Karl Barth and Ergophobia

I want to think today about ergophobia. [1] I mean by this term not the familiar “fear of work,” (illustrated by the man hiding under the desk, below) but more a “fear of works righteousness.” The mainstay of Christian theology is that salvation comes by grace, not by merit. This clause in Ephesians 2:8, 9 suggests why that is important:

Because it is by grace that you have been saved…not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.

Credit-claiming is a big deal, apparently. The the grace of God is a big deal too. But you can take it too far. Karl Barth, for instance, takes it too far, in my judgment. Consider this.

“…the man who faces Christ… will see that he is in no position to have faith in himself, or to ascribe to himself a capacity or power by means of which he himself could somehow bring about his salvation, or co-operate in bringing it about. What proceeds from himself the man who believes can only consider as the sin which is forgiven him.

If he were to any extent to rely on himself too, as well as on Jesus Christ, he would to that extent fall back into sin, and deny the completeness of the salvation received through Jesus Christ and thus the glory of Jesus Christ as the only Savior. But if he cannot rely on himself, he cannot rely on his own faith as a work, to accomplish which he possesses the organs and the capabilities in himself.” [2]

It is passages like this that have pushed me so far as to invent a word like “ergophobic.” Barth is an ergophobe, as was the apostle Paul. [3] Barth says that we cannot rely on our faith “as a work.” I like that. Treating the faith you have as if it were your contribution to the salvation that you and God jointly provide is wrong. It is “credit-claiming.”

ergo 1On the other hand, faith can be considered not as “a work,” but as a personal and wholehearted commitment to receive the gift that God offers. That still violates the higher standard that Barth offers in this passage—faith that proceeds from the self is as sinful as everything else that proceeds from the self—but it does surpass the lower standard. It does not treat faith as if it were “a work” and thus “deserving” of salvation. It treats faith as a response to grace.  That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Let’s start somewhere else. Is it better for us to think of the salvation that God offers as more like a wedding or more like being struck by lightening? [4] I think it is more like a wedding. Wedding language is commonly used in the Bible to point toward the relationship of God and His people. Here, just as one example is a clip from Jeremiah 38:

My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

But every covenant, not just a marriage covenant, relies on the need for at least two parties. A covenant of friendship requires two. A business partnership requires two. A doubles tennis team requires two.

Why is it a good idea to obliterate that crucially important dimension? I think it is not,ergo 10 but the people I am calling ergophobes are not driven by their judgment that it is a good idea; they are driven by their fear that attributing some part of the transaction to the human partner will constitute “credit-claiming” and thereby undo the grace of God. In their fear, they are giving up too much.

Maybe it would be enough to acknowledge that the initiative lies in God’s hands. No one imagines that we approach God with the idea that He and I form a joint partnership. Surely Barth would say that giving the initiative to the human partner is putting it in the wrong place. I agree. But they go on to say that when God offers the initiative—as all scripture suggests—that we go too far by accepting the initiative. I don’t agree.

One of the best-known representations of God’s initiative and our response is this passage from Revelation 3 where God is pictured standing at the door of a house and knocking, asking to be admitted.

20Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side. [5]

In this image, the house is ours. God comes to our house and knocks at the door. The initiative is His. But the ability to respond to that request is ours and can only be ours. The passage presupposes that we may choose to open the door or not. It makes no narrative sense at all to ask that the door be opened if the resident could not choose to open it.

ergo 8In the Barthian sense above, opening the door is a sinful act which we hope will be forgiven. That seems “too far” to me. Fearing “credit-claiming” that much (too much) is what makes me search around for words like ergophobe.

Christians do not, in fact, practice their religion that way. We understand in the most practical terms that God has offered us an invitation and that we are free to accept or reject it. We do not all understand the consequences of rejecting it in the same way, as I noted recently. But when anyone goes as far as the ergophobes go, they deny human agency and scripture teaches that God went to some lengths to preserve human agency. In theological settings, it is called “free will.”

Some Barthians say that “faith” is the gift of God in the sense that God guarantees it as a choice we could make if we were willing. I think you have to relax your ergophobia at least a little to come that far and I appreciate it. We still may choose, in this way of imagining it, but it is the action and intention of God that the choice be there for us to make.

But some say that the faith itself is an act of God and that seems to me a violation of any relationship that could be called a covenant.

[1] There is already a word “ergophobia” or, alternatively, “ergasiophobia,” which means fear of work or fear of finding work. But that’s not what I mean and the Greek ergon = “work” plus the suffix -phobia, meaning “fear” are both so much in the public domain that I feel free to combine them as I like if I want to shape them into a new word.
[2] This passage is from Karl Barth’s Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland from 1936—1938. The lectures were called “The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation.” This passage is apparently taken from a reflection on the lectures by W. Travis McMaken in 2011. I mention that because he is the one responsible for the choice of the bold font.
[3] Often, the suffix -phobic is used to represent excessive fear; more fear “than their ought to be.” I mean less than that. I mean that the ergophobe features work—or “works” in the context of theology—more than is necessary or desirable. I don’t mean that it is neurotic.
[4] It is cute, I think, that we call being struck by lightening “an act of God” for insurance purposes, but do not call the union of two souls made for each other an act of God, even though it is true that the insurance companies do make some adjustments in the latter case as well.
[5] For reasons I don’t really understand, this translation from the New Jerusalem Bible says “standing” although it is a perfect verb, which ought to indicate an action that is completed already. That is what “perfect” means. And the verb translated “knocking” indicated a present and continuing action. It ought to mean “I have come…and I continue to knock.” Hm.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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