The Doctrine of the Word of God
Chapter I: The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics
Section 4: The Word of God in its Threefold Form
"The presupposition which proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once and for all spoken by God's revelation."
The Word of God Preached
Barth rightly identifies that merely intending to proclaim is not sufficient; we must distinguish in principle between true and false proclamation, and what makes proclamation real proclamation is its being a proclamation of the Word of God. This is a presupposition of dogmatics because dogmatics assumes that the Word of God has been spoken and heard; its task is not to prove that it has been.
Barth here then explores the relation between the Word of God and proclamation in what he calls four "concentric circles". The first circle is the commission in virtue of which the proclamation is made. Proclamation is not made in response to objective needs "imminent in the existence of man"; nor is it made in response to subjective needs in the personal convictions of human speakers. Rather, while such motives are present and cannot be excluded, proclamation is proclamation (that is, is properly related to the Word of God) when it originates is the command and decision of God. Thus, in order for proclamation to be the Word of God, it must be the Word of God.
The second circle is that proclamation must be of the Word of God. I am not entirely confident that I have grasped Barth's point here, but it seems that the basic idea is that what makes the proclamation the Word of God is that the content of it, the thing which is preached, is itself the Word of God, with its foundation not in "metaphysics or psychology" but in the communication of God to human beings.
The third circle is that of judgment; that proclamation is judged by God and God alone, that it must be obedient and is subject to the authority of God.
And finally, the fourth circle is that of a genuine disclosure of God to human beings in the activity of the proclamation; without the human factors vanishing, the proclamation simply is God's proclamation.
So what distinguishes preaching, true proclamation, is then these four: the commission, from God and not from human concerns or the preacher's aims; the content, which must be God's Word; the standard under which it is judged, which is God's; and the revelatory content in which God himself becomes the actor of the preaching event.
The criticism to be levelled here is natural and immediate. These are the standards of prophecy. Barth's characterization of preaching conflates it with prophecy, and this is natural given the decision to begin with proclamation as such. By elevating the importance of preaching beyond all appropriate measure (as we saw in the preceding section), it has become something more than preaching: it has become prophecy. Now prophecy is a very good thing, and a great blessing for the church. But it is not simply the same as preaching, and I think we have not really gotten the argument here that preaching ought to be prophecy.
The Word of God Written
The second circle of contact between preaching and the Word of God was the content, which Barth explains as "recollection of past revelation and...expectation of coming revelation." The past revelation is the written Word of God, which is specifically the Bible.
Here Barth attempts to tackle the questions I raised in addressing the second section of the Introduction. Barth recognizes the Scriptures as having a Canon which was decided by the Church, but in terms of the Church's recognition of the status of these books. That is, the Church is not the author of the text, it is the recipient and receiver of the text, which it always experiences as given to it.
I cannot see how this could actually be true; it is a sensible enough understanding of how the Church understood these texts at the time the decisions about canonicity were being made, but the Church predated those decisions. Did Paul conceive of his writing as a source or as a recipient? It seems difficult to read the letter to the Galatians as being anything other than Paul's communication, undertaken in his own voice. Insipired we may confess it to be; but we cannot conceive of Paul having the attitude towards the text which Barth says we must have. As such, either Paul is not really part of the Church when he writes, or the Church has a double role, both as originator and recipient of the Biblical text.
Moreover, the very givenness of the text is hard to make convincing when there are multiple Canons among which to choose. Barth does not touch at all the question of which books are in the Canon, and this is disastrous for his presentation of the material. If he did answer that question, he would be making himself (and dogmatics), or his confessional tradition, the judge of which texts count, and thus not purely recipient. So he must not, making it possible to pretend that the text was given, and that his role and the Church's today is simply to receive.
Barth's objection to a teaching succession and an ongoing apostolicity found in the pastors of the Church as teachers is that in so doing, the past becomes the mere puppet of the present. He says, in fact, "Naturally it might also have pleased God to give His Church the Canon in the form of an unwritten prophetic and apostolic tradition propagating itself from spirit to spirit and mouth to mouth"; the argument that he has not done so is its consequence: "In unwritten tradition the Church is not addressed; it is engaged in dialogue with itself."
However, this only works if we have bought into the fictive view of the Biblical text as purely address to the Church, rather than as documents written by the Church. We have in the Biblical text an emissary from the earliest days of the Church and before; we hear the apostles speaking to us, but we still hear the Church speaking to the Church. Barth demands that there must be something undergirding preaching which is not the "Church speaking to itself"; and we get this in the Bible. But actually, this simply is not what the Bible is, no matter how many fanciful tales we spin. If the Word of God is in the Bible (and I confess it is!) then it is so in the same way that it may or may not be in preaching. The Bible is of the same character as preaching; the confession that it is the Word of God is not a confession that it is radically different in nature from preaching, but simply that it is authoritative and binding preaching. We confess that it is the Word of God (in the full sense of Barthian proclamation), in just the way that a given preaching event hopes to be the Word of God. When that preaching succeeds, it is the Word of God in just the same way and to the same extent that the Bible is.
We have, from Barth, only the magical statement that "The Bible is the Canon just because it is so. It is so by imposing itself as such." Calvin tried to say much the same thing, and it doesn't work now any more than it did then. I have on my shelf three Bibles; one with the Anglican Apocrypha, one with the (shorter) Roman Catholic Apocrypha, one with neither. Which of them "imposes itself"? How do I recognize this?
The Word of God Revealed
Preaching is based upon the received past revelation recorded in Scripture and in promise and hope for revelation to come; now we are confronted with the revelation itself. Preaching and the Bible are witnesses to revelation, preaching to future revelation and the Bible to past revelation. Present revelation is also the Word of God; it is the Word of God to which preaching and the Bible seek to give witness.
Since they are always and only pointers, we must consider what they point to; this is the fundamental content of the Word of God: "God with us", which is both a thing that has happened, "Deus dixit", but also something which is present here and now. There is then always the direct action of God revealing God's self to us, and this is itself the Word of God to which preaching and the Bible give witness.
We say "God with us", and we identify that this divine act is present now, and also fully and completely fulfilled and done in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the content of revelation, properly speaking, is Immanuel, God with us. It is this which preaching and the Bible are concerned.
Now this is nice to see; it is much more helpful than the Lutheran restriction at this point to simply "the forgiveness of sins" or "justification by faith".
What is perhaps objectionable at this point is the way in which the only pointers granted here are proclamation, are preaching and the Bible. The sacraments are allowed as proclaimers as well, but this is where the catholic spirit wants to rejoice and say that the sacraments are not merely proclaimers, but enactors of revelation. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ, is God with us; it is Jesus who baptizes in every baptism. These acts are not merely servants of preaching, "seals" which are placed at the end of the homily to label it "God's"; they are independently means by which God communicates his grace to us.
Barth cannot have this because he wants to preserve God's freedom; but the self-limiting and self-emptying of God is just at this point the point of the "God with us". Barth sees in a catholic doctrine of the sacraments here a domestication of God, who is no longer free but bound up with the Church and its activity; by contrast, preaching is supposed to be free and always able to be what it will be. Perhaps this is simply because the words variable? Preaching, always, either will be or will not be the Word of God, and this is actually Barth's point: the catholic sacraments are always "God with us", not just now or then, not just "if God happens to make it so this time", but always, by God's own promise.
In this way, the sacraments are continuous with the Incarnation. By contrast, Barth cannot allow the Incarnation to be a present reality in this sense. In the Incarnation the Son of God consented to be mistreated, to be subject to people's manipulation. We hear of a woman healed by touching his robe in a crowd, and Jesus' response "Who touched me?" suggests that there was something "automatic" in the transaction. For this is what it is to be a human being. The self-emptying of the Word of God in Jesus Christ thus was a consent on the part of God to be present without controlling the event, to be subject to human beings.
For Barth, this ended; in the Resurrection Jesus Christ must have ceased to be subject to human beings anymore. We thus must query the doctrine of the Ascension for Barth, which must become the doctrine of the Great Absence, in which Jesus Christ is no longer "God with us" in the irrevocable and subject-to-human-misuse way he was. But the catholic doctrine insists that, in virtue of the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus Christ is still with us, and this is where the sacraments have their character and use.
The Unity of the Word of God
Finally, Barth briefly makes clear that this triple of preaching, Bible, and revelation, are not three different things, but three forms of one thing. The relations are thus:
"The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.
"The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfils proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.
"The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation."
The analogy to the Trinity is deliberate and intentional: the Father, revelation; the Son, the Bible; the Holy Spirit, preaching.
Now we can see more clearly the problems. First, the connection of the Holy Spirit to preaching shows that indeed the preaching office has been assimilated to the prophetic office. This is all the more crucial to be clear about as a defect in Barth's treatment because he is silent on the point: he does not defend this because he does not seem to be aware of it or of the pitfalls which it leads to. The Spirit blows where it wills, but for Barth, this is found only in the relatively free words of the preacher. Preachers are rightly bound to the biblical text, but prophets are not (as a look at the Hebrew prophets will show); prophecy is not interpretation of Scripture. The result is that Barth expects too much of preaching and too little of prophecy by making up a new office halfway between the two. (Or rather, by uncritically accepting the Reformers making up of this new office.)
The connection of the Son to the Scriptures, especially in virtue of the fact that the Bible is, for Barth, what it is precisely in its givenness and unchangeability; its specifically not being subject to human vicissitudes and misuse. We end up with a doctrine in which Jesus Christ is something which happened, but does not still happen; in which the Ascension is God's way of keeping Christ from harm.
The connection of the Father to revelation then mistakes that revelation is centrally and precisely the role of a prophet, through whom the Holy Spirit speaks. Moreover, since the Father is centrally and characteristically identified as the agent of creation and the source of divinity, this is precisely what is lost when those topics are treated.
A perhaps more felicitous analogy might be this: In the Son we have the Word of God in the sacraments and being of the Church (which is, after all, the Body of Christ); subject to the use and misuse of human beings, but also the direct and ordinary means of grace for all who come in contact with him. In the Father we have the Word of God spoken in creation and providence; accessible to all but veiled by human sinfulness and inability to simply infer who God is from the facts of the world we see (a point Barth rightly makes well). In the Holy Spirit we have the free breath of God, blowing where it will, bound by no human form and acting in all cultures and in the hearts of God's people, and animating in particular the Church and making its sacraments effective.
Index of Comments on Karl Barth