Monday, April 4, 2016

The Self Authenticating Word

(Another discussion post from a course on 19th and 20th century theology)

Based on the radical gap (the dialectical reality) between the absolute transcendence of God as “wholly other” (the God revealed in the OT and NT and most completely in Christ) and humankind’s capacity to grasp this presence on its own terms—say through natural theology—Barth posited the self-authenticating Word of God.  In the most radical sense, the Word of God (by which Barth meant the revelation of God in its fullest sense) is an event that breaks into history and human experience time and time again in a manner of God’s own choosing.  These epiphanies (self-disclosures or indwellings) are both veiled and unveiled that are discerned through various witnesses or testimonies.

The Word is most fully revealed in and through Jesus Christ as both the immanent presence of God in human experience and the transcendent second presence of the Trinity.  Scripture is the primary witness to the indwelling of God in and through Christ; in its canonical totality it is absolutely reliable in its function as witness.  In this, Barth held to a very high view of Scripture, in which, even as Packer notes, his practice was better than his theory (theology) of Scriptural revelation.

In The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, Gary Dorrien maintains that Barth’s theology throughout his career was driven by his “commitment to the primacy of the Spirit-illuminated Word.”  Through the dialectic of Word and Spirit, Barth sought “to recover and to express the spiritual depth of the inscripurated Word” (p. 5).  Reflecting the influence of Kierkegaard as well as that of Wilhelm Hermann, Barth maintained the Word of God in its testimonial biblical form as both veiling and unveiling was grounded in mystery and paradox, in which the Bible, as absolutely reliable in its self-authenticating form as witness, could not be inerrant as expressed in certain rationalistic streams of evangelical theology and the advocates of the Old Princeton Theology.

On the charge of bibliolatry, I am reluctant to put pejorative labels on various theological trends given that all of our theological work is incomplete and in need of correction, in which the Spirit of God works in different ways among those of diverse perspectives.  I hold to the theological canon of a “generous orthodoxy” and am willing to draw on and draw out all that I can among those across a wide landscape within the broad, but faithful theological spectrum of those who espouse to the Great Tradition of Christian Orthodoxy.   From this vantage-point, I can appreciate the contributions of the classic Princetonians in their effort to be both diligent and faithful to what they take as the inscripturated Word of the inerrant Bible, while drawing as well on the dialectical theology of Barth and others on the revealing Word of God.  On this I follow one of my mentors who spoke of both the need to affirm as much as one can within a given theological perspective and to critique those aspects that one feels compelled to reject through loving admonitions (

My drawing on Barth for understanding the current theological moment stems from his 1917 epigraphic-like statement on the importance of affirming “the strange new world of the Bible” as the critical starting point of faith in his explosive reaction against the preceding century’s focus on experience and culture based on the liberal theological tradition grounded in Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and Trolesch.  I think this Barthian turn, including his emphasis on church dogmatics, continues to hold much currency in the current era, even as I would like to see more of an engagement with the culture that, at least in his more extreme statements, Barth seems to elide.  This, even though he had good reasons, based on his own historical context from the 1920s-40s, to keep the focus on the breaking in of the Spirit of God and let apologetics go by the wayside—work, it might be added, that has been picked up in different ways by the eschatological theologians, Pannenberg and Moltmann.

There is also much to draw from on Barth’s dynamic theology of Word and Spirit. I think that's so on its own face and also in light of J. I. Packer’s statement that “the literal meaning must be consistent and correlating with the Spirit of Truth, ” an incredibly fluid perspective, quite consonant with what Dorrien describes as Barth’s “Spirit-illuminated….inscripturated Word” (The Barthian Revolt, p. 5).  While different from Barth in so many ways and critical of him for not embracing a more foundational biblical hermeneutics, even Packer is ultimately ministerial in his interpretation of the role of the Bible to the more fundamental revelation of Christ himself—a revelation of which both Packer and Barth maintain can never contradict Scripture and can only be grasped (however partially so) most fully and reliably within and throughout its canonical expanse. The Barthian echo can be heard in the following passage by Packer:

“Evangelicalism…stakes its identity…on the authenticity and authority, which involves the intrinsic coherence and clarity, of canonical Scripture, received as the true and trustworthy witness of God to himself given in the form of man’s witness to him as the Redeemer Lord of history…in the world that he made and sustains.  Discernment of the dual character of Scripture as God’s word in the form of man’s word is basic to the Evangelical position; the characteristic claim that the Bible is infallible and inerrant mirrors this view, and so does Evangelicalism’s constant insistence that the only analogy to the sacred mystery of biblical inspiration is the even holier mystery of divine incarnation itself” (Packer, Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” in Packer’s Engaging the Written Word of God, p. 142).

While Packer accents the importance of rational thought and adheres to a sophisticated understanding of inerrancy, which Barth clearly rejected in his embrace of mystery and paradox underlying his dialectical approach, there are clearly common affinities at the most basic hermeneutical level.  I believe that Barth’s view of Scripture—his formal theology and practice—has much to offer to discerning evangelicals, which resonates with my own view of Scripture that I sift, ultimately through a sacramental lens.

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