Friday, February 4, 2011

Barth I.1 §4.2-4

Barth begins his Church Dogmatics slowly.   His argumentation seems to meander down rabbit trails, to wander here and there.  Sometimes he is hard to follow.  Sometimes it is hard to see where he is going (or for that matter, where he has been).  Yet, finally, in §4.1-4 his argumentation becomes crystal clear, his project becomes intelligible, and the importance of his work becomes undeniable (at least to me).

I.1 §4 attempts to lay out Barth's doctrine of the Word of God.  What is the Word of God?  Barth uses many terms that may be familiar to modern evangelicals.  He uses such words as "Bible," "Word of God," "Scripture," "Revelation."  For the modern evangelical, these terms are essentially synonymous.  To talk about the Word of God is to talk about the Bible, and vice versa.  To talk about Revelation is to talk, again, about the Bible, or Scripture.  All of these words refer primarily to one thing, the canon of the Bible.  Here, for the modern evangelical, is the battle cry of the reformation, sola scriptura.  Yet, Barth does not treat these terms as synonymous, and he adds one more, "Proclamation" or "preaching."  Thus, Barth lays out section four as follows: 1) the Word of God preached, 2) the Word of God written, 3) the Word of God revealed, and 4) the unity of the Word of God.

For Barth, these five terms (Revelation, Word of God, Bible, Scripture, and Proclamation) are all related, but not synonymous.  Barth's primary goal is to maintain the freedom of God and the freedom of God's Word.  No human medium, whether written or spoken, may contain, grasp, hold, control, the Word of God.  Therefore one cannot, as modern evangelicals often do, equate the Bible and the Word of God.  No, the Word of God only comes ubi et quando visum est Deo (where and when it pleases God).  God's freedom is preserved absolutely and will not come under the control of any human medium, be that the writing of the Bible or the teaching of the church.

So, God's Word is free, it cannot be equated with the Bible, or Christian preaching.  Then, where is it, what is it?  Is there something to which we can point and say: that is the Word of God.  Yes.  For Barth, God's word is always present in his "Revelation."  Yet, what is revelation?  For Barth, Revelation is God's act; it is his past revelation which is also a promise of future revelation.  So, again I say, what is revelation?  Please, tell me already.  OK, Barth says, I will tell you.  God's revelation is his decisive act in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God with us, this is God's decisive revelation. As Barth writes:
"Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished in him.  To say revelation is to say 'The Word became flesh.'" (CD I.1 §4.3 p. 119).
Now, much of what Barth has been talking about since the beginning of the dogmatics makes sense.  Earlier when he spoke of the being of the church being Jesus Christ, this now makes sense.  It is this decisive revelation, the incarnation and work of Christ, that is central for Barth.  Nothing else in the Christian story or experience even comes close.  Yet, for this revelation to come to us, it must be preached.  And how is it preached?  Through the Bible and Christian proclamation.  The Bible and Christian preaching bear witness, attest, to this once for all revelation.  Insofar as the Bible and preaching truly attest and bear witness to this once for all revelation, they become the Word of God.

Therefore, the Bible and Christian preaching can be called the Word of God, but only insofar as they truly attest to God's revelation, and only insofar as God wills that they do so.  Yet, whereas Revelation is itself "God's Word," the Bible and Christian preaching are only derivative.  For again, as Barth writes:
"According to all that has been said revelation is originally and directly what the Bible and Church proclamation are derivatively and indirectly, i.e., God's Word. We have said of Church proclamation that it must continually become God's Word.  And we have said the same of the Bible: It must continually become God's Word." (CD I.1 §4.3 p.117). 
So, how do the Bible and Church proclamation become God's Word?  They do so by God's commission, judgment, and act, or as we have said before, when and where it pleases God.  God will not be encapsulated in human words.  He remains free.  Therefore, God decides when some passage of the Bible or some sermon becomes a true witness to his revelation, a true attestation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

If I could try to simplify this, at the risk of totally oversimplifying Barth's theology, then I would do it thus:

First, there is the Word of God with a capital W.  That is what Barth calls revelation, and is equivalent to the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and atonement of Jesus Christ. 

Next, there are two small w words of God, the Bible and Church proclamation.  These can become the Word of God, but only in a derivative sense inasmuch as they bear true witness to Jesus Christ.

Barth's theology of the Word of God becomes a powerful corrective to the evangelical penchant for equating the Bible with God's Word.  If the Bible is God's Word, if God's Word is contained in a book, then it can be used to beat others into submission to this or that theological or social program, and so it is often used.  Barth retains this "Word of God" for God himself.  It is as if he lets God say, "It's my word, I'll use it when I want and say what I want, thank you very much."

A couple of musings: here I might go beyond Barth, and perhaps he will clarify these things as I read on.

First, there is a similarity between Barth and Luther.  Luther had a canon within a canon.  That is, he thought that only scripture which points to Christ can be called scripture.  Thus, he relegated certain books to second class status, such as the books of Hebrews, Jude, Revelation, and most famously, James the "epistle of straw."  Barth also has a canon within a canon, and it is essentially the same as Luther's: Jesus Christ.  But that is where the similarity ends.

Whereas Luther wanted to find which books, or which parts of which books, pointed truly to Christ, Barth has no such illusions.  Barth is not trying to whittle the Bible down to the words which truly attest to Christ.  It is not about stripping away portions of the Bible that do not adequately point to Christ.  That would be to say that the Word of God can be contained in human words.  For Barth, the Word of God must retain its freedom.  Therefore, no amount of stripping away of superfluous words would ever attain to a set number of "true" Words of God.  Rather, the canon itself is left intact.  Then, any part of the Bible is free to become the Word of God as it pleases God. 

One interesting aspect to this for me is, if my conception of Barth is correct, that any word of the Bible can become the Word of God at any moment that God so desires.  Yet, at the next moment, the very same words might not be the Word of God.  It is not about the words of the Bible themselves, but rather about the decision of God to put his positive judgment upon it, to decide to shine through the words of the Bible to bear witness to the revelation found in Jesus Christ.


  1. Thank you for your blog on this section of CD. I think you helpfully bring into clear focus Barth's main concern in this section.
    I would, however, like you to clarify your "simplifying" of Barth's Word theology. You say there is the Word of God with a capital W, revelation. There are also two small w words of God, the Bible and church proclamation. That is exactly how I was hearing Barth until I hit on what he says on Page 120 and 121. "There is no distinction of degree or value between the three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repetition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation What do you make of this?

  2. David,
    Thanks for the comment and I agree with you that Barth would not quite say it like I did in my simplification, and my simplification might need some clarifications. I agree that when the Bible and Proclamation truly "become" the Word of God, they are no less so than is revelation. That said, I kind of like the simplification of provisionally calling the Bible and proclamation the word of God with a small w, merely communicating that the Bible and preaching are not always the Word of God, but have the ability to become the Word of God as it pleases God. I think that this runs less chance of being misused the way that I think Barth was guarding against, namely that the Bible would be equated with the Word of God as if it contained or controlled the Word of God. Thanks again for the clarification.

  3. Thanks for your reply to my comment. What you have said here seems to be reflected in the words that I quoted from Barth. He writes, "For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation ATTESTED in the Bible and is thus obedient repetition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really ATTESTS revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation. So it when The WORD enables the Bible and proclamation to BECOME the word that there are no distinctions of degree between the three forms of the Word. As you say the main thing is that we must not speak of the Bible containing or controlling the Word. The Living Word must be free! I really like all this!