… then why not get the whole church to say you’re right?
That’s a large part of Barth’s challenge to the church, and particular groups within it, as he wraps up the seemingly interminable §20, “Authority in the Church.”
Backing up, part of the reason why Barth commends the Creeds as worthy of the church’s respect is that these have been spoken by the church, in accordance with scripture, against whatever positions it was waging its theological wars in the past. A Creed is formed when the church as a whole feels compelled not only to say “yes” to what the church always agrees to, but also to say “no” to what it sees as an aberration in its teaching.
In this section, Barth commends the creeds, in part, because those who offered them were willing to subject their judgments to the judgment of the whole church, and because the church as a whole has been willing to affirm them, and because the church as a whole has been willing to say no to the alternatives.
He notes throughout that the neo-Protestantism that was arising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries never attempted creedal status for its reconfigured understanding of Jesus. Barth suggests that this in itself is reason to privilege the creeds over the latest scholarly labors.
A few days ago I wrote about the importance of community context for maintaining faith. I experienced a similar dynamic at work here. What I mean is this: it is easy for me to have my appreciation for the creeds marred by history: knowing the circumstances, the way the opponents were treated, and the like makes me suspicious of the writers and their work at times. Barth is aware of this history, acknowledges it, recognizes its power to call the creeds into question, and yet still maintains that we should acknowledge them as the words of those who are within the church and testifying to the voice of holy scripture.
I still hold onto some of my reservations, but engaging the difficulties in a context in which they are still honored was helpful.
In all, I found Barth’s vision of the place of the creeds within the church compelling–and I think it is because he refused to treat them as a rule of faith. A rule of faith is, by definition, a measure by which we assess biblical interpretation and teaching as either conforming to the Christian faith or not.
Barth will not allow the creeds to take this place of precedence over scripture.
The authority they have is as first commentary on scripture, not as lens by which the scripture must be understood. And that is what their relationship must always be.