The paper I'm scrambling to finish up today has been a long time in the writing. Though only 3000 words, it has been one of the more difficult papers I have ever written. I started by noting a certain difference between two theologians and suspecting it had significant ramifications and then I had to try to figure out what those were. At some point maybe for the first time in my life I began to feel like I was trying to think my own new thoughts (based on what others had taught me of course) rather than merely put in a new way what others had already said. That may not turn out to be the case, but the point is that I've really struggled to sort this one out. The weird thing is that once I finally felt like I'd formulated a kind of answer, I had forgotten what the question was. Thus in the last month I have written the introduction like a dozen times.
Anyway, I need to finish it today, so here is that introduction in what I hope is its final state. Incidentally, the conference theme is "The Present Moment" and the paper is called "Once for All and New Every Morning: Forgiveness in the Theology of Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth".
"Christians tend to be quite clear about the Father’s once-and-for-all forgiveness in Jesus’ name, but less so about whether or how it is articulated and applied as an ongoing event. There may be fresh requests for forgiveness, but these are the crisis moments and not the norm; the interruptions of a Christian life which is characterized more by other things. Where forgiveness is asked for repeatedly, it is doubtful whether many Christians believe God needs to actually re-forgive. Confession may then be more therapy than invocation—forgiveness being construed as a divine act of the past which clears the ground for a redemptive future but is related to the present by other means.
When applied on the day to day level of interpersonal relationships, then, what it means to forgive can also be quite ambiguous. No wonder that it frequently becomes a therapeutically decisive deference to the cross that justifiably renders the past passed and diffuses conflict or distances from pain, but goes no further. In light of the teachings of Jesus in places such as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, or the post-resurrection charge to the disciples in John 20 and its reverberations in Ephesians 4 and 1 John 4, it must be asked whether forgiveness might have more of an abiding part in the Christian life.
This question surfaces and clarifies quite illustratively in a comparative analysis of the theologies of Miroslav Volf and Karl Barth. Taking its cues especially from Volf ’s influential Exclusion and Embrace and his more recent The End of Memory and Barth’s turn to The Doctrine of Reconciliation in volume four of his Church Dogmatics, this paper seeks to explore divine forgiveness as a once-for-all event which is also new every morning in the lives of Jesus’ disciples and the perpetuation of Christian community.
While neither focuses on either divine or human agency to the express exclusion of the other, with Volf’s emphasis on human agency one sees forgiveness as an ongoing reinterpretation of the past in the present that does not deny sin but in light of Christ’s death and resurrection remembers it negated and overcome. This is both complimented and challenged by Barth’s insistent depiction of Christian forgiveness as inseparably embedded in the whole scope of Christ’s reconciling activity which is both an event and a history still underway. With Barth’s emphasis on divine agency one sees that, considered along with not only the crucifixion but also the resurrection of Christ, divine forgiveness is once-for-all not merely in the sense that it was accomplished in a particular historical event preceding our time but in the sense that the event itself envelopes our time—ever present to it and perpetually invoked from within it."
I am writing this with the intention of seeking publication for it elsewhere, so I won't post the entirety of it here, but if you would like to read it drop me a line and I'll email it your way. I will be thinking about this for quite some time and would love to hear your thoughts.