The Theologian’s Relationship to Scripture According to Karl Barth

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction over the last few days.  Karl Barth is one of my favorite theologians and has been very instrumental in developing my own theology. He’s one of those guys whom I regularly consult when wrestling with a theological problem or issue.

I was reading chapter 3, The Witnesses, in Evangelical Theology where Barth explores the relationship of a theologians work to the Word. I came across a paragraph that I really liked and have been mulling over in my mind. It concerns how a theologian should understand his/her own field of knowledge compared to that of the biblical authors:

“The position of theology…can in no wise be exalted above that of the biblical witnesses. The post-biblical theologian may, no doubt, possess a better astronomy, geography, zoology, psychology, physiology, and so on than these biblical witnesses possessed; but as for the Word of God, he is not justified in comporting himself in relationship to those witnesses as though he knew more about the Word than they. He is neither a president of a seminary or the Chairman of the Board of some Christian Institute of Advanced Theological studies, who might claim some authority over the prophets and apostles. He cannot grant or refuse them a hearing as though they were colleagues on the faculty. Still less is he a high-school teacher authorized to look over their shoulder benevolently or crossly, to correct their notebooks, or to give them good, average, or bad marks. Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurist among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian. From his special point of view and in his special fashion, the witness has thought, spoken, and written about the revelatory Word and act in direct confrontation with it. All subsequent theology, as well as the whole of the community that comes after the event, will never find itself in the same immediate confrontation” (p.31-32).

This is Barth’s way of explaining how theologians sit under the authority of the Biblical witnesses to the Word of God. For those who are new to Barth, here are a few important things to remember:

For Barth, the Word is God’s self-revealing, saving act in which he calls Israel comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. While many of us use the “Word” to refer specifically to either the Scriptures or Jesus, the pre-existent logos, Barth’s understanding of the Word is more expansive. The Word comes in three forms: the Word incarnate (Jesus), the word written (Scripture), and the word proclaimed (preaching). The first one, the Word incarnate, is the definitive revelation of God to which the Scriptures and our preaching bear witness to.

Barth refers to Scripture as a witness to the Word. The Scriptures are the response of the prophets and apostles to their direct encounter with God’s self-revelation. The writings that we call “Scripture” came to be with the purpose of continually pointing the faith communities of Israel and the church to the living God.

Barth recognizes that Scripture is written in human language and reflects the limited knowledge about the world that the human authors possessed. However, Barth believed that it is a mistake for a modern theologian to sit in judgment over the Biblical witness just because we have better, scientific knowledge about the world. Barth was pushing back against the tendency in liberal theology to regard the Biblical witness as merely a primitive human attempt to describe God. Of course, the Bible reflects the full humanity of the authors, but their direct encounter with God’s self revelation gives their word an authority that surpasses what later theologians can say.

Overall, I think this can be a fairly helpful way of approaching Scripture and our task of doing theology. It gives us a bit of humility, lest we think that our interpretation of Scripture is the final word. It allows us to recognize the human element of Scripture and not worry ourselves too much over that. But it also keeps us from the danger of regarding Scripture as merely human opinion as the liberals did (and do!), and thus feel free to cut out and remove the stuff that puzzles us or that we don’t like. Barth’s approach makes us remember that all of Scripture is there for the purpose of witnessing to what God has done for us, and that we must place our own thinking about God under its authority and allow it to sit in judgment over us (however imperfectly we do that!). Without Scripture’s witness to what God has done in history, we cannot say we know him in any real sense.




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