Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Snippet from Pluscarden Abbey

This week I'll be at Aberdeen University's year-end Systematic Theology workshop at Pluscarden Abbey in north-east Scotland, the oldest active Abbey in the UK. Here's a snippet from somewhere in the middle of the paper I ended up writing for it, called "Binding or Loosing: Forgiveness and Epistemology in Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation."
. . . . Crucial to an understanding of Barth on this matter is the realization that, for him, divine forgiveness is not simply a power, an art, a step in a relational model, a psycho-social experience, or even a “miracle” to be activated in the interpersonal realm. Contemporary literature tends to cast it in these lights, but one who searches Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation for such things does so in vain. (Believe me, I tried!)

Rather than divorcing it from its larger context and ascribing to it a power of its own, or systematizing it within a self-help process for negotiating relationships, Barth offers an opportunity to see forgiveness as participation in Christ’s ongoing work. Further to this, rather than making forgiveness contingent upon the penitence of the offender or the conjured-up compassion of the offended, Barth grounds it in the work of Christ already accomplished and being unveiled in the world. In the transition from divine-human reality to human interrelationships, forgiveness does not become a tool in our hands, utilized to certain known and desirable results, but is simply part and parcel of Christian being and activity.

A secularized version of forgiveness which makes people the ultimate subject of the forgiving act knows not what it does. Such a construal may generate a community more on the mark than an unforgiving Christian community that fails to live from its Lord’s liberation, but it is limited by its inability to maintain this posture. Rootless, it inevitably degenerates into the frustrated introspection and false peace of mere tolerance.

The “Church is neither author, dispenser, nor mediator of grace and its revelation,” says Barth. Further: “Luther knew what he was talking about when he dared to say [There is no sinner so great as the Christian church]. It is the Church which prays, ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ which therefore knows and confesses that it needs the forgiveness of sins”(Church Dogmatics IV/1, 658). . . .

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