Thursday, December 22, 2016
"A Shared Mercy" by Jon Coutts. A Review
A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church
A division of InterVarsity Press
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426
ISBN: 978-0-8308-4915-4; $39.00; September 2016
Busy with Barth; 4 Stars of 5
Forgiveness is such a tricky event since there are several consequential questions attached to it: “Does this mean I forget what he did and allow him access again?” “I may have said the words of forgiveness to her, but I can’t bring myself to trust her. Does this make me unforgiving?” “After all he did to us, if I forgive him now doesn’t that mean he gets off scot-free?” There are lots of despairs and disgraces swimming around forgiveness, making it a hot and heartrending subject. John Coutts, tutor of theology and ethics at Trinity College in Bristol, England, and ordained in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, approaches this needful topic in his new, 244 page paperback, “A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church.” It is written to interact with Karl Barth in a scholarly, but also, pastoral manner.
“A Shared Mercy” works through six chapters, moving through pertinent background material on forgiveness, to its meaning, the outworking of forgiveness, its forgeries, and the shape of forgiveness in a confessing church. Throughout the whole volume Coutts puts at the forefront the ministry of reconciliation. “Put simply, God does not make superheroes, but participants in Christ’s work of grace. This grace reaches the depths of the person and also pushes into the experience of reconciliation with other people (as well as all creation)...Freed from sin and freed for life they are freed to speak, serve and share with others” (56-7). For the author, when we recognize that we are not superheroes but rather men, women, girls and boys who need Christ and are participants in Christ’s work of grace (his love, mercy, forgiveness, renewing and presence) we become freed up to love and laugh as well as forgive and seek forgiveness.
The author helpfully addresses some of the pitfalls faced by Christians and congregations who attend to the ministry of reconciliation, to include how Matthew 18.15-20 fleshes out in confronting sin, forgiveness, repentance, and history. But there are two significant hitches where Coutts seems to lay most of his emphases. One of the snags is the area of sloth. Coutts, taking his cue from Barth, notes that if “creaturely freedom is found in obedience to the Creator, the reasoning goes, then sloth is the anxious self-care that either opts out or acts out on its own…On the one hand, sloth can take the passive form of a seemingly defensible resignation; on another, it can take the form of “activism” bent on self-projected visions of success” (39). This sloth raises its head in various forms of false peacekeeping that plague, not only Christians individually, but also congregations as they pursue harmony. Churches can despair instead of have hope, or react presumptuously instead of penitently. For one thing, “the despairing church can become so troubled by the invisibility of its unity that in the face of its obstacles and enemies it will expend more and more of its efforts on staying afloat, keeping face, maintaining borders or pointing fingers.” And in the other direction, “the presumptuous church becomes so invested in the visibility of its unity that in the face of its own imperfections it begins to produce “energetic and skillful propaganda” in order to maintain its sense of purity and cohesiveness” (187). The entire theme of sloth, and how it looks individually and institutionally, was very perceptive and insightful.
Another hazard attending to the ministry of reconciliation is the challenge of faith. Do we believe that the mercy of God in Christ is powerful enough to actually aid us in confronting sin with the aim of forgiveness, and effective enough to bring life changing forgiveness to the offender; “it is precisely when a miracle is needed that people rush to fill the need themselves” 103). For the author, and Barth, forgiving “is free self-giving in the face of sin” (123), and so the question “is not whether we forgive, but why we think we cannot. The question is not whether to forgive, but what it entails” (125). The deep, and risky challenge comes from Christ himself who puts the duty of forgiveness on his forgiven followers “to love the enemy at cost to themselves, compelled by his love, by hope in his resurrection and by faith in his reconciliation against all odds” (157). This particular premise, woven throughout the last half of the book, gave me quite a bit of matter to think through, and pray over.
There are various aspects of Barth’s theology addressed in “A Shared Mercy” that may give some concern to certain readers. The one that stands forward is his perspective on the limitlessness of the atonement. The author observes that for Barth, “All humanity is judged at the cross of Christ, and there all humanity is atoned for in God’s self-giving love” (32). This works its way into “his view toward an indiscriminate and free sharing of Christ’s grace between persons” (Ibid.); that the Christian should view the non-Christian as one who is elected in Christ. This means, then, that when I am forgiving another (even those who are not Christians) I could, and maybe should, say “I forgive you because God has forgiven us” (33). Therefore, in Barth’s schema of unlimited atonement “the human has no right to limit or manage the sharing of forgiveness” (123). The trouble, as may be clear, is Barth’s almost-universalism which colors his views on forgiveness and the ministry of reconciliation.
“A Shared Mercy” is a comfortable introduction to Karl Barth for those of us who have never interacted with any of his material before. But it is also a very practical and pastoral volume on an extremely pertinent subject. I found myself engaged, reflecting and in prayer throughout my reading. This not only needs to be in Seminary libraries, but would be a decent gift for a seminarian or minister. I recommend the book.
Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “A Shared Mercy” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).