Mercy and Righteousness

Not entirely unrelated to the weekend’s posts on how sacrificial death might benefit the people of God, Karl Barth wants us to hear that the mercy and righteousness of God are not two competing qualities.

The Grace of the Stamp Comes With the Judgment of the Postmark

God is merciful in God’s righteousness. And God is righteous in God’s mercy (§30.2).

How can we know that God is merciful?

“What else can we produce as a proof of this confession except the fact that God has given Himself to be known by us as merciful in the name of Jesus Christ?” (373)

The idea that God is merciful, and that Jesus comes as the demonstration of this mercy, pushes Barth back a step to the sinful context into which Jesus steps. Human sin means that humanity resists the grace of God. The advent of Jesus means that God overcomes our resistance to grace through the self-giving Son and son-giving Father.

When he shifts gears to righteousness, Barth frames the discussion in terms of God’s relationship with humanity: in founding and maintaining a relationship with people through the mercy found in Christ, God establishes a relationship that corresponds to God’s own worth:

“God does not have to, but He can, take to Himself the suffering of another in such a way that in doing so, in founding and accomplishing of this fellowship, He does what corresponds to His worth.” (377)

As the chapter progresses, I found myself wishing that Barth was writing in light of the subsequent generation’s advancement in NT scholarship. How can we talk about the Law in relation to God’s righteousness when Law is about God’s covenant with Israel in particular, and when our great saving gift merits not the Law’s blessing, but its curse (Gal 3)?

I was also a bit disappointed that Barth didn’t work out in a better direction his discussion of God’s “impassibility.” While moving forward beyond some of the limitations of this idea by saying God can, in fact, be moved, Barth nonetheless restricts that to God’s own movement of God upon Godself. The idea that God is impassible is one I would like to see fall by the wayside as one of the least compatible “orthodox notions of God” with the stories of God we find in scripture.

In the end, Barth ends up articulating a rather traditional view of what he calls God’s “distributive” justice–a righteousness that entails both the disciplining of sins and merciful forgiveness of sinners.

Following in the footsteps of his hero Anselm, Barth will not have an atonement that leaves God’s honor violated.

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