The Scripture Principle: The Word’s Reality and its Generation of Passion

Karl Barth was a theologian who understood the most important thing about theology; he understood that if the theologian is going to speak about God, that he or she will only be able to do that after God has spoken (Deus dixit). As a Reformed theologian, and thus as a theologian of the Word, Barth knew that the primary witness, the primary means by which the theologian, the pastor might speak about God was as he encountered the living God in the Apostolic Deposit of Holy Scripture. This is something that many of Barth’s detractors don’t appreciate about him; they don’t make themselves aware of the reality that Barth was fully committed to the ‘Scripture principle’ of the Reformed churches.

In the following these things become apparent as Barth waxes eloquent about the centrum that Scripture just is in the process of proclamation and bearing witness to God from God.

We might illustrate this impression by an example that is very dear to me, namely, by the strange process that led especially to the formation of the Reformed churches in the 16th century. I call them strange because the most positive impulse accompanying the many negative and from a Christian standpoint very dubious things that were also at work was to us the amazingly passionate rediscovery, acknowledgment, and assertion of the ancient canonical literature, because in a way that was acute, sudden, and revolutionary the Bible again became the marching orders and direction to preach, because it was understood as the cannon not merely in the critical sense but also in the imperative sense. In this field the ancient book — and much more distinctly than in the Lutheran reformation, the book itself — the whole Bible and not just a specific truth in the Bible as in the case of Luther, commanded with an almost uncanny dynamic a new attention, respect, and obedience. To a degree and with an intensity that are almost intolerable to us today, people had to speak again about God in the light of this historical datum as though it could be done and had never been attempted before. Read some of the sermons of Calvin with this in mind. How this man is grasped and stilled and claimed — not too quickly must one suppose by his experience of conversion, or by the thought of predestination, or by Christ, or even, as is commonly said, by passion for God’s glory —  no, but in the first instance simply by the authority of the biblical books, which year by year he never tired of expounding systematically down to the very last verse! How this man, moving always along the uncrossable wall of this authority, copying down what he finds copied there, as if the living words of God were heard there (as he himself says in the Institutes), becomes himself wholly voice and speech and persuasion, and can never exhaust or empty himself, as though nothing were more self-evident than this torrential talk about God in spite of all the objections which might be urged against it, and which he himself knew well enough! Why was this? In the first instance we can find no other reason than this: Because he heard Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul speak about God, because he heard there the trumpet that summoned him to battle. In something of the same way 1400 years earlier, in the historically obscure early period when the old book as not yet old, the oral and written witness of the same prophets and apostles affected the people of the second generation and brought about the rise of the early church, that is, the rise of Christian preaching.[1]

Barth believed Scripture, the preached Word was the whence from which the Christian could speak God. May we imitate Barth as he imitated Christ.

As an aside: I often get this sense that us Christians think we own the Word of God, and as such we feel the burden to make it relevant to the church and the world. But this is not our prerogative; God has called us to stand on the rooftops and proclaim the living Word of God as if our lives and the lives around us depended upon it. As Moses says in Deuteronomy ‘the word is not a vain thing, it is our very life’ (my paraphrase). I’ve noticed a slippage in my own posture lately. I used to be much bolder about evangelizing the Word to anyone and everyone around; on the streets, in the market-places, and backwaters of wherever I find myself in this fleeting world. I’m reminded as I write this post about the Word, that the Word of God, its reality in the Gospel, is indeed the very power of God. I don’t need to apologize for it or shrink back as I’m confronted with the words of others throughout the days; I need to submit to God resist the Devil and do what I was put on this earth to do: bear witness to the risen God in Jesus Christ! I need to press into the Word and allow it to press me back and out towards a world and a church that needs to live in the sober realization that would lead the Apostle Paul to yell this “let God be true and everyman a liar!” I need to allow the passion of the Christ, the passion that underwrites the very writ that Scripture is, the passion of Christ that looks out on an unbelieving world and an unbelieving church and causes him to weep, to cut me. This is the reality of the Word that I need to let compel me into a life lived from Christ’s searing holiness which leads to a serious com-passion for others. When I come to recognize my own deep need for the living God, as he sanctifies me in this recognition, and meets me with his purifying eyes, I come to have a burden for others; as my burden has been shouldered by Christ. All of this and more comes from the realization that Barth had about the Word; it comes from the staggering realization that the written Word is powerful and earth-shattering precisely at the point that it brings its readers and students into encounter with its living reality in the risen Christ.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 54-5.

3 thoughts on “The Scripture Principle: The Word’s Reality and its Generation of Passion

  1. Didn’t want this blog to pass without saying that I thought it was a great post and a fresh reminder of how great an experience reading Scripture can be. I am always amazed at how the Spirit uses the written word to connect us to the living Word. Grace a peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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