Erasing Calvin's Shadows from the Life of the World to Come

So. I said the other day that "it's intellectually dishonest to insinuate traditionalist shadows on the backsides of every one of Barth's doctrines of economic grace when you could instead go do the research on damnation and judgment as topics in and of themselves." And the fact that this practice is a Reformed predilection, and a conforming of Barth to traditional Reformed theology, has been a nearly constant refrain of mine. I've also been attributing it, in current scholarship, to a hangover from von Balthasar attempting to cast traditionalist shadows back into Barth's doctrine of election.

But let's hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Let's hear Barth talk about "the life everlasting" in the context of the Apostle's Creed and Calvin's commentary thereupon. Because, as I said, the burden of proof is on me that Barth leaves no shadows of damnation behind his doctrines of pure grace. And if one wants to describe the future history of redemption as a thing that is not in any way called into question by human sin, such proof is urgently needed!

So here's a piece of text from a lecture Barth gave six times between the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1943, while WWII was in full swing, in canton Neuchâtel on the border of occupied and otherwise Vichy-collaborator-controlled France. (That being the context for "as though hell and so many horrors were not on earth already!") Watch as Barth calls Calvin out on imposing these shadows on the backside of grace, and strips them off again.

The Life Everlasting

Karl Barth, "The Life Everlasting," pp. 171–4 in The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. by Gabriel Vahanian (London: SCM Press, 1958; reprint Wipf & Stock, 2006).
Question 110
"Question 110. Why, then, is there mention only of eternal life and not of hell?—Since nothing is held by faith except what contributes to the consolation of the souls of the pious. Hence there are here recalled the rewards which the Lord has prepared for his servants. Therefore it is not added what fate may await the impious whom we know to be outcasts from the Kingdom of God."
For the third time, it is a question of human life under the aspect of the future that is promised to it by God, under the aspect of its eternity. Our life in the light of eternity is the life everlasting. Justified through the forgiveness of sins, sanctified through the resurrection of the flesh, human life is glorified through the life everlasting. (Cf. Rom. 8.) The Holy Spirit communicates to us communion with God not only in justifying us and in sanctifying us, but in glorifying us, that is, in communicating the glory of God to us. Glory means the splendor of God, the glory of God in the life and the revelation of God such as he is. God has but to show himself to make light and to dazzle. (Cf. Question 2.) Do note that, though it is a question of glorification, this does not mean that there is a glory within us that might start to shine, but it means that we shall partake in a glory other than ours, in the glory of God. We shall be, so to speak, draped in his light. We ourselves shall shine because we shall be lighted. God will have his glory in us and that is the goal of his creation: God does not want to remain alone. It is not enough for God to shine by his own power. He wants to shine in others and he chose us to live in us. He wants to be glorious in us and through us. The "veil" of which we spoke will be removed and human life will meet its final destination visibly.

In the sense of the Bible, the term eternal (αἰώνος) does not mean "which has no end," but quite simply: "which belongs in the world to come." Eternity is, in the Bible, the time of this new world. Hence it is not defined first by its unlimited charateristic (indeed it is unlimited) but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious Kingdom of God.

According to Calvin, the Creed does not speak of hell and eternal death because its author was nice enough to be willing to speak only of comfort. But Calvin, as if to restore things, reminds us that there is also hell, although the Creed did not mention it. I think that, here too, Calvin must be slightly corrected. It is not only out of kindness, out of good nature, that the Creed does not mention hell and eternal death. But the Creed discusses only the things which are the object of the faith. We do not have to believe in hell and in eternal death. I may only believe in the resurrection and the judgment of Christ, the judge and advocate, who has loved me and defended my cause.

The Creed discusses the things to be believed. To believe. It is important to finish with faith. We believe in the Word of God and it is the word of our salvation. The kingdom, the glory, the resurrection, the life everlasting, each one is a work of rescue. Light pierces through the darkness, eternal life overcomes eternal death. We cannot "believe" in sin, in the devil, in our death sentence. We can only believe in the Christ who has overcome the devil, borne sin and removed eternal death. Devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome.

And let us not add: "Yes, but sin is a grievous thing"—as though hell and so many horrors were not on earth already! If one does really believe, one cannot say: "But!" this terrible and pitiful "but." I fear that much of the weakness of our Christian witness comes from this fact that we dare not frankly confess the grandeur of God, the victory of Christ, the superiority of the Spirit. Wretched as we are, we always relapse into contemplation of ourselves and of mankind, and, naturally, eternal death comes up no sooner than we have looked on it. The world without redemption becomes again a power and a threatening force, and our message of victory ceases to be believable. But as it is written: "The victory that triumphs over the world, this is our faith" (I John 5:4).

If you want more clarification on the details of this answer from Barth, I'll direct your attention to the big blue TVZ Barth Gesamtausgabe. And don't worry about your German competence; this bit is in English! Find the Gespräche 1959–1962 volume in part IV, and flip to page 421 for the "Fragebeantwortung bei der Konferenz der World Student Christian Federation." It's all quite good, but the part you want starts at the bottom of 428 and runs through to 433. (Or, if you have access to the digital version, you can search for it directly.)

In the meantime, watch yourself when you start to do as Calvin did, and suggest that doctrines of grace are naturally limited to the elect, on the assumption that election is naturally a limited reality demonstrated by conformity or opposition to the Kingdom of God. Barth calls you to disbelieve that reservation of something else besides grace for those who seem to you not to deserve salvation, because in Christ it is not and has eternally never been a question of merit.


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