Monday, July 04, 2022

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch III (1)

Just a reminder that we're in Church Dogmatics I/2, and numbers in brackets are page numbers.

The heading of the first section of the chapter is 'Scripture as a witness to divine revelation'.  For some, alarm bells will already be ringing - is this not what we've heard about Barth?  That he pries apart Scripture and revelation, such that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation rather than revelation itself?

Well, try to quiet the alarm bells briefly, and let's consider what it is that he means by this.  Essentially, it is a question of the appropriate hermeneutic to bring to Holy Scripture.

Firstly, let's put this section in context.  Barth reminds us that the purpose of theology is to ask whether the proclamation of the church corresponds to God's revelation, "or, concretely, the question of the agreement of this proclamation with Holy Scripture as the Word of God." (457)  The preceding sections have looked at God's revelation as the presupposition of both Scripture and proclamation - its objectivity in Jesus Christ, its subjective opening by the Holy Spirit - but this has already been drawn from the Scriptures.  That is to say, for Barth there is no getting behind Scripture to an idea of revelation that does not itself derive from Scripture.  The Bible is established as a sign that points beyond itself to "a superior authority confronting the proclamation of the Church" - and that authority is the Word of God.  The Bible "has attested to us the lordship of the triune God in the incarnate Word by the Holy Spirit."

So when Barth says that the Bible is a witness to divine revelation, he means first of all that the existence of the Bible points to the God who stands over and above the preaching of the church.  It is on this basis that theology can, and indeed must, continually ask the central question of church proclamation: does your preaching conform to Scripture?  Does it attest, therefore, the lordship of the triune God?

But there is an "undoubted limitation" introduced here in Barth's view of Scripture: "we distinguish the Bible as such from revelation.  A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses." (463)  Now here we see a classic Barthian move, a piece of dialectical theology.  Because within a few lines of writing that we distinguish the Bible as such from revelation, he is able to write that "in this limitation the Bible is not distinguished from revelation.  It is simply revelation as it comes to us..."  What is going on here?  Essentially Barth is calling us to pay attention to the way in which the Bible is revelation to us.  It is a human word, multiple human words in fact, which attest to something beyond themselves.  The Bible is not revelation as it came once to the prophets and apostles; but as the word and witness of those prophets and apostles, the Bible is nonetheless revelation to us who were not there.

At this point I can sense the impatience. Why all this 'yes, and no'? Why not just be plain and unequivocal in declaring that the Bible is God's word?

I think there are a number of things going on here, although only one is really developed in this context. Briefly, I think Barth is seeking to safeguard the doctrine of Scripture against what we might call the Quranic error.  For Muslims, the Quran is eternal, timeless - and this causes some theological difficulty in describing its relationship to God.  In Christian theology, it is not the Bible but the Lord Jesus who is the eternal Word of God, and he is this because and as he is himself fully God.  So in a sense Barth's position is about the uniqueness of Christ.

A second point, again more my reflection than anything Barth explicitly discusses here, is that redemptive and revelatory history really matters for our view of God.  Barth does not want revelation so bound up in the pages of Scripture that it is no longer about what God has done and said in the history of the covenant, and especially in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But the main point he actually develops here is, as noted above, a hermeneutical one.  Because Scripture is a human word, Barth insists, it must be read as a human word, in all its historical and cultural specificity.  And yet, because it is witness, it must be read not as an enclosed artifact, but for the sake of the subject matter to which it bears witness.  Here he clearly has in view much of the critical, academic reading of Scripture, which wants to ask all sorts of questions about the prophet Isaiah, or the apostle Paul, and their times and circumstances, and even the nature of their faith - but does not want to ask or to be answered about the one thing Isaiah and Paul et al actually want to talk about, which is God in Christ.  Barth is making the point that because the Bible as a human word is a word of witness to God, we are not genuinely reading it as a human word unless we allow it to tell us about God.  Paying attention to the Bible means paying attention to the God of whom the Bible speaks.

For Barth this is not some special biblical hermeneutic.  It is just hermeneutics in general.  To listen to someone is to listen to what they are saying, and to allow what they are saying to take control.  We do not respect anyone if we receive what they are saying as material to think about their character or whatever but don't allow the subject of which they are speaking to have any impact upon us.  It is perhaps characteristic of us sinners that we typically hear "as though we know already, and can partly tell ourselves what we are to hear.  Our supposed listening is in fact a strange mixture of hearing and our own speaking, and in accordance with the usual rule it is most likely that our own speaking will be the really decisive event." (470).  It is only if we really pay attention to the subject that we can even partly escape this sinful hermeneutic, and that is equally true of any human word.

The unique thing that is brought by the biblical witness to this hermeneutic is not, then, that it requires a special way of reading.  Rather it is that it demands the attentive reading which is actually due to every human word - and unlike every other human word, it does not only demand or request our attention.  "God's revelation in the human word of Holy Scripture not only wants but can make itself said and heard." (471). In the Bible, human witnesses show themselves to have been utterly overcome by the subject matter; they do not in fact speak of themselves or their circumstances, but they only bear witness to God in Christ.  And in our reading of the Bible, this same 'gripping' can occur, when God himself causes us to see and hear his revelation in the words of the prophets and apostles.

This account will be developed further as we go.  But already I hope we are seeing, whatever we think of Barth's account in detail, something of the powerful expectation of encounter with God in the Scriptures.  That for me is the most exciting thing about his explication of this doctrine, and it has certainly shaped by own understanding and practice in beneficial ways.

Thoughts? Questions?

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