Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Thoughts on the Bible 2

Karl Barth, Neo-Orthodoxy, and the Bible

Karl Barth was easily the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century (arguably the greatest in all of Christendom during this time). When considering the doctrine of Scripture, I think Christians in our day and age need to spend a little time with Mr. Barth, especially since he essentially reclaimed the centrality of the Bible in Christian theology in an age when mainstream Protestant theologians had appeared to have all but forgotten the Scriptures and his most recognizable contribution to the contemporary theological landscape is his theology of the Word of God. The official statements of the mainline Protestant denominations on the Scriptures are all pretty much straight Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, expresses its view in its Book of Order in this characteristically neo-orthodox way: "The church confesses the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God's self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.” Elsewhere it is stated that "... the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments...[are]...., by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God's Word to [them]."

You will notice in the PC(USA) statements on Scripture that: 1) the word "inerrant" is conspicuously absent, and, 2) there is a certain reluctance to identify the Word of God directly with the text itself. It is precisely for these reasons that many evangelicals are quite wary of Neo-Orthodoxy when it comes to the Bible. Barth rejected the infallibility of the Scriptures and, as my church history professor Dr. Calhoun was quick to point out, directed Christians not to listen to the word on the page as the Word of God but to listen for the Word of God (for you) when the Scriptures are read.

Before we dismiss Karl Barth as a dangerous liberal and begin the preparations for burning the heretics (both of us), I wish to defend him by looking at the basis for his neo-orthodox theology and what is in view in a neo-orthodox articulation of the doctrine of Scripture.

As described by church historian, Justo Gonzalez, Neo-Orthodoxy, also called "dialectical theology" or "crisis theology," is "a theology of a God who is never ours, but always stands over against us; whose word is at the same time both ‘yes’ and ‘no’; whose presence brings, not ease and inspiration in our efforts, but crisis." In other words, God is transcendent. The whole point of Barth's theology is to "Let God be God." This was a needed corrective to the Protestant theology of the early 20th century that often confused God with the very best in human nature and the Kingdom of God with purely human efforts.

With the transcendence of God in view, human beings can do nothing to bridge the gap that exists between the finite creature and the infinite Creator. For Barth, then, the sole basis for human knowledge about God is God's self-revelation in the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Bible is the Word of God because it testifies to that Living Word, and, not only that, the Bible is the Word of God because Christ is present by the Holy Spirit with the words of the Bible, coming to us again and again each time it is read.

One way we can speak of Barth's theology of the Word of God is in the way he privileges one of the great Protestant Solas over another. Barth was unquestionably a sola Scriptura Protestant (His theology, and even the questions his theology sought to answer, were all based in his encounter with the Scriptures. In fact, in writing his magnum opus, the 13 volume, 7000+ page Church Dogmatics, Barth self-consciously strove to have the Bible itself as the framework for examining the Bible.), but, as it should be, he privileges solus Christus over sola Scriptura. In other words, Barth's understanding of Scripture is Christocentric rather than bibliocentric. Thus, we find Barth resting the authority of the Word of God, not in an objective factual immaculacy it possesses independent from the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, but in its testifying to Jesus Christ, the "Word made flesh," and in Christ's coming to us again and again each time it is read.

It is in Christ alone, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that the Bible can be and is our final and unfailing authority in all matters of faith, practice, and morals. I therefore testify together with Paul that: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).


Evan said...

I've recently been reading Barth's CD volume 1 on the Doctrine of the Word of God, and his treatment of the matter is so enlightening. I've been reflecting on him somewhat on my blog: I think his writings are much-needed in 21st century American evangelicalism, which is my context.

Jamie Stober said...

Evan, thanks for your comments. You're the first person that doesn't know me from the real world that has commented on my blog. Reforming Evangelicalism is also my interest. I'm going to add you to my blogroll.