Monday, December 13, 2021

The Bible preserves the church

The church is desperately fragile and vulnerable.  It could be destroyed at any time.  Karl Barth, dwelling on this theme in Church Dogmatics IV/2, reflects on the multiple threats to the church: from the outside, the threat of outright persecution and also the threat of just being ignored; from the inside, the threat of secularisation (where the church becomes alienated from its own basis in Christ) and sacralisation (where the church assimilates to the methods of the world and seeks to glorify itself).  Given it's vulnerability to the world and to its own sin, how is it that the church has not in fact disappeared?

The big answer that Barth gives is that the church is upheld.  But how is it upheld?  Barth's first answer is that the Bible has continued to speak within the church.  The Scriptures "have continually become a living voice and word, and have had and exercised power as such."  (673)  The Bible has, of course, often been submerged beneath church traditions, "or proclaimed only in liturgical sing-song", or contradicted by philosophy and ideology.  "But they have always been the same Scriptures and the community has never been able to discard them."  (674)

So what is it, then, that has upheld the church?  "A mere book then?"  No, says Barth.  The Bible is "a chorus of very different and independent but harmonious voices."  It is "an organism which in its many and varied texts is full of vitality within the community."  The Bible is "something which can speak and make itself heard in spite of all its maltreatment at the hands of the half-blind and arbitrary and officious."

Barth expects the Bible to speak afresh, again and again, recalling the church to itself.  As the chorus of voices which harmoniously witnesses to Christ, the Bible is able to call the church again and again to him.  This cannot be prevented by the church, even when with its traditions and speculations it wants to keep the Bible under control.  Neither, actually, can Christians manufacture this "by their own Bible-lectures and Bible-study or even by the Scripture principle".  Rather, "it is something that Scripture achieves of itself" - and for Barth, that points to the fact that Scripture is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), the word by which the Spirit works in the church and the world.

This does not mean, of course, that it is a matter of indifference whether churches maintain a reverence for Scripture, or whether they hold the Scripture principle, or whether they strive to keep the Bible central in their common life.  It is critical that the church do this.  But where it is done, the church is nevertheless dependent on the Bible as the Spirit wields that Bible, not its attitude to the Bible or its arrangements concerning the Bible.  "The preservation of the community takes place as it is upheld by this prophetic and apostolic word, or as it is led back as a hearing community to this word."

"And so we can only say to Christians who are troubled about the preservation of the community or the maintaining of its cause that they should discard all general and philosophico-historical considerations... and hear, and hear again, and continually hear this word, being confronted both as individual and united hearers by the fact that the community certainly cannot uphold itself, but that all the same it is fact upheld, being placed in the communion of saints as this continually takes place in the hearing of this word."  (674-5)

Hear, and hear again, and continually hear this word.

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