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Karl Barth’s Conception of the Word of God (2)

From what we have said so far on the subject, it would seem beyond doubt that Barth is with us. the Reformed. For to us it is plainly an “either-or” matter, i.e., either we must be Modernists and humanists, or true Christian believers. And whereas Barth seems to oppose “theology” to “dogmatics,” as wo noted above, he, however, continues to say extremely interesting things which, taken in themselves, we as Reformed can also say. We may wonder at the following statement: “And let us not forget that theology in fact, so surely as it avails itself of human, speech, is also a philosophy or conglomeration of all sorts of philosophy’’ (188). On the other hand we may be inclined to agree where he says, “quite untheological thought . . . can . . . really only materialize in the form of secretly quitting the church for a passing, or . . . permanent period. (This) is freedom to babble heresy . . . There is no room in the Church for this freedom” (86). There are many other remarkable statements which Barth makes, that, whatever he means by them in his heart of hearts, we as Reformed can, nevertheless, take and use.

Evidence of this we have in his reference to the language the church speaks about God. He declares such a word has “a proper content” only “if connected with a Word of God spoken previously to the church.” The criterion for such proper content: — a criterion “of the rightness of such speaking” by the church — is the “Word of God Himself.” Therein lies the only “criterion of dogmatics” (46). If this criterion were followed, there would be no room, either, in the church for Modernism’s “social gospel.’” For as Barth so well puts it, “social work” is not proclamation of the Word of God, but propaganda, “and not very good propaganda at that” (55).

Again with respect to modern Fundamentalism there is another lesson concerning the purpose of the religious instruction of the youth of the church. He lays it down that that purpose is to teach, not to convert; not to “bring to a decision,” nor even to preach (55). He insists that all we hear of God’s Word in prayer, in good works, in catechetical instruction and in “the theology of the church” is not therefore a commission to us to preach and proclaim this. To illustrate what he means here, to illustrate the idea that God speaking in nature and in events is not to be the content of preaching, he says: “God may speak to us thru Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to Him if He really does so . . . God may speak to us thru a pagan or an atheist . . . But that is not equivalent to saying . . . that we should . . . proclaim the pagan and atheist thing we heard” (60, 61). The latter remark, especially, can easily be the basis for an indictment against Modernism’s “preaching” (?), its “natural” theology and “current events” lectures.

The Reformed make the distinction between the essential, ontological Word of God and the infallible record of that Word as we have it in the Scriptures. Does Barth have this distinction in mind? It certainly seems so. For he speaks of what a man called to the office of preaching “may claim to utter as Gods Word in the exercise of proclamation, cannot be the actual Word of God as such, but only the repetition of His promise, . . . ‘Lo, I am with you alway” (64). This is clearer in the words, “The old Lutheran theology . . , made a very sensible distinction between the theologia archtypos which God has and in fact is Himself, and theologia ektypos, as with the exception of Christ according to His humanity and the angels it may belong to men as well” (309).

Now, notice what Barth says of the Romish and the Modernistic conceptions of the preaching of the Gospel. “Roman Catholic preaching seems largely to rest satisfied with the level of higher instruction in religion and morals,’’ Romanism then embodies Modernism. Romish exegesis is “predominantly an imposition instead of an exposition,” and has deteriorated “into a dialogue of the church with herself” (119). Since this is also true of Modernism, it is indicative of the fact that the Romish church is shot thru with Modernism.

Enlarging upon Modernist preaching, he reveals its impotence and ineffectiveness, that it “does not claim to be more than as genuine and lively . . . expression as possible of the personal piety of the speaker in question” (66)! From this critique of Barth, the “anti-intellectualism of modern theology” (231) is evident. For “Modernist thought knows nothing, finally, about the fact that man . . . has constantly to be letting something be said to him . . . and which in no circumstances and in no sense he can say to himself. Modernist thought hears man answer without any one having called him. It hears him talk to himself” (68). As we saw, it is no different with Romanism, for “in the unwritten tradition the (Romish) church is not (divinely) addressed, but is engaged in a dialogue with herself” (118). But a criticism of Modernism could hardly be more cutting! Yet we are not convinced that this ipso facto places Barth with us in the camp of doctrinal orthodoxy.

But he goes on to depict Modernism’s depreciation of true preaching in his illustration of a Modernist church having therein a water fountain, symbolizing God’s creative life-stream; with colored windows symbolizing “light from the uncreated Light”; the organ raised to the dignity of a “second pulpit” — all which proclaims to us, in holy accents, the inexpressibility of the Gospel. In fact, so it is said, “even Jesus would have been ‘increasingly dissatisfied with (mere) speaking, had He been tied down to public work and public speaking for decades instead of for one year’ ” (quoting H. Bar, p, 70).

But to give us a right conception of true preaching, Barth quotes Luther thus; “The Christian community should never come together, except there God’s Word be preached and prayer made . . . therefore where God’s Word is not preached, ’tis better people should neither sing nor read, nor come together . . . ’Tis better to leave out all, save the Word. And there is naught better to pursue than the Word. For the whole Scripture showeth that that same should be compulsory among Christians, and Christ also saith Himself (Luke 10:42), ‘One thing is needful.’ For that Mary should sit at Christ’s feet and hear His Word daily is the best part to choose, and is never taken away. It is an eternal saying that all else must pass away, however much there is for Martha to do” (78). Cf. pp. 114-15.

Luther is again permitted to speak on the subject: “Where the preaching chair lies and snores, that it wakes not up nor expounds the Word, one may well read and sing . . . but without any understanding.” If only Barth himself could be as sound and scriptural throughout! For over an extent of one hundred pages and more he can be very vague, dull and incomprehensible in his dissertation on “church proclamation,” then suddenly come out with an ostensibly clear statement to the effect that “real preaching means . . . the Word of God preached . . . (106). Tho this remark is neither profound nor striking, it is, by itself, nevertheless true. But we are constrained to ask, What does Barth mean by it? For in a context of 130 pages he says nothing distinctively or traditionally Reformed.

There are further remarks anent preaching by the church (122) which Barth says is, by the authority of the Scripture, placed under the necessity of becoming a real apostolical succession. By this “succession” he means an “obedient following of the word of the prophets and apostles.” So we ourselves would say that the only “apostolical succession” worthy of our standing in is the doctrine of the apostles; and that thus the Bible becomes important to the Church as a Book which is superior and free beyond all exegesis of the Book. The Bible as the Word of God, therefore, tho it is proclaimed thru the limited word of man is nevertheless not limited, or rendered less authoritative. . . the Word of God, i.e., in this word, the human word of prophets and apostles represents the Word of God Himself . . . the latter is . . . , man’s word with God’s commission . . . behind it . . . man’s word which is acknowledged and accepted by God as good, man’s word in which God’s own language to us is an event. . . . That is what we mean when we call the Bible the Word of God” (123). We might add, not only “God’s own language to us is an event,” but it comes to us in an event. Think of the victories of redemption!

This has a rather nice sound — rather like a Fundamentalist testimony to the primacy and supremacy of Holy Writ. There is nothing particularly strong and definitive in the Reformed sense. But the following sounds like modern Liberalism; “The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be His Word, so far as God speaks thru it.” As tho, Modernist-wise, there is an area in the Bible in which God does not speak thru it: or, that the Bible from the same given area does not have the same Word of God to speak always. What can the author mean when he says in another place, “the Bible . . . must from time to time become God’s Word” (131)? We do not say that the Bible contains the infallible record of the Word of God, nor that it becomes such; but that it is such! So — as we move thru this book, the paradox-of-Barth increasingly mystifies us!