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Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture


Over the past two decades studies on Karl Barth have become increasingly technical. The ironic result is that although Barth wrote chiefly for preachers, scholars have become the primary gatekeepers to his rich theological thought. This collection of essays introduces Karl Barth with both clarity and depth, providing pastors and other serious readers with a valuable overview of Barth's views on Scripture. George Hunsinger -- himself a recognized expert on Barth -- and eight other scholars cover such topics as ...
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Over the past two decades studies on Karl Barth have become increasingly technical. The ironic result is that although Barth wrote chiefly for preachers, scholars have become the primary gatekeepers to his rich theological thought. This collection of essays introduces Karl Barth with both clarity and depth, providing pastors and other serious readers with a valuable overview of Barth's views on Scripture. George Hunsinger -- himself a recognized expert on Barth -- and eight other scholars cover such topics as Barth's belief that Scripture is both reliable and inspired, his typological exegesis, his ideas about time and eternity, and more. Reading this book will whet the reader's appetite to engage further with Barth himself.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802866745
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 2/22/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,276,045
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

George Hunsinger is Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and recipient of the 2010 Karl Barth Award from the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany. Among his other recent books are The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast and Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out .
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Thy Word Is Truth

Barth on Scripture

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 George Hunsinger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6674-5

Chapter One

1. Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth

Robert McAfee Brown

Of all Protestant theologians on the contemporary scene, Karl Barth has taken Scripture with greatest seriousness, and he has thereby been forced to deal with the problem of Scripture and tradition with greatest fullness.

Barth is ecumenically important not only because Hans Küng has written a book about him, nor even because he may succeed in writing more words than St. Thomas Aquinas, but also because he has genuinely tried to reclaim a distinctively Christian faith for our day. When one reads his massive twelve volumes of Church Dogmatics, now well over six million words, one does not feel a sense of oppressiveness but of liberation. One is not trapped within "Barth's system," but released from any system — liberated to take seriously and yet joyfully the central affirmations of the gospel. If Barth emerges as the great heretic of our day, it will not be for emphasizing the dark side of the gospel (as was true of so many of his Calvinistic forebears), but precisely for being (if such a thing is really possible for a Christian) too hopeful.

I. The Central Christological Fact

Here is a man who really believes that something quite monumental happened back in the first century, and that it makes all the difference. The Christian message is that God is for us; that he has declared himself on our behalf; that he has taken what Barth calls "the journey of the Son of God into the far country" so that we might know, once and for all, what his disposition is on our behalf, namely that he loves us unconditionally; and that in Jesus Christ he has declared and enacted this love and grace. To be sure, there are powers and forces of evil at work in the world, but there is nothing more powerful than the grace of God. Indeed, in his latest and twelfth volume (which has the barbarous subtitle "Volume Four, Part Three, Second Half") he says that it is not enough to talk of "the triumph of grace," for that sounds too impersonal. The way we must characterize the message of the gospel is with the words "Jesus is Victor" (a phrase adopted from the Blumhardts) — victor over sin, over death, over all that could possibly threaten us.

Secure at that point, Barth does not find himself confined and tied down, but liberated and freed to look at absolutely everything else in the light of that one blazing fact. Creation can be accepted and enjoyed as the arena, the theater, in which this divine drama of victory has been enacted. Men can be seen not as dust destined for extinction but as those for whom Christ made the long journey, so that he could lift them up with him into the presence of the Father. Sin we have always with us, but in the light of the conviction that "Jesus is Victor" it cannot be taken with final seriousness, only with provisional seriousness. The life of the Christian is the life of gratitude, the life of joyful obedience, of glad thanksgiving, in which, as Barth says, charis can only lead to eucharistia, grace can only lead to gratitude. So it goes for volume after volume; secure at this central point — Christ as Alpha and Omega, as beginning and end — Barth can see everything afresh in the light of this fact.

Including Scripture and tradition.... The old Protestant orthodoxies until recently were imprisoned within Scripture. Roman Catholicism, it could be argued, until recently was imprisoned within tradition. Barth is imprisoned within neither; rather, he is freed by both, freed for the gospel, which comes to us through the agency of Scripture and through the channel of the church that brings Scripture to us. We are beholden to tradition as it explicates the meaning of Scripture for us, and we are beholden to Scripture as it sets forth the nature of what God has done.

This means that Barth can take tradition more seriously than any contemporary Protestant thinker has done, and yet not be constricted by it. One never finds him repeating the old orthodoxy simply because the tradition sanctions it. While he aligns himself at many points with the old orthodoxy, notably in his claims about the nature of the virgin birth and the resurrection, he also displays a remarkable freedom from it whenever that freedom is necessitated by his allegiance to the Word of God mediated through Scripture.

II. The Authority of Scripture

In order to clarify Barth's position on tradition, it is necessary to say something about his doctrine of Scripture.

Barth has been called every name in the book on this matter. Critics on the left accuse him of "biblicism" (whatever that means), and assert that he is so tied down to the Bible that he really lives in a private world of conventional orthodoxy where the air is stale and where there is no contact with living, breathing, twentieth-century man. But Barth is also under attack from the right, from those thinkers who find him even more dangerous than Nels Ferré finds Paul Tillich — and Ferré finds Tillich more dangerous than Father Tavard does. These critics find Barth dangerous because he "sounds" orthodox, but really isn't. He seems to be saying many orthodox things, they argue, but because he denies verbal inspiration and infallibility to the biblical text, he has really sold orthodoxy down the river.

We need to locate Barth somewhere in the midst of this crossfire. From the conservative critics let us learn that Barth is no fundamentalist, that he gives ample recognition to error within the biblical text, and that he is no enemy whatever of higher criticism, from which, indeed, he profits all through the exegetical portions of the Dogmatics. For Barth, in fact, it is extremely important that the Bible comes to us in intensely human form. God uses the biblical writers precisely as human beings. As he puts it:

Every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e. the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words.... To the bold postulate that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

In other words, God works through the human text, for "the fallible and faulty human word is as such used by God and has to be received and heard in spite of its human fallibility."

How are we to know that these fallible pages are the Word of God? Here Barth finds himself in the same kind of circle in which all Protestants find themselves, though Protestants would assert that the circle need not be a vicious one. Unless we are prepared to vindicate the authority of the Bible by some authority external to it (such as an infallible church), thereby making it the ultimate authority, Protestants are placed in the position in which Barth finds himself placed, namely that the Bible's message to us is finally self-authenticating, and cannot be authenticated by any other norm. In typical fashion, Barth comments:

The Bible must be known as the Word of God if it is to be known as the Word of God. The doctrine of Holy Scripture in the Evangelical Church is that this logical circle is the circle of self-asserting, self-attesting truth into which it is equally impossible to enter as it is to emerge from it: the circle of our freedom which as such is also the circle of our captivity.

And again:

For the statement that the human word of the Bible is the Word of God we can obviously give only a single and incomparable basis. This is that it is true. This basis either exists of itself or not at all. It is either already known and acknowledged or it is not accepted.

I confess that I am always initially a little irritated by this kind of remark until I realize that there is no alternative to this kind of remark, which does not bind us to a securitas achieved on human terms, in which we finally make something binding on God. That is to say, the alternative to the position Barth sketches is to find a way of proving the case by some humanly constructed device. We will believe the Bible to be the Word of God, for example, because we can demonstrate that it has no errors and therefore must be accepted. Or we will believe the Bible to be the Word of God because people with very persuasive credentials tell us it is. In either case, this becomes for the Protestant a kind of idolatry. Perhaps, after all, Barth is finally right when he says, "The Church does not have to accredit [Scripture], but again and again it has to be accredited by it."

A basic decision is made at this point. Either the Bible occupies a unique status, or implicitly some coordinate authority is introduced alongside of it, which finally rises up, Barth would believe, to smother it and replace it. The decision of the church to set itself under Scripture remains the valid Reformation decision.

As Barth develops this doctrine of the authority of Scripture in his later writings, it becomes clearer and clearer that Scripture does not exist simply to witness to itself. In later volumes of the Dogmatics the term "Word of God" (so popular in volumes I/1 and I/2) tends to be replaced by explicitly Christological terms, so that any possible ambiguity is removed. The Word of God is not basically the words of a book; the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Scripture is so central for the church because Scripture is what Barth calls "the primary sign of revelation." But we are not to go back to a book, we are to go back through the book, to the One to whom the book basically witnesses, namely the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is to bring us to him that the book is so necessary, for we cannot get to him apart from the book.

The fact that the primary sign of revelation, the existence of the prophets and apostles, is for the Church book and letter, does not rob it of its force as witness. If the book rises and the letter speaks, if the book is read and the letter understood, then with them the prophets and apostles and He of whom they testify rise up and meet the Church in a living way. It is not the book and letter, but the voice of the men apprehended through the book and letter, and in the voice of these men the voice of Him who called them to speak, which is authority in the Church.

So even Scripture itself is only a sign — but it is the indispensable sign, the primary sign, the sign without which the church cannot be the church. If the church, Barth says, "would see Jesus Christ, it is directed and bound to Holy Scripture."

Thus if the critics on the left want to insist that Barth takes his stand squarely on Scripture, they certainly have a point. That he will admit nothing into the understanding of the Christian faith that is not grounded in Scripture or cannot be consistently derived from the revelation of God found in Scripture — all this must be admitted. But that this makes him a "biblicist" in the pejorative sense in which that term is usually used, does not follow. Few men have taken with such radical seriousness the fact that if we are to know God we must look at the place where he gave himself to be known, namely in the Incarnation, access to which is cut off for us if we deny Scripture a normative place. And if Barth is right, as at this central point he seems to be, then any attempt on our part to take seriously the promises and the demands of biblical faith must align itself not too far from him in his concern to call the church once again to be the listening church, the church that hears what God has said and done, before it attempts to be the speaking and teaching church.

III. The Place of Tradition in the Light of Scripture

This raises, immediately, the science of tradition. The church listens, and then the church speaks. Its speaking is its "traditioning," its handing on, of what it hears. But a long time has passed since God acted in Jesus Christ on what Barth calls "the narrow strip of human history." By what critical standard is the traditioning process across those intervening centuries to be measured?

Barth had come to a fairly clear answer to this question as early as 1935, and dealt with the question of the relation of dogmatics to tradition in answer to questions posed for him by the Dutch clergy after he had given a series of lectures to them on the Apostles' Creed.

Understanding "tradition" as "the sum total of the voices of the Fathers," Barth immediately repudiates the notion that this could be a second source of revelation, this being for him the historic Roman Catholic heresy that must be avoided. (Discussions at the first session of Vatican Council II on De Fontibus Revelationis would suggest that the Council fathers likewise wish to avoid such a conclusion.) Rather, in order to avoid what becomes the self-apotheosis of the church, "the Reformation Scripture-principle placed the Church permanently under the authority of the prophetic-apostolic Bible-Word." "Tradition," Barth goes on to assert in italics, "is not revelation." He also points out that this does not mean jumping over the intervening nineteen centuries "to the Bible alone," as the orthodox thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tried to do.

These determined "biblicists" had their contemporary philosophy in their heads, took it with them to the Bible and so most certainly read themselves into the Bible no less than Church Fathers and Scholastics. They were no doubt free of Church dogma but not of their own dogmas and conceptions. Far better, Barth seems to be arguing, that we approach the Bible in the light of what the church has thought about it than that we approach the Bible simply in the light of what contemporary philosophy says about something else. (One can see, back in 1935, the terms in which, two decades later, Barth will be taking issue with Bultmann.) The Bible must be read by the church. We cannot ignore what the church has said, even though we must not apotheosize it. In a vivid image, Barth continues:

To my mind the whole question of tradition falls under the Fifth commandment: Honour father and mother! Certainly that is a limited authority; we have to obey God more than father and mother. But we have also to obey father and mother.... There is no question of bondage and constraint. It is merely that in the church the same kind of obedience as, I hope, you pay to your father and mother, is demanded of you towards the Church's past, towards the "elders" of the Church.

In the selective process of dealing with the affirmations of the "elders of the Church," the norm, the standard, is clear:

The norm that determines our choice is Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is the object of our study, and at the same time the criterion of our study, of the Church's past. As I read the writings of the "Fathers," the witness of Holy Scripture stands continually before my eyes; I accept what interprets this witness to me; I reject what contradicts it. So a choice is actually made, certainly not a choice according to my individual taste, but according to my knowledge of Holy Scripture. This is not a matter that Barth has developed only as a principle. He has followed through on this criterion of selection in all of his subsequent writings, and it will be instructive to examine two examples of his attempt to do this: his treatment of the doctrine of election, and his attitude toward "church confessions."


Excerpted from Thy Word Is Truth Copyright © 2012 by George Hunsinger. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations x

Introduction xi

I Orientation

1 Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth Robert McAfee Brown 3

2 The Doctrine of Inspiration and the Reliability of Scripture Katherine Sonderegger 20

Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation: Rudolf Smend on Karl Barth George Hunsinger 29

4 Scripture as Realistic Narrative: Karl Barth as Critic of Historical Criticism Hans W. Frei 49

II Exemplification

5 "A Type of the One to Come": Leviticus 14 and 16 in Barth's Church Dogmatics Kathryn Greene-McCreight 67

6 "Living Righteousness": Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount A. Katherine Grieb 86

7 The Same Only Different: Karl Barth's Interpretation of Hebrews 13:8 George Hunsinger 112

8 Barth's Lectures on the Gospel of John John Webster 125

III Application

9 "Thy Word Is Truth": The Role of Faith in Reading Scripture Theologically with Karl Barth PaulD.Molnar 151

10 The Heart of the Matter: Karl Barth's Christological Exegesis Paul Dafydd Jones 173

Appendices: Examples of Barth on Scripture

A On 1 Samuel 25: David and Abigail 199

B On the Gospel of John: The Prophetic Work of Christ 213

C On the Barmen Declaration: How Scripture Continually Saves the Church 223

List of Contributors 233

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