Church Dogmatics Paraphrase: §5, “The Nature of the Word of God”

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July 30, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

barth_in_pop_art_5 (1)Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §5, “THE NATURE OF THE WORD OF GOD” (pp. 125-186)

The threefold Word of God discussed in the previous section of the Church Dogmatics is an occurrence of God’s speech to human persons. It is an occurrence. However, it is an occurrence which cannot be explained in terms of any other occurrences. It is divine mystery.

The Question of the Nature of the Word of God (pp. 125-132)

In his previous attempt to write a Dogmatics, Barth tackled the issues of §5-7 by way of an exegesis of the situation of the preacher and the hearer. This gave the impression that one could read off an understanding of God from the situation of the human person. Barth agrees that this approach was wrong in that it gave off the impression that he was starting from anthropology.

For Barth, God must tell us what God is, who God is. And God must tell us this afresh; God’s telling never becomes collapsed into our knowing. However, we can reflect on what God is in an indirect manner, by attending to how God makes himself known by speaking the Word of God to human persons. “We must remember the forms in which it is real for us and learn from these forms how it is.”

The Word of God as the Speech of God (pp. 132-143)

The threefold Word of God implies that God speaks and does so literally, not symbolically. What does this mean for our doctrine of the Word of God? First, Barth says it means that we must start with personal, rational communication; we cannot reduce speech into cause-effect categories. Second, this means that the personal speech of God is God himself. This does not mean the Word’s deverbalization, but it does mean that the Word cannot be reduced to human words. Third, as personal, verbal speech, God’s speech is purposive: it speaks to a particular person for a specific purpose. It aims at us, consummates us, pronouncing judgment and establishing fellowship.

The Speech of God as the Act of God (143-162)

The Word of God is the act of God. There is no cleft between God’s speech and God’s act. God’s expression is efficacious. To speak of God’s speech as an act, however, implies its contingent contemporaneity. We can speak of three times: Jesus Christ, the time of the biblical writers, and the time of the church. Here God’s presence is immediate, mediate, and indirectly mediate. Barth is offering a nuanced account of God’s contemporaneity (or God’s presence) to his people, one that makes a distinction between different times but without in any way setting up time as a barrier between God and all ages. Barth says that if we do not maintain the distinction between these three times that we will end up collapsing scripture and revelation into the life of the community. This account of time allows for any time to become contemporaneous with the time of the prophets and apostles, but only by God’s free act.

If God’s Word is God’s act, then this implies the Word’s power to rule. The event of revelation–Christ’s becoming contemporaneous–is the event in which we are brought under the Lordship of Christ in an explicit, conscious manner. It is not that we are not under the power of the Word before we hear it, but that we recognize that we have been claimed and justified by God.

If the Word of God is an act of God, then it is a divine decision. This means that though it meets us in the realm of created reality, it is not a reality in the same way as these other things. It is an uncreated reality. There is therefore no concept of the Word of God apart from the name of God. Because the Word of God is a divine decision, Barth says, it is not universally and automatically present. For this reason, it always implies a choice in relation to a particular person. That is why when we speak of the Word of God we are already speaking of the divine election. This decision of God consummates each human person by bringing her or him to decision; this encounter gives each person their essence–for better or for worse.

The Speech of God as the Mystery of God (pp. 162-186)

The concept of mystery denotes the fact that there are no axioms upon which we can ground the concept of the Word of God. We are speaking here of the living God, not some principle of system. God’s Word remains a mystery precisely in its secularity. The Word is expressed in a way that does not correspond to it. Both the fact of created difference and that of sinful difference make any directness impossible. Barth emphasizes that the secularity of the Word is not a curse. It is the grace of God: God gives us our own creaturely space and integrity and then meets us there. Anything more direct would entail our obliteration as creatures.

God is revealed, but also hidden in the sense that God is never automatically or directly available. We cannot turn the revealedness of God and the hiddenness of God into two factors that play off of one another. Rather, we must say that God reveals himself in his hiddenness. One perhaps crude way to paraphrase this is to say that the medium of God’s hiddenness is the message of God’s revealedness. This means that we cannot ever depart from the secular form of God’s word, but instead we live in a twofold movement from form to content and from content to form. The unveiling of God drives us back to God’s veiling. If you want to know what “dialectical theology” means, an answer is to be found here. It refers to the God’s hiddenness in revealedness as indicating the nature of God. It is not paradox or confusion.

Our entrance into the mystery of God–our hearing–is through the Holy Spirit. We cannot establish a method for hearing God’s Word. To hear God’s Word is to have faith, and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit. If we want to ask the how question, the question of the nature of God’s Word, we have to answer: it is on our lips and in our hearts as the mystery of the Spirit who is the Lord.


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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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