At the outset, let me say that I do not claim that this whole post will be faithful to Barth. It is often difficult to speak in the precise way he wants because he’s a pretty original thinker. With that caveat in mind, I found his discussion of the function of the Bible in the church really stimulating.
We have all heard it before, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” I find myself in a weird position: I see people (rightly) criticize a simplistic understanding of this saying but they do so for the wrong reasons. Once Barth was asked how he would summarize his work, he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I find that interesting because while this response could be read in a simplistic way in line with the quote at the beginning of this paragraph, we still have a lot to learn from Barth about the function of the Bible in the church.
“The Bible found a voice and finds a voice in the Church. Hence the possibility is not ruled out that it may also find a voice over against the church…It might happen that in the Bible whose voice still sounds in the Church man hears the Word of God, that he really hears the Word which cannot be held captive or bracketed by the Church, which cannot be integrated into the Church’s own reality, which cannot by any interpretation be translated into a word of man, the Word which encounters the Church, with which the Church cannot sing a duet, but which it has simply to listen to as a full and unique solo.” (260-261; I.1)
Contextualizing Barth’s response in evangelicalism (in the sense often meant in America today, not the one Barth uses), it can be seen in response to a simply but deadly syllogism:
- What the Bible says is infallibly true.
- My interpretation of a Biblical text is what the Bible says.
- Therefore, my interpretation is infallibly true.
Because we have this tendency to conflate what God says in Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture since, obviously, our interpretation is for good reasons and so is the proper interpretation. The upshot of this is that if you disagree with me, then you are disagreeing with Scripture and thus God. Since the Bible says it, that settles it for me because I am faithful to God, while you on the other hand… Sometimes this thinking is explicit and sometimes (and more perniciously) this thinking isn’t as obvious.
A lot of this is often tied into the particular traditions we function in. Thus, proclamation is measured by whether it is truly Reformed, truly Arminian, in line with a congregational ecclesiology, etc. While this certainly has its place (as Barth notes), one starts to wonder if we ever really open ourselves up and ask whether the tradition we are working in is actually faithful to the text. Our natural response is to think that we have already examined Scripture and that’s why we part of the tradition we are a part of, but if we come to Scripture thinking we have the answers to certain questions, it’s doubtful that we are going to hear anything that says otherwise. Nonetheless, to follow Barth, the free God can still give grace even in our attempt to tame the text.
So, “dogmatics as the question of the Word of God in Church proclamation must be the critical question as to the agreement of Church proclamation, not with a norm of human truth or human value (the first possibility in our dilemma), nor with a standard of divine truth already known and proclaimed by the Church (the second possibility), but with the revelation attested in Holy Scripture.” (265; I.1) Even more specifically, “If questioned ceased, if dogma itself came on the scene instead of dogmas and dogmatic propositions, if the agreement of specific Church proclamation with the Word of God and therefore the Word of God itself in this specific Church proclamation could be demonstrated, then dogmatics would be at an end along with the ecclesia militans, and the kingdom of God would have dawned.” (269; I.1)
All of this can sound very abstract, so I find Barth’s comment at the end of this section particularly pertinent. “[Dogmatics] is a matter of the will of God whose acknowledgement or non-acknowledgement in the Church’s proclamation is somethign that should truly unsettle the whole Church, the Church as such and in all its members. The Church stands or falls with the object of dogmatic enquiry. Hence it has to undertake this enquiry…We pursue dogmatics because, constrained by the fact of the Bible, we cannot shake off the question of the obedience of Church proclamation.” (274; I.1)
“But a theology claiming to know and have dogma would be a theologia gloriae, which the dogmatics of the Church ought not to seek to be.” (268; I.1)