I get asked this every now and then. I’m not a Barthian. The most notable problem is his view of Scripture (at least that’s what alarms evangelicals the most). Thomas McCall gives a fine presentation and critique of Barth’s view of Scripture.
The Classical View: Scripture has divine properties (holiness, etc) in addition to those properties it has in virtue of having human authors (McCall 171).
Barth’s Actualist Doctrine
“As Hunsinger describes it, actualism ‘at the most general level…means that (Barth) thinks primarily in terms of events and relationships rather than monadic or self-contained substances’.10 Characteristic of Barth’s theology is his repeated (and forceful) insistence that ‘God’s being is in his act and his act in his being.’ (173).
For Barth Scripture has its being in becoming. But McCall notes some problems with this:
“ Barth wants to say that scripture truly is the Word of God while still insisting on the primacy of divine action, but his actualism actually appears to hurt him here. Taken as a claim to the sober truth, it makes little sense to talk about scripture becoming what it already is, and it makes even less sense to speak of scripture not being or not becoming what it truly is. At best it is both mysterious and opaque” (175).
McCall says this resembles occasionalism, which he defines as one of the following two options (176):
(O1) For any state of affairs p and time t, if (i) there is any substance that causally contributes to p’s obtaining at t and (ii) no created substance is a free cause of p at t, then God is a strong active cause of p at t.
(O2) No material substance has any active or passive causal power at all.
(O2) seems to obtain for Barth, at least in points. For him the Bible doesn’t have any active power, since God is the acting agent. And it doesn’t have any passive power, and I am not sure what that would look like. But there is another problem lurking: Barth’s view of Scripture has parallels to his Christology, and what does occasionalism do to his Christology? McCall notes:
“The revealed Word is never without flesh, it is never separated from the humanity of the man Jesus. But, on Barth’s account, the written Word sometimes is separated from the humanity of the Bible, for sometimes the Bible does not ‘become’ what it ‘is’. If this is so, then Barth again loses his ability to appeal to the ‘threefold form of the Word’. Moreover, according to Barth’s own Christology, in Jesus Christ the revealed Word the human nature indeed is causally active, for the Word of God is seen in the ‘humanity of God’.28 If the humanity of the God-man is not causally active, then Barth loses his claim to ‘Chalcedonian’ Christology.29 On the other hand, if the humanity of the God-man is causally active while the humanity of scripture is not, then Barth loses traction in his argument for the threefold form of the Word” (177).
Barth wants to avoid saying that the Bible has divine properties. This means the Word of God would be in the “possession” of men and women.
However, Barth’s own Christology cuts him off at the pass: if God has sovereignly limited himself in human flesh, then who are we to say that God can’t do so in the Bible?
One thought on “On not being a Barthian”
The Evangelical solution is almost worse than Barth, with inspiration only truly and properly belonging to the original text that may or may not even exist. It tries to play ball with Higher Criticism, but will always fall flat. Scripture and Canon are categories that exist beyond the tools of literary criticism, even if the latter is not always harmful or destruction in its fruits.
I think the work Ephraim Radner, and his textual ontological realism, is helpful to recover a more ‘catholic’ sense of the Bible, but also get out of locks put on by Evangelicalism, Barthianism, and the post-Liberal fantasies.
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