The Theologians of the Fourfold Word in Conversation with the Theologian of the Threefold Word: The Post Reformed Orthodox and Barth

A theology of the Word is the distinctive gift of the Protestant Reformation. The Word for the Protestant is the principle reality upon which all else is built, whether that be a theory of ecclesial authority or a theology of nature*; the Word of God is the ‘foundation’ (or fundamentum) for Protestant Christianity. Karl Barth was a Protestant (versus Roman Catholic) theologian, as such he based all of his theologizing in a Word-based mode of expression; this was well within the ‘spirit’ if not in some ways the ‘letter’ of the classical or Post-Reformed orthodox articulation of the cropped-whitebarth.jpgProtestant faith (the articulation that stands behind most of Protestant theology even today, at least by way of lineaments and over-lap with Lutheran and Anabaptist theologies in regard to a fundamental commitment to a theology of the Word).

Karl Barth famously articulated his theology of the Word from within a theory of revelation that started from the idea that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit), and he grounded this in an anti-natural theology frame. In other words, Barth was concerned with the idea that humans (like Hitler et al.) could possess and imbue Scripture with their own strength and own machinations; the consequence being that man’s and woman’s voice could sublate or displace God’s living voice (viva vox Dei) in Scripture with their voices. Barth, in his own context and day saw this naturalizing of Scripture played out all too clearly with the development of the third Reich, and Hitler’s madness. So he innovatively articulated a theology of the Word from a theory of revelation that understood its context from the humanity of God’s life in Christ; i.e. the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ not only mediates God’s Word in written and preached form, but is the primacy of Word as the eternal Word of God for humanity (cf. John 1.1) — this is Barth’s understanding of the threefold form of the Word. Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary and Kait Dugan of The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary helpfully and collaboratively write this of Barth’s theory of revelation and doctrine of the Word:

Before it was anything else, Barth’s theology was a theology of the Word of God. The Word of God is, he maintained in the early years of his work on Christian dogmatics (in the 1920s and on into the 1930s), an address; a speaking of divine Person with human persons. But this theology of the Word is also “dialectical theology” – because the Word itself is never more than indirectly available to its human addressees. The Word of God comes to human beings in three “forms”: the humanity of Christ, the words of the prophets and the apostles (i.e. the canonical Scriptures) and the words of preachers. But the “forms” of revelation – even the humanity of Christ – are not “divinized” through God’s use of them in revealing God’s Self. And for that reason, revelation must never be directly identified with the “forms” through which it is divinely mediated. Put another way, revelation is never an “object” which is directly perceptible to human sensory activity (whether sight or hearing), even though God gives God’s Self to be known through “objects” of God’s own choosing. Revelation takes place in a “hiddenness” which is a function of the modality of God’s Self-revelation. To describe revelation in this way is to understand it as “dis-possessive.” The revelation of the Christian God cannot be taken under the control and management of human beings and made to serve the purposes established by human persons. Barth would continue to emphasize the hiddenness of revelation and its “dis-possessive” character throughout his life because he never ceased to be concerned with attending to the freedom of God.[1]

As they articulate this we can maybe sense a bit of Kant in Barth’s thought; but Kant on his head. The noumenal transcendent reality of the eternal Word comes hidden in the phenomenological of the manger, garbed in the real flesh and blood of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ; but the point is that the Word of God is ever present, ever breaking through the creaturely modes of its deliverance to humanity. First this comes through the humanity of Christ (which is homoousion or consubstantial with God as Christ is the God-man), and then it comes garbed through the broken language of Scripture (albeit inspired anew and afresh as lively testimony) which is given further attestation through its proclamation.

The important thing for us to consider, at least what I would like us to consider, is that for Barth the Word of God is Jesus; and inextricably linked to Jesus are the special words that he commandeers in Scripture as symbols that are given life as they break off and find their reality in and from Him by the Holy Spirit. The thing is, some have attempted to demonize Barth at this point, they have wanted to ridicule him because his understanding of the Word doesn’t fit well within North American developments on inerrancy. But to get hung up on this point could make you miss out on the depth available in Barth’s Christ concentrated theology of the Word; one that is attempting to elevate Scripture within a dogmatic frame, and within a theory of revelation that is grounded firmly in Triune Godself.

And here’s the real reason I am writing this post. It is not to draw lines of correlation that are not there in full, but it is to point up the fact that Barth did not think about such things in a vacuum of his own Swiss/German making. The Post-Reformed Orthodox theologians themselves, who Barth engaged with and learned from with vigor, had a theology of the Word that sounds eerily similar to the intent of Barth’s own compunction. We will close now with a quote from ecclesial historian Richard Muller on how the Post-Reformed Orthodox had their own framing of the Word, not in threefold but fourfold form. You might find it intriguing to see how precedence was already laid down for someone like Barth to come along, within his own context, from his respective “metaphysic,” and appropriate certain categories and extend them out to meet the needs of his own day while remaining faithful to the underlying Protestant commitment to a theology of the Word. With this quote we will close:

The Scripture, upon which true knowledge of God rests, is the Word of God, not a word of man brought into being “by the will of man” but rather the revealed Word of God put in writing at the command of God and through the agency of the Holy Spirit by the prophets and the apostles. Since the Scriptures are the “true Word of God” and have “sufficient authority of themselves”, they supersede all human authority in the “confirmation of doctrines” and the “confutation of all errors. [sic] No authority stands above Scripture except the authority of God himself. Even the great ecumenical symbols of the church, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, have authority only insofar as they reflect the truth of Scripture.

It is theologically incorrect and historically inaccurate to claim, as some recent writers have done, that the Reformers and the earliest of the Reformed symbols make a distinction between Jesus Christ as the only true Word of God and the Scriptures as Word in the derivative sense of witness to the incarnate Word. Nor can it be argued that any of the confessions — not even the Articles of the Synod of Bern (1532) — so identify revelation with Word and Word with Jesus Christ as to exclude any revelation of God outside of Christ. Both the Reformers and the confessions use the term “Word” with reference to Christ and to Scripture, recognizing that the identity of Christ as the incarnation of the eternal Word and Wisdom of God in no way diminishes but instead establishes the status of Scripture as Word. Thus Scripture is definitively Word, but not exclusively so. Word is, first of all, the eternal Word of God, the personal and archetypal self-knowledge of God. Second, Word is the unwritten revelation of God given to the prophets and the apostles. Third, it is the Word written and, fourth, it is the inward Word of the Spirit which testifies to the heart of truth of Scripture.[2]

Based upon what was shared earlier in regard to Barth we can see, I think, points of convergence and then points of departure relative to the Post-Reformed Orthodox and Barth. But all of that notwithstanding, one way or the other, hopefully for those who might be reticent to tolle lege (take up and read) Barth, maybe some of this will help to squash some of the fear and allow you to realize that Barth was a Protestant theologian working in his day and time (just like the Post Reformed Orthodox) who gave a theology of Word that was faithful to Protestant principles but in an ‘always reforming’ type of way; a way that magnifies Jesus, and may well better address the concerns of 21st century issues than can those voices from the 17th century. The point is, it is possible to constructively resource the past (which I am contending Barth did), which not only honors that past, but speaks in ways that the present can better understand and appreciate.


*Richard Muller writes, “… No Reformed confession, therefore, views natural theology as a preparation for revealed theology, since only the regenerate, who have learned from Scripture, can return to creation and find there the truth of God.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154.

[1] Bruce McCormack and Kait Dugan, The Center for Barth Studies, accessed 05-10-2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 154-55.


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  1. Pingback: The Protestant Contribution of the Word to the Church | The Evangelical Calvinist

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