A Free Bible; A Free Church; Only If the Church Can Deconflate Her Self Understanding From Jesus’s Voice And Reality

There seem to be magisteriums everywhere; interpretive that is—something Christian Smith identified as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. It is the saddling of Holy Scripture with certain authoritative church structures—such as we find in Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy—or certain authoritative confessional/catechetical structures (again funded by a certain theory of ecclesial authority found in many of the Protestant and classically Reformed and Lutheran Confessions). We also find this same type of harnessing of Holy Scripture in Low Church traditions; these are typically associated with particular personalities/pastors. Beyond this, and this is the whence of many liberal and evangelical communions, there is a stirruping of Holy Scripture with the wits of this or that historico-critical biblical exegete and their idiosyncratic engagement and interpretation of the text of Scripture (Rudolf Bultmann on one hand, and NT Wright on the other come quickly to mind). There is this always already attendant hermeneutical problem, it seems, when someone wants to engage with Scripture. A complex within which Scripture is received, and within this complex there is an attendance of various claims to Scripture’s actual meaning for the church. Whatever the expression of this might be one thing stands out: the Bible and its meaning, more than not, has become slavishly tied to the layering of various historical and linear accretions of meaning that bind the Bible’s reality to the warp and woof of an abstract human history rather (as situated within an ecclesial superstructure) than to the living reality of Scripture given over and over again by the miracle of the Holy Spirit as Jesus Christ breaks through such accretions as the risen One who is indeed King of the world; and in particular, King of the Church wherein Scripture has been given embassy to reach into the lives of every tribe, nation, and tongue.

I think, once again, what is at issue is how ecclesiology and the text have been thought together; and how Authority for the Christian is thought from there. If the ground of the church is understood as something inherent to the church and not ecclesia quae extra nos (outside of us as the church), then Scripture’s meaning as corollary will become bounded to this type of inherent pure natured reality, and not understood as the Free floating instrument that is intended to be managed by none except its living reality in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth opines masterfully here (which is the inspiration for this post):

If, then, apart from the undeniable vitality of the Church itself there stands confronting it a concrete authority with its own vitality, an authority whose pronouncement is not the Church’s dialogue with itself but an address to the Church, and which can have vis-à-vis the Church the position of a free power and therefore of a criterion, then obviously in its writtenness as “Bible” it must be distinguished from and given precedence over the purely spiritual and oral life of ecclesiastical tradition. It is true that this real, biblical Canon is constantly exposed to absorption into the life, thought and utterance of the Church inasmuch as it continually seeks to be understood afresh and hence expounded and interpreted. Exegesis is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis, without which the norm cannot assert itself as a norm, entails the constant danger that the Bible will be taken prisoner by the Church, that its own life will be absorbed into the life of the Church, that its free power will be transformed into the authority of the Church, in short, that it will lose its character as a norm magisterially confronting the Church. All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself. Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historic-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm.[1]

A Free Bible; I like that! There almost seems to be a nihilism about Barth’s approach to Scripture; a healthy nihilism, in my view. In other words, if one were to take to heart what Barth is expressing (like I do), you would almost feel a sense of helplessness; as if church tradition, the “critical” exegetes, and my pastor cannot provide the type of authoritative reading of Scripture that I’d always hoped to have. Ultimately, I don’t think Barth is against any of the aforementioned offices in the church (in fact I know he’s not), but he wants to ensure that the Bible, and more importantly, the Bible’s reality, have the actual freedom to be the norming norm that Protestants, in particular, claim it to be. I don’t think though that most Protestant churches, let alone Catholic and Orthodox, have provided the kind of freedom for the Bible that Barth is calling for. This is because, as Barth notes implicitly in his explication, the churches have so absorbed various accretions and interpretations into their relative identities (across the spectrum from Catholic to Low Church evangelical), that Scripture’s reality, Jesus Christ, no longer has the regulative space to confront and encounter people with His voice as it is spoken in Scripture afresh and anew. So in this sense I think Barth’s nihilism is a necessary acid that needs to be applied to the Church’s approach to herself as the church, and as corollary to the Church’s deployment and appropriation of Holy Scripture (one way or the other) within the lifeblood of her existence as the Church.

Barth might seem almost anarchical when it comes to things like this (in fact to almost every doctrine he touches), but that’s only because he is calling people back to the reality that Jesus is Lord, and that we are not. People generally rebuff such exhortation, and simply label all of Barth (genetically) as a heretic; but this, in my view, is to their own destruction. Does the Bible have the Freedom in your life, in your church’s life that Barth is calling for? If it doesn’t, why not?



[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 103-04.


2 thoughts on “A Free Bible; A Free Church; Only If the Church Can Deconflate Her Self Understanding From Jesus’s Voice And Reality

  1. Dear Bobby, Thanks again for your work which I truly find profitable. Today again I sense some anti-catechesis thoughts but please consider this brief piece that I wrote years ago about the Heidelberg Catechism and please let me know your thoughts sometime. Gratefully, Gary —-

    Comments on the Heidelberg Catechism—

    Katecheo–Luke 1:4; Acts 18-the story of Apollos; 1 Corinthians 14-that Paul would

    rather speak in intelligible language so that I might instruct (catechize); Galatians 6:6—the catechum should share all good things with the catechist.

    It appears that already in the NT era we see that there is something that is arising that is known as catechesis and it is primarily verbal and involves repetition of learning the important points of the faith.

    Paradidomai–1Corinthians 11, 15—The idea of passing on what has been received.

    *In all of the catechisms the WHAT question is answered always the same—They teach the Creed (we don’t find this in Westminster actually), the Lord’s prayer, the Decalogue, (sometimes the Sacraments as a fourth section or category).

    Those who passed this on believed that they were passing on what has always been passed on in regard to the faith. They taught the same things but they taught them in different ways or with different application or interpretation (i.e. the sacraments/ordinances).

    Luther set the tone for us b/c he was the first Protestant to write a catechism.

    1. Luther starts with the Decalogue 2. Moves to the Creed 3. Finishes with the LP

    *The controversy is on what comes first—law and then gospel is the

    order for the Lutheran.

    •Calvin reversed the order: 1. Started with the Creed

    2. Moved onto the Decalogue

    3. Finishes with the LP

    3 Different Uses of the Law:

    1. The 1st use of the Decalogue is to bring it to all people and say that it is better for us to listen to God since he knows the order of the cosmos and he knows what will lead to life. God saying that he wrote the manual and knows how things work—this is the CIVIL USE.


  2. Hi Gary,

    I think catechesis can be helpful, and to an extent all Christian traditions engage in this one way or the other; whether intentional or not. I’m Baptist, and so this mode isn’t the most natural way to think or talk for me.

    As far as my blogging—and this has been the case for years—while I write with the full intention of having folks read, at the same time my posts are almost always situational and based upon whatever I’m reading at that moment. I’m not really thinking about how to make what I’m communicating accessible or memorable; instead my posts are typically me fleshing out initial thoughts as I’m confronted with something that I find to be profound. What Barth is highlighting, in my view, is very profound, and I think folks would do well to really contemplate it themselves.

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