Monday, July 11, 2022

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch III (2)

The next subsection carries the title 'Scripture as the Word of God', and opens with a helpful summary of where we've got to so far: "If what we hear in Scripture is witness, a human expression of God's revelation, then from what we have already said, what we hear in the witness itself is more than witness, what we hear in the human expression is more than a human expression.  What we hear is revelation, and therefore the very Word of God." (473)  How is this the case?  Well, put a pin in that question.  First of all, Barth wants to clarify and expand our understanding of Scripture as a witness, and he initially does so in a list of (I think) 6 points.  We'll only get to the first one today, but hopefully the others will move along a bit faster!

Point 1 clarifies that when we are talking about Holy Scripture, we are talking about the canon of books acknowledged in the church.  It is not for us as private individuals to go around making judgements about the scope and extent of the canon; rather, we receive and acknowledge the canon that our spiritual forebears have recognised.  Barth is at pains to point out, however, that this certainly does not mean that the church historically had the right to decide the canon.  The church cannot "give the Canon to itself." (473). It can only recognise that which is given it by God, and therefore all its decisions on this matter, whilst important, are nonetheless merely human and therefore to some extent provisional decisions.  We do well to listen to the judgement of the church in this matter, but we don't believe the Scripture because of the church's judgement.  "When we adopt the Canon of the Church, we do not say that the Church itself, but that the revelation which underlies and controls the Church, attests these witnesses and not others as the witnesses of revelation and therefore as canonical for the Church." (474)

For those unfamiliar with the Church Dogmatics, just to note that if you ever read it you'll find some in a normal typeface, and some sections in a much smaller font.  The main line of thought is presented in the larger and more accessible text, but the detailed argument, exegesis, and citations in the smaller text.  The small text parts of this section are largely historical.  Barth notes that "the establishment of the Canon has a long and complicated history." (473)  Certainly it was controversial in the early centuries, and became so again at the Reformation.  Against the Roman view that the authority of Scripture derived from the church - Barth notes that some Roman apologists even argued that Aesop's Fables would be Scripture if the church so declared (475) - the Reformers saw the role of the church as like the Samaritan woman of John 5, who merely directed those in the town to Jesus; the church directs people to the canon, but does not make the canon.  However, at the same time, the Reformers almost unanimously wanted to remove the Apocrypha from the canon, and some wanted to reopen the question further: Luther had serious doubts about various New Testament books (Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation), and he was far from alone (476-7).

Barth notes helpfully that even where the question of the canon is not regarded as open, there can be - and perhaps almost always is - a functional 'canon within the canon', where greater stress is laid on one part of the Scriptures than another.  Perhaps the New Testament is privileged over the Old, or the Gospels over the Epistles (think of the treatment of the Gospel Book in liturgical churches).  It is useful to repeatedly ask "whether we do not neglect essential parts of the witness of revelation to the detriment of our knowledge of the Word of God" (478) even when the whole canon is formally acknowledged.

Nevertheless, for Barth the question of the canon must remain at least in principle open.  He considers that the attempts of Protestant Orthodoxy in the 17th Century to definitely close the question end up circling around to the old Roman answer: that the church has the authority to decide the canon.  For Barth this will not do.  Whilst there may be no question of the church - and certainly no question of any individual - actually changing the canon, to preserve the truth that its authority derives not from human pronouncements but from the Word of God to which it bears witness, the question must not be in principle closed.

What is Barth trying to do here, and why this disturbing conclusion?  I think here, as throughout volume I of the Church Dogmatics, Barth is trying to walk a narrow path of Reformed theology, with a deep and dangerous ditch on either side: to the one side, Roman Catholicism; to the other, Neo-Protestantism, what we might call liberal theology.  To say that the church defines the canon will lead us off to Rome; ultimate authority then shifts from the Word of God in Scripture to the church as an institution.  For Barth the great peril here is that the church ceases to listen to God, and becomes merely engaged in a conversation with itself.  On the other hand, the individual may decide the functional canon for themselves, or perhaps a group of individuals or congregations will do so.  This is Neo-Protestantism in the sense that it makes human beings the judge of what must be received as God's Word.  Whilst the one ditch is institutional, and the other feels very free and individualistic, they are basically the same error.  In both cases, authority derives from somewhere other than God.  That is why Barth has to leave the question open: to demonstrate that the only person who can close the question is God, just as the only person who can cause the witness of Scripture to decisively rule in the church and in the individual life is God himself.

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