Evangelical Theology – The Word

In Evangelical Theology Barth moves from his introductory material and begins to address the Word as the object of theological reflection.

First, he briefly speaks to the place of theology within the University. He suggests that this field of study, which at one time held a prominent position in educational life, has been relegated to the backwater of humanities. This marginalization of theology results in an insecurity within the discipline which manifests itself in a need to secure its place in the academy by capitulating to the philosophical presuppositions which animate the university. At a weekly school meeting, I’ve been a part of an ongoing conversation for about a month now in which one of the things we’re discussing is how theology is meant to interface with other fields of thought. While the conversation has been helpful, there certainly haven’t been any meaningful conclusions. That said, Barth is something of a radical in suggesting that theology can go about its business without being overly concerned with what other academic disciplines think of the theologians work.

Barth’s aim in the remainder of the chapter is to further extend the observation he made in the introductory section that theology has a specific object – namely God. However, Barth is insistent that one isn’t able to immediately apprehend God. Fair enough. Rather, we can only ‘theologize’ over that which God chooses to reveal of himself. This revelation is his Word.

Now, evangelical protestants will want to avoid jumping to conclusions concerning the identity of this ‘Word’. Our impulse is to equate God’s Word with the Bible. This one to one identification is something that we make with little or no effort. Not so for Barth. He understands the Word to be God’s self-disclosure – primarily in Jesus Christ. There is a way of understanding the Bible in terms of the Word of God, but only in as much as it is a re-presentation of the Word that is Jesus. I know that for most this is the kind of hair-splitting that causes people to think theologians need a good kick in the pants. I assure you that for Barth, there is much hanging in the balance on this. The main thing to remember is that Scripture and the Word aren’t exactly the same thing. He’ll have a different “w” word for Scripture that he’ll get to in the next chapter.

Part of Barth’s insistence on wanting to make a distinction between Scripture and Word is his insistence that the God has spoken, is speaking, and will continue to speak. I realize that one can (and does) say this is exactly what the Bible is all about, but Barth wants to maintain a distinction between a ‘Person’ who speaks and the book that both reveals his speaking and is the means by which that Person speaks.

In as much as the Word has been revealed in Christ, then Christian theology is not just study of God in some general sense, but the particularity of God revealing himself in a human being and…

The task of evangelical theology, therefore, is to hear, understand, and speak of the consummation of God’s Word, both its intensive and its extensive perfection as the Word of the covenant of grace and peace. In the Christ of Israel this Word has becomeparticular, that is, Jewish flesh. it is in the particularity of the flesh that it applies universally to all men. The Christ of Israel is the Saviour of the World.

Folks often have deep concerns about Barth’s orthodoxy (and perhaps rightly so), but it doesn’t get much more ‘evangelical’ than that. By the way, since the word ‘universal’ is so freighted with baggage these days, you should know that Barth doesn’t necessarily use it in the same way that people have come to understand it today. I know that this is a recurring theme, Barth not using words the way we use words. He isn’t being cagey. He’s just living in a different time and place.

3 Replies to “Evangelical Theology – The Word”

  1. I love the emphasis that Barth puts on the necessity of taking into account the entirety of God’s self-revelation, meaning the full context of the whole of salvation history. The whole context doesn’t merely include God’s covenantal relationship to the Jewish nation, nor does it only deal with His work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in isolation from what had taken place in the past. I think this “big-picture” perspective that takes in the whole of salvation history is largely missing in a lot of ways in Christian circles today, and there is definitely a corrective that is needed here.

    I was pretty thoroughly confused by his statements on page 18:

    “The idea that autonomous man should be concerned with the response to the Word and its appropriate interpretation must be completely avoided. It cannot be simply supposed that man naturally stands in need of, and is subject to, the authority that encounters him in the Word. Before human thought and speech can respond to God’s word, they have to be summoned into existence and given reality by the creative act of God’s word.”

    These words almost sound like he’s saying that we *ought not* be concerned with our response to God’s word, and that we *do not* stand in need of its authority. But in context it seems like he means more along the lines of what you said in your post that “Barth is insistent that one isn’t able to immediately apprehend God.” In my words, that in our fallen condition (and apart from God’s grace preceding our searching for Him) that we will not naturally feel the need or the obligation to respond to Him.

    But it’s awfully hard for me to tell, given the exact verbiage he uses… Have I got this correct? And if so, why does Barth seem to delight in using language in such equivocal and hard-to-understand ways? 🙂

    One other problem. He seems pretty insistent that theology “is not called in any way to interpret, explain, and elucidate God and his Word… in relation to God’s Word itself, theology has nothing to interpret.” But I’m just wondering, if theology doesn’t interpret, explain, or elucidate God and his Word… on Barth’s view, what does it do? Just looking over the table of contents, it appears I might have to wait until the end of the book to find out what the work of theology does… but maybe you could give me a hint? 🙂

    Thanks, Taido!

    1. Mark, you sir are keeping me honest! I promise to return to working through this book in about a week. I am under the gun to get some stuff written and turned in this week. But…

      On the statement on page 18, you have more or less nailed it. Barth goes to great lengths to distinguish God in himself, his freedom to do and be whatever he deems fit, and his other-ness in a way that is in many ways foreign to most of us. For him, this other-ness of God (or strong stress on the Creator / Creature distinction) is fundamental for him. Without this, he feels that theology jumps the tracks.

      So as you observe, ‘natural’ humankind has nothing in him or herself that would cause her to ‘be concerned with the response to the Word.’ This work is entirely on the summoning act of God. He avoids language of ‘total depravity’ and ‘fallen-ness’ because he would rather wants to lay the stress on the metaphysical distinction between Creator and Creature. It is, first, because of our creatureliness that we can’t apprehend God, then second, due to our sinfulness.

      This is the pressing issue in your next question. It is confusing for sure, but i think the sense of what he is saying is that theology is subject to God’s Word (again, not equivalent with the Bible, but the self-presentation of God himself – a thing that stands distinct from the Scriptures – the reality of who God is perhaps). Understood this way, the Scriptures are what theology can interpret, but the Word is a thing unto itself that theology doesn’t interpret, but finds itself subject to. So… perhaps again wanting to display a certain humility regarding the task of theology. If theology things it grasps the reality of God, it needs to check itself. It can only concern itself with the Scriptures that bear witness to the God who is and acts in history. Theology is subject to God. Not the other way around.

      So I think that is more or less the sense of it. Yes, he is a wordy fella. Those German-speaking theologians and all their ideas.

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