Karl Barth should be allowed a place in discussions about ‘doctrine of scripture.’

Comfort Ye

In discussions concerning the doctrine of scripture modern evangelical theologians and scholars often dismiss the profound insight of Karl Barth. That is not to say Barth was always right. There is much to disagree about his theology, a great deal which needs to at least be given serious consideration when formulating ones own theological positions, and common ground that will help all as they walk toward the common goal of knowing God. Herein lies a brief exploration of why Karl Barth should be allowed a place in discussions about ‘doctrine of scripture.’

Karl Barth was schooled in the liberal ideologies that characterized theological thinking in the early twentieth century, particularly in Europe and especially Germany. He had a “revelation” akin to that of Martin Luther’s Romans 1:17 experiences in which Luther realized the errors being taught by the church. Barth saw in the world, especially post WWI, the inconsistencies of liberalism with the message God shows in the Bible. This led to his book The Epistle to the Romans. He considered his first edition inadequate and rewrote it shortly after its publication. The sixth edition has become a marker in conservative theology. Barth makes the serious theologian put aside any preconceived notions and enter into dialogue that starts with God, His Word, and His Will. It is exactly that challenge that makes Karl Barth controversial.

Controversy does not need to be the definitive word in our conversations about Barth. The pride of being the one correct position often clouds our judgments and hence interferes with the purpose of theology – understanding God and communicating that understanding to others. When a new voice – or a voice newly heard – arises, we should listen to the reasoning in the sound of the instruction instead of rushing to drown out that voice because it does not fit neatly into the arrangements of conformity. If Barth could put aside the conformities of the respected German liberal theologies of his day then he should be afforded the same due process in our discussions about the doctrine of scripture in our day. In fact, as Mark DeVine has noted about Albert Mohler’s observations, “many evangelicals who worked hard to cast Barth as an enemy of the gospel showed little evidence of having read him.[1] DeVine quotes J. I. Packer (God Who is Rich in Mercy), “Barth’s purpose of being rigorously, radically, and ruthlessly biblical and his demand for interpretation that is theologically coherent, is surely exemplary for us.”[2]

Packer rightly observes Barth’s most outstanding quality in his theology that should drive us to better understand him, and how we can bring his conclusions to a place where they bolster and strengthen consensus views instead of standing outside in a place of critically derived snobbery. Packer gives credit to Barth by saying “he laid constant stress on God’s sovereign freedom and lordship in grace, on man’s incapacity in his sin to feel after God and find him, on the reality of God’s communion with us through the Word that he speaks to us in Christ, and on the instrumentality of the Scriptures in conveying to us the knowledge of Christ and of grace that they exhibit.”[3] To hear Barth in his own words,

We talk of sovereignty, a command, an obedience, a willingness and allegiance unlike any other, because in him we meet a sovereign unlike any other. When Jesus rules God rules, and God rules when Jesus rules. That is why this sovereignty is quite unlike any other sovereignty, and why there is not other obedience on earth like this one.[4]

This view of God and the sovereignty of God is what drives Barth’s theology. Such a high view of God is indeed refreshing in this time of scholarship where individuality leads many a well-meaning preacher to deduce for himself the meaning from the text instead of letting the text reveal God to him. The distraction of trying to redefine each word of the Bible in an effort to maintain cultural relevance is not present with Barth. “There must be absolute confidence in holy scripture…”[5] The preacher must approach scripture as revealing God to the reader and hearer. “Scripture says the same thing, but it constantly says the one thing different ways.”[6] In essence, scripture is the written revelation of God to His elect. Through its pages He enables us to interact, fellowship, and worship Him. A Person is revealed therein and that Person becomes synonymous with the very scriptures themselves.

Barth identifies in A Shorter Commentary on Romans the person of Jesus Christ as being the motivation for Paul in his ministry and for his correspondences. “…Paul has at once spoken very substantially of the cause that moves him. This cause is a person (Romans 1:1)…This Lord has given him the grace of the apostolate (Romans 1:5) the office of an accredited ambassador, and this office commissions him to proclaim the Gospel, the good news.”[7] The words Paul communicates to the church at Rome are not the charter for Paul’s ministry. The words are how Paul describes what Jesus entrusted to him – the task and lifework that Paul would undertake.

What then do we do with Barth’s assertion that Scripture is merely a witness to the ‘Word of God’ and not actually the ‘Word of God?’[8] We should allow that Barth is at the very least not incorrect if he is not totally accurate. Today’s conservative evangelical thinking relies heavily on what Steve Wellum[9] identifies as the ‘Received’ view.[10] As can be seen already, Barth held scripture in high regard and viewed them as being the authority to which all must be held accountable. This holds closely to the Sola Scriptura principle that came out of the Reformation which is held by most conservative evangelicals today.

So where is the disagreement? Where those that hold to the supposed ‘Received’ view of scripture will stop at scripture only being the Word of God, Barth holds that the Word of God has a Trinitarian aspect similar to the Trinity. That is, it has a threefold meaning: Word revealed (Jesus Christ), Word written (scripture), and Word proclaimed.[11] Eberhard Busch, in The Great Passion, says of Barth that “the object of theology, that is, what Barth calls the ‘Word’ or ‘revelation,’ is truly identical with the person of Jesus Christ.”[12] Quoting from Barth himself (Der Götze wackelt),

The saying in John 1:14 is the center and theme of all theology…I have no Christological principle and no Christological method. Rather, in each individual theological question I seek to orient myself afresh to some extent from the very beginning – not on a Christological dogma but on Jesus Christ himself.[13]

“The Word of God is the Word that God spoke, speaks, and will speak in the midst of all men.”[14] Hence, the threefold elucidation of Barth fleshes out the one-dimensional stance of the so-called ‘Received’ view. It presents God as speaking now today and not just in the past. Busch says as much himself in the forward to The Word in this World, “the question is much more whether [we] hear and pay attention to what God says – not only said, but says.”[15]

It is the ‘we’ that brings Barth’s view of the doctrine of scripture to a place of compliment with that of the ‘Received’ view. The ‘Received’ view, in its attempt to get back to the original text, relies on a new evangelical magisterium[16] to provide meaning to the text for the congregations. This elitist’s ideology has become a prevalent form of theology in many churches. It drives polity, directs outreach, and derives leadership functions. By allowing Barth’s view to stand alongside the ‘Received’ view the text becomes a living text that speaks God’s Word to our hearts instead of a moldy document we can only understand correctly if someone else shows us how. Jesus as the Word is not just a figure in history but a living Savior. He becomes the object of all the functioning of the church as He is proclaimed.

As a Barthian view of scripture is allowed to come into our theological discussions then the church takes on a whole different dimension itself. Instead of being the social club looking for relevance in this world the church would rediscover its purpose of being – proclaiming Jesus, the Word. The community of the elect will coalesce into a community of faith. “It is the commonwealth gathered, founded, and ordered by the Word of God, the ‘communion of the saints.’”[17] The church has the self-realization of unmerited salvation. The rallying point shifts from the number of members to the discipling of its members. The Word stops being a static document sometimes read before Sunday school and rarely read in church services. Instead, the Word becomes the living person of Jesus Christ who the church gathers to worship and proclaim in all antiquity and in all eternity yet to come. “Christian community exists only where the promise [the Word] is heard and believed [and hence acted on].”[18] Furthermore, if God is to be realized in our churches then churches need to have God revealed to them. “God is revealed in Jesus Christ through the witness of Holy scripture.”[19]

The ‘Received’ view as the main point of reason for creating community becomes an incomplete rationale. While it provides a wonderful framework upon which to build a more complete paradigm its reliance upon the verbal-plenary [20] aspect of revelation is its only true strength. The danger is that the paper and ink of the manuscripts and its ensuing translations becomes the object of worship rather than the Giver. Without the perception that Jesus is the Word of God first and foremost as in Barth’s theology then the tendency is for the written word to take precedence and become worshiped, even if inadvertently, in His place.

In sum, our statement distinguishes the Word spoken in the existence of Jesus Christ from all others as the Word of God. When we think of these others, we do well to include even the human words spoken in the existence and witness of the men of the Bible and the Church. In distinction from all these, Jesus Christ is the one Word of God.[21]

Karl Barth has been a controversial figure in theological circles. Many are introduced to him via the vehicle of negative descriptions and derogatory critiques. A cut-and-paste sound-bite mentality pervades the discussions that may ensue about him and his theology with hardly any true substantive reading of his works. There are some that have dared to read Karl Barth and interact with him thereby keeping alive the dialogue that fuels healthy theological explorations. William Willimon opines in his introduction to The Word in this World, “We are a profoundly insecure people and the source of our insecurity is revealed to be not Islamic terrorists but rather the God who commands us in Jesus the Christ. I’m therefore hearing Barth’s sermon as a call across the years…to be the preacher that God has called me to be.”[22]“Preach on, Karl Barth.”[23]

[1] Mark DeVine. Evangelicals and Karl Barth: Friends or Foes?, (a paper delivered at the Annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Colorado Springs, Colorado 2001).[2] Ibid.

[3] J. I. Packer, Encountering Present-Day Views of Scripture, http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article­_views_packer.html

[4] Kurt I. Johanson. ed. The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. (Regent College Publishing: Vancouver, British Columbia, 2007) 48.

[5] Karl Barth, Homiletics. (Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky 1991) 76.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans. (John Knox Press: Richmond, Virginia 1963) 15.

[8] S. J. Wellum, Systematic Theology I Handouts (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Louisville, Kentucky 2007) 30.

[9] Ibid, 29.

[10] Lecture notes indicate that the received view is tied closely to the identity thesis that states Scripture is the Word of God, as brought out by B. B. Warfield. It states also that even if not provable the original manuscripts should be considered without error in all regards and allows that copies may themselves contain errors. Barth is not without fault in this regard as he believed the first eleven chapter of Genesis to probably be myth, though he viewed them to hold the same authority as the rest of scripture.

[11] Ibid, 30.

[12] Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan 2004) 30.

[13] Ibid, 30.

[14] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: an Introduction. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan 1963) 18.

[15] Kurt I Johanson,. ed. The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. (Regent College Publishing: Vancouver, British Columbia, 2007) 7.

[16] This borrows from the Roman Catholic view that only a select group could provide correct interpretation of the scriptures as only they had the scholarship and technical skill to necessary for such a task. This was one of the underlying issues of the Reformation – letting the commoner read for himself the Bible thereby hearing from God.

[17] Karl Barth. Evangelical Theology: an Introduction. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan 1963) 36.

[18] Karl Barth, Preaching to the Captives. CD ROM. 1957.

[19] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man. (N. P., Pilgrim Press 1928) 195-6.

[20] Wellum. The Bible is the very Word of God itself in that all (plenary) is inspired of God, right down to the very words of the text (verbal).

[21] Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1994) 230.

[22] Johanson, 22.

[23] Ibid.