Thursday, June 24, 2010

Church as Fellowship of the Confessedly Being Reconciled

Much of the anxiety about the identity of the church in relation to the world, both within the church and outside of it, stems from a misperception of the people in the church as a group of people who are "in" or "forgiven" or "holy" in contrast to the world which is "out" or "unforgiven" or "unholy". As I've been reading Karl Barth I've been seeing how exactly this is not quite right.

Certainly, the church considers itself a people set apart by God for a certain kind of communion and mission, but it is not set aside in virtue of some static possession or settled condition, but as a people who are on a certain way, given a certain direction, and who receive it again and again and again. Humanity has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. This is accomplished. It is history. But as the history which enfolds our history, it concerns our experiences and our life-living as a decidedly ongoing history.

So, since both the world and the church are definitively and decidedly reconciled with God in Jesus Christ already, the best way to describe the church in relation to the world on its way to the final revelation of this is that the Church is a people who are confessedly being reconciled with God--and thus with themselves and each other and the world. It is finished, but they are not. They are on the way. You see this playing out in Barth's description of God's sanctifying activity in the lives of His followers:
One can be righteous before God, the child of God and heir of eternal life, only by the pardon which one can grasp in faith alone and not in any work, and which is that of the grace of the God active and revealed in Jesus Christ-a grace which consists in the unmerited forgiveness of sins.

It thus follows that there is no one--even the doer of good (or the best) works, even the most saintly--who does not stand in lifelong need of the forgiveness of sins and therefore of that pardon, and is not referred wholly and utterly to the faith which grasps that pardon. . . .

It follows further that because we in the sequence of one's works, each of one's works, as well as one's self, stands in need, as the work of a sinner, of justification, and therefore of forgiveness, and therefore of the unmerited recognition of God. . . .

Finally, since it is only in faith and not by direct perception or appropriation that we can seize our righteousness and that of our works (as the forgiveness of our sins, even of those which we commit in the best of our works), the final word concerning our right and wrong, and that of our works, is reserved for the universal and definitive revelation of the judgment of God-a revelation which we now await but in which we do not yet participate.
Quoting Church Dogmatics IV/2, 587 (gender neutral language mine)


Anonymous said...

Jon, you would have loved the papers this past week at the Barth conference. One of the overarching themes was that Barth refused to dichotomize between Church and World in light of the accomplished reconciliation.

Have you read John Flett's new book, The Witness of God? If you haven't, you need to...

Jon Coutts said...

Haven't read it. Will have to get my hands on it. That conference, yeah . . . I hope these thoughts gain traction in the church.

Just read this today: "“They could not be ashamed of the fact, nor deny it, that as witnesses of God's action and speech in the history of Israel and Jesus Christ they were something which in the first instance and thus far all others were not, and therefore a new and strange and highly distinctive people among them. . . . Yet the content of the Word of God to be attested by them was not the alteration merely of their own situation by God's action in covenant with Israel and in His unity with Jesus Christ. Hence their witness--and this is the root and meaning of biblical universalism--had also, and even primarily, to be a declaration concerning others, the world and all men, namely, the declaration that the action of God in His covenant with Israel and His unity with the one man Jesus Christ was and is His gracious, judging, yet also justifying and sanctifying action for them and to them. They had thus to meet and oppose them with their witness in such a way that they did not exclude but very definitely included them, forbidding from the very outset any freedom or neutrality in relation to the content of this witness. They could not proceed on the assumption that the world and humanity around them were unaffected by the work and Word of God, but in faith in this work and Word they had to assume that they were affected by them." (CD IV/3.2, 490, emphasis mine)