Thursday, March 4, 2010

Barth and Evangelical Theology: Part 2, “Revelation”

Barth is often referred to, as Fackre points out, as the “theologian of revelation.” His views on revelation, however, are the views which evangelicals, like Carl Henry, tend to find the most controversial.

Fackre, however, critically defends Barth’s views on revelation from what he calls an “evangelical narrative” perspective, “one that follows Scripture’s journey of the triune God from Genesis to Revelation—creation, fall, the universal covenant with Noah, the particular covenant with Israel, the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ, the birth of the church, the coming of salvation, the consummation of the purposes of God in the resurrection, the return of Christ, final judgment and everlasting life” (1–2; see Fackre’s The Christian Story for more on his narrative perspective).

While evangelicals tend to focus on a static view of revelation (the written Bible as revelation already written “once for all”), Barth has a “dynamic” understanding of revelation and the Word (by which he means not only the Bible, but primarily the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the word preached in the community of faith). So, Barth argues that the Bible becomes the Word of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. This has trouble evangelicals who want to argue the Bible is the word of God whether it’s being read in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit or not.

Fackre argues, however, that Barth does not deemphasize the acts of God in the Bible. Barth instead deals with both the “objectivity” of revelation with a christocentric emphasis on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, etc., of Jesus, as well as the “subjectivity” of revelation (the reception of the Word by the church), while still critiquing “liberal” subjectivism and those who appropriate his concept of the Bible becoming the Word of God in existentialist terms.[1] While Barth has a christocentric emphasis upon God’s revelation, Christ’s work cannot, as Fackre notes, “be separated from the entire sweep of the drama of God’s deeds” (4).

Barth emphasizes the Bible’s becoming the Word of God to protect the freedom of God to reveal himself not just to the inspired writers of Scripture, but to the church in every age. Barth thus maintains the “living and activeness” (my term) of the Bible, rather than the text as “dead word.” Barth holds this view alongside a strong criticism of natural theology (see his discussion with Emil Brunner concerning natural theology as an example). While Barth emphasizes the otherness of God, he does not believe God gives humanity a false portrait of Godself. As Fackre says, “What God does in the missions of the economic Trinity is who God is in the immanent Trinity” (5).

Barth later softens his rejection of natural theology some, but still believes any other “little light” must be tested in the light of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. Note that Barth places the person first rather than the text, thus avoiding a position of bibliolatry. As Fackre says, “Scripture must not be confused with the incarnate Word” (10). Barth thus argues that “all human attestations to the Word of the Prophet of God are broken human witnesses to truth” (12). Thus Barth is in agreement with the apostle Paul who though writing “inspired Scripture,” says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NRSV). This viewpoint allows Barth to critique modern conservative insistence upon verbal inspiration and inerrancy of hypothetical autographs and instead emphasize God’s sovereign work through the Scriptures to reveal Godself to the church.

Barth, as evidenced by his emphasis upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit and title Church Dogmatics for his multi-volume magnum opus, also emphasizes “the role of the church and its tradition in his theology” (11). Thus, Barth does not advocate individualistic readings of Scripture, an emphasis deeply needed in American churches. This emphasis on the interpretive community and the illuminating work of the Spirit is particularly needed in the Stone-Campbell Movement.[2]

Jesus Christ is for Barth the center of the Christian story. As Fackre says, “‘Revelation’ is Jesus Christ and brooks no contendors” (13). Fackre also notes, “[Barth’s] earlier language was sometimes interpreted as a fusion of this historical event with the moment of its reception, the ever-new ‘becoming’ of the Word of God. But his later writing seeks to avoid misunderstandings that bind the Word to the appropriation process” (13).

Fackre, however, also notes some problems he sees with Barth’s views on revelation. One I whole-heartedly agree with is Fackre’s critique of Barth’s dismissal of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Fackre also critiques Barth for at times neglects the “once for all” inspiration of the biblical text, which leads evangelicals to question whether Barth sees the Bible as authoritative. As Fackre helpfully points out in a rebuttal of this position, “Karl Barth’s practice is better than his theory, for his extensive and intensive exegesis of Scripture suggests a deeper and more sustained warrant for biblical authority” (21).

In the end, Fackre argues that Barth’s views on revelation helpfully point us to the center of God’s revelation (the Incarnation of Jesus Christ) and balances out an evangelical emphasis upon the inspiration of Scripture with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty and the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. Also, “Barth’s caution that no principles of our own making should obstruct attention to that one Word, as attested by Scripture, must be applied to his own doctrine of revelation” (25).

In my next post, I will comment on Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” which will continue much of Fackre’s discussion.

[1] I wish Barth had used different terms rather than “objective” and “subjective.” While some figures like John Franke helpfully see Barth as an important figure in the critique of modernism and turn to postmodernity, Barth still holds on to the modern dichotomization of objectivity/subjectivity.

[2] When I attended the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in 2006, John Castelein was asked by William Baker in a Q&A session with the key note speakers what he thought was most needed theologically in the SCM, and Castelein responded by saying there is a great need for an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.

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