Monday, July 18, 2022

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch III (3)

I mentioned that Barth initially makes six points as he begins to navigate the meaning of 'Scripture as the Word of God'.  The first we looked at in detail, but can perhaps summarise it as follows:

1. We are directed to the canon of writings which has been recognised by the church.  However, the canon does not derive its authority from the church, but from the object to which it bears witness (God's revelation); for this reason, whilst we are to hear and respect the church in its description of the canon, ultimately we can only regard this description as having limited and relative authority.  The real and absolute authority belongs to God himself. (473-481)

Briefly, the rest of the list is as follows:

2. When we talk about Scripture, we are talking about the Old and New Testaments, which find their unity in the object of their witness (namely, God's revelation). (481-485)  This section deals in the language of expectation and recollection which is so important to Barth's doctrine of Scripture, on which more below.  The main point here, though, is about the unity of the Scriptures, which corresponds to "the unity and holiness of God in his revelation" (482), a unity which can only be perceived when one is grasped by revelation, which is to say, by Jesus Christ.  Barth is therefore suspicious of any and all attempts to present a schematic or system to display this unity.  It will be seen in encounter with Christ or not at all.

3. The Bible itself establishes the doctrine of Holy Scripture by reference to the prophetic and apostolic office held by the original witnesses. (485-492). Scripture bears a general and implicit witness to its own authority by virtue of the fact that here and here only do we find witness to God's revelation (this is not quite a circular argument; it requires the self-witness of God by the Holy Spirit).  But it also explicitly speaks of its own authority by reference to "certain specific men" who "stand within the Bible" (486).  Passively, these men saw and heard God's revelation; actively they were commissioned to proclaim it (490).  In them - by virtue of their office, and not any human quality they possess - the circle of revelation is already opened up to include humanity.  I found this really helpful; I think in my tradition the prophets and apostles are played down in importance, with the Bible as a book played up instead.  But actually it is the prophets and apostles in their relation to revelation who make the Bible, literally.

4. Because the Bible includes within its sphere the prophets and apostles, there can be no getting at the content of revelation except in the form of their witness. (492-495). It is no use trying to extract some sort of kernel of pure revelation from the husk of the prophetic and apostolic witness.  Nor can we somehow directly access the history of revelation that stands behind this witness.  Because revelation is contingent and genuinely historical, not some general principle, we can only receive it in the historical form of this first witness, in their words.

5. These original witnesses, because of their office and role, are distinctly set apart from the rest of the church, and their witness is really Holy Scripture because it stands over against the whole church as an authoritative foundation. (495-502). It is of course true that Scripture is a set of human documents, with all the historical, cultural, and personal contingency which that implies.  In this sense, the Bible stands in continuity with all other human documents.  But if we read it only in this way, we miss its essential character as witness.  By virtue of this witness, Scripture "too can and must - not as though it were Jesus Christ, but in the same serious sense as Jesus Christ - be called the Word of God: the Word of God in the word of man, if we are going to put it accurately." (500)  Barth explicitly develops the Chalcedonian parallel here: the Bible, without ceasing to be wholly a human book, is also wholly a divine book, by virtue of the revelation to which it bears witness.  This means there can be no question of a series of sources of revelation, or of the possibility of placing the Bible alongside other church documents or preaching.  It stands over against and above all of them, as genuine holy.  Incidentally, Barth has things to say to those who want to oppose a 'living faith' in the church to a 'dead letter' in the Bible: in fact, the church only lives and thrives when it is wholly under the Word of God in Scripture.  "Death usually reigns in the church" when this is absent (502).

6. Because the authority of Holy Scripture is ultimately the authority of God's own revelation to which Scripture bears witness, we cannot claim any control over this authority, but can only live as those who have heard and expect to hear again God's Word in these texts. (502-506)  For Barth, this derives from the structure of Scripture itself, which is characterised by expectation and recollection (see 2 above).  It also derives from the freedom of God in revelation, and the nature of the texts as witness.  They can only point to revelation, testify to it; they cannot in and of themselves bring it about that revelation occurs in the present.  Therefore the whole of theology, and indeed the whole preaching and worship of the church, "circles around" the event of God's revelation, unable of itself to make this revelation present but always living in memory and expectation of it.  This, perhaps, is the life of faith.

That last point is alarming to many evangelicals, who want Barth to give a straight answer.  They hold up the Bible and ask: well, is it the Word of God or not?  All of this talk about revelation coming or not, circling around - how does that not just muddy the waters, diminish our confidence in Scripture?

I hope that the rest of the context here shows that Barth absolutely does want to pin us to the Bible, to secure for Scripture the place of unique authority, the one place where God is to be sought and found.  But I think Barth's return question to the anxious evangelical might be: why do you need to pin this down in this way?  Do you not trust God - the faithful God to whom that Bible in your hand bears witness?  Why do you need to be in possession of God's Word, rather than always receiving it?

I think there are lots of things going on here which cause the different perspectives - it would be good, for example, to work in the doctrine of illumination here and the role of the Spirit, and see if we couldn't show that in slightly different conceptual ways both Barth and the conservative evangelical want to safeguard the same things.  But I think there is a lot in Barth that we could helpfully learn from here.

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