Is it possible to be continually seeking scripture as the rule for faith and practice without becoming a “fundamentalist”? (And by fundamentalist, here, I mean what we all usually mean: someone to the right of us theologically whom we don’t particularly like.)
I wrestle with this question a great deal. I believe in the normativity of scripture for governing Christian faith and life, but I also recognize that the church has to continue listening afresh, and not allow itself to think that repeating the words of an earlier generation will maintain its vitality or faithfulness to God.
Here is where Karl Barth’s pervasive insistence on the active grace of God can come into play, driving us back to the text, yes, but doing so to listen afresh for the word of God to become living and active in our sphere.
Church Dogmatics §21.1 is devoted to “The Freedom of the Word.” Here, as so often, Barth has his gaze cast in two seemingly opposite directions at once: the Roman Catholic Church and Modern Protestantism.
To those who have a strong sense of both tradition and ecclesial authority as such, Barth has a strong word of caution that we must not think that ossified statements of theology or church law will be for us the voice of God. The word is free within the church to command the church. The word of God cannot be controlled.
And, if the church decides to listen to itself rather than the word, then it has failed to be the true church–the place where God speaks and reveals.
This, then, becomes a word of warning for liberal Protestantism that looks too much to human effort in historical criticism or human activity in the world in general and fails to recognize both that the Word of God comes in the freedom of God, and that God has chosen the sphere of the church as the sphere of revelation.
These words of warning reach out to the would-be evangelical church as well.
We, no less than the Roman Catholic church, think that our tradition of biblical interpretation is, itself, what the Bible says. But we must not allow that to keep us from returning to the Bible as the sphere within which God is free to speak in such a way as to shatter what we thought we knew. We, no less than neo-Protestantism, must not think that our own mastery of the grammar and history and archaeology of scripture will dictate for us what God would say to the church.
So while the complaint of folks to the right has often been that Barth’s doctrine of scripture undermines its objective reality as the word of God, the response of Barth that scripture maintains its role as subject that speaks the word of God is more than compelling. It leaves scripture in the hand of God–never to be mastered by us, but always in a position to master us, and speak to us, and command obedience from us, afresh.