Prayer and Scripture in Barth’s Theology contra His Reformed Critics

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The Bible for the Christian is the place to be, so to speak. It’s the place I want to be, because particularly as a Reformed Protestant Christian I believe this is the special place that God has decided and ordained to encounter His people; those with eyes to see and ears to hear. As of late I have been pressing into, once again, the theology of the Post Reformation Reformed Orthodox theologians—the theologians who followed behind the magisterial reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin; the theologians who are known as the ‘schoolmen’ or even the intellectual fathers—it is these theologians who helped to develop the Protestant Bible reading ethic with the belief in the priesthood of all believers. It was these theologians who believed, starting even with Luther (and prior, think of Wycliffe et al.), that the Bible should be in the vernacular so that all Christians could encounter God for themselves; so that all believers could be confronted with the living voice of God (viva vox Dei). This reading ethic for us Protestants presses on.

And yet those who claim heir to these Protestant forebears believe that they alone have the keys to this kingdom; to the truly Reformed and Protestant kingdom. Which means that if you don’t align with the neo-Calvinists, neo-Reformed of the 21st century, then you simply are a sub-classed Christian. It is this sub-class status that the neo-Reformed place someone like Karl Barth in (who I consider my teacher); even though Barth was someone who helped stem the tide of German liberal Protestantism in Western Europe in the early and mid 20th century. Barth believed he was working as a Reformed theologian in the spirit of the Reformed faith, in the spirit of semper reformanda (always reforming). Barth believed that the Reformed scripture principle was of utmost importance, and it informed his own theological program as a fundamentum (foundation). Indeed, personally I think Karl Barth represents the best of the Reformed faith, particularly with his focus and emphasis on actually engaging with the Bible and its theology grounded in Jesus Christ. Note what Barth writes in his book from 1923 The Theology of the Reformed Confessions; he is reflecting on the Reformed scripture principle and how it was articulated among certain early Reformed confessions. Here he is referencing the Berner Synodus and how prayer and Bible reading ought to be the mainstay, particularly for pastors, but indeed for all Christians. Barth writes:

Taken together, all these documents emphasize as the first admonition, often expressly incorporated into the confession: One should read the holy Scripture. Theologians especially should do this “night and day” [“noctes diesque”], as the Bohemian Confession demands (M 454, 32). Zwingli, speaking of his Short Instruction, says that it would be in vain if those who teach it do not firstly petition God “that he give them grace, and afterwards search in the Scriptures diligently, remaining therein day and night, and as well finally they do not show a disposition to built the true Jerusalem” (23,11[–13]). In its thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth chapters, the Berner Synodus gives its pastors weighty instruction, still valuable today, regarding how they should do this. Above all, they should pray:

[I]t is abundantly plain that prayer is an emptying and preparing of the hear, so that a person might grasp and retain the meaning and counsel of God that is concealed in the letters. Otherwise, lacking devotion one will read the Scripture like a worldly history and apply only one’s reason to it. Such a reading produces nothing more than inflated carnal wisdom, which is subsequently imposed upon the poor congregation as though from God and the Word of God…. If the prayer is made from a repentant, thirsty heart, then the book should be opened and carefully read as God’s Word, which it truly is, and not as human word. While doing so, one should persist in that intensive prayer until a little divine understanding flows down from above. The reader is obligated to accept this and to consider immediately that the Holy Spirit speaks in it for his chastising improving. That is, the reader should freely engage with God alone, excluding all other creatures, with a simple and committed spirit. He should not consider what he should tell the people but rather how he himself might receive from God further light and knowledge.

In addition, he should consider his own faith experience up to now, as well as other writings that might contradict his present understanding, and “pray for more insight while he continues with determination in such practice until the truth of the scripture completely illumines his heart, producing a composed gratitude and zealous consideration of the knowledge he has received” (M 54, 10[–33]). Moreover, he should certainly make use of old and new books and commentaries. “May they be properly read ‘judiciously’ [cum judicio], with understanding and improvement. What a joy it is when one discovers that God has given him something with which the gifts of other people agree or that perhaps others have not yet attained. He should not be proud of this, since he has requested it from God and knows very well what will follow if he should fall into rampant arrogance” (B. Syn. 101). Finally, the pastors should “together compare the Scriptures,” confer, conduct “conversations” about the gospel, “each one with his neighbor, who is also God-fearing and desires to gain further knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They should be not “biting, angry, stubborn,” and insistent upon their own opinion already formed , but thankful for the smallest thing “of Christ and his gifts that one might find in another person” (B. Syn. 102[–3]). This is how the Reformed principle of Scripture should take shape in living theological practice. |[1]

Barth refers to this in the affirmative. We see the role that prayer and Bible reading played for Barth in his own theological development and posture as a Reformed theologian. When you read Barth for yourself all of the demonizing of him melts away, particularly when it comes to the way that Barth thought of Holy Scripture and the instrumental role it played in his theological development. I grow weary of the neo-classically-Reformed piling on Barth based upon absurd caricature and lampooning. I grow tired of people pissing on Barth making claims about Barth and what he thought about Scripture as if they speak from some holy height; they don’t, and it is un-Christian and irresponsible to make claims about Barth and his views of Scripture that are simply not true. And more than that, it is ironic that Barth himself, in his reverence for Scripture out-Scriptures most of his classically Reformed critics (i.e. think of Cornelius Van Til, Carl Henry, and the way that Christianity Today back in the day tarred and feathered him, particularly in regard to what he ostensibly believed about Scripture).

I say that Barth’s critics are ironic because when you actually read the theology that funds these critic’s theology you quickly realize that they rely more on classical philosophical thinking than Barth does; by a long shot. When you read the post reformed orthodox theology you realize that it is funded by Aristotelian Thomist intellectualist assumptions about God and every other subsequent cogitation. Barth’s theology, by contrast, attempts to think directly from revelation, from Jesus Christ. Barth attempts to embody the ideal of the Reformed Protestant scripture principle as we see illustrated beautifully in what I just quoted from him (the rest of his book is loaded with the same). So Barth, as a modern, thinks from the categories of Scripture itself much more directly than what we find funding his critic’s theology; which is ironic.

To leave though on a positive note: I am indebted to Barth and Thomas Torrance for doing Reformed theology in a way that attempts to think only Deus dixit[2], after God has spoken; and to do so in a principled way, as if Jesus Christ is the exegesis of God (Jn. 1.18). I commend Barth and after Barth theologians to you for this very reason. And I challenge those critics of Barth to actually read Barth and quit denying him to people who would benefit from him most; people sitting in the pews, and out on the streets.

[1] Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, trans. Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 51-2.

[2] See Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics.

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