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?

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