Book Reviews

Book Review: “A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church” by Jon Coutts

asm-couttsJon Coutts’ A Shared Mercy explores the doctrine of forgiveness from the perspective of Karl Barth. Because it is the perspective of Karl Barth, it also reflects on doctrine of the church, as this was central to Barth’s thought. However, Coutts argues we must be careful not to subordinate all doctrines Barth taught under his doctrine of the church.

The book is organized into 6 chapters that largely center on two parts: Barth’s doctrine of forgiveness and what a full doctrine of forgiveness based on Barth might look like in application. Throughout the book there is a kind of unity between these topics as Coutts takes what Barth taught on forgiveness and applies it.

First, Coutts notes that because Christ taught that forgiveness is central to the lives of his followers, it follows that forgiveness is central to the church (1). Thus, exploring Barth’s Church Dogmatics, we ought to expect to find forgiveness as a central, not tertiary teaching. Coutts argues throughout the book that this is, indeed, what we find, though little has been studied in regards to Barth on forgiveness in the church in contemporary theology.

Readers may be concerned that a book so focused on a somewhat obscure topic may lack applicable insights, but Coutts does a great job not merely reporting Barth’s beliefs but also deriving thoughts therefrom that have application to the contemporary Christian. One example is the question of whether forgiveness first requires one to wait for repentance:

A legitimate practical concern… [is] the perpetuation of victimhood that seems to be implied when the imperative [to forgive] is self-giving and forgiving love. But this is founded on a misconception of the call to cruciform discipleship… Even if the abusive party is unrepentant, the result is not unforgiveness, but an acknowledgement of nonreconciliation… Forgiving the abuser is not the perpetuation of victimhood but the free offer of further reconciliation. (154-155)

This and many other passages provide direct application to the lives of believers. At several points, then, Coutts ably demonstrates the way to bring scholarship to the person in the pew, something that is too-often lacking in scholarly works.

As a Lutheran, I appreciated the highlighting of the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for Christian community, though I think Barth’s teaching on these sacraments falls short of the biblical teaching. Yes, baptism is a sign of community, but Barth and Coutts each seem to err in seeing baptism as a kind of political action of the church rather than a gracious action of God. Similarly, the view of the Lord’s Supper as being primarily a work of the church rather than a gracious gift of God takes away the greatness of the gift.

Because the book is so focused on a specific aspect of Barth’s teaching, it does at times read a bit too much like a journal article–engaging with very specific opponents with little context. However, these moments are thankfully few and far between.

A Shared Mercy is an interesting, surprisingly applicable study on forgiveness in Barth’s doctrine. More importantly, it shares information that can be applied directly to the broader church. The importance of a doctrine of forgiveness ought never to be understated, as it is so central to Christian teaching. As such, this book is an important contribution to understanding what we as Christians, and the church, are called to do.

The Good

+Insights into Barth’s theology of the church, in balanced perspective
+Background for modern discussions of forgiveness
+More applicable material than me be expected

The Bad

-Sometimes reads a bit more like a journal article than a book
-Reduces both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to human act

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever. 


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: “A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church” by Jon Coutts

  1. Like I said on twitter, thank you for the review! Just to be clear, for me there’s no either/or between “political action of church” & “gracious gift of God”. In fact that’s a central point that makes this book tick.

    Posted by Jon Coutts | November 26, 2016, 3:45 PM

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