Thursday, December 17, 2020

Hope, despite everything

I've copied below a long paragraph from Church Dogmatics IV/3, on the subject of hope.  The wider context is the doctrine of reconciliation as that relates to Christ's role specifically as Prophet and therefore the one who bears witness to himself and brings his people to faith in him (and incidentally, it seems to me that in comparison with the roles of Priest and King, this part of Christ's triple office is typically neglected; it gets a brief paragraph in Letham's Systematic Theology, for example, compared to chapters on the priestly and kingly roles).  The narrower context is the work of the Spirit in awakening the church and the individual Christian to hope.  And the immediate context is the three great challenges to hope: firstly, that the Christian finds him- or herself outnumbered and the message of Christ sidelined in the world; second, that the Christian is confronted continually by his or her own continuing sinfulness, which stands in contradiction of the great hope; and third, that the Christian still awaits Christ's judgement, and so cannot pronounce on the righteousness or the fruit of his or her labours.  This paragraph addresses the first challenge.  I've broken it up and added some commentary.  If you want to read the context, you'll find this paragraph on pages 917-919.

What is hope, and what does it mean for the Christian who, since Jesus Christ has not yet spoken His universal, generally perceptible and conclusive Word, finds himself in that dwindling and almost hopeless minority as His witness to the rest of the world?

Barth is clear that Christ has spoken, but he has not yet spoken in such a way that everyone will hear; that awaits the final coming of Christ.  In the meantime, how is the Christian who looks around the world and finds himself, as someone who has heard that word of Christ, in a minority to maintain his hope?  What does gospel hope mean for the Christian in a world where that hope seems to reach so few?

If the great Constantinian delusion is now being shattered, the question becomes the more insistent, though it has always been felt by perspicacious Christians.  What can a few Christians or a pathetic group like the Christian community really accomplish with their scattered witness to Jesus Christ?  What do these men really imagine or expect to accomplish in the great market, on the battle-field or in the great mad-house which human life always seems to be?  "Who hath believed our report?  and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" (Is. 53:1).

'The great Constantinian delusion' is the dream of a church triumphant in this world; of the normalisation of Christian faith as the pattern of this age.  If it was being shattered when Barth was writing this in the 1950s, it is well and truly gone now.  Christendom is in the past.  And yet, even at the height of Christendom, when it seemed the world was, or would shortly become, wholly Christian, there were those 'perspicacious Christians' who saw that all was not well - the reformers of the church, who regularly saw themselves as in a minority even though they were surrounded by professing Christians.  The point that Barth is making is that the church is, generally speaking, small and weak - too small to compete in the marketplace of ideas, too weak to triumph on the ideological battlegrounds, too insignificant to make much of a difference to the madness of the world.  That this was also the experience of the prophets and apostles (as shown by Barth's quotation from Isaiah) may not make us feel much better.

And what are we to say concerning the countless multitudes who either ante or post Christum natum have had no opportunity to hear this witness?

Perhaps the most acute form of this problem: how is gospel hope to be maintained for the world when so many have never heard of him - and many of those came and passed before his nativity?

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!  The Christian is merely burying his head in the sand if he is not disturbed by these questions and does not find his whole ministry of witness challenged by them.  He buries it even more deeply if in order to escape them, forgetting that he can be a Christian at all only as a witness of Jesus Christ, he tries to retreat into his own faith and love or those of his fellow Christians.  Nor is there any sense in trying to leap over this barrier with the confident mien of a Christian world conqueror.

Three useless responses to the problem: firstly, to pretend that is isn't there, to ignore the questions - a useless response, and a damaging one, because it exposes the Christian's hope to ridicule; second, to retreat into pietism, of an individualistic or a communitarian sort - a response which denies the Christian's character as a witness, and which smacks more of self-interest and self-preservation than hope; and third, to continue to imagine a revived Constantinianism, perhaps in a very different form, in which the church triumphant will indeed be seen in this life, to be a world-changer, a history-maker - a response which perhaps appeals to self-confidence or youthful exuberance, but which I would guess is often actually founded on insecurity rather than gospel hope, and a sense that we have to do Christ's work for him.

The meaningful thing which he is permitted and commanded and liberated to do in face of it is as a Christian, and therefore unambiguously and unfalteringly, to hope, i.e., in face of what seems by human reckoning to be an unreachable majority to count upon it quite unconditionally that Jesus Christ has risen for each and every one of this majority too; that His Word as the Word of reconciliation enacted in Him is spoken for them as it is spoken personally and quite undeservedly for him; that in Him all were and are objectively intended and addressed whether or not they have heard or will hear it in the course of history and prior to its end and goal; that the same Holy Spirit who has been incomprehensibly strong enough to enlighten his own dark heart will perhaps one day find a little less trouble with them; and decisively that when the day of the coming of Jesus Christ in consummating revelation does at last dawn it will quite definitely be that day when, not he himself, but the One whom he expects as a Christian, will know how to reach them, so that the quick and the dead, those who came and went both ante and post Christum, will hear His voice, whatever its significance for them (Jn. 5:25).

The detail of this sentence will not, of course, be acceptable to those who are committed to the doctrine of limited atonement, which is a shame for them; but the thrust of it is I hope broadly appealing.  Christ has spoken his word; astonishingly, by the power of the Spirit that word has reached even me; there is nobody who is therefore beyond the reach of this word, even in the passage of time and history in which we see such a small minority receive it; at the end of history Christ will speak his word in such a way that all will hear his voice 'whatever its significance for them' - and the context of Barth's reference to John's Gospel makes it clear we cannot prejudge what that significance will be.  I am reminded of the scene in The Last Battle when everyone comes face to face with Aslan, to head off to his left or right.  There is no need for anxiety about the progress of Christ's word; indeed, anxiety is ruled out by gospel hope.

This is what Christian hope means before that insurmountable barrier.  This is what the Christian hopes for in face of the puzzle which it presents.  But the Christian has not merely to hope.  He has really to show that he is a man who is liberated and summoned, as to faith and love, so also to hope.  And if he really hopes as he can and should as a Christian, he will not let his hands fall and simply wait in idleness for what God will finally do, neglecting his witness to Christ.  On the contrary, strengthened and encouraged by the thought of what God will finally do, he will take up his ministry on this side of the frontier.  He will thus not allow himself to be disturbed by questions of minorities or majorities, of success or failure, of the more probable or more likely improbable progress of Christianity in the world.  As a witness of Jesus Christ, he will simply do - and no more is required, though this is indeed required - that which he can do to proclaim the Gospel in his own age and place and circle, doing it with humility and good temper, but also with the resoluteness which corresponds to the great certainty of his hope in Jesus Christ.

To hope in this Christian sense is not a passive thing; it is not like hoping a bus will come along, just sitting and waiting for an event beyond one's control.  Rather, it is living as one called to hope.  Knowing that God has taken care of the end result, knowing that there is reason for absolute confidence - the Christian will bear witness to Christ.  Whether in the minority or majority, whether strong or weak, he will just do what can do in the place he is put; and all he can do is live and speak as a witness.  The humility in which this is to be done springs from the fact that nothing ultimately depends on his work as a witness, but everything rests on the One to whom he bears witness.

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