26.3.14

Barth influenced Bible-reading


Tomorrow I have my last training day as a curate and we are being asked about how we engage with the Bible. We have been asked to fill out a questionnaire that was significant in 2009 inspired by Walter Brueggemann's 'Re-describing Reality: What we do when we read the Bible.'

Brueggemann believes we are best placed to engage with Scripture when we can overcome propensities to fundamentalism and rationalistic reductionism, ‘the tyranny of the academy’. Brueggemannn also warns against privatising or politicizing the bible.

Tomorrow we will probably be reminded once again about how important it is to acknowledge our presuppositions and baggage and that there is no such thing, this side of heaven, as a plain reading and in heaven, quite frankly, we probably won't need the book any more! 

We have had to fill out a questionnaire whose objective, I guess, is to expose some of these presuppositions, about which the questioner might assume we have, up to this point, been blissfully unaware.

I wonder if I will have an opportunity to explore how Karl Barth has been the theologian who has most impacted the way that I read scripture.

Barth's theology centres on the person of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord, King and Head, Reconciler and Redeemer.

In God's grace he put to death the 'No' to sin in Jesus Christ's crucifixion and raised up the mighty 'Yes' to new life in his resurrection. Jesus Christ is victor. The gift poured out is the Son; it is the YES! It is the affirmative which defeats the negative. In recognising this we are compelled to praise God and love those who share this truth so that commandments to love God and our neighbour are satisfied.

Barth exhorts us to reflect on the origins that we have in God. We must start with a Christology from above which has Jesus Christ as our contact point with God. By him and through him we understand ourselves as God's children. By his revelation this is revealed. Not through anything else. Barth reacts from the outset against his predecessors for whom 'revelation of God by God Himself has been exchanged for the discovery of God by Man.'1

Barth's is a theology which begins with the presupposition that God exists. Barth does not engage in apologetics, it is assumed that the reader believes in God. Christ is truth because God has personally revealed himself in Christ. Barth, who would have read and studied Anselm, shares Anselm's “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.”2 Barth is not therefore preoccupied with trying to prove that Jesus Christ is both human and divine through a  thorough analysis of scripture. He simply articulates that this is the case, grasped by faith. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth explains how 'His [Jesus Christ's] history is a question which gives its own answer, a puzzle which contains its own solution, a secret which is in process of its own disclosure.” 3. There is something self-authenticating about Christ.

For Barth confession of Christ is an ongoing dialogue about the ultimate ongoing dialogue: the one that is being conducted between God and humanity, through Jesus Christ. We participate in the sacred speech act with prayer (about man and addressed to God) and sermon (about God and addressed to man). Barth champions theology as response to God's grace and the freedom by which he came in humanity in the event of Jesus Christ. The Jesus Christ event; his incarnation, is emphasised over and above Christ's work because it includes Christ's work. 
Christ is as God, man's partner and as man, God's partner. 
Christ is the Word, spoken (as God and by God) and heard (as a human and by humanity). 
Christ is mediator and reconciler. 
Barth juxtaposes various expressions of being (humiliated and exalted, Lord and servant, crucifed and risen) and attributes them to the only one big enough to contain them: Jesus Christ.

The pastoral implications of Barth's Christology

Pastorally, the implications of Barth's Christology are positive. Christ is the answer to any 'otherness' of God. God in his 'majesty' should not propel us towards feelings of 'hopelessness', just as God in his humanity does nothing to rob God of his glory. Jesus Christ is fully human (bar sin) and fully divine and this is to the glory of man. God, in love, transferred his divine expression to humanity to such an extent that Calvin's concentration on our depravity seems unbalanced. God, in his freedom, has chosen to partner with humanity. The Church in a similar way, must affirm the members of its congregations for they are the partners of a loving Lord.

The missional implications of Barth's Christology

As regards the Church's mission and Barth's 'Humanity of God', this book might do much to satisfy the yearnings of a post-modern culture, which whilst seeking, question the means by which people arrive at truth. For Barth, revelation lies in something beyond the powers of human reasoning, tradition and experience. Barth, like today's post-modern culture, was always questioning the anthropocentric foundations upon which theologians proposed so certainly to 'know'.

Barth's inclusivity

Today's generatiion might also be much captured by Barth's inclusivity - all are saved, some of us just do not realise it yet!. This can be missionally persuasive. I have told my congregations that if God loves us before the foundation of the world and seeks to save us all, then the role for people in the church is to get out there and help people who do not know God yet to catch up with the news that he loves them and has already saved them. With Barth, there appears to be no doctrine of a predestined elect from which stasis could arise - an apathy to do nothing because it's all been fixed anyway is just not an option left open to us. Instead it is our job to treat every human being 'as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother'5 and make known to each their sacred sibling connection if they are unaware of it.  Barth has been accused of Universalism because for him Christ is the rejected and the elected and we are all recipients of salvation. Pastorally, the implication, for the Church, is that no-one is beyond reach because 'we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.'6 This empowers mission which is a huge positive.

Concluding thoughts
Personally, I find Barth's thinking about the Bible refreshing. The Bible remains highly honoured and indeed the starting place for all that Barth has to say but the Bible is not to be reduced to systematics. Scripture's purpose is to mediate knowledge of God by its witness to Jesus Christ, it isn't to be employed as some kind of theological system rationalised and fixed for consumption, it is instead the place from where God speaks.

Primary text
Barth K, The Humanity of God, USA, WJK, 1960

Bibliography
Runia K., Karl Barth and the Word of God, Theological Students Fellowship, Leicester,1998
M J Charlesworth, St Anselm's Proslogion, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1965
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3/1 (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961

Footnotes

1Runia K., Karl Barth and the Word of God, pp.2-3

2Charlesworth, M. J. , St Anselm's Proslogion, p.115.

3 Bromiley and Torrance (editors) Barth, K, Church Dogmatics, IV/3/1, pp.46-47

4Barth K, The Humanity of God, p.47

5Barth K, The Humanity of God, p.53

6Ibid p.62

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