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The Form of the Word
On the Authority and Significance of the Bible in Karl Barth’s "God Here and Now"
About the author: Jason Oliver Evans (he/him/his) is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Virginia, with research interests in modern and contemporary Christian thought with special focus on race, gender, and sexuality. He is finishing a dissertation on the person and work of Jesus Christ through critical engagement with key texts by Karl Barth, James H. Cone, Delores S. Williams, and JoAnne Terrell. Drawing upon these authors, Evans renders overall a constructive Black queer theology of atonement and Christian life.
For almost two decades now, I have been enamored with Karl Barth’s understanding of the Bible. When I was an undergraduate student, I began asking questions about the meaning of the Christian faith. Particularly, I wanted to fully understand what Christians mean by the phrase “the authority of Scripture.” Alongside this, I had never heard of the Red Pastor of Safenwil until I began to read some works by North American evangelical theologians. I identified as an evangelical Christian and thus readily assumed the verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. As I read evangelical discussions of the Bible, I noticed that some thinkers expressed serious misgivings about Barth’s so-called “neo-orthodox” position on the Bible. Specifically, these thinkers were concerned with Barth’s distinction between the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ and the human words of the Bible.1 Additionally, some evangelicals found Barth’s contention that the Scriptures become the word of God to be problematic. Thus, evangelical theologians like Cornelius Van Til and Carl F. H. Henry argued that Barth’s position undermined the authority of the Bible. While I wanted to maintain that the Bible is authoritative, I could not reconcile how both Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh and the Bible is the written Word of God. I asked myself, “How could there be two Words?” This question began to trouble me.
One day, I went to the university bookstore. As I walked around browsing the store, I noticed a small black book with a neon light cross on its cover placed on the book stand. It was Barth’s God Here and Now. Immediately, I decided to buy it and take it back to my dorm room. Upon reading the following words, “Our concern is with our God, the living God and His Word…His Word is Jesus Christ, for God’s Word is God’s mediation between Himself and man which He has willed and effected Himself,” I was instantly hooked!2 I exclaimed, “He’s nothing like what [these evangelicals] say [that] he is!” Barth’s words gripped both my mind and heart. I could not put the little book down.
Years later, I return to Barth’s God Here and Now not only to recapture that initial feeling of excitement that I had when I first encountered his thought but also to reconsider how might Barth’s understanding of biblical authority help us today in the contemporary situation. With a growing decline in church affiliation, and especially with uncertainty about the place of Scripture in the life of the church, I often return to Barth’s God Here and Now because Barth brilliantly captures in seven essays what is really at stake, namely, the core of Christian faith and proclamation. This core is none other than the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ, or as Barth aptly puts it, “God’s humanism.”3 While, indeed, Barth’s mature thought on Scripture can be found in his magisterial Church Dogmatics and elsewhere,4 Barth’s essay on the authority and the significance of the Bible provides an accessible yet nonetheless powerful entrée into his thought.
In the fourth essay of God Here and Now, Barth considers the authority and significance of the Bible for the church, or as Barth likes to say, the living congregation of the living Lord Jesus Christ.5 Specifically, Barth attends to this theme within a series of twelve theses, all framed by Barth’s usage of the word “form.” For Barth, the presence and Lordship of Jesus Christ takes visible form both in the church and world, between the time of Resurrection and Parousia, in the witness of the prophets and the apostles.6 Indeed, the presence and sovereignty of the risen Christ take many forms, since Christ’s presence is boundless. And yet, Barth argues that the congregation is the one place where this is acknowledged because the church is founded upon the witness of Scripture. “This biblical witness,” Barth writes, “is the visible form of the otherwise hidden presence and Lordship of Jesus Christ.”7 As George Hunsinger insists, Barth ascribes a sacramental function to the Christian scriptures.8
In other words, the biblical witness both mediates the hidden presence of the risen Christ in the congregation and bears witness to the reconciling work that God has accomplished in and through him.
Holy Scripture derives its authority in its subject and center, namely Jesus Christ. Barth writes, “The truth, power, and validity of the witness of these men [the prophets and apostles] is that of their subject: they bear witness to Jesus Christ, and thus to the work of the gracious God, as the beginning, middle, and end of all things.”9 What distinguishes the biblical witness from any other is not any inherent property that the prophets and apostles might possess (in fact, as human beings, they were truly fallible!), but because God has elected them to bear witness to the history of God’s gracious action towards humankind which finds summation in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Scripture is decisively normative, binding, and authoritative for the church’s faith, proclamation, and practice.
The Scriptures mediate the presence of the risen Christ in the congregation. But how? Barth responds by pointing to the activity of the Holy Spirit. This work of the Spirit is not merely an “interior” work, which, in Barth’s view, the church often misconstrued. Rather, it is to say that the Spirit via the biblical witness summons all humankind to hear and respond to God’s Word in Jesus Christ. He writes, “The witness of the Holy Spirit is the event in which all this happens. But all this takes place in the Christian congregation. The Christian congregation takes place, comes into being, and consists in this event.”10
Simply put, this is what Barth means by the Word of God in its threefold form: The Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ is its center, the Word borne witness by the prophets and apostles, and the Word proclaimed by the church in the world.
Barth’s essay in God Here and Now puts into perspective what Christians mean when they say “the authority of Scripture.” Scripture derives its authority from God who has elected it to bear witness to God’s Word, Jesus Christ, who sums up in himself the history of God’s gracious action toward creation. If I had to summarize what the authority and the significance of the Bible means, I think Barth would not mind me using the following words: “God loves us. God is for us. God is with us.”
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and edited by Thomas F. Torrance and Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010. First published in 1936 by T&T Clark.
Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by G.T. Thompson and Harold Knight and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010. First published in 1956 by T&T Clark.
Barth, God Here and Now. Translated by Paul M. van Buren. New York: Routledge Classics, 2003. First published in 1964 by Theologischer Verlag Zürich.
Cunningham, Mary Kathleen. “Karl Barth.” In Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, edited by Justin S. Holcomb, 183–201. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Hunsinger, George, ed. Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.
Rhodes, Ben and Martin Westerholm, eds. Freedom Under the Word: Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.
Watson, Francis. “The Bible.” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, edited by John Webster, 57–71. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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For an account of Barth’s reception in European and North American evangelical circles, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 26–59.
Karl Barth, God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. van Buren (1964; reis., New York: Routledge Classics, 2003), 14 (emphasis in the original).
See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. Thomas F. Torrance and Geoffrey W. Bromiley (1936; reis., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 88–124; idem, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thompson and Harold Knight, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (1956; reis., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 457–740; see also Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 37–47.
See Barth, God Here and Now, 75–104.
Ibid, 62–3 (emphasis in the original).