Authority, Scripture, Creed

Blogsphere confessional: I realize that I am often not at my best when I am trying to work out the relationships among bible, theology, and church authority. I do too much “not this but that” rather than “this and also that.” The whole project of reading through the Church Dogmatics was meant, in part, to keep me wrestling with and appreciating good theology.

In §20, Barth is wrestling with the very issues that have been driving me insane for the past decade or so: where does church authority come from? What does it mean and look like to have scripture as ultimate authority? What does this mean for our confessions about the canon as it stands? And what does it mean for the creeds that speak to us of what the church has said defines it and its beliefs?

This section is beautiful, because Barth the dogmatician (i.e., the one who seeks to say within the church what the church is truly saying about God) demands that we not surrender for one minute the Reformation principle that the Bible as the word of God is the church’s authority. This means that the authority will not be shared or usurped by church or creed.

And, it is only within the church that we meet this Bible as a Bible, as holy scripture; and before we could even say anything good or ill about a creed it must come to us as the church’s proclamation that this is what it believes.

Barth manages to advocate a hermeneutical spiral that deals with the reality of the church as the primary locus of God’s speech and as the primary mediators of the word, that deals with the reality of the Bible as something that is only the book it is because of the church, while demanding that we never lose our evangelical and Protestant moorings by allowing the church to have either a final word over the scriptures, or even a co-equal word alongside it.

Let me try that again: the canon (!), church, and creeds are important, but are always subject to correction and stand under the authority of scripture as the word of God.

But this authority of scripture is a derivative authority. It is only because Jesus is Lord that the Christian Bible has authority (§20.1). For there even to be a church is not to have a bunch of people sitting around reading the Bible. The Society of Biblical Literature is not the church. Where the church really is the church it is a people living in obedient relationship to Jesus Christ.

One reason I trust Barth is that he keeps demanding that people be actively responding to the story of Jesus if they are going to claim for themselves the prerogative of bearing the name of the church. Where the more recent conservative move has been to say that we have the word in the Bible itself, and therefore as the possessors and readers and expositors of the word we are the emissaries of God, Barth suggests the reverse.

To be the people of God is not to posses and master the Word, but to be possessed and mastered by it.

To be in the presence of scripture is not to have laid hold of what is pristine and to derive one’s validity from that possession. It is to be in the presence of something human in every sense that the word “human” conveys in a fallen world: limited, fragile, sinful. And yet, it is also be in the presence of something that, though very human, is the instrument that God in God’s grace chooses in order to speak and draw and otherwise mediate the authority of the resurrected Lord Jesus.

Christ sits enthroned above all, and God speaks this Word through the word that is scripture. The word has authority because of this dynamic use to which God puts it, to which we believe he puts it, as God calls us to obey. And the church’s own authority rests under both of these: the written word which mediates and the God who speaks through it.

More needs to be said about how this relates to church authority and creeds in particular. But the focus on word, and obeying the word, rather than believing a creed or submitting to a church, enables Barth to cultivate a vision for what the church is, what Christianity is, that has an inherent ethic.

This has the power to overcome the failure that has beset the church in general and Protestantism in particular for most of its history.

“The existence of the church of Jesus Christ stands or falls with the fact that it obeys as the apostles and prophets obeyed their Lord. It stands or falls with the known and actual antithesis of man and revelation, which cannot be reversed, in which man receives, learns, submits, and is controlled, in which he has a Lord and belongs to Him wholly and utterly.”

Yes. That.

Now, how do we define Church and Christian such that this kind of obedience lies at the core of its identity?

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