Archives For 3 Fold Form of the Word of God

Portrait Karl Barth§23.1

If nothing else, Karl Barth provides a needful salve for the Christian blogosphere.

The sheer breadth and length of Barth’s Dogmatics could fool you. Despite how much hot air Barth devotes to theology, Barth believes theology’s primary task is to listen.

Listening, for Barth, entails the Church standing as subject under the word which testifies to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. But for Barth, this ‘listening’ is not like listening to the Nixon tapes or to a Taylor Swift mp3. Because the word witnesses to the Living Word, ‘listening’ to what God speaks through scripture is always a listening afresh. Ironically, Barth argues that treating scripture as the words God said (versus the words God uses to say) inescapably risks wandering from God’s word.

Those most beholden to a wooden doctrine of scripture as the (once-for-all) Word of God are those most vulnerable to straying from the word God speaks through scripture today.

§23.1 of the CD in a nutshell:

God speaks in Christ the Logos and the word of scripture which testifies to the Logos,  but God speaks still in the word that is the proclamation of the Logos in Church.

That’s Barth’s 3-Fold Form of the Word of God, still a cure for whatever form of conservative or liberal fundamentalism may afflict your faith.

Nevertheless, a part of me (the Thomistic, Wesleyan part) recoils at the way Barth so thoroughly equates obedience to the Word with right speech and right doctrine about God. What’s been a persistent note throughout volume 1 of the CD here becomes a more obvious and dominant theme in §23.1 as Barth turns to the mode of ‘listening.’

Barth goes all in with dogma here:

“the existence of an orderly Church dogmatics is the unfailingly effective and only possible instrument of peace in the church.”

I suspect the equivalency Barth draws between obedience to the Word and right dogmatics about God is why my commitment to re-reading the CD has foundered of late. As opposed to the witness of his life, there’s no sense in this volume of the CD that obedience to the Word entails doing as much as it does dogma.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear at all. Because…

Christians in the West- blue or red, liberal or conservative- are in absolutely zero danger of being regarded as sufficiently zealous for their dogma.

Too many Christians today equate discipleship with possessing the ‘faithful’ position on a given issue. For the most part Christians are known for what or who they’re against- or what or who they’re for- either of which are largely declarations of doctrine and not reflections upon Christian doing.

So maybe Barth’s riff on ‘listening’ here isn’t what the Christian blogosphere- or the Western Church in general- needs to hear because, the truth is, we’re so bad at listening to others.

And each other.


As much as I flinch at the way Barth likens listening to God with right dogma about God, §23.1 has gotten me thinking.

The first centuries of the Church were given to establishing the bounds of correct Christian belief, and for understandable reasons. The ancient Church’s discernment has bequeathed us the creeds, which provide us the contours of ‘orthodoxy.’ The ancient Church’s resultant debates have identified for us heresies, those beliefs which fall beyond our right praise of God.

But the creeds reflect the time and place and uncertainties of the Church which gave them to us.

Is Christ God or man?

Is God One or three?

From whom does the Spirit come?

Reading §23.1 I can’t help but think-

We who are so good at dogma about Jesus but so bad at doing like Jesus could use a creed for our time and place.

One that defines ortho-praxy with the same degree of precision as the Nicene creed unpacks the immanent Trinity.

We could use a new creed that could help us, who are so preoccupied with policing beliefs, name heresies of Christian action with the same sort of specificity the Donatist heresy spelled out wrong belief.

What would an ortho-praxis creed for our place and time and uncertainty look like?

‘….we believe an ungenerous person is not really a Christ-follower…’

What about someone who never actually prays? Or refuses to forgive their ex? Or give up their racism? Can one support state-sponsored execution and still be said to worship the state-executed Jesus? What of sex? Drones? The unborn? War?

Is everything sans ‘belief’ in Christ just up for grabs, left to be shaded according to one’s personal political hue?


What would it look like if the same sort of consensus on praxis was demanded across Christ’s Body that was once demanded on dogma?

Yes, it would take long to hammer out such consensus- it did then.

Yes, it would be painful and costly- it was then.

After all, if Barth’s right, if those beholden to a God spoke in the past perspective risk straying from God’s Living Word, then those of us who don’t think our new place and time and uncertainty might require a new kind of creed risk the very same thing.

1101620420_400I’ve falled behind on my Reading Barth with Me schedule. I caught up this morning and will be posting in the days ahead.

§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.