receive freely the blessed experience of reconciliation, with its incalculable power to neutralise and transcend the past, will he soon believe that the Lord of heaven and earth can pardon and restore the soul? Or is it not only too likely that the pitilessness of man will hide the pity of God?

Even if under these harsh conditions he should attain to something like faith in Divine absolution, it is all but certain that contact with men who can only be softened and appeased by a variety of penances and satisfactions (though they may not be called so) will also infect his thought of God, and of the terms on which He too will grant peace.

On the other hand, it is difficult to assign limits to the renewing tenderness and power with which the Father’s absolving love may flow into his heart, if his fellows have frankly forgiven him and taken him into confidence again. Thus, from a new angle, we may see how the Church has much—all but everything—to do with what the forgiveness of sins may mean for the guilty.

Or again, it is agreed by all that a vital condition of receiving Divine pardon is the lowly heart. . . . But lowliness is not relative to God merely. It is an attitude bearing on those with whom our life is shared. Now, the experience of receiving God’s pardon involves the consciousness that we form part of a pardoned company; it means that we are content to share and share alike with them, for in the Kingdom of God none can be saved in isolation (283-284, emphases and layout mine).


jonkramer said...

On the one hand, I like this idea of forgiveness being a "big deal" - something that's communal - something that we need to work through with the help of others. I think this form of forgiveness can be deeper - bring greater healing and reconciliation.
But at the same time, I kind of get the impression from some of Jesus' stories that forgiveness can also be just a "free and easy" thing (and I use those words loosely). But when I see Jesus dealing with the woman caught in adultery in John 8 - it's just so basic. Or the thief on the cross, it's just a simple exchange of - "Jesus remember me" - "Sure".
Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? How do you make sense of this stuff?

Jon Coutts said...

I don't know Jon. Forgiveness is, in one sense, that easy (keeping in mind that simple exchange takes place on a cross). But it is integrally webbed in together with a whole lot of other stuff in the grander hope of reconciliation. Unwebbed from all of that it takes on another form, I think. It becomes a power of its own, or an evasion tactic, or blanket turning a blind eye to everything, and so on. Having said that, there may be no way to ultimately guard from it being taken that way. It is, after all, for-giving, and is of the same stuff as self-giving. As such it may have as much to do with cross-bearing as unloading. I appreciate you thinking this through with me.

jonkramer said...

Part of the place where I'm stuck is how this "big deal" forgiveness is actually played out within the church community (my context). I think that there is a need for confession and a deeper experience of forgiveness - but how do you really do that within the machine that we've already got running? Is it even possible?
That's probably why we often just prefer to do things quick and easy.
Really, the only time I've ever heard about confession and all that Matthew 18 stuff done on a whole community scale, it's been when a pastor or an elder has got caught in something bad - but even then, it doesn't seem like reconciliation or forgiveness is what people are interested in - it's more just about proclaiming that bad behaviour wont be tolerated.
The Catholic practice of confession is at least a bit better - but it still doesn't resemble what you're getting at here.

Jon Coutts said...

well, yeah, dang. i do think it amounts to a paradigm change. big time. (at least on the meta-level. preachers can preach it starting now, and people can decide to have real community and be ambassadors of reconciliation rather than private salvation, starting now)

Stewart said...

Permit me to wade in a little late if I may. The initial act of being forgiven by God is indeed a rather quick (compared to the rest of life-length, thief on the cross notwithstanding) and hence "easy" thing...only a prayer away as it were. Yet the working out of that one gracious, merciful act takes a life time of fellowship with God and with people. "It only takes a moment to become a Christian, it takes a lifetime to be the Christian one becomes." (C. Wayne Mahall) But oh how this becoming is such a challenge...and new/strange thing so many times.

curtis said...

I like Stewart's comments. I also would like to chime in late ... how late I am, I don't know.

I agree a big change needs to happen in the realm of earthly forgiveness. I don't quite understand the public figure being held to account when there are many things that we could/should all be held to account for. Inside the church, I have always felt for the leader who makes a mistake. Gather the stones! Even recently, Tiger's transgressions have been dragged out endlessly with sports talk radio demanding more from him. Gather some stones!

Part of it is the "whatever is right for you" mentality. With diverging ideas as to what is or is not acceptable for each of us as Christians, it has blurred the lines of accountability. I don't imagine it is at all possible to rewind the clock and have some more hard and fast lists of morality that we would hold one another to, so I guess that is out.

I think the greater problem is relationship. I may be the only one who feels this way, but there is a serious lack of depth of relationship amongst us all. Even as friends in forums such as this (and don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the conversations here and expect nothing more than topical discussion) we discuss issues, rather than our issues. There is a general fear to committ to a relationship with anyone. Maybe there are good reasons for that, maybe there are just excuses.

In any of my recent attempts at working on relationships, the response has been non-responsive. The items put on the table are too easily dismissed by "I didn't mean to" or "it's not that big a deal". Dismissive or defensive responses. Though this may be true (the issues at hand may not be that big a deal), this kind of resolution response hardly leaves any desire to delve into the deeper issues that require forgiveness on any kind of communal level.

This is something we can do something about. We can work on opening up to people, leading by example. We can work on the way we respond. Even an attitude amongst a small group could spread quickly throughout an entire church. If taking the first step was as simple as making yourself more vulnerable and less judgemental, we could singlehandedly lead a change that encourages hundreds in our own church environments. How much change do we need to see?

Just an idea ...