Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture

Introduction

Since the reformation the Christian Church, in its many forms, has argued about where the foundation of the knowledge of God was to be found. For the Catholics it was the Pope and the Church, for the Romantics it was the experience of divine dependence, for the Liberal Protestants it was a critical- rationalistic reading of the Scriptures, and for the Fundamentalist Protestants it was in the inerrant Scriptures. Karl Barth hit this theological scene like a bomb shell. ‘Nine’, he said, theology was to be grounded on the gracious act of revelation by the free triune God; revelation which could not be controlled by human beings[1]. Barth’s doctrine of Scripture takes form around this doctrine of revelation emphasising that Scripture is not direct revelation given to us but an inspired witness in human words to revelation which only becomes the Word of God, by the work of the Holy Spirit. This short essay will systematically analyse Karl Barth’s radical doctrine of Scripture as well as critically engaging him by demonstrating some of the positive and negative points of his doctrine. It will then assess Mount Pleasant Baptist Church’s use of Scripture in light of the study.

 

God’s Revelation

Barth based his theological assumptions on Kantian metaphysics. He believed in the reality of the ontological gap and the necessity of revelation. Indeed, Barth affirmed that we know God by his gracious acts of revelation and by nothing else[2]. The guiding motif in Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation is that man can never control God or else he would make him in his own image. Barth asserted that both Protestants and Catholics had attempted to pervert the creation/creator relationship of man to God by setting up a false basis of knowledge and power[3]. In the case of the Catholic Church this took the form of a statement about the Church and subsequently the Pope which placed them in the position of ultimate authority[4]. Whereas in the case of the Protestants this took the form of a statement about the Bible, which allowed them to have access to an assured knowledge of God apart from the grace of God[5]. Barth’s view is well summarised in the following quote[6].As we can see Barth rebelled against the attempts of modern Protestantism to ground the bible upon itself, thereby bequeathing themselves control over revelation. He saw this as highly sinful because in doing this they began to interpret the Scriptures in a way that fulfilled their presuppositions and created God in their own image. In contrast to this Barth believed that the Bible was meant to be a free and spiritual force through which God could speak afresh to each new generation.

The Threefold Forms of God’s Word

For Barth revelation begins and ends with the self revealing triune God. In Barth’s words “the same God who is unimpaired unity is revealer, revelation, and revealedness”[7] What Barth is saying is that revelation is an act of God by which God reveals God[8]. This revealed God is what scripture calls the Word of God. It is this Trinitarian understanding of revelation which underlies Barth’s doctrine of Scripture.

 

 Barth identifies three forms of God’s word in the Scriptures[9]. They are the man Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14), the text of Scripture (2Timothy 3:16), and Christian preaching (2 Peter 1) although only the first two are dealt with in this essay[10]. On the Word of God and the Scriptures Barth writes[11]. For Barth the Bible is a witness to revelation, which has been written down in the words of man, it becomes the Word of God in a derivative sense as God works through it in an act of revelation. For Barth the bible has provisional authority over the Church, which is grounded in its being a witness to revelation[12].

 

Barth believed with other orthodox Christian’s that in the incarnation there is a hypostatic union between the divine Word of God and the man Jesus. Therefore Jesus Christ is the absolute Word of God and revelation itself. On the other hand, the Bible is not the Word of God in the same sense[13]. On this Barth says[14]. Barth’s point is that unlike Jesus the Bible is not the Word of God in an absolute sense in that it is not an incarnation of the Word of God in human writings[15]. Barth used the image of John the Baptist to communicate this point. John always pointed away from himself to Jesus to bear witness to his hidden identity[16]. This is the job of Scripture in Barth’s theology, to point to Christ as a witness to his true identity[17]. For Barth there is no inherent presence of God or impartation of divine attributes in the Bible[18]. Rather God reveals himself through the human vehicle of Scripture indirectly. This takes place as a personal encounter in which the Holy Spirit graciously reveals God in his judgment and mercy to the human agent[19].

 

Barth on the Biblical cannon

For Barth the determination of the Canon of Scripture is always an act of witness in accordance with the revelation that has been received by the Church at that moment in time; it is not an arbitrary human decision but a response to the Word of God’s testimony that the text is Scripture[20]. He believed that the early Church received the writings that God revealed to be a true witness of revelation. However, Barth asserts that fallible humans may have miss-heard God and therefore improving the Canon in response to further revelation is possible[21]. Barth conditions this statement by asserting that this is to be done in the context of the Church rather than at an individual level and that individual’s should approach the canonized Scriptures of the Church as Holy Scriptures[22] .

.

The Bible as Inspired and Human

Up to this point it may appear that for Barth there was no part for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to play in the writing of Scripture, but this is not true. Although he did not see the writings themselves as inherently inspired he did believe in the inspiring work of the Holy Spirit. For Barth inspiration took the form of a special activity of the Holy Spirit in commissioning the apostles and prophets for their task of witnessing in the form of the written word[23]. Although this activity did not bypass their human limitations, Barth asserted that this activity of the Holy Spirit on the writers made the words of Scripture theologically reliable[24]. But for Barth this is not the end of inspiration in that that God also does this inspiring work in us so that we can see and hear what the authors saw and heard[25].

 

Barth’s doctrine of Scripture welcomes the human part of the bible. For Barth revelation always comes to us in a fallible human vehicle. To communicate why we should not seek to de-humanize the Bible by way of a doctrine of inerrancy Barth used the analogy of the many people over time who have stumbled over Christ’s humanity[26]. Barth asserted that as orthodox Christians have embraced Christ in all his humanness so we must also embrace the Bible in all its humanness[27]. Barth calls this humanness of Scripture a scandal and offence. Hart sums up Barth’s view well when he says[28] To Barth the Word of God always comes to us as a scandal. Jesus the man is not the medium of revelation but the veil[29]. The same is true of the Bible. The Bible is veiled by fallible human words and can only be unveiled by a revelatory act of God. Barth had no time for any doctrine of Scripture which attempted to remove the offence of the humanness of the biblical text by denying or qualifying its human side[30]. Barth proposed that the text is both fully divine and fully human[31]. He insisted that the Bible contained scientific, historical and religious error but instead of paling over this as most theologians would Barth insisted that the fallibility of the Bible is essential to its intended theological function, namely, preventing humans from setting it up as a false absolute and leaving  revelation under the control of God[32].

 

Positives

There are several positives to Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. Firstly, Barth’s doctrine of Word of God makes sense of the biblical use of the phrase[33]. Secondly, Barth highlights the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in the act of revelation[34]. This backs up the reformed emphasis that man cannot make his way to his own salvation and allows Gods Word to function in its life giving power[35].In Barth’s view the Bible is not longer static but is alive[36].Thirdly, Barth’s view makes sense of the humanity of the Bible with its significant historical and scientific errors[37].Fourthly, his doctrine allows one to have a high view of scripture while also recognizing its limits as a human vehicle. Fifthly, if his view of Scripture is implemented Barth successfully takes revelation out of our hands while giving it back to us in its proper place, with us standing under, rather than above it.

 

Negatives

There are also several criticm’s that have been made regarding Barth’s doctrine of scripture. Firstly, Barth has been criticized by conservatives who assert that his doctrine of scripture if poorly implemented will lead to a radical subjectivism in which orthodoxy will be compromised[38]. However this charge does not stick for these three reasons[39]. Secondly, Many Liberal Protestants have suggested that Barth did not take historical criticism seriously enough[40]. However, on a reading of the twelve theses it becomes clear that Barth believed in the usefulness of sound exegesis and historical criticism and only wished exegetical work to take its proper place as inferior to the revelation brought by the Holy Spirit[41]. Thirdly, if the material authority of the Bible is surrendered as Barth asserts then doesn’t this raise doubts as to the reliability of its witness to say, the resurrection and other events crucial to Christian faith[42].

 

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church’s Doctrine of scripture

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church has a small statement of faith in which one sentence is devoted to the doctrine of Scripture. This document states[43]. This doctrine of Scripture affirms the inerrancy of the Scriptures instead of recognizing that they are a human vehicle as Barth suggests. For Mount Pleasant the Scriptures are revelation in themselves rather than a witness to revelation as Barth thinks they are. Because the Bible is the supreme authority in matters of faith Mount Pleasants doctrine and preaching are formed around the careful exegesis of biblical passages, considering the cultural context, translation, the meaning of the author, and comparison to other biblical sources. Although the statement of faith suggests that the Holy Spirit plays no part in revelation, in practice Mount Pleasant believes that the Holy Spirit plays a primary role in all revelation and believes that Scripture cannot be correctly understood apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Mount Pleasant seeks to frame all areas of faith and practice around that outlined in the biblical text while also looking to the Holy Spirit for his ultimate guidance. Barth would agree with this use of the Scriptures because it seeks out what the Bible says while also waiting on the revelation from the Holy Spirit as the ultimate authority. In practice Mount Pleasants use of Scripture is very close to that outlined by Barth in that there is a Barthian emphasis on the place of the Holy Spirit’s work of revelation through the Bible, rather than revelation coming from study of the text alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

-Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by Bromiley, G. W. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956.

 

-Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by Thompson, G. T. & H. Knight, Edited by Bromiley, G. W. & T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956.

 

-Barth, Karl., God Here and Now: Religious Perspectives. Translated by P. M. V. Buren, Edited by Anshen R. N. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964).

 

-Barth, Karl., The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by D. Horton. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, nd).

 

-Beach, J. M., “Revelation in Scripture: Comments on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Revelation” Mid America Journal of Theology 17 (2006) 267-274.

 

-Bromiley, G. W., “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Inspiration,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 87 (1955):66-80.

 

-Cornwall, Robert, “Three Fold Word of God”. http://www.bobcornwall.com/2009/09/three-fold-word-of-god.html. (assessed 29 March 2012).

 

-Franke, John R., Barth for Armchair Theologians (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

 

-Hardon, John A., Review of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture by K. Runia, Theological Studies 25 (1964): 89- 100

 

-Hart, Trevor., Regarding Karl Barth: Towards a Reading of his Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

 

-McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th ed. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

 

-Mueller, David L., “The Contributions and weaknesses of Karl Barth’s View of the Bible” in The Proceedings of the conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987, 423-447 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987).

 

-O’brien, B. J., “Theologian of the Word of God? Reception of Barth’s View of Revelation and Exegesis in North America and Britain, 1945-1962’”Trinity Journal 32(2011): 31-46.

 

-Oneil, Michael D., “Forming Moral Community: Christian and Ecclesial Existence in the Theology of Karl Barth, 1915-1922” (unpublished Ph. D. diss., Murdoch University, 2008).

 

-“The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Believes”, http://mounties.org.au/kingdomtools/site/mounties.org.au/resources/500000000025/what_about_belief.pdf (accessed 28 March, 2012).


[1] John R. Frank, Barth for Armchair Theologians (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 163.

 

[3]John A. Hardon, review of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture by K. Runia, TS 25 (1964): 90.

[4] Hardon, review of Runia, 91.

[5] Hardon, review of Runia, 91.

[6] “The Bible was now grounded upon itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the Holy Ghost. It became a ‘paper Pope’ and unlike the living pope in Rome it was given up to the hands of its interpreters. It was no longer a free and spiritual force, but an instrument of human power… a codex of axioms which can be seen as such with the same formal dignity as those of philosophy and mathematics.” Barth, Karl, Church dogmatics I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, K. Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, ed Bromiley, G. W. & T. F. Torrance Trans., Thompson, G. T. & H. Knight (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 525, 522.

[7]  K. Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Trans. Bromiley, G. W., 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 344.

[8] Hart, Trevor, Regarding Karl Barth: Towards a Reading of his Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 31.

[9] There is an implicit analogy to the trinity in this part of his doctrine of scripture.

[10] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 31.

[11] “The Word of God is God himself in Holy Scripture. For God once spoke as Lord to Moses and the prophets, to the Evangelists and the Apostles.    And now through their written word he speaks as the same Lord to his Church.   Scripture is holy and the Word of God because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness of divine revelation.” Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, emphasis added, 457.

[12] It must be noted that for Barth this witness to revelation becomes a kind of partial revelation in itself. Barth draws on many biblical passages to illuminate this point. “This biblical witness is the visible form of the otherwise hidden presence and lordship of Christ. “You shall be my witnesses.” He who hears you hears me.” And then, “Behold I am with you always even to the end of the world.” All these refer to the particular bearers of the witness upon which the congregation is founded. “So we are ambassadors on behalf of Christ; for God is making his appeal through us.”” Karl Barth, God Here and Now: Religious Perspectives. Trans., P. M. V. Buren, ed. Anshen R. N. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), 47.

[13] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 34-35.

[14] “The bible is not the Word of God on earth the same way as Jesus Christ, very God and very man, is that Word in heaven… The act in which he became the Word of God in his humanity requires neither repetition nor confirmations…” Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, emphasis added, 513.

[15] There is no unification of the Word and the human vehicle as there is in the Word of God and the man Jesus of Nazareth.  G.W. Bromiley, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Inspiration,” JTVI 87 (1955):73.

[16] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 35.

[17] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 35.

[18] Franke, Barth for Armchair, 122-123.

     Barth, God Here and Now, 49.

[19] Michael D. O’neil, “Forming Moral Community: Christian and Ecclesial Existence in the Theology of Karl Barth, 1915-1922” (unpublished Ph. D. diss., Murdoch University, 2008), 274.

[20] Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 475-476.

[21] Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 476.

[22] Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 478-479.

[23] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 45.

[24] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 45.

[25] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 46.

[26] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 38-39.

[27] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 38-39.

[28] “The scandalon must be allowed to stand… Gods’ word comes to us in full human form. It is veiled from us by this very creatureliness, and becomes ‘visible’ as it were, only in the event of revelation. The real presence of the Word in human words cannot be guaranteed, coerced, pinned down or held onto… it can only be prayed for and received by faith… There is no magical transubstantiation.” Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, Emphasis added, 44.

[29] O’neil, “Forming Moral”, 271

[30] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 38.

[31] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 38.

[32] Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, 36-44.

[33] The bible refers to Jesus Christ as the union of man and the pre-existent Word of God (Jn 1:1-14) the preeminent mediator of revelation (Mt 11:27; Lk 11:9; Jn 14:1-10) and the full revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-2; I Cor. 1:30) as well as to the Scriptures (John 5:39) and the preaching of the Church (Acts 4:31, 6:7, 15:36). Robert Cornwall, “Three Fold Word of God”. http://www.bobcornwall.com/2009/09/three-fold-word-of-god.html (assessed 29 March 2012).

[34] Both Bromiley and Runia applaud Barth on this point of his theology.

David L. Mueller, “The Contributions and weaknesses of Karl Barth’s View of the Bible” in The Proceedings of the conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 433.

B. J. O’brien, “Theologian of the Word of God? Reception of Barth’s View of Revelation and Exegesis in North America and Britain, 1945-1962’” TJ 32(2011): 41.

[35] J. M. Beach, “Revelation in Scripture: Comments on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Revelation” MAJT 17 (2006): 271.

[36] In Barth’s view reading the bible ceases to be a mundane chore but becomes an existential meeting with God, in which we are welcomed into ‘the strange new world of the Bible’. K. Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man. Trans. D. Horton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, nd), 28-50.

[37]This serves to back up his doctrine rather than to disprove it, answers some difficult questions about the biblical text, allows one to discard ancient cosmology.

[38] This is because Barth does not ground the faith in infallible Scriptures and instead stresses a reliance on the Holy Spirit which could lead to individuals or congregations rejecting certain parts of the Scriptures. O’brien, Theologian of the Word, 37, 40.

[39] Most of Barth’s followers have remained orthodox and formed the confessing Church which opposed Nazi Germany, for Barth matters of the Canon and orthodox revelation are discussed in the context of the Church at large under the Lordship of Christ, and the Bible continues to have authority in his theology it just isn’t the primary authority.

[40] O’brien, Theologian of the Word, 38.

[41] Barth, God Here and Now, 52- 58.

[42] It is much harder to defend Barth against this criticism as he does appear to emphasise that there is no foundation for the knowledge of God but God himself. Mueller, “The contributions and Weaknesses”, 434.

[43] “That the whole of the Scriptures, Old and New Testament, as originally given, are the inspired Word of God, free from error and the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” “The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Believes”, emphasis added. http://mounties.org.au/kingdomtools/site/mounties.org.au/resources/500000000025/what_about_belief.pdf (accessed 28 March, 2012).

 

One comment on “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture

  1. […] of each text, which can be found via the dutiful elimination of all subjective bias and influence. Karl Barth is one of the more prominent theologians to point out that this notion is fallible and, i… Unfortunately, we turned a deaf ear to such naysayers and have continued to pull meanings from […]

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