Karl Barth and Scripture’s Witness to God’s Gracious Election

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What did Karl Barth have to say about his use of Scripture in forming his doctrine of election?

As strictly as possible we have let our questions be dictated by the answers which are already present in the revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture.” (CD II.2 pg.3)

I do not have the volumes of the CD in which Barth engages with Scripture, his prolegomena to dogmatics. Thus I will be relying heavily on Otto Weber’s “Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introductory Report” to help me traverse the rugged terrain which is Karl Barth’s theology of Scripture.

Beginning his discussion of “The Problem of a Correct Doctrine of the Election of Grace” Barth refers back to himself in the previous volume (the doctrine of God) stating: “We took as our starting-point what God Himself said and still says concerning God, and concerning the knowledge and reality of God, by way of the self-testimony which is accessible and comprehensible because it has been given human form in Holy Scripture, the document which is the very essence and basis of the Church.” (CD II.2 pg.3) Very well! It seems as though Barth has a high view of Scripture (some would argue even higher than Fundamentalists). What a great statement Barth has made that Scripture “is the very essence and basis of the Church“. Amen! Otto Weber even states that for Barth, “The doctrine of Scripture is, therefore, at once a doctrine of the Church.” (Weber, pg.57) I greatly appreciate this. To me it seems that so many have forgotten (or neglected) that fact that Scripture is a gift given to the Church by God whereby we might know Him!

In light of the fact that Scripture has been given to the Church Barth goes on to say, “we have listened gratefully to the voices of the Church as well, both old and new. But we have continually measured those voices by the only voice which can reign in the Church. Whether we could follow them or not, we allowed ourselves to use them only in order that we might learn the better to hear and understand that voice which reigns in the Church as the source and norm of all truth… It was in that way that we rendered our account of what is pure and correct doctrine in this matter.” (CD. II.2 pg.4) Since Scripture is the human form of God’s revelation of Jesus Christ given to the Church we truly ought to hear what the Church has had to say about it throughout the ages. But what is this “voice” for Barth? Is it merely a static voice encased in the Bible as a if it were a “paper pope, which, in contrast to the one at Rome, who after all is a living pope, was now delivered into the hands of its expositors …(583 [Otto’s citation of CD’s page number, Volume I.2])!” (Weber, pg.61)?

For Barth, which I greatly appreciate, Scripture is not a static voice, it is not as the Reformers said their opponents treated it as, as “a wax nose”, which could be molded to fit into whatever body of divinity they chose. No (or should I say “NEIN”)! It is more than this. Even the Bible itself says that the word of God “is living and active” (Heb. 4:12 ESV). But what is this word and what is this voice? Barth answers: “But the voice which reigns, the voice by which we were taught by God Himself concerning God, was the voice of Jesus Christ.” (CD II.2 pg.4)  Here we see Barth’s Christocentric method of doing theology applied even to the doctrine of Scripture. “Theology must begin with Jesus Christ, and not with general principles, however better, or, at any rate, more relevant and illuminating, they may appear to be : as though He were a continuation of the knowledge of the Word of God, and not its root and origin, not indeed the very Word of God itself. Theology must also end with Him, and not with supposedly self-evident general conclusions from what is particularly enclosed and disclosed in Him.” (CD II.2 pg.4) The voice Barth attempts to hear is the word of God, or should I write, Word of God, Jesus Christ. In beginning his doctrine of election he reminds his readers that his previous dogmatic undertakings and in those which are to come, will be governed by the voice of Jesus Christ made human in Holy Scripture. He writes: “The obscurities and ambiguities of our way were illuminated in the measure that we held fast to that name and in the measure that we let Him be the first and the last, according to the testimony of Holy Scripture.” (CD II.2 pg.4) And, “So long as we remained true to the witness of Holy Scripture there was no alternative but to follow this line and to hold fast by it. For witnessing to God, the Old and New Testament Scriptures also witness to this name, and to the fulness of God which it encloses and represents, which cannot be separated from it, which cannot precede or follow it, but in it begins and continues and ends.” (CD II.2 pg.5)

Jesus Christ is the voice we must hear speaking to us in Scripture. How could I not AMEN! such a statement? But what am I really amen-ing? In all this talk of Jesus Christ as the Word of God what is really Barth’s view of Holy Scripture?

In beginning his doctrine of God’s revelation Otto Weber tells us that “he did not proceed from the question about the possibility of revelation but from its reality.” (Weber, pg.57) I can rejoice in this about Barth! God Himself does not attempt to prove His revelation but simply reveals Himself. But what does this have to do with the common Evangelical assertion that the Bible itself is God’s word? Does Barth hold to such a view? “‘The Bible is the witness to revelation,’ is for its part grounded in the fact ‘that the Bible has actually given an answer to our question about God’s revelation, in that it has placed God’s sovereignty before our eyes.’ (CD I.2 pg.511).” (Weber, pg.57) For Barth it seems that the Bible is “a witness”. “It is to be distinguished from revelation ‘insofar as it is only a human word about it’ (CD I.2 pg.512).” (Weber, pg.57) The Bible is the witness of men. “What – according to its own declarations – gives it then such a patently distinguished position? The answer first of all is to the effect that it is the content of this witness. Hence it is the fact ‘that in its decisive center it attests the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (CD I.2 pg.538), and the fact that its witness awakens faith and just therein proves to be God’s self-attestation.” (Weber, pg.58) This does not negate the fact that those men through whom the Biblical witness is given were indeed “special men”. They were “men who ‘had the unique and contingent function of the first witnesses’ (CD I.2 pg.539), and whose existence is ‘the existence of Christ for us and for all men’ (CD I.2 pg.539)! They have ‘seen and heard in a way that happens but once’ (CD I.2 pg.543).” (Weber, pg.59) So is the Bible God’s word or not Dr. Barth?! Weber goes on, “‘Holy Scripture, as the original and legitimate witness to God’s revelation, is God’s Word itself’ (CD I.2 pg.557)” (Weber, pg.59) But Barth does not mean this in the same way that a Fundamentalist means it when he says that the Bible is God’s word.

For Barth this also means that the Bible being a human word, it is therefore not without error. This is seen in his doctrine of inspiration, the doctrine of theopneusty (from 2Tim. 3:16 in Greek θεόπνευστος theopneustos, meaning literally “God-breathed”).

We pick up with Barth in his exegesis of 2Tim. 3:16,17 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV) Barth renders θεόπνευστος as “divinely spiritual”. “That is, it is ‘impregnated, filled, and governed by God’s Spirit … God’s Spirit breathing, diffusing, illuminating it.’ (CD I.2 pg.559).” (Weber, pg.59) We have to remember that for Barth, God’s grace is eternal, free, and unchanging, and thus so are all His ways and works, including the way in which He uses Scripture as the human witness to revelation. Weber reminds us, “It is the mystery of ‘free grace’ which here rises resplendent over Scripture.” (Weber, pg.59)

The next passage Barth looks at is 2Peter 1:19-21 “And we have the prophetic word (τόν προφητικὸν λόγον) more fully confirmed, to which you will do  well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture (προφητεία γραφῆς) comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man (θελήματι ἀνθρώπου), but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (ἀλλ᾽ὑπὸ πνεύματος ἁγίου φερόμενοι ἐλάλησαν ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἄνθρωποι).” (ESV) Weber notes that for Barth, “in both instances there is no occasion to think of special experiences of the authors or of the godly men who spoke.The important thing is that theopneusty ‘within the circumference of Biblical thought’ can only signify the ‘special attitude of obedience of the men elected and called to this admittedly special service” (CD I.2 pg.560)” (Weber, pg.60) For Barth, Scripture is God’s word when Jesus Christ speaks to us through it, “Both texts, together with the concept of theopneusty, refer us to the present, ‘to the event which takes place in ourselves.’ But they only refer us to it. Theopneusty has in view what Scripture ‘was’ and ‘will be,’ and ‘indirectly’ also what it is (CD I.2 pg.561).” (Weber, pg.60) Therefore, for Barth, Scripture is not static, it is at the disposal of the free grace of the free and eternal God who loves in freedom.

It is here that we see Barth’s view of Scripture falling short of what most Fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals believe, that the Bible is inerrant or without error. We again listen to Weber, “Moreover, Barth emphasizes that in such an understanding of inspiration the human imperfection of the Biblical witnesses, yes, even the ‘assailability’ of their theological statements, is to be soberly acknowledged – just as Israel, from whom the Biblical witness stems, is also ‘the one natural proof of the existence of God he has given’ and is a living witness of the freely electing God in, and in spite of, the fact that she is open to attack (CD I.2 pg.563 ff.). Applying this to Scripture we can say that the human word we hear in it is not in every case appropriate, but it is an elected, and, in this election, an authoritative human word. The essential thing in the concept of theopneusty is that God acts upon the witnesses and upon the hearers of the witness, and, what is more, upon both in the revelation of his mystery (cf. 1Cor. 2:6-16). God’s ‘self-disclosure in its totality is theopneusty, the inspiration of the prophetic, apostolic word” (CD I.2 pg.573).” (Weber, pg.60) Again we might ask, what then makes this human witness to God’s revelation God’s word? How can it be God’s word if it is open to error, even in its theological statements?! “‘Scripture is recognized as God’s Word by the fact that it is God’s Word’ (CD I.2 pg.597). There is no means in this world by which that fact can be proved. It can only be confessed – but even then not haphazardly. And just because this confession has its ground and truth in God’s Holy Spirit, theology’s weakest spot is also the place at which it ‘possesses all its imperishable strength.’ (CD I.2 pg.598).” (Weber, pg.61)

It seems that for Barth God’s Word is the fallible human witness to the voice of Jesus Christ which speaks in it. This I cannot amen to. I would say that Scripture is God’s infallible witness to Jesus Christ given through fallible human beings. Although I am quite intrigued by the idea that the Bible becomes God’s Word when we hear the voice of Jesus Christ in it. I would say I agree to a certain extent. The Bible speaks to us as God’s Word by the witness of the Holy Spirit to the person and work of Jesus Christ and in this it speaks authoritatively in all matters of faith and practice.

I appreciate Barth’s determination to build his doctrine of election only by the voice of Jesus Christ heard in Scripture, but sadly in the first 14 pages of CD II.2 there are only FOUR Biblical quotations. Maybe this is the nature of dogmatics? Or is Barth not being true to his own goal?

2 thoughts on “Karl Barth and Scripture’s Witness to God’s Gracious Election

  1. Keep in mind that, for Barth (and the other neo-orthodox theologians), the Bible is *not* the Word of God, but *contains* the Word of God – not the same thing at all. In this way, Barth can claim to have allegiance to the Scriptures while being able to play around with what they say and mean.

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    • Good point! What is interesting is when he came out of his liberal theological education and became a pastor he realized he had nothing to say, nothing to preach, and no way to comfort his people. He returned to the Bible and found enough to write over 9 million words in His Kirchliche Dogmatik! Imagine if he would have taken the Bible as seriously as we do! To most theologians at his time he was considered a fundamentalist actually! He was mocked for his allegiance to Scripture and his belief in the virgin birth/resurrection of Christ.

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