Scripture Is What Church Isn’t

I need to come back to Barth §20, to explore a bit more how he works out the relationship of authority in the church to scripture, creed, and church in general.

This authentic copy of revelation and this authentic model of obedience to it is therefore the content of the witness of the prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture. It is therefore true that Holy Scripture is the Word of God for the Church, that it is Jesus Christ for us, as He Himself was for the prophets and apostles during the forty days. (544)

This manner of standing in for Jesus Barth is not willing to share with any.

He acknowledges that as early as Irenaeus there is an appeal to a tradition outside the written text, a supplement to what scripture does not tell us completely–and this tradition is a coequal authority by the fourth and fifth centuries. But there is evidence on the other side as well–and Barth insists that fidelity to Christ who has spoken through the prophets and apostles entails siding with this latter evidence in favor of scriptural primacy.

Barth’s theology of inscripturation is that those who were witnesses to the Word who is the revelation of God mediated the word which is the witness of that revelation. That witness is in the church as scripture, and thus holds primacy of place as the mediator of the Christ to whom it witnesses. Since Christ has ascended, we might summarize, there is no more direct revelation and therefore the church cannot claim for itself the same authoritative role as scripture holds for itself (552-53).

Digging back into Irenaeus, Barth maintains that setting up tradition alongside scripture as an authority would lead inevitably to the Catholic position of setting up the church itself as a third pillar (564-5). Those who know my strong reservations about the Rule of Faith as a controlling authority can imagine my delight at finding such an ally.

But this does not lead Barth either away from the church or to a reckless abandonment to the church’s witness to biblical revelation!

With both canon itself and the church’s Creeds, Barth asks us to take seriously that we would not have a canon to fight over, and wouldn’t have a faith to hear, were it not for the church speaking to us, fulfilling its commission to speak the word of God.

What is tremendous about how Barth holds things together in §20 is this: he demands respect for the church’s decisions, that we humbly acknowledge that without these we would not have heard the word, and at the same time will not allow them to attain to the same permanence that scripture as the word of God has as the continuing voice of God upon the earth.

The canon can, at least in theory, be changed. We receive it as an on-going act of faith in response to the voice of God we hear in it. And we do not abandon it based on our own, or our group’s own, dissatisfaction with one part.

The creeds can, at least in theory, be challenged. They never stand as the norm by which scripture is judged, or even, ultimately, the norm by which our faith is judged. They stand as summary interpretations of scripture and therefore always under scripture and subject to critique by what is heard from the Bible.

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me if I objected to the creeds being recited in worship. I have a concern about it, to be sure–that we will wrongly think of ourselves as the people who fall within the creed rather than thinking of ourselves as the people who fall within the story of Christ. And these are different!

And yet, these statements have been spoken with the voice of the church throughout the ages as a testimony to our solidarity as one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. They remind us that our God’s story wraps up the story of Jesus. They remind us that the hope of humanity is the resurrection of the dead.

So while I do not want them as rules of our faith, I find them valuable as testimonies to what the church needed to say then and there–and, if appropriately historicized, guides to how we might think about what it means to say what we must say here and now.

Barth manages to demand that scripture be what the church should never be: our canon. And he does so without retreating into historically problematic ideas about the relationship between scripture and canon that sometimes plagues Protestant attempts to delineate their relationship to the church.

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