Barth's View of Sin
At the outset, let me loudly proclaim the refrain of Sherry MacKenzie: "I'm not a Barthian; I'm not a Barthian; I'm not a Barthian!" But let me also say that along with Dr. MacKenzie, I don't think Barth had horns or a pointy tail either. And while I must part company with Barth on a number of serious things, there are ways in which Barth can be helpful. That doesn't mean we should follow Barth wholeheartedly, but it does mean we should listen with discernment in the anticipation that we might learn some things of value from him.
One area where this is the case regards Barth's view of sin. Again, I'm not suggesting that our view of sin should align in totality with Barth. To the contrary, sin is a very complicated topic with many facets and many layers. Barth's view is one take on sin that while not capturing sin in its totality, is nonetheless a thoughtful perspective that is due our consideration.
Barth thinks about sin in ways that most of us don't. Barth develops his doctrine of sin around the concepts of 'pride' and 'sloth'. Like everything, Barth sees sin through lens of Christ. For Barth, sin is everything Christ is not. So from this vantage point, Barth appeals to the great christological hymn of Philippians 2 as the basis for understanding sin as being the opposite of Christ. In Phil. 2, Christ is depicted as emptying and humbling himself and being diligently obedient to the point of death. For Barth, Christ is, among other things, humble and diligent. So for Barth, a good way to think about sin is in opposite concepts from what Christ is shown to be. Instead of humble, sin is defined by pride. Instead of diligence, sin is defined by sloth. Pride is the opposition to the humble condescending movement of Christ out of the heavenly realms and into a world of darkness taking on human flesh. Sloth is the refusal to awaken to the new found freedom we may now possess of being truly and actively human through the fellowship of Christ. Christ shows us a new way of being human (the way of love and obedience) and creates a new fellowship with humanity. For Barth, sloth is the failure to embrace this new way of life.
For Barth, sloth is easier to hide than pride, but it's no less sinister. Sloth is inattentiveness toward our responsibilities, and our highest responsibility as humans is to wake up and listen to God. The book of Hebrews in particular tends to see unbelief in the form of laziness. For Barth, if we really understand what sloth is, we will see that it is the indifference of hate. It's not just that we aren't paying attention out of tolerant indifference. It's that we're ignoring God out of hate because we don't want to be illuminated by God or conformed to him. As one example, the sinful failures of omission highlighted in the Good Samaritan parable resemble Barth's idea of sloth. When sin is defined this way, all of us are incredibly guilty. Proverbs 26.12-16 bring pride and sloth together. People are lazy because they are prideful. People have erected a whole worldview that is counter to God so that they don't have to do what God says, or so they think.
There is much more to be said about sin than what Barth says. If we follow Barth completely, there is the danger of minimizing other aspects of sin, such as unbelief, idolatry, and misery. But Barth's view of sin can be quite helpful when seen as one vantage point of sin. The idea of sin as pride and sloth collaborating to stand in total opposition to the person and work of Christ is thought provoking and worthy of serious reflection. Barth has given us a way of understanding sin that should deepen the understanding we already have, and provides fodder for fruitful examination not only of ourselves, but the world around us. Such a pursuit should inevitably lead to a deepening understanding of the greatness of Christ for conquering it all, and bringing his followers into the same victory in God's good time.