Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth, on Scripture: Part 2
January 14, 2013
I am continuing this shortish series of mine on why Evangelicals shouldn’t be afraid to engage with, at least, Karl Barth. In my first post in this series I explained how I grew up in an Evangelical tradition (and still inhabit it in ways—I consider myself an Evangelical, at least sociologically, if not doctrinally, in some ways), and how that tradition made Karl Barth off-limits; how that tradition made Barth sound as if he was an evil ‘Liberal’ theologian, worse yet, a Neo-Orthodox theologian (which I had know clue at that point what that even was … other than it sounded scary and Neo!). Well, this series of posts, as the title highlights, is my weary attempt to demystify that pipe smoking Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in ways that illustrate (at least) why an Evangelical Christian should not fear this Swiss-man.
This post in particular briefly touches on Barth’s view of Scripture [I am using some end notes provided by R. Michael Allen from his Reader on Karl Barth’s theology to make this series go ’round]. As an Evangelical I was taught that Karl Barth, if in no other area, was most dangerous when it came to his view of Scripture; that he was an evil INERRANCY denier! It is true that Barth (and Thomas Torrance for that matter) did not endorse a Fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy, but that said; he also was not militantly seeking to destroy people’s faith either—in this regard. Instead, Karl Barth wanted to provide a theory of revelation (and an ontology of scripture) that took it away from the manipulation and assumed lordliness of man (whether this evinced itself in rationalist/positivistic liberal theology, or rationalist/positivistic Fundamentalist theology)—and this point actually overlaps largely with my first post here. Barth engaged in a process of demolition which sought to level the foundation and cornerstones upon which the Fundamentalists and Liberals had built there theories (or lack thereof) of revelation and scripture. He sought to reobjectify God’s Word as truly God’s Word in Jesus Christ for us, and then subordinated the words of scripture the Lordliness of Jesus Christ as his last and final word (the alpha and omega) which gave orientation to the written Word of scripture. By doing this Barth intended to provide a grammar that disallowed man’s own subjectivism to be the ground and orientation upon which scripture found its reality; Barth’s concern here was that if scripture became contingent upon man saying that scripture was scripture, that scripture could no longer function in the way God had intended it. And that way was to be the ordained place wherein we encounter God’s final Word to us in Jesus Christ; giving way to Christ and the Spirit, and their usage of scripture to contradict the idolatry of our human hearts (including the idolatry of biblical scholarship and their criterion and methodologies which they constructed to prop scripture up as scripture in whatever relative form that might take). Here is how R. Michael Allen summarizes this:
[I]t is important to remember that Barth believes all things and persons (including God) have their ‘being in becoming’, though they do so in very different ways. The Bible has its being in becoming by God’s free decision to make it his Word again and again. Barth’s point is not to render its nature as Word dependent on the subjective experience of the reader, but the renewal of God’s objective decision to speak through it. Barth has been misunderstood frequently by friend and foe alike. For helpful analysis of this point, see Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism’, in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics (ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez, and Dennis Ockholm; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), pp. 55-75. [Allen, p. 38]
In case you are missing what is being communicated here; for Barth Scripture and Revelation are something that becomes over and over again, it is an event that happens. By presenting a theory of revelation in this way Barth could take scripture away from us as if it is some sort of static and absolute given (God’s revelation all by itself … annexed from God’s living voice in Christ) that we possess like a bag of chips; and give it back (so to speak) to God’s free, self-determined ongoing voice that is presented to us anew and afresh through the Holy Spirit’s breath which he breathes through the lips of Jesus for us (see Jn. 14–16). Allen writes of Barth in this vein: “[B]arth’s concern about the doctrine of inspiration ‘freezing’ this relationship of the written word and the willed revelation of God impels his talk of the Bible’s ‘becoming the Word of God’.” (p. 38) So, Allen continues, “[T]he primacy of Jesus as the Word of God – that is, of God electing to be for us and with us in personal form – undergirds the graciousness of all human knowledge of God. The actuality of the written Word and the proclaimed Word flows from the incarnate Word and the very depths of the free Lord’s eternal decision to be with us and not without us…. (p. 38)
Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Karl Barth on scripture in plain language
Because when he was at a theological conference in the States somebody asked him why he believes in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; he answered ‘Because Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so.’ And he was serious. How can you be afraid of a theologian who gives a response like this? But more, Barth is way less concerned with destroying the idiosyncractic and Americanly inspired doctrine of inerrancy, and more concerned with ensuring that we have a view of scripture that allows God to have the key to scripture instead of us. Barth wants to give us a theory of revelation, or just a view of scripture, that genuinely has Jesus at its center, and that sees him as the canon of scripture instead of the church or the academy. Barth wants to provide a view of scripture that makes sure that we aren’t able to make God into our image, but that our self projected images are contradicted by his image revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15).
For Barth, Scripture is living and active, because its reality is seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 4.12; 7.25 etc.). He clearly rejects inerrancy in its American form (but so does the rest of the Christian world), but he does not reject the inerrant Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and he sees Scripture as Scripture because it has been and is ever anew inspired and illuminated by the Spirit’s breath as we are introduced over and over again through its human words to its reality in Jesus Christ.