Listening to the witnesses – Barth on the Bible

Posted: March 3, 2012 by J in Book review
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(continued from previous post)

In his 2nd chapter, The Witnesses, Barth considers the biblical writers as witnesses to God’s revelation, culminating in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ:

their theme was God’s mighty Word spoken in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which imparted to his life and death power and control over all creatures of all times.

The early church communities then accepted this witness as ‘canonical’:

they were the first to acknowledge this collection as genuine and authoritative testimony to the one Word of God.

But the witnesses were also theologians, doing theology, i.e. they shared “a common concern for human response to the divine Word”.  So as students of theology we can also learn good theological method from them, learn “the method of a human thought and speech as they are oriented to the Word of God.”

But the apostolic witness should always be given a norming or testing role in our theology. Our work is subject to correction by them! Also, theology has no other source material to turn to for the Word of God: only Scripture.

This witness is not uniform but very varied and ‘polyphonic’, reflecting the richness of God himself. The Word of God is not revealed or witnessed to equally in all parts of Scripture. Theology’s primary task is to search the Scriptures for their witness to the Word of God.


Barth in some ways comes across as a very conservative Protestant. Not much time for church traditions of the gospel here: Scripture alone! Theology to submit to Scripture, etc. He of course sees God revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

But here is where he makes his contribution. If God is revealed in history and in a man then the book is not the primary revelation. If it were it would detract from the uniqueness of Jesus and his resurrection. To whatever extent the book is revelatory, that revelation is of a second-order or derivative sort. The book is revelatory in the sense that it contains faithful testimony to God’s revelation in Christ.

BUT that testimony is not equally present throughout Scripture. It is much more clearly present in the Gospels than in Esther, for example. Or to put in in Barth’s terms, it is an open question to what extent any given Scripture contains the Word of God.

What Barth has done is to open a gap or distance between Word of God and Scripture. Now before you have a cow and cry ‘liberal!’, he’s not doing that so as to wriggle out of obeying Scriptures he doesn’t like. He sees Scripture as authoritative anyway: just not all in a Word of God, revelation of God way.

What that gap does is allow Barth to take account of the progressive and historical nature of revelation. God revealed himself differently at different times (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). If you close the gap and identify Scripture with Word of God, it’s pretty difficult to maintain progressive revelation: Genesis and John are then equally Word of God.

The gap also allows Barth to recognise that the witnesses were doing other things besides witness to the Word. They were also doing theology. The human response stuff. Like Paul explaining to churches what it means to trust Jesus in their situation – that sort of stuff.

What the gap between Word of God and Bible prevents him from doing is treating any Scripture as Word of God, as revelatory, apart from the way it witnesses to Christ. In other words it pushes him to an extremely Christo-centric approach to the whole Bible. And that makes him do a lot of work. There is always a big question to be asked of any Scripture: which he calls ‘the question about the Word.’ He can’t just read Genesis and say ‘this is the Word of God’. He has to ask, ‘how and to what extent is this pointing to and revealing the Word of God?’ As Barth puts it,

Just how far [the Word] stands there [in a text] is a fact that demands unceasing discovery, interpretation, and recognition. It demands untiring effort…blood and tears.

Barth’s view of what to do with the Bible is much more active and dynamic than the one I was taught. It’s much less cut and dried, more engaged and demanding. We can just lazily read out the text and say ‘this is the Word of God’ and sit down thinking God’s Word has been announced and heard, whether or not anyone thought about Jesus. Barth can’t do that – he has to start investigating!

I’m not sure if I like this! But one thing I do like: for Barth the Bible doesn’t function as a rival locus of revelation, competing with Jesus Christ. For us in my tradition, it does.

What are the down sides of Barth’s view?

Continued HERE

  1. I was reading this book last year as well, and I think you’ve really nailed it with your review. I also think that the gold is in the first section – definitely wish that I’d read it earlier.

    I think perhaps that one possible downside of Barth’s view is that it may render Scripture more passive in the way that it shapes us. I totally agree that the Incarnate Word transforms our approach to the Written Word. Without Jesus you have an ontological and relational gap that leaves the text in the uneasy state of testifying to the truth but unable to affect change. Reformed theology has always interpreted Scripture as the locus between God and Humanity, by which God places a call on the elect by the Spirit. The Written Word lives because the Incarnate Word lives. Taking Barth’s view changes the text from being the place where God wrestles with us to the place where we wrestle with God. Barth can get away with this because he places a high emphasis on the content of the text, but this is not a prerequisite. However, I can also see why Barth would go this way, as too often those in the Reformed tradition have seen Scripture as fundamentally Propositional instead of Relational and Transforming.

    I’m sure others can express my concerns better than I can, but this is just my initial reaction.

  2. Charlie Ellis says:

    Hey Jono, interesting summary of Barth’s ideas. They are probably feelings or suspicions that most Christians have felt or had an inkling of at some point in their walk with Jesus, but just never developed them fully. I haven’t heard them articulated so clearly though – good work!

    I guess a simple difficulty I see with Barth’s proposition is that of how does the reader access the kernel of the Word (if that makes sense)? It is often difficult enough for trained people, let alone laiety, to feel they can understand a passage of scripture fully for themselves. For Barth to (understandably) suggest that within any passage of scripture there are now two components – the ‘Word’ along with the author’s own theology – can make a difficult task, seemingly more weighty. I guess that is why Barth talks about approaching scripture with blood and tears.

    Does Barth give insight into how one accesses the kernel, or does he just leave it as an open question?

    Interested to know you thoughts.


    • Jonathan says:

      Great comment, Charlie. I agree it does make things seem more difficult in some ways. And I share your query about distinguishing the Word from human response to it in the Scriptural writings. It’s worth emphasising that Barth is not denying apostolic authority: it’s all still inspired Scripture, just that it has two sorts of thing in it.

      I think Barth would say that the Word of God is the testimony about God’s acts towards us, especially as they are focussed and fulfilled in Jesus. In whatever way Scripture points us to God’s works of salvation, it functions as Word of God. The difficultly then is to see how different parts of Scripture relate to and point to Christ.

      But you know, I think we are already there in our thinking here in Sydney. Goldsworthy and company have been telling us to read the Bible in that way for donkeys’ years. I’ve heard it described by a senior figure at Moore college like this: “the Bible taken as a whole is the Word of God. Strictly speaking the individual parts are only the Word of God when treated as part of that whole. And the whole is about Christ.” The result of that sort of thinking is going to be similar to Barth’s approach: you’re working hard with Scripture to understand its connection to the Word of God, the gospel.

      It does seem hard to place burdens on the shoulders of ordinary Bible-readers! But if the Bible is that sort of book, then ‘to understand a passage of scripture fully for themselves’ means seeing what is says about Jesus. I think it might encourage us to read and discuss and search and investigate Scripture together, rather than thinking we can read and understand it fully if we only read it by ourselves.

      But I wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage people from reading the bible themselves!

      • Charlie Ellis says:

        Thanks for the extension of Barth’s ideas, with your own twist. I think it makes sense!



  3. Ben Hudson says:

    This is all very interesting. I read that book pre-college. Clearly I gained almost nothing from it and I need to re-read it.

    A few questions have been raised for me.
    First, what is preaching? Declaring the word, or doing theology?

    Secondly, as you say, it is easier to see how Genesis needs to be read Christo-centrically in order to really hear the Word – not surprising that our Biblical Theological instincts are at their best in the OT. But clearly there’s a lot of theology going on for John, or Paul as well. Do we really need to get past that in some way to get to the Word? Or can theologising and declaring, responding and revealing be one and the same act – especially when we’re talking about inspired scripture?

    This is what you said in the previous post isn’t it (depending on what you mean by the word ‘proper’)… ‘There are two things, then: the Word of God, which theology must acknowledge AND SPEAK, and then theology proper, which is our human response.’

    If the answer is ‘yes’, that would help with the preaching question.

    • Jonathan says:

      Ben, I think these are important questions. I wish I were clearer on the answers! In such a brief book, Barth leaves many matters unexplained. How would his distinction work in practice? If theology is about speaking the Word of God in clear language, what is the distinction between Word and theological response? Would Barth say that part of our response is to repeat the Word? And so this is part of theology? I’m guessing he would say that.

      In which case our preaching can be considered ‘doing theology’ and, as part of that, ‘declaring the Word’.

      Re your question about the Gospels, I think Barth is saying that the writers are wanting to give their witness (first or second-hand) to Jesus, announce plainly what God did and is doing with and through Jesus. But they are doing more than this also. Luke, to pluck an example out of the air (!), is clearly entering into some contemporary debates and telling the Jesus story as a way of contributing to them. He makes point after point about the implications of the Jesus story for the Gentile mission, for Christians’ relationship to Jews and Judaism, and for the place of the poor and marginalised in the kingdom of God (= church community). And all this while hardly ever inserting authorial argument or comment! His theology is almost fully integrated into his ‘witness to the Word’. The Word is not buried underneath reams of theologising. It’s more the opposite. If you had say which was surface and which ‘hidden’, the Word layer is on the surface, and the theology is in some ways underneath. At least less obvious.

      So it’s not a case of ‘getting past the theology to get to the Word’ – almost the opposite.

      That’s how it seems to me to be working in Luke, at any rate.

      So when you ask, ‘can theologising and declaring, responding and revealing be one and the same act’, I think in Luke the answer is definitely ‘yes’. They can.

      And maybe that does give us clues about our preaching, as you say.

      Thoughts about other Gospels, anyone?

      • Ben Hudson says:

        Thanks for your extended reply, Jono. I’m inclined to agree, and I think that observation narrows Barth’s ‘gap’ somewhat – not in a way that removes the helpfulness of the distinction he’s making, but in a way that means we can still say that scripture is revelation.

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