Love as Speaking

Here at the end of July, the BarthTogether reading group is at long last finishing chapter 2! This lengthy exploration of the Revelation of God turned in its final stages to exploring the role of the Holy Spirit, and in §18 the specific question Barth explores has to do with the life of the children of God, and §18.3 with the praise of God–a peculiar label for a section that purports to exegete the great command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As mentioned in one of of last week’s comments, Barth’s somewhat tortured exegesis of this text is very much a product of his time.

Barth never takes his eyes off of the Liberalism he had embraced in his youth. By Liberalism I don’t mean the common usage that word has today of, “Anyone to my left whom I dislike.” I mean the specific theological movement given its kick-start with Schleiermacher and played out in various ways in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. As this movement approached Jesus, it saw a moral example to be emulated–one who went before us proclaiming that God is father of all, and humans brothers of all, and that our calling is, therefore, to do good to the people around us like Jesus did.

'The Hunger Strike' photo (c) 2009, Will Bakker - license: Barth rightly reacts against an insufficiently Christological Christianity in his relentless affirmation of Jesus as the revelation of God. But it blinds him to what liberalism has right: we are, in fact, called to do good to our neighbors, not only in the words of gospel proclamation but in deeds that show that we are participating in the restoration of the cosmos and love of humanity that is God’s own project.

There is some great content over a few pages (circa p. 424) where Barth talks about the possibility of humanity revealing God. Because Jesus Christ took the place of suffering humanity and was raised in revelation of God, humanity stands before God, in its suffering and need, as redeemed and therefore as revelation of God for us.

But where Barth refuses to go is to the recognition that in Christ, those united with him truly in his death and resurrection, we are called to be this for the world.

“Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The self-giving, and life-giving, love of Jesus is our call. The healing ministry of Jesus, the feeding ministry of Jesus, the boundary-bursting love of Jesus–these are the picture of neighbor love that is to be repictured in the life of the church.

Barth knows that we need the grace of God. But he over-theologizes the concept and will not allow it to take on its full Pauline sense. Not only is grace a reception of God given to the sinner, it is every manner of abundance that God gives to us in order that we might turn around and bless others (2 Cor 8-9).

Yes, we must speak of Jesus’ redemption of us. But no, this is not a sufficient expression of our love to neighbor. If we were to follow Barth here, I fear we would find ourselves under James’ word of condemnation:

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “ Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal! ” ? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

Such a faith can’t save one, can it? No, I don’t think so.

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