Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch III (4)

In support of his sixth point about Scripture, Barth offers some brief notes on two key Biblical passages, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and 2 Peter 1:19-21.  Since these passages feature prominently in much discussion of the doctrine of Scripture, it seems worth pausing to see what Barth does with them.  Note that he is not here offering a full exposition, but a reading of these two important Scriptures in support of his theological conclusions.

First, Barth points out that both passages have to do primarily with the Old Testament, "but according to the fundamental meaning of the two authors in whom they are found, the expressions can and ought and must be applied to all the witnesses of revelation and therefore to the New Testament witness as well." (504) It is helpful to have this stated up front; I think many treatments of these verses (especially the 2 Timothy passage) make this move surreptitiously, or perhaps just presuppose it.  But there is actually an important theological move being made when we class the NT witness alongside the OT - we are claiming that they are both the same thing, united in being a witness to Christ.  It is because both these passages speak of the OT in terms of its witness to Christ that it is possible to make this move here.

When it comes to 2 Timothy 3:14-17, it is obviously striking to Barth that the text has both a backward and a forward reference.  Timothy is pointed back to his childhood acquaintance with the Scriptures and reminded of their formative influence on him.  But then he is encouraged to look ahead, to what the Scriptures are able to do in terms of completing his formation and giving him all he needs to serve in the church.  "Scripture was able and it will be able..." (504) - that corresponds to Barth's motif of recollection and expectation.  Timothy is to continue in the Scriptures, in recollection of what they have shown themselves to be for him, and in expectation that they will show this again.

In the centre of this recollection and expectation stands the crucial sentence: all Scripture is inspired (or breathed out) by God.  Barth understands this to mean that "all, that is the whole of Scripture is - literally: 'of the Spirit of God,', i.e., given and filled and ruled by the Spirit of God, and actively outbreathing and spreading abroad and making known the Spirit of God." (504)  Or, in other words, "...the Spirit of God is before and above and in Scripture..." (504).  This is quite obviously a broader understanding of what is implied by the word usually translated 'inspired'.  On the one hand, Barth does not want to get pulled into a debate about the nature of inspiration - he sees the statement as "an underlining and delimiting of the inaccessible mystery of the free grace in which the Spirit is present and active before and above and in the Bible", and therefore not as something that can be parsed as a precise doctrine.  On the other hand, he is unwilling to restrict this description of the relationship between God and Scripture to a particular point, as if it had only to do with the production of the texts that we have -  he sees it as describing also (and the word 'also' is important here) the ongoing relationship of the Spirit to the Bible.  It is on the basis of this ongoing work that Timothy can approach the Bible with expectation that it will again be to him what it has been in the past.

The treatment of 2 Peter 1:19-21 is much briefer, and essentially makes the same points: we are called to continue to be attentive to the prophetic witness because of its relationship to the Holy Spirit.  To my mind, Barth does not engage as much as I would like him to with the fact that these verses clearly do lay great stress on the Spirit's role in the production of Scripture, which seems to push back a little on his emphasis in his notes on 2 Timothy 3.  The other fundamental point made here is about the exposition of Scripture: we must "allow it to expound itself, or... to control and determine our exposition" (505).  This is because it comes from the Spirit and not men, and therefore is not open to our manipulation - and here, perhaps, we see the link again to Barth's emphasis on the ongoing presence of the Spirit in Holy Scripture.

"The decisive centre to which the two passages point is in both instances indicated by a reference to the Holy Spirit, and indeed in such a way that He is described as the real author of what is stated or written in Scripture." (505)  Barth wants to be clear that this does not mean that the human authors were not real authors - "there can be no question of ignoring their auctoritas and therefore their humanity" - but nevertheless "they speak in the place and under the commission of Him who sent them" (505).  For Barth, the theopneustia, the inspiration, of these authors consists precisely in this commission.  In their human freedom, they think and speak and write in obedience to their commission, and therefore under the lordship of God.  They function, then, as true witnesses.  This is not to be restricted to their writing, but describes their being in so far as they are commissioned witnesses to revelation.  "In what they have written they exist visibly and audibly before us in all their humanity, chosen and called as witnesses of revelation, claimed by God and obedient to God, true men, speaking in the name of the true God, because they have heard His voice as we cannot hear it, as we can hear it only through their voices." (505-6)

It is in recollection that in their voices the voice of God has been heard, and in expectation that this will be the case again, that the people of God are called to be the people of Holy Scripture.

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