Did Barth have a "low" view of Scripture?

Critics of Trinitarian (Christ-centered) Theology often charge that it comes with a "low" view of Scripture. This has frequently been leveled at Karl Barth (pictured on right) - a chief proponent of Trinitarian Theology in the 20th century. In response to this charge, I offer the following thoughts (my thanks to Joseph Tkach for sharing with me the content of point #2):

1. Trinitarian Theology does not rise or fall with Karl Barth. He was a prominent teacher of this theological vision, but certainly not the only one. The historic roots of Trinitarian Theology are found in Scripture itself, and in the teachings of the early church fathers (including Athanasius) who sought a theological vision true to the Jesus revealed in Scripture. Many teachers and theologians have articulated a Trinitarian Theology down the centuries, including in our 21st century (see the January 16, 2008 post listing contemporary theologians who advocate Trinitarian Theology).

2. I do not think it accurate to say that Karl Barth had a "low" view of Scripture. In his own statements concerning the Bible (statements which brought him into conflict with the liberalism of his day), he said things like the following:
I did not have anything new to say apart from what I had always endeavored to say: that we could have no other gods than God, that holy scripture was enough to guide the church into all truth, that the grace of Jesus Christ was enough to forgive our sins and to order our life.
As a lover of the Bible, Barth taught that it witnesses to God’s atoning love for us in Jesus Christ. While it is true that in some early writings Barth said that Scripture "becomes Word of God" (when a human subject encounters God), his later and more mature position was that Scripture becomes for us God's Word precisely because "it is Word of God." Thus Barth held that the Word of God (God's revelation) had is own objective reality - not as a human formulation of truth - but as the very being and truth of God. This truth, this self-revelation of God, then calls forth a human response.

It is helpful to note the following points when addressing unwarranted criticisms about Barth’s view of the Bible:

a) Barth is saying that the only true revelation of God is His own revelation of Himself. The revelation he gives us to perfectly reveal Himself is Jesus Christ.

b) Barth was against "bibliolatry" (biblio-idolatry). The Bible is the revelation of God to the degree that it reveals God to us in Christ - we don't worship the Bible; we worship God.

c) Barth was saying that who God is (with us and for us), and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ is the true reality and our refusals and denials of Him don't change that reality, but they do diminish our ability to understand, experience and participate in it.

d) Barth taught that we cannot define God on the basis of human reason and experience; we can only define God as He defines Himself through His own revelation of Himself (which is Jesus Christ). The Bible testifies to Jesus Christ as the highest and perfect revelation of God. In fact, that is the very purpose of the Bible according to Jesus' own words in John 5:39-40:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Comments

  1. Brother Ted,

    Thanks for this information on Barth. I have heard people criticize him for this very reason and so I think it's important for us to better understand what his views truly were on scripture.

    In His BIG Grace,
    Paul David

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  2. I don’t think the Evangelical complaint against Barth is that he had a low view of Scripture. I think most feel he had a high view of Scripture. The complaint is that he didn’t hold to Scripture as having authority in and of itself (ie being infallible or inerrant). It is difficult to understand all Barth says about the Scriptures, but the majority of Evangelical scholars (I’ve read anyway) who comment on Barth’s view of Scripture indicate Barth believed the Bible to witness to Christ but did not regard it as 100% of God’s revelation. In fact, most of his supporters I’ve read don’t believe he subscribed to an infallible view of Scripture. In on of his more straightforward statements concerning the Scriptures in Church Dogmatics, he says, “It witnesses to a revelation from God, but that does not mean that God’s revelation is now before us in any kind of inherent quality of being divinely revealed. The Bible is not a book of oracles; it is not an instrument of direct impartation. It is really witness.” Karl Barth, “Church Dogmatics”, Volume 1, Part 2, T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1956, page 507.

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  3. Part of the issue that Todd raises involves the use of the words "infallible" and "inerrant" in speaking of the nature of Biblical inspiration/authority. There is a complex history to the debate within Christendom focused on these words.

    Barth, at times (I think unfairly) is the "whipping boy" for those who insist that the Bible must be viewed as "innerant." In my view, the debate over the use of these words is more political than pracitcal; often producing more "smoke" than "light" - and usually going way beyond what the Bible says about itself.

    The WCG Statement of Beliefs says that, "The Holy Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, the faithful witness to the gospel, and the true and accurate record of God's revelation to humanity. As such, the Holy Scriptures are infallible and are foundational to the church in all matters of doctrine and godly living."

    Note that the Bible is described as "infallible" as "the true and accurate record of God's revelation to humanity." If I understand Barth correctly, this is what he is saying (though he often uses different words, and I'm no expert on Barth). Note that the WCG statement is that God's revelation to humanity is not the Bible in itself, but what the Bible attests to, namely Jesus, the Word of God who is, in himself, the full and final revelation of God to humanity. It is this Christ centered approach to all things (Scripture included) that characterized Barth's theology.

    The WCG has some very helpful and balanced articles on the topic of the Bible - you will find them online at:

    www.wcg.org/lit/disc/25Bible.htm
    www.wcg.org/lit/bible/truthor.htm
    www.wcg.org/lit/bible/inspirat.htm

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  4. Could you provide a link to the 21st Century teachers and theologians you mentioned in point #1? I looked at the January 2016 entries but didn't find any mention of them.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the question. the post your looking for with the list of theologians is the January 16, 2008 post. You'll find it at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2008/01/key-points-trinitarian-christ-centered.html

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    2. Thanks for your quick reply, Ted. Would you also know of and recommend any commentaries that tackle biblical exegesis from a Trinitarian hermeneutic? I find Trinitarian Theology refreshing to my soul, but can't find much that answers my exegetical questions. My head is giving me points of resistance! While this blog is helpful -- many thanks :) -- practically every resource I find is either scholarly or popular (Barth and Torrance vs. C. Baxter Kruger, The Great Dance; Steve McVey, Beyond an Angry God). On both levels, the presentation seems theological or philosophical, not exegetical. I'm not a theologian, so I have difficulty sifting through the vocabulary to understand what's being said when it's intellectual, and regarding Baxter and McVey, I love their books because they make this message accessible and it "feeds my heart" so to speak, but my head is trying to catch up and needs to know that it is staying true to the teaching of the Apostles.

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    3. I wish there were commentaries like you're looking for. Barth has written a few (Romans being the most notable), but, as you suggest, quite academic. What I would suggest, is that you read the two-volume work by T.F. Torrance: "Incarnation (the person and the life of Christ)" and "Atonement (the person and the work of Christ)." These volumes comprise a systematic theology that does comment a good deal on verses of Scripture. For commentary on Jesus' parables, read "Kingdom, Grace, Judgement" by Robert F. Capon.

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    4. One more thing, Stringchopper, I produce an email publication called "Sermon Series" that provides sermons that go through whole books of the Bible. These are written based on an Incarnational, Trinitarian understanding of Scripture. I'm currently going through Ephesians. Email me at Ted.Johnston@gci.org and I'll send you the sermons to date in that series and subscribe you to the email list so you'll get future ones.

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