Karl Barth Reading Group - Week 3

(Below you will find the third installment of my notes prepared for the Karl Barth reading group that I am co-leading here at PTS.)

§ 4. The Word of God in its Threefold Form[1]

The presupposition which makes proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once and for all spoken by God’s revelation.

1) The Word of God Preached

Barth opens this paragraph by continuing to describe the event of proclamation, and thereby the Church’s being, according to a sacramental analogy. But, he quickly moves on to talk about what the necessary presupposition of all this is, namely, the Word of God. This is elucidated through four sub-points cast in terms of concentric circles, moving from the outside in. (88-89)

(1) “The Word of God is the commission upon whose givenness proclamation must rest if it is to be real proclamation.” Barth spent a good deal of time on the notion of ‘commission’ in the previous paragraph. The point here is that true proclamation is not simply the result of human activity or possibility. Although it includes human activity and possibility, its reality as true proclamation does not have its basis in these things. Rather, these things are the ‘medium’ above which we cannot and should not want to rise precisely because this ‘medium’ is the place of God’s commission. Thus, God’s word here has to do with God’s “positive command,” the commission of proclamation, and thereby “man’s talk about God on the basis of God’s own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation…but which simply takes place.” (89-91)

(2) “The Word of God is the theme which must be given to proclamation as such if it is to be real proclamation.” Barth is here further emphasizing that true proclamation, though fully human, does not rest upon that which is merely human. Proclamation is not concerned with an object of either interior (psychological) or exterior (empirical) perception, but this does not mean that the object of proclamation is not perceived. It is perceived, but only on the basis of its own activity in making itself perceptible. It remains free. It “presents and places itself as an object over against us” and “can never in any sense be our possession.” God’s word here means “human talk about God on the basis of the self-objectification of God which is not just there…which is real only in the freedom of His grace.” (92-92)

(3) “The Word of God is the judgment in virtue of which alone proclamation can be real proclamation.” By ‘judgment’ Barth seems to mean something like ‘criterion.’ Which true proclamation can be assessed on the basis of standards common to other forms of human speech, because true proclamation includes human speech, it is also beyond these standards. This criterion is the Word of God, such that the Word of God preached here means “human talk about God which by God’s own judgment, that cannot be anticipated and never passes under our control, is true with reference both to the proclaimed object and also to the proclaiming subject, so that it is talk which has to be listened to and which rightly demands obedience.” (92-93)

(4) “Finally – and only here do we make the decisive point – the Word of God is the event itself in which proclamation becomes real proclamation.” It is here that Barth drives home the point that, even though true proclamation is fully human, that is not really the decisive thing about it. It is also God’s activity – God’s Word. Barth tells us that we must speak of the humanity as proclamation with the formula “Not only – but also and primarily and decisively.” Furthermore, Barth explicitly makes the move that he has been toying with implicitly, namely, the sacramental analogy slides over to a two-nature Christology analogy. But, then he spins the relation of divine and human activity in an interesting direction, and one that has been commented upon in Barth studies a number of times. Barth understands this relation as non-competitive. The ‘human element’ is obedient and thus cooperative with God in its natural state. It is sin and disobedience that has introduced the competitive factor. Because of this, the human can serve God in obedience without losing true freedom. Indeed, this obedience is true freedom. In the event of true proclamation, then, the human aspect is not set aside but exalted. The Word of God preached here means “man’s talk about God in which and through which God speaks about Himself.”[2] (93-99)

2) The Word of God Written

The church must venture proclamation on the basis of past recollection of and future hope for revelation. God could have worked to deposit within the church all that is necessary for this recollection, thus turning recollection into self-reflection, but God did not do so. That which the church recollects is Jesus Christ, “who has the Church within Himself but whom the Church does not have within itself.”[3] The church is not left alone in relation to God’s Word because God has provided Scripture, whose existence rules out the possibility of recollection as self-reflection. Scripture as Canon is related to the judgment of God’s Word over proclamation for judgment must come from without. (99-101)

There is similarity and dissimilarity between Scripture and church proclamation. In terms of similarity, Scripture is “written proclamation.” However, even though Scripture and contemporary proclamation are thus two species of one genus, there is an order between the two. Scripture is the norm of contemporary proclamation, and this is precisely the point of succession for Barth (and the broader Reformed tradition). This is taken up in conversation with the Roman church in another fine print section, where Barth again affirms that though there is agreement that succession occurs, the difference has to do with how it occurs. Indeed, Barth is even willing to grant that there may be something to an episcopal system as well as the primacy of Peter. But, he does not think that succession is a mechanical thing passed down from one office-holder to another because this makes apostolicity a possession rather than grace. When succession becomes a possession rather than a gift, the system crowds out the lordship of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Instead, “apostolic succession of the Church must mean that it is guided by the Canon, that is, by the prophetic and apostolic word as the necessary rule of every word that is valid in the Church.”[4] (101-104)

It is precisely Scripture’s written form that guarantees its freedom because it can continually reassert itself over-against human interpretation and thereby address the church. This is not possible in unwritten tradition. But, Barth does not want to replace the magisterium with the tribunal of historical-critical exegesis. “The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible.” The distinction between text and commentary must be preserved. Furthermore, Scripture constitutes itself as canon according to Barth.[5] Scripture is the object of the recollection that fuels the church’s proclamation, and it contains the promise that this proclamation looks forward to in hope. This is because of Scripture’s content – “The prophetic and apostolic word is the word, witness, proclamation and preaching of Jesus Christ.” It is this content that demands proclamation. Specifically, this content is “Immanuel, God with us.” (104-109)

Finally, Scripture is the Word of God in the same way that the church’s proclamation is the Word of God – in the event of real proclamation, that is, God’s exaltation of human proclamation. That the Bible functions as Canon and real proclamation is an event, and “In this event the Bible is God’s Word.” It is just as dependent upon God’s free grace as the event in which church proclamation becomes God’s Word. This happens not when we master the Bible, but when the Bible masters us or, in Barth’s terms, “as the Bible grasps at us.” To say that Scripture is God’s Word is therefore a confession of faith, and not something that can be abstracted from God’s free and gracious activity. Furthermore, it is not as though it is God’s Word because we confess it to be so, but we confess it to be so because it becomes such to us on the basis of God’s activity. (109-111)

3) The Word of God Revealed

Scripture is the vital link between church proclamation and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The witness to Jesus Christ given in Scripture sets church proclamation and revelation in relation. Witness and service to revelation are notions that dominate Barth’s treatment.[6] Because of this, the Bible cannot be equated with revelation – it is the (we might say ‘authoritative’) witness to revelation. It is only in the event wherein Scripture becomes the Word of God on the basis of God’s free and gracious activity that we can say that revelation and Scripture are identical. But, the exception proves the rule that they are not always identical and that “their union is really an event.” “One the one hand Deus dixit, on the other Paulus dixit. These are two different things. And precisely because they are not two things but become one and the same thing in the event of the Word of God, we must maintain that it is by no means self-evident or intrinsically one that revelation should be understood primarily as the superior principle and the Bible primarily as the subordinate principle.” (111-115)

“Revelation engenders the Scripture which attests it” – this is the basic relationship. It is precisely because revelation ‘engenders’ or commissions or demands Scripture that we can recognize the unique authority of Scripture over the church. Scripture attests the Deus dixit that happened once and for all in Christ. The OT relates to this as prophecy and the NT as fulfillment. The authority that these authors enjoy over the church is not based upon anything intrinsic to them but because this event of revelation (Jesus Christ, the incarnation) “came upon them, and through them…constantly seeks to come afresh upon the Church.” Jesus Christ is the center of the scripture: the point around which everything else hinges. This is what establishes unity amongst Scripture’s great multiplicity. (115-117)

What of the relation between revelation, Scripture and church proclamation? “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…proclamation is real proclamation, i.e., the promise of future revelation, only as the repetition of the biblical witness to past revelation, and the Bible is real witness, i.e., the factual recollection of past revelation, only in its relation to this past revelation attested in it.” God’s freedom supplies the boundaries for the ways in which Scripture and proclamation are the Word of God. We shouldn’t think of this as an abstract freedom, however. God’s freedom is, properly and concretely speaking, Jesus Christ. Thus, it is Jesus Christ or ‘revelation’ that is the boundary of the extent to which Scripture and church proclamation are the Word of God. “Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished in Him.” The Bible and church proclamation cannot bring this revelation about on the basis of their own capacity. “They can only attest and proclaim it…It is Jesus Christ Himself who here speaks for Himself and need no witness apart from His Holy Spirit and the faith that rejoices in His promise received and grasped.”[7] (117-120)

4) The Unity of the Word of God

Barth wants to be perfectly clear that in speaking about the Word of God as proclamation, Scripture and Incarnation, he is not proposing three different words of God but describing the one Word of God in its threefold form. Barth speaks of this threefold relation as analogous to the Trinitarian relations. Also, Barth notes that we only know the “direct” Word of God in the “twofold mediacy” of Scripture and church proclamation. We do not have unmediated access to Jesus Christ.[8] This talk of mediacy further underscores the sacramental analogy that Barth has been working with. (120-121)

This discussion of the unity of these threefold forms leads Barth to reflect on the related Reformation tradition. He begins with Luther and is generally pleased with what he finds in Luther. Protestant orthodoxy, however, makes the mistake in Barth’s judgment of overemphasizing the unity of these forms, leading to an overly static account that looses the dynamism found in the insight of the Reformers on this question. Francis Turretin gets special attention here as a case of such a failing. Barth’s analysis is that a focus on the media salutis lead to an emphasis on Scripture’s value for the human person rather than to its service of God and witness to revelation. “Boasting of the objectivity with which the Word of God was invested, especially in its biblical form, was only the expression of a bad conscience” in this regard. The collapse of orthodoxy in the face of the Enlightenment cannot be blamed on the Enlightenment in Barth view. The blame rests with the church that had forgotten itself on this very point – its service to God in bearing witness to revelation. (121-124)

[1] It is interesting to note that the them of this paragraph of Church Dogmatics, the threefold word of God, constitutes one of the formal, organizing principles of Barth’s work in Göttingen Dogmatics. Of the four chapters in DG (not counting the introduction), the first three deal with the first three of the sub-section in this CD paragraph. In GD, however, the order is the exact opposite of that in CD: revelation comes first, followed by Scripture (which in each case is the pivotal point), followed by preaching.

[2] Barth launches here into a rather long fine print section, at least by the standards of CD I/1 thus far. It begins as a survey of patristic theologians on the notion of the Word of God preached but makes a turn to discussing Roman catholicism about half way through. Barth affirms that some notion of succession and the vicarius Christi is necessary if we are to talk about the Christus praesens. The difference between ‘Evangelicals’ and Rome on this question has to do with how this succession works. Barth’s complaint against the Roman church is that it robs Christ of his lordship by subsuming this lordship under the human form of succession. “Personal presence implies the possibility of absence as well,” and there is no such possibility within the Roman system.

[3] CD IV/4, 655: “We cannot avoid the statement that Jesus Christ is the community. Nor do we refer only to Jesus Christ in His form as its heavenly Head, in His hiddenness with God. In Jesus Christ as the Head it can only believe. Here and now it can only look up to Him from the depths as its Lord. It can only love Him as the One whom it has not seen. It can only wait for His revelationIt can only move towards Him. Thus the statement cannot be reversed. It is a christological statement, and only as such an ecclesiological. The community is not Jesus Christ. It is not the eternal Son of God, the incarnate Word, the Reconciler of the world with God.”

[4] Although Barth does not make this explicit, the function of this sort of move is to reclaim that proper distinction between the apostolate and the episcopate and to give the proper superiority to the apostles!

[5] …and Calvin – this is a variation on his theme of Scripture’s self-authentification.

[6] Grünewald’s altarpiece is mentioned in some fine print.

[7] Cf. CD IV/3, Chapter 16, “Jesus Christ, The True Witness.”

[8] There are certain formal similarities here to Schleiermacher’s discussion of the feeling of absolute dependence in The Christian Faith. There we find that the feeling of absolute dependence is only accessed through the lived experience of our relative freedom and relative dependence. Just as the feeling of absolute dependence in Schleiermacher’s through is never experienced in abstraction from this antithesis, Barth tells us that revelation “never meets us anywhere in abstract form.”


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