§1.4 is Barth’s unfolding of his 3-Fold Form of the Word of God.
To give context to those sections, I thought it would be helpful to repost an earlier reflection I wrote this summer on Barth’s understanding of scripture as the word which testifies to the Word.
According to Barth, when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ we’re actually referring to multiple forms. John’s Gospel, after all, refers to Jesus as the Word of God, does it not?
How are we to think of Jesus-as-the Word in relation to scripture as God’s Word?
Barth used the image of three concentric circles, which he called the three-fold form of the Word of God. In the inner, centermost circle Barth places the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.
Next, Barth places the Word of God as testified to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church, which we call scripture. Finally, in the outer circle Barth places the Word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church.
By arranging the Word of God in this way, Barth successfully illustrated that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.
Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation.
The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God.
They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. They require the event of God’s grace to make them a faithful testimony to the Word.
Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.
At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies.
Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.
Barth’s model provides the framework for Christians to concede that scripture is not without error.
Scripture does contain geographical and historical errors.
The Gospels do have different and at times contradictory chronologies.
Its depiction of God is not always consistent or easily juxtaposed with other texts.
Translators make decisions, not always without an agenda for their own.
Traditions have different canons.
There are many questions we ask that scripture is simply not interested in answering.
None of this should be threatening to Christians, however, precisely because the Word is a mediated revelation. Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.
In other words, Barth’s three-fold form secures our recognition that we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.
Barth’s three-fold form also gives us grounds for both humility and pride.
It gives us cause for humility in that it forces us to recognize how our apprehension of the Word is mediated to us by the proclamation and interpretation of the Church.
In the same way that scripture contains textual errors, it should surprise no one that the Church contains fallible people. The Church has included both saints and sinners from the very beginning.
Our access to the Word both is enabled and limited by those who have come before us (and those among us today). Our convictions about ‘what scripture says’ are never without the residue of historical, cultural and personal bias. As Paul writes, we never cease seeing the Word through a prism darkly.
That the Word is mediated to us through something so fallible as the Church, however, is a cause for joy too for by God’s own choosing we have a role in the revelation of God’s Word. God has chosen to disclose his Word through the matrix of humanity, first by taking flesh in Christ and second by taking flesh in us. No Church, no Word of God.
Scripture, then, is no less incarnational than Jesus.
In scripture and its proclamation, the eternal Word takes on the finitude and fallibility of followers like you and me.
And just as this gives us pause in all our certitudes, it is also good news.