Jon Coutts. A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Jon Coutts teaches theology and ethics at Trinity College, which is in Bristol, England. A Shared Mercy is about theologian Karl Barth’s views on interpersonal forgiveness.
Not surprisingly, Barth’s views on interpersonal forgiveness are
Christocentric. For Barth, Christians’ forgiveness of others is based
on Christ’s forgiveness of human beings, which is what actually frees
them to forgive others. Barth rejected the idea that Christians should
simply enjoy God’s forgiveness by themselves, for Barth held that being a
Christian entails being a part of a Christian community and extending
forgiveness to other people, both inside and outside of the church.
Barth’s Christocentric view on interpersonal forgiveness can inspire
questions. For example, what about secular justifications for
forgiveness, such as the idea that forgiveness has the therapeutic value
of making the wronged person feel better, or the idea that people
should try to empathize with other human beings, even those who hurt
them? Coutts, who largely agrees with Barth, does not dismiss the value
of psychological insights on the issue of forgiveness, but he believes
that they should be employed within a Christological context. For Barth
and Coutts, the Christological context is what provides a deep well for
forgiveness, as well as hope when forgiveness appears absurd. By
themselves, secular justifications for forgiveness are problematic.
Forgiving for its therapeutic value is self-serving, and forgiving out
of empathy for the offender is rooting forgiveness in similarities
between two people, as opposed to loving those who are different.
The first chapter of the book was rather difficult in that it sought
to resolve debates about the implications of Barth’s thoughts, while
also summarizing a difference of opinion between Barth and von
Balthasar. These discussions may have been important to the book, since
it is an academic treatment of Barth’s views on forgiveness, but they
were rather arcane, in my opinion. The chapter did have a fascinating
quote by Rodney Petersen, however, about the marginalization of
interpersonal forgiveness within “Christendom.”
While the first chapter was rather daunting, the rest of the book was
lucid. It largely focused on articulating Barth’s views, while also
allowing Barth’s views to contribute to larger discussions about
forgiveness. Coutts interacted with challenging questions about
interpersonal forgiveness: Does forgiveness trivialize evil? Does
needing to repent to receive forgiveness mean that forgiveness is not a
free gift? Do love and forgiveness entail reciprocity, or should they
be unconditionally extended to people, even if they do not reciprocate?
On the last question, Barth believed that Christians should extend
unconditional love, but he also thought that the end of such love should
be Christian fellowship within the community, which is reciprocal.
Coutts’ attempts to resolve this apparent tension in Barth’s thought,
among his other discussions of complex issues, was what made this book
A theme that appears throughout the book is that there are wrong ways
to extend and receive forgiveness. People can forgive or publicly
apologize in order to promote themselves, which is unhelpful. There are
shallow forms of forgiveness and repentance, and Barth discussed the
latter in his interaction with the story of the Israelite spies in
Numbers 12-14. Finding the right balance between personal introspection
and communal dialogue and attempts at resolution can be a challenge.
On the one hand, Coutts’ references to these pitfalls can make one
feel that one can never get forgiveness and repentance right. If
forgiveness is a work of God rather than something that we try to muster
by ourselves, as Barth argued, should we be heavily pressured to walk a
fine line? On the other hand, Coutts does well to discuss these
pitfalls, for they may help explain why people can be sincere
Christians, yet fail so often at forgiveness and love. Plus, to his
credit, Coutts does mention Barth’s emphasis on God’s continual mercy
towards us, even when we stumble in our faltering efforts to forgive,
and Coutts says that the Holy Spirit can use improper forgiveness, at
least as a starting-point.
In terms of whether I like the book, I am giving the book five stars
because it is deep and weighty. I did learn things in reading this
book, such as Derrida’s view that interpersonal forgiveness is
unrealistic, and the relevance of deconstructionism to his stance. The
interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew
18:21-35) by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns also stood out to me in this
book, as Myers and Enns argued that the king in the parable does not
represent God but is another character in the story who wrongly embraces
Because I am someone who is socially-challenged and struggles with
resentment, a book on interpersonal forgiveness that says that God that
requires interpersonal interaction will make me angry, in places. I
often greet the idea that people are supposed to be friends with each
other in one big, happy community with “Dream on!”, and I had that
reaction as I went through this book. I am still unclear about how
exactly God’s forgiveness of humanity in Christ frees us up to forgive,
or how it enables us to get rid of our insecurities and pettiness.
Plenty of people believe in God’s forgiveness of humanity through
Christ, or at least they think that they believe that, yet they still
have ego! And, while Coutts criticizes methods of forgiveness that fail
to value the other as other, does his, and Barth’s, approach truly do
this? Forgiving others on account of Christ seems to place more
emphasis on Christ rather than the others who would receive forgiveness.
Yet, Coutts does make important points. For instance, as Coutts,
Barth, and even Jesus maintain, confrontation of others may be necessary
for reconciliation to occur, so that the confronted can come to terms
with how hurtful their behavior is. Yet, I would maintain that
confrontation can also be very awkward and may even make matters worse,
especially if people’s feelings get hurt or people nitpick from the
standpoint of pettiness.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!
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