I’m enjoying wading into Barth’s CD again after a long sojourn. Meanwhile, some of you…have compared it to reading Finnegan’s Wake, suffering a root canal or trying to make sense of Ikea directions while hungover.
It gets better. It really does.
Trying to stretch your mind around Barth’s understanding of the word of God is an important challenge here in §1.3.1.
If for no other reason, it’s important because this is the point at which Barth has so often been dismissed by conservative evangelicals.
Evangelicals jettison Barth because he refuses to simply say the words on the page of the Bible are the word of God.
What’s that about? How is scripture not the Word of God?
Barth bases his view in the distinction between the secular and sacred. The distinction for Barth has nothing to do with the subject matter itself- the secular speaks of humanity and the sacred speaks of God, for example. Instead, Barth believes what makes the sacred distinct from the secular is event:
“The ongoing event of the final distinction, the event in which God Himself acts…” (p. 48)
This event includes the creation of the church, which is the body of Christ. God has elected Christ’s body as his own sacred space. But for Barth this isn’t a past tense event, and that’s the key behind his distinction.
The church is ‘sacred space’ in that it’s involved in the on-going act of God’s holy-action. For Barth this ongoing ‘event’ of God occurs in the church’s proclamation. Preaching. God makes human words holy, sacred, that would be secular (human) without God (p. 49).
This sounds pretty evangelical, no? The Confession says, after all, that:
‘the preaching of the word of God is the Word of God.’
Preaching is where God the king speaks through the mouth of God’s herald, and as such is God’s speech, to be acted on by God’s people.
As a preacher, I like that esteemed role of preaching. As a former pew sitter, however, I know that Barth’s theological ideal rarely matches reality.
Some sermons are just plain boring and bad.
Other preachers aren’t simply bad; they preach bad news. Their preaching undermines the Kingdom rather than builds it up.
To this point, Barth adds:
Since preaching requires the action of God to be the word of God, and since God is wholly free to act or not act, then it’s the case that:
God is free to speak in unexpected places, to use shocking words and means to speak to people, like Balaam’s Ass or even, like, Joel Osteen (if he actually preached scripture), and
God is free NOT to show up in the preaching event.
Which, lamentably, happens more than we’d like it. Still though, it’s a good reminder for us.
Neither preaching nor any other ministry of the church or practice in a Christian’s life conveys grace simply by doing it.
The practices of the faith are only means by which God may choose to extend grace.
This, let us not forget, is what makes it ‘grace,’ an expected, unmerited gift.
Another point on the ‘event’ character of the word of God.
Barth’s distinction points out the deficiency in purely secular reflections on religion and the divine. Such reflections depend entirely, in Barth’s view, on our own experience. There is no voice outside themselves to whom they’re listening.
For Barth, this is where liberal/secular religion nearly always falls prey to Ludwig Feurbach’s critique that God is just a projection of our own best self-image, values and aspirations and culture.
Barth argues that scripture cannot be the word of God in and of itself- not until the ‘event’ of the Holy Spirit makes it so; otherwise, scripture would too easily become an idol graven in our image.
And since Barth wrote much of his dogmatics in Germany between the wars, his point is an auspicious one, and it’s one that any Christian living in the most powerful nation on Earth should take seriously.