Saturday, January 22, 2011

Barth I.1 §3.1

In Church Dogmatics I.1 §3.1, Barth begins his discussion of the doctrine of the Word of God as the criterion for dogmatics.  He begins, not with the Bible, as most current evangelicals would do when discussing the Word of God, but rather, with preaching and the sacrament.  Preaching, or "proclamation" and the sacrament should, according to Barth, be at the center of the church's mission. 

Carrying over his sparring partners from §2, Barth continues to engage with Catholics and Protestant liberals over the issue of preaching and the sacrament.  For Barth, Catholics relegate preaching to the margins of the church while elevating the sacraments to the center, the one true means of God's grace.  On the other hand, in protestant liberalism, preaching is self-exposition.  As Barth writes:
"Proclamation as self-exposition must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking." (CD I.1 p. 64). 
Preaching and sacrament are the one place for Barth in which the church actively seeks to bring forth the Word of God.  Now, for Barth, the Word of God can come through various mediums.  It can come in theology, church instruction to youth, church social service, yet only in preaching and the sacrament, is there a true commission from God for the church to bring forth his Word.  In one of the few moments where Barth steps down from his esoteric language and engages in common speech, Barth writes:
"God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.  We do well to listen to Him if He really does.  But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation." (CD I.1 p. 55).
Key here for Barth is that God's freedom is preserved, namely the ubi et quando visum est Deo (where and when it is pleasing to God).  God remains free to speak in any way and anywhere he so desires.  Yet, only in the areas of preaching and the sacrament is the church actually "commissioned" to proclaim the word of God.  For this commission, Barth goes to the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28, but does little exegesis on the passage.

A couple of notes about the current situation of the evangelical church.  1.  Preaching is certainly central, but I think you would be hard pressed to find many conservative evangelicals in the American conservative evangelical movement that would ever elevate preaching to the status of "Word of God."  Yet, Barth's counter part to preaching, that of sacrament, is largely neglected in the current evangelical church.  It would be rare to find an evangelical church today that takes communion as seriously as preaching.  Many churches only take communion once a month, some only once a quarter.  2.  Is the "Great Commission" truly the one commission that Jesus gave his church.  Sure, it was the last, at least according to Matthew.  Are there not many other "commissions," things that Jesus called his church to do?  How about Love your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Is not this a "great commission" for the church, yet certainly preaching does not cover all of the churches activities that might fulfill this commission.  I have seen many "Great Commission" oriented churches that neglect many other parts of Christ's message.  So, is Barth correct in claiming that only in preaching and the sacrament is the church "commissioned" to bring forth the Word of God. 

One more thing: though I have read some other Barth, and think I have a fairly firm idea of what Barth means by the term "Word of God," he uses the term throughout this section and never gives a satisfactory definition of what he means.  Why not start with a firm definition of what Word of God means to Barth before he talks about preaching as the primary vehicle for the church proclaiming the Word of God?

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