Church Dogmatics Paraphrase: §4, “The Word of God in its Threefold Form”

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July 24, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

ImageKarl Barth, Church Dogmatics §4, “THE WORD OF GOD IN ITS THREEFOLD FORM” (pp. 88-124)

Barth conceives of dogmatics as critical reflection on church proclamation. Church proclamation is the desire of the church to speak the Word of God–to have God speak in the proclamation of the church. This naturally means that Barth needs to describe more carefully how he conceives of the “the Word of God”. That is the task of this section.

The Word of God Preached (pp. 88-99)

The church’s function is to proclaim the Word of God. But since the Word of God just is God, then proclamation cannot be collapsed into what the church says, or the text the church possesses. Proclamation must always become proclamation in an event. This means, in turn, that the church must always become the church, since to be the church is to proclaim the Word of God.

In tighter form: A human attempt to proclaim must follow after God’s revelation. The theme of this attempt must be the Word of God–this must be the aim of the attempt. The criterion of this human attempt is the Word of God itself, a criterion which is not possessed. Therefore, the Word of God is the event in which a human attempt at proclamation becomes real proclamation.

The Word of God Written (pp. 99-111)

The situation of the proclaiming church is between recollection (the Word has spoken to it, gathering it) and expectation (it hopes the Word will speak again as it gathers). This is the present moment of the church–and it is the moment of God’s presenceGod is immanent and near to us, only as we know that he is transcendent: God is present to us only in recollection and expectation. This is what the concrete factor of Holy Scripture tells us in that it provides a site wherein we are taught both to recollect and to expect.

Scripture teaches the church that she is surrounded (temporally) by revelation, but that she does not have it of herself. She is not left to proclaim something of her own, but to recollect and to expect. In this way, the Bible stands over against the church. The church may attempt to absorb the Bible into the church’s own teaching, but we have to remember that the Bible can defend itself–it stands there as a concrete text which can assert itself victoriously. If we try to say how the Bible can do this, we would instantly be denying what it purports: to be the norm above all norms. So there can be no attempt to prove the authority of the Bible by reference to history or reason. The only higher court one can appeal to is God. Only God can prove the authority of scripture. This proving happens as the Word of God becomes real proclamation as humans engage scripture in recollection and expectation.

The Word of God Revealed (pp. 111-120)

Revelation is an event. It has happened in the past in such a way that it is promised in the future. The Bible bears witness to this past revelation that is a future promise. This record of past revelation that is a future promise is not revelation itself. Revelation is the coming of Jesus Christ–something that itself must occur in the present moment. The coming of Jesus Christ is “fulfilled time”–that which all other time can only aim at. Barth will discuss “fulfilled time” more later, but suffice it to say that this is something like the goal of all time, the goal of every moment. The goal of every moment is revelation, God’s presence to us in time.

The Word of God revealed is the revelation of Jesus Christ in the present moment. It is an event that is the very reason we have time. This relativizes the position of the Bible and the church’s preaching–it relativizes them in that it shows them to be means to an end. They are the means to the end of encounter with the living God. Together they point to the site of a concrete encounter between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is Jesus Christ who precedes and occasions the Bible and the church’s proclamation.

The encounter of the church in the present is an encounter with the Jesus Christ who came in AD 1-30 and will return to bring an end to all things. In the present moment, Jesus Christ is encountered through the Holy Spirit that creates and awakens faith in believers.

The Unity of the Word of God (pp. 120-124)

This construal of revelation might occasion the worry that revelation could be detached from the Bible and from the church. Does revelation float so freely and sovereignly as to have no attachment to anything–no site where it is to be found? No, it does not. We do not know revelation directly–we always know it only indirectly, from scripture and proclamation. In fact, the three forms can never be severed from one another:

The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.

The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfills proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.

The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation.

The astute reader will recognize that these three relations map on to the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity can be viewed from the angle of each of the persons, but only be describing the relations to the other persons.  God’s revelation, God’s Word, is God coming to us in time. This reveals itself to be a trinitarian act that at once reveals that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one as they are revealed in the Word of God spoken in time.


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