No Secular Sphere: Karl Barth on the Universal Claim of the Word of God (Reformission Monday)

For today’s edition of ‘Reformission Monday’, I would like to offer a reflection, inspired by Karl Barth, on the universal claim that the Word of God has made and continues to make on every aspect of human life and culture (indeed on all of reality!) prior to and apart from any acknowledgement that it does so. This is important to our understanding and practice of mission and evangelism, for it both grounds our task and empowers our efforts. All too often we can lapse into dualist patterns of thinking that bifurcate reality into split realms of the secular and the sacred, the world and the church, the non-Christian and the Christian.

Now at the root of these distinctions, to be sure, lies a kernel of truth. Yet we should not press legitimate distinctions into full-blown dualisms that cause us to regard the former category – the secular, the world, the non-Christian – as unaffected or undetermined by the decisive event that took place in the incarnation and atonement of the Son of God andtumblr_medxqh0nay1qaxacfo1_1280 that is now proclaimed in the gospel. When this happens, we can find ourselves making absurd statements like: “You need to make Christ the Lord and Savior of your life” (as though he was not already the Lord and Savior of all!) or “There’s no point in even trying to change that church or institution or structure” (as though Christ is not sovereign over all) or “We shouldn’t go to that place and witness/minister to those people” (as though there were places and people to whom the Word of God has nothing to say). Underneath each and every one of these statements lies the insidious notion that the gospel of Jesus Christ has not already laid claim to full spectrum of human life and history, with the result that the church’s task consists in helping to actualize the work of Christ through its own (even Spirit-aided!) efforts.

Since we are all tempted to neglect the objective claim of the Word of God on the world and thus give ourselves far too much responsibility and credit, the following words from Karl Barth serve as a salutary reminder:

It is not the case that God has somewhere and somehow revealed Himself, that somewhere there is a Bible and somewhere a Church with its preaching and sacraments—but history and society stand apart from all this, unaffected, sovereign, following their own laws, and the Church must come as it were from outside, from a God who has remained alien to this cosmos, to represent and champion its cause, or the cause of its God, to this cosmos by attack or defence…

If by revelation we understand this Word of God, and if the Bible and the Church are understood in the light of this recollection and expectation, then as a totality, too, the world of men standing over against the Word of God must be considered as subject to a decisive alteration. But in this case the world cannot be held to its ungodliness by the Church; it cannot be taken seriously in its ungodliness. So long and so far as the Church holds it to this, it simply shows that it does not believe seriously in the Word of God. If it did, it would have to reckon concretely with its power. It is not, of course, that man is claimed for God on the basis of a relic of his relationship and commitment to God by creation, as though the fall had not been so radical in its consequences. It is not a question of natural theology but very much indeed of supernatural theology. But such a theology, bearing in mind the power of God’s Word, will have to claim the world, history, and society as the world, history and society in the midst of which Christ was born and died and rose again. Not in the light of nature but in the light of grace, there is no self-enclosed and protected secular sphere, but only one which is called in question by God’s Word, by the Gospel, by God’s claim, judgment and blessing, and which is only provisionally and restrictedly abandoned to its own legalism and its own gods. What the Word says stands whatever the world’s attitude to it and whether it redound to it for salvation or perdition…

The world, then, cannot evolve into agreement with God’s Word on its own initiative nor can the Church achieve this by its work in and on the world. The Church is the Church as it believes and proclaims that prior to all secular developments and prior to all its own work the decisive word has in fact been spoken already regarding both itself and also the world. The world no longer exists in isolation or neutrality vis-à-vis revelation, the Bible, and proclamation. Whether it believes or not, whether it develops in this way or that, whether the Church exerts greater influence or less, whether it consists of millions of confessors and proclaimers or whether only two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name—whatever becomes of the Church and the world the only thing that can matter is the event that follows the decisive word already spoken.[1]

I can think of no better expositor of Barth’s thought here than John Webster who in a masterful essay on the mission of the church writes:

Much missionary theory and practice is predicated on a flawed understanding of Jesus’ perfection, assuming that the space in which the church undertakes its mission is one in which Jesus’ perfection is not operatieve…A less than robust account of the perfection of the person and work of Christ almost inevitably undermines his universality or catholicity, disturbing the deep sense that all times and occasions are the seasons of his mercy. Like much hermeneutical theory, much thinking about mission construes the history of the world as if the world can justly be understood apart from the gospel – as if the world’s course were not enclosed by, and wholly explicable in terms of, the grace of God in Jesus Christ, in whose light alone it is judged…

The perfection of Jesus, Barth insists, includes his contemporary presence and activity. Faced and summon by that presence and activity, the church does not think of itself as the agent through which an essentially inert or passive Jesus is activated or introduced into the world. On the contrary: as herald, the church points to the prevenient reality of Jesus in his triumphant progress through the history of creation.[2]

Imagine if we truly believed and lived this! Imagine if we were fully convinced that Word of God incarnate, and the Word of God written that makes him known, had already laid kingly and authoritative claim to the whole of human life and culture, to the whole of the world, to the whole of the universe! Consider how bold we might be in our preaching and proclamation, how hopeful we might be while engaging in the most seemingly futile missionary or ministry endeavor, how assuredly we would speak to people of what has already been decided and accomplished for them in Jesus Christ, how urgent we would be in admonishing them to faith and repentance, and how free we would be in realizing that the progress of the Word of God really does not depend at us at all for its efficacy! If we addressed the world on the basis of the knowledge that all things have already been decisively claimed by and are thus irrevocably destined to become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, what fire might fill our bones and pour forth from our mouths!

If it is true that the Word of God has laid authoritative claim to every aspect of human life and culture even prior to or apart from any recognition that it has done so, then all we must do is confidently proclaim this reality and call people to do today what one day they will do whether they will to or not: bow their knees and confess with their tongues that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Were we to have such conviction and confidence, we would not despair of the fallenness of any institution nor balk before the sinfulness of any person but boldly declare that in the world they can no longer find any safe harbor or neutral territory outside of the domain of the Word of God, for the ground on which they are standing is holy ground, claimed by the crucified, risen, and coming King.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.154-156.

[2]  John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp.148-149.

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2 thoughts on “No Secular Sphere: Karl Barth on the Universal Claim of the Word of God (Reformission Monday)

  1. Rod Lampard 30 January 2017 / 22:53

    I think the question ”in the light of the Lordship of Christ, can there be any lordless powers?” fits in the sphere of the false dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. If Jesus is Victor, King of Kings, He is Lord of all, which necessarily implies that there are no real lordless powers. To be sure, they can exist, and do exist, especially in their resistance to grace and law, but they only exist as imitations. They don’t get the final say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 31 January 2017 / 08:52

      As always Rod, you have a knack for saying things clearly and concisely. Well put!

      Liked by 1 person

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