“As a Tumbler Sings”

Okay, I skipped a couple of weeks again. But this morning as I was doing devotions, God met me and encouraged me, and I had to share! I have been struggling over the past week, once again, with my own slothful inability to “self-start” or motivate myself. This morning I opened up Romans and Barth again.

Romans 5:1-5 | “The Coming Day: The New Man” (part 1)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

This was a powerful section of Barth’s commentary on Romans. By far the most lucid part, however, was his treatment of verse 5:

Therefore we glory in hope (v.2), precisely because it is not an achievement of our spirit, but the action of the Holy Spirit, and because the Love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us. The Holy Spirit is the operation of God in faith, the creative and redemptive power of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is nigh at hand. As a tumbler sings when it is touched, so we and our world are touched in faith by the Spirit of God, who is the eternal ‘Yes’. He provides faith with content…He is the miraculous factor in faith, its beginning and its end…He is the subject of faith, which ‘religious experience’ reaches after and longs for, but never finds.

Barth presents a simple image of the relationship between what God does and what I do: the singing crystal tumbler.

water glasses

A wine glass won’t sing on its own. But it has musical potential under the right touch (and ONLY the right touch. I am terrible at this trick!). Barth sees faith like the goblet’s music: not possible without the right (the Holy Spirit’s) touch.

Too often I fall into the larger American culture’s assumptions about the degree to which I can engineer and produce my own success and well-being (and then become frustrated and depressed when I discover that I really can’t). But Barth (and Paul!) is under no such “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” illusions when it comes to faith. This, of course, is where Arminians and Calvinists butt heads. As someone who is persuaded by Calvin and Barth, I am comforted and encouraged that this faith business isn’t up to me. The Triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — is working in, with, and under me to produce faith within me and to bring me to live in response to that faith. I am an empty tumbler; Praise God for sending his Spirit to play me to the tune of Jesus Christ!

Healing “Dazzled” and “Damaged” Eyes

Recovering a Practice of Awe

At certain moments in my spiritual journey, Romans 1:24 has made me very anxious about my spiritual health and even about my salvation. What does it mean that “God gave them up”? What about “Once saved, Always saved,” or what we “good” Reformed kids learn as the ‘P’ in TULIP, “Perseverance of the Saints”? I know what it is to become so complacent that my “conscience” (or my ability to discern and obey the Holy Spirit’s leading) becomes weak and then silent. I have prayed many times–during moments of profound confession, conversion, and re-commitment–that God would not “give me up,” that His presence within me and His grace toward me and His plan for me would persist.

Romans 1:22-32 | “The Night: Its Operation”

Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Of all the places to find pastoral comfort and theological truth about Romans 1:24, I think I least expected it from Barth. But he writes:

The confusion [of Creator and creature] avenges itself and becomes its own punishment. The forgetting of the true God is already the breaking loose of His wrath against those who forget Him (i.18). The enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ is avenged by its success.

This seems to me to be a much gentler (though not less grave) interpretation of “God gave them up.” When I settle for a god who permits me to pursue my own course, and who sanctifies that course, then I have chosen “the ‘No-God'” and I am thus separated from God.

The dazzled eye is soon damaged…In the perversity of this relation to God there still, however, remains a relic of clarity of sight, a last, warning recollection of the secret of God that withstands the arrogance of religion. A reflection of this secret lies even in the deified forces of the world, even in the deified universe itself. From time to time this bare relic of the Unknown reasserts itself in the presentiment of awe. But even this can cease. The damaged eye may become blind…That is to say, they become no longer capable of serious awe and amazement. They become unable to reckon with anything except feelings and experiences and events.

Barth–so infamously opposed to any human ability to “know” God truly through personal, religious experience or through the witness of creation in “general revelation”–concedes that God can use our human capacity for awe and wonder to remind us that we are not masters or creators in our own right. I cannot stand in the place of God when I recognize His glorious handiwork in stunned, rapturous silence.

This is why it is so good for me to intentionally seek time and places that will remind me how finite, small, human I am: the vast horizon of Lake Michigan, or the Pacific Ocean; the wild (almost feral) flourishing of the Amazon Rainforest; the “Purple Mountain Majesty” of the Canadian Rockies. This is also why the God-glorifying, human-humbling language of the Psalms is so important for my own prayers: “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (Ps 96:4); “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1); “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4).

Here are a couple other great resources for practicing awe:

“The Wrath of God,” According to Barth

I have been eager to read Barth’s commentary on the next few verses of Romans, because of his infamy for vehemently denying general revelation as a means to discovering anything about God.

Romans 1:18-21 | “The Night: Its Cause”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.

For Barth, it seems that general revelation may not communicate anything substantial or definite about God, except that He is utterly unreachable and totally transcendent:

And what is clearly seen to be indisputable reality is the invisibility of God, which is precisely and in strict agreement with the gospel of the resurrection–His everlasting power and divinity. And what does this mean but that we can know nothing of God, that we are not God, the the Lord is to be feared?

Barth’s primary reason for rejecting general revelation as a means to saving knowledge of God stems from his reaction against the self-sanctifying message of the state-church of his era. He finds in Paul’s words, “against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth,” the biblical grounds for his position.

Our relation [“on this side resurrection”] to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say ‘God’. We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things…we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to him as we arrange our other relationships…Our well-regulated, pleasurable life longs for some hours of devotion, some prolongation into infinity. And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves…That is our unrighteousness.

Our unrighteousness is our worship and service of ourselves, especially when we do so under the auspices of religion, which misrepresents God. This, for Barth, is what Paul means when he writes about “suppress[ing] the truth.” For Barth, then, God’s wrath–“the righteousness of God–apart from and without Christ”–is bent against us when we exalt and serve ourselves in God’s name.

Fugitive is the soul in this world and soulless is the world, when men do not find themselves within the sphere of the knowledge of the unknown God, when they avoid the true God in whom they and the world must lose themselves in order that both may find themselves again. This is the Cause of the Night in which we are wandering.

Nevertheless, even though this is the pervasive and enduring state of depraved people, Barth holds onto the revealed truth of God in Christ: “For the wrath of God cannot be His last word, the true revelation of Him!” Thanks be to God!

Becoming Crater Churches

Today’s section of Romans is infamous, widely memorized and even more widely interpreted and applied to train children and adults to be evangelists and apologists for the Gospel.

Romans 1:16-17 | “The Theme of the Epistle”

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

I have been charged to be “not ashamed of the gospel” in sermons and Sunday School lessons. A good friend has been tasked to teach and train his junior high and high school youth groups to be “not ashamed of the gospel.” Books of sermons and inspirations and confessions have been written by Christian thinkers and speakers who are “not ashamed of the gospel.”

Most of my apologetics training has revolved around my “testimony”–a concise account of a profound, personal experience of God’s redemptive energy in my life that is ready “in season and out of season” (after all, “No one can argue against your experience!”). My recent excursions in Brazil reinforced the importance of my testimony for proclaiming the Gospel. Barth, however, will have none of it. For Barth, the Gospel is essentially and primarily transcendent of human experience; in fact, it challenges human experience with a resounding “NO!” Barth writes:

The Gospel does not enter into competition…The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths…Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel–that is, Christian Apologetics–is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. By the Gospel the whole concrete world is dissolved and established. It does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both.

It’s hard for me to read and reiterate these words from Barth, knowing that there are faithful, passionate Christians who find comfort in hearing and having reasoned, persuasive arguments for their faith. Nevertheless, according to Barth, whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, God faithfully speaks for Himself. Thus, Barth exposits Paul’s central theme:

Where the faithfulness of God encounters the fidelity of men, there is manifested His righteousness. There shall the righteous man live. This is the theme of the Epistle to the Romans.

Barth’s definition of faith–“the fidelity of men encountering the faithfulness of God”–is an important one, particularly as it regards how I talk about my “faith” to others and how I argue (“apologize”?) for my “faith.” Really, it even calls into question whether I can talk about or argue for any faith that is properly mine. This definition starts and ends with God. It is His first and enduring faithfulness that elicits and evokes my own faithfulness in sympathetic response. So, my own speech about “faith” must begin with, return to, and end at God’s faithfulness, through the proclamation of the Gospel:

To the proclamation and receiving of this Gospel the whole activity of the Christian community–its teaching, ethics, and worship–is strictly related.But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself. The people of Christ, His community, know that no sacred word or work or thing exists in its own right: they know only those words and works and things which by their negation are sign-posts to the Holy One. If anything Christian(!) be unrelated to the Gospel, it is a human by-product, a dangerous survival, a regrettable misunderstanding. For in this case…the characteristic marks of Christianity would be possession and self-sufficiency rather than deprivation and hope…Now, when this occurs, the Gospel, so far from being removed from all rivalry, stands hard-pressed in the midst of other religions and philosophies of this world. Hard pressed, because,if men must have their religious needs satisfied, if they must surround themselves with comfortable illusions about their knowledge of God and particularly about their union with Him–well, the world penetrates far deeper into such matters than does a Christianity which misunderstands itself, and of such a ‘gospel’ we have good cause to be ashamed.

Ultimately, Barth isn’t as interested in Christians or communities that can argue eloquently for their faith. Barth, and the Gospel, ask entirely different questions of us:

  • What if our communities (our families, our neighborhoods, our cities) looked like “crater[s] formed by the explosion of a shell,” which were “no more than…void[s] in which the Gospel reveals itself”?
  • What if “the characteristic marks” of our communities (our small groups, our Bible studies, our prayer groups, our coffee circles) really were “deprivation and hope,” and not “possession and self-sufficiency”?
  • What if “the whole activity” of our communities (our lay ministry teams, our consistories, our synods, our denominations) were “strictly related” “to the proclamation and receiving of [the] Gospel”?

Would we even need apologists anymore? Or, like Barth suggests, would the Gospel commend itself to the watching world?