KARL BARTH AND THE WORD OF GOD
Karl Barth’s distinction as arguably the most influential and important theologian of the 20th century has very little to do with the sheer volume of his work, although at over 600 books and articles it is quite impressive. Nor does the label result from some brand new area of theological thought never before contemplated. Rather, it is the timing of his theology, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and just before the dawn of Modernism, that led to Barth’s impact on the thinking society.
Barth’s theology was radical in the way it completely opposed the popular thought of the early part of the century. It brought him great criticism from colleagues and peers and even cost him at least one prestigious university position. However, it’s universally accepted that most every American and European theologian during that time and since has labored either to apply and continue Barth’s work or to discredit it. Regardless, they have all been, and will continue to be, influenced by him. Theologian Eberhard Jungel, a student of Barth’s, wrote in 1982,
Barth’s personal and literary influence profoundly changed the shape of Christian theology across confessional boundaries, significantly altered the direction of the Protestant church, and also left an unmistakable imprint on the politics and cultural life of the 20th century. Barth defied both the enduring and the passing currents of his time, even as he was conditioned by them. His unmistakable genius was a product of the times and their need for renewal, and at the same time it was a force behind the changes that occurred during this century.
Ironically, Barth did not consider himself a revolutionary or a church patriarch. He thought himself entirely objective theologically, philosophically, and spiritually. And it was this mindset that allowed him to advance his, at that time, extreme theology.
Barth’s ideas can best be understood by focusing on the one area that begins and carries and ends seemingly every word that came out of his mouth in lectures or was produced by his pen in books: the three-fold doctrine of the Word of God.
All Christian theology has always been done in accordance with scripture. Even those theologians and schools of thought that stress tradition or experience have always been kept in check by the scriptures. But, at the turn of the century, the precise role of the Bible in theology had still never been completely identified. That’s the reason Barth’s ideology had, and continues to have, such an impact. His 13 volume, 8,000 page Church Dogmatics, the work with which he’s most closely associated, spelled this out from the start. Barth emphatically declares that the Bible is not a book of man’s thoughts about God and the actions of God, but rather God’s intimate thoughts and actions about and regarding man. According to Barth,
the Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves in him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible. The word of God is within the Bible.
Theology never begins with history, experience, human consciousness, progress, self-awareness, or philosophical speculation. Barth says it begins and ends with the Bible.
Barth’s three-fold doctrine of the Holy Scriptures seeks to understand the Bible as the word of God in Trinitarian form: as revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as written in the scriptures themselves, and as proclaimed in the preaching of the church. And just as neither of the three forms of God can exist separately from the other two, so it is with God’s word. In describing this interrelation, Barth wrote in the initial volume of Church Dogmatics,
The revealed Word of God we know only from the scripture adopted by Church proclamation, or from church proclamation based on Scripture. The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which makes proclamation possible, or through the proclamation made possible by revelation. The proclaimed Word of God we know only by knowing the revelation attested through Scripture, or by knowing the Scripture which attests revelation.
Let us first examine the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, which Barth claims to be the primary form of God’s word. That viewpoint naturally agrees with the apostle John who wrote that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” John 1:1 and, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John 1:14. The Word, God Himself, becoming flesh is the revelation. It’s the singular thought around which all of Barth’s theology revolves and the starting point for all of his teachings. Therefore, all religious talk --- all talk of God, creation, humanity, salvation, glory, the church --- boils down to Jesus Christ. It all draws out of the Incarnation of Christ. It’s repetitious and redundant to speak of these things and of Jesus as separate. While modern theologians are discussing theories of human experience, hermeneutics, and historical analysis of understanding, Barth departs from this because “his understanding of God as Lord will not permit the thought that human reality is some relatively independent sphere within the terms of which God must appear.”
God speaks to man through Jesus Christ. He communicates to man, He reveals Himself to man, and He reaches out to man through Christ. For Barth, all of God’s dealings with man are in and through Jesus. Any knowledge we have of God comes through Christ. For “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9. And it’s this revelation that lies at the very heart of scripture and the preaching of the church.
It’s “none of self and all of Thee” thinking. It was intellectual suicide. And it could not have been more different from what every other theologian in the world was practicing.
The Bible as the actual written scripture is the second tier of Barth’s three-fold doctrine of the Word of God. This thought alone demands almost 300 pages in Church Dogmatics. Like the Incarnation, the Bible is a field of divine activity, an instrument of holy communication. The Bible and its writers are used by God to testify that He has already spoken and already acted. He commissions human words to witness to His revelation activities. And He works through the church’s use of the Scriptures, clearly seen in the way that Bible attitudes and Bible practices characterize God’s people in the church.
For Barth, the Bible is not the revelation itself. That still goes, and will always go, back to the Incarnation of Jesus. But the Scriptures point directly to that Christ Event and witness to that Event as it impacted humanity. It’s a collection of human texts by human writers that functions as the bearer of the news of the revelation. And that revelation is at the very center of the Bible. The Old Testament writers look ahead to Christ while the New Testament authors look back. It’s just human words on paper and ink. But it becomes the Word of God in the event of the revelation. John H. Leith, a Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, wrote of Barth’s teachings in 1976,
The Bible as the forward and backward looking testimony to Jesus Christ sets the boundaries and is the unique authorization for all Christian theology; that is to say, all statements of Christian theology must be justified by reference to canonical Scripture.
Of course, Barth acknowledges that the Bible is human speech --- that it was written by specific men at a specific time in a specific place for a specific purpose. But it’s at this point in his theology that he, again, takes a drastic turn away from the dominant thought of his day. Barth claims that Bible readers must be shaped by the divine Word they encounter every time they open the Book. Instead of applying history and culture in one’s interpretation of the Scriptures, one should simply allow the Scriptures to say what they say. It’s a miracle, according to Barth, the way the Bible speaks to its readers. And by our normal course of exegesis, we attempt to limit and contain that divine act of God’s communication. One should not view the Scriptures with suspicion, but with consent. John Webster wrote in his book on Barth’s life and theology that Barth cannot be understood unless we “see how drastically he is revising the task of Christian theology, by trying to depict its job in relation to a Christian way of life.”
And, finally, Barth defines the third facet of the Word of God as the preaching of the church or church proclamation. And even that does not adequately describe what he meant by the term. Church proclamation, to Barth, is everything that comes out of the church --- not just sermons, but all proclamations. Sunday school lessons, spiritual songs, journal articles, church tracts and pamphlets, children’s stories, and personal testimonies all constitute this third trait of God’s communication to man.
Again, like the Incarnation and the Scriptures, this area constitutes a place of divine activity. If the church’s preaching, human proclamation, is true to its calling; if it allows the Word of God to be its commission, its theme, and its criterion for proclamation; then it becomes an event of divine speech. There is “divine willing and doing” in the “willing and doing of the proclaimer,” writes Webster, thus making the preaching event a miracle.
Barth had begun developing this theology as a professor at Gottingen. In 1927, in a lecture delivered to his friends in Bremen, he declared that Christian preaching is a proclamation of the mighty acts of God, not a proclamation of the acts and works of man. Therefore, Barth would not allow that justification or sanctification are works of man but are, combined, the achievement of God’s grace in man. Both are acts of God. In fact, everything we proclaim as faithful witnesses to the revelation are works of God. The proclamation is God communicating His revelation and His saving acts of grace through the church.
But how is it that the very words of God can be spoken by sinful man? Barth claims that it works much like the sacraments. At communion, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, even after the blessing. But the sacraments are used by God to communicate the idea of communion. By the same token, the human words of Christian witnesses are still merely human words, even after much prayer and meditation. But the words, fallible as they are, are used by God to communicate His love in the revelation to mankind.
To briefly sum up Barth’s three-fold doctrine of the Word of God: it is a communicative act which God Himself undertakes. It is not merely a compilation of truth or a set of statements, but a complex act in which God has spoken, God is speaking, and God will speak. God encounters man through the act of His revelation in Christ (Incarnation), through the confirmation of that act by the prophets and the apostles (Bible), and through the continuing testimony to that act by the Christian community (Proclamation).
The Word of God, which is present in every act of communication and revelation between God and man, can never be reduced to historical or physical conditions. It is the self-presentation of God and so must remain somewhat of a mystery.
It is in that way that Karl Barth completely turned, and continues to turn, modern theology upside down. His ideas have weathered storms of criticism, the most severe being stirred by his own contemporaries. Their beliefs were that God’s reality has everything to do with man’s history of understanding and man’s human experiences.
Barth counters by claiming that, if God is Lord, then man is creature and servant. And God as Lord does not permit even the thought that He must appear in our human reality.
An outspoken critic of Karl Barth, Gordon H. Clark, wrote in 1963 that Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God was immature, obscure, and poorly designed. He claimed that Barth stretched too far in coming up with his three facets of God’s Word in order to relate it more neatly to the Trinity of God. And Clark points out the inconsistent manner in which Barth identifies the revelation with the Father, the scripture with the Son, and the proclamation with the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t the Incarnation of the revelation be associated with the Son? Clark says Barth forced it.
When Barth speaks of God’s commissioning preachers to proclaim the Word, Clark asks, does that command give the preacher his message? To Barth’s contention that every church proclamation is the Word of God Clark replies, how? If a preacher proclaims that Jesus was executed by a firing squad or that King David walked on water, how can that be God’s Word? The message must maintain some sense of historical and moral truth to be the Word of God. Clark also charges the theologian with being influenced by his strong bias against the Roman Catholic Church. Barth believes that the written word of the prophets and the apostles are far superior to any words that have been written since. We don’t control the Bible, it controls us. That speaks directly against the church as the ultimate authority. And Clark cites the bias.
Barth’s critics argued that his theological reading of the New Testament too easily dismissed the consensus regarding historical reconstructions. Theologians were all but unanimous in explaining the original meanings of Biblical texts in light of history and culture. They claimed that Barth was merely a naïve Biblicist who interpreted the New Testament as a Spirit-inspired work. According to most, Barth was abandoning the critical task in order to exegete “timeless ideas that could conveniently support his own theological and dogmatic presuppositions.”
And Barth fought those criticisms fiercely. It is not that he regarded the Bible as having no history and no authors. It is that he viewed the Scriptures from a different starting point, a different mindset. It is comparing apples to oranges, historical critical analysis to analysis by the Holy Spirit. Barth maintained that one had to fully submit to the texts as a Christian in order to fully comprehend the texts as a student. And in so doing, the Holy Spirit works to interpret for the Christian theologian. Mark I. Wallace explains this in a 1988 article for the Journal of Religion:
For Barth, the storied world of the Bible is not simply one world amidst a plurality of other literary worlds; as the Word of God is written, it is the divinely chosen textual environment within which God in Christ through the Spirit is actively present to the reader today.
Barth aimed to unlock the mysteries of the Bible by studying it with a way of thinking and speaking that corresponded to the thinking and speaking displayed in the Scriptures. If he thinks and speaks --- and lives, even --- as the prophets and apostles, in full submission to the Word, only then will its true meaning be made known.
Karl Barth was a preacher. In fact, it was his dissatisfaction with the popular scholarly thought, and its uselessness in pastoring a congregation, that led to his radical theological breakthrough. After intense study in the early part of his ministry, Barth joyfully concluded that God still speaks through the Bible. In analyzing the impact this would have on Barth and every other theologian since then and up to the present, Colin Brown writes, “This is something quite different from saying that the writers of Scripture had some very remarkable insights into life. The key is in the fact that God continues to reveal himself through these writings.” And preachers of the Word of God then and now owe Barth a debt of gratitude.
Barth’s theology actually worked to elevate the role of preaching in our churches and in our societies. Christian proclamation becomes much more important when the Scriptures are seen as the truly inspired communication between God and man. The preaching event itself becomes an act of God in Barthian theology; not God and man working together, side by side, to proclaim the good news, but God creating the preacher and controlling the preacher and the Word he preaches.
To Barth, theology is not an intellectual exercise, not a hobby. The study of the Scriptures is life and death. It’s urgent. It’s right now. It touches every aspect of our everyday lives. It is the Word of God to man. And to proclaim that truth is to answer the absolute highest calling.
Barth was the driving force in bringing Jesus Christ back to the very center of our Scriptures and our preaching and our theology and our Christian life. For Barth, Jesus is the central theme of the Bible and should be the focus of our study and our disciplines.
As both God and man, as both human and divine, Christ represents the covenant between God and man, which, in any language, is the Good News.
Before Barth came along, Protestant thought had all but forgotten the living voice of God in Christian proclamation, assuming maybe even a “dead” voice of God in the Scriptures. But he worked to elevate the role of the Bible in Christian life and thought. Because the Word of God is so direct and so personal it tends to create its own hearers. It’s impossible to speak of God or the Word of God without, at the same time, speaking of humanity. God acts through His word. God speaks through His word. According to Barth, God is His word.
And, finally, Barth’s assertion of the infallibility of the Word of God still rings true today. Using Matthew 5:18 as inspiration (“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”) Barth states in his Church Dogmatics,
not even the slightest jot or tittle of Scripture can be destroyed…based on the truth that it has all been spoken by the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. Every slightest line and stroke of Scripture is due to the minute care of the Spirit and even the slenderest nuance of the writers is not in vain or displayed to us in vain.
The Bible can be and is regarded by many as just another book. In a highly pluralistic, secular society, and after the last century of critical-historical study of the Scripture, the role of the Bible can no longer be taken for granted in theology. Barth was accused of being naïve and even simple in his approach to theology. But one of the shortest lines he ever penned seems to stand as the most insightful and the most far-reaching, even into the 21st century: “All that is required is a firm resolve that the Bible should be allowed to speak for itself”