Saturday, 7 June 2008

A Question concerning the "threefold Word of God"

Taken from Theopedia:

Barth held to what is known as the threefold Word of God. In other words, preaching (or proclamation), scripture, and revelation are considered to be three different, yet unified forms of the Word of God. Barth's analogy was the Trinity (see CD I/1, 121). Futhermore,

There is no distinction of degree or value between these three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repitition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. As the Bible and proclamation become God's Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation, they are God's Word: the one Word of God within which there can be neither a more nor a less. Nor should we ever try to understand the three forms of God's Word in isolation. The first, revelation, is the form that underlies the other two (CD I/1, 120-121).
If someone could enlighten me as to what the following phrase in italics means, I'd be grateful: "As the Bible and proclamation become God's Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation, they are God's Word" (German: kraft die Aktualität der Offenbarung, whereby kraft actually means "by means of which," rather than "in virtue of.") Does that mean that in the moment when Bible or preaching is able to personally, existentially confront us with the relevance and truth of the incarnation (the content of the revelation), they are themselves God's Word? What does the "actuality of revelation mean"?

I find the collapsing of external referent and verbal communication difficult to get my head around.

Unless ... the external referent is not a static object but a person. Barth does say that the content of the revelation is Immanu-el. In which case the actuality of revelation can't be the truth of the incaration, but what ever it is the Incarnate One wants to say to us. But then that would dissolve the "once and for all" quality of the incarnation as something that happened ...

Hmm, just thinking in public.

This blog has a nice series of relevant quotes on preaching as the Word of God, along with a helpful summary of an essay on Karl Barth and preaching.

[And before you jump on me for this John P., Barth does believe in an external referent to which the proclamation must correspond. The collapsing isn't exhaustive, the referent is mediated via Bible and preaching. The parallel is with the Trinity: separate yet united].


W. Travis McMaken said...

Scripture and preaching become the Word of God insofar as they actually are used by Jesus Christ as vehicles for his self-witness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Moving in the other direction, Scripture is judged the Word of God insofar as it corresponds to Christ, and preaching is judged the Word of God insofar as it corresponds to Scripture. To top it all off, Barth doesn't think that we have access to Jesus Christ except through Scripture, although Jesus Christ has extra-scriptural access to us.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I should also mention that Bruce McCormack has a chapter entitled "Scripture's Being is in Becoming" on this topic in a book entitled Evangelicals & Scripture.

Phil Sumpter said...

That's great WTM, thanks! Just to clarify, the phrase "by means of the actuality of revelation" refers to the miraculous ability of the text to grip us and point to its true subject matter, which is Jesus speaking to us in whatever situation we are in. On the one hand it has a concrete referent: Jesus, on the other hand it doesn't have a concrete referent: Jesus is not a static object to be understood but a person who guides us and transforms us whereever we are at, though always in terms of his own true identity.

Phew, I find that mind-bending.

My problem is the content of the revelation. On the one hand we speak of it being Christological, but on the other hand the regula fidei points beyond jesus as the fulfilment of the covenant and on to the entirety of God's oikonomia. This includes creation and the history of world. Isn't that the revelation, rather than Jesus ... ? What is the relation between the two?

I think these tortured sentences show I have a lot of work to do.

Thanks for the book ref, unfortunatley it is nowhere to be found on interlibrary loan in Germany. Fortunately, however, I have come into possession of and have started reading today Brevard Childs' own unpublished account of Barth's approach. Fascinating! All of Childs' key concepts are there; he really was a true Barthian.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Barth says numerous places something like: "Creation is the external basis of the covenant, and the covenant is the internal basis of creation."

What this means is that all else must be looked at through Jesus Christ. So, creation is understood through Christ, the covenant with Israel is understood through Christ, etc. That is the order of being, let's say.

The order of knowing is the reverse: creation happens first, then covenant, then Christ as the fulfillment of covenant. What this shows is that God has slowly been bringing us along to understanding. The result is that we cannot understand Jesus Christ outside of the context of creation and covenant.

Now, this sounds like a vicious circle, and in some ways it is. Confronted by Jesus Christ, we re-examine everything else. But, we only meet Jesus Christ by way of everything else - that is, as actual human beings situated in time and space. The first thing that Calvin does in the Institutes is set up a similar circle with the knowledge of God and man - you can't have correct knowledge of one without the other. For my money, this is simply what it means to be working in the realm of faith.

Phil Sumpter said...

That helps me understand the relationship between Jesus and the regula fidei. It puts into perspective what Jenson said about Barth's Christological metaphysic.

But I still don't get what it means that the Bible becomes a God's word "in virtue of the actuality of revelation." Barth talks of revelation being Jesus himself, the incarnation. But if the Bible becomes God's word "in virtue of the actuality of revelation," then what is the revelation? Is it Jesus himself "quickening" the text so that we are able to see how everything points to him, in whom everything coalesces?

That makes me cross-eyed. I can kind of grasp it intellectually but can't really imagine how that would work in practise. I've had my "spiritual experiences" where my horizons and those of the Bible have coalesced and my world view has been changed as a result, but I wouldn't call that Christological. At least, not in any totally conscious way ... though I do see how Jesus resolves multiple tensions within himself ...


Phil Sumpter said...

To clarify paragraph 2: the subject of the text's message makes himself its object.

W. Travis McMaken said...

For Barth, Jesus = revelation / God's Word.

Scripture and preaching, although the latter only as faithful to the former, because God's Word as Jesus uses them to bear witness to himself. In the event that Jesus does use them to bear witness to himself - in that actuality - they are revelation as well. But, they are so only because revelation himself - Jesus Christ - is present and active in that event.

It isn't that Jesus 'quickens' the text, but that the text bears witness to Jesus and Jesus shows up.

Now, when questions of normativity arise, Barth is clear that God can speak through a flute concerto (allusion to Schleiermacher's 'Christmas Eve Dialogs') or through a dead dog, but that Christians are bound to Scripture as the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.

Glen said...

Hi Phil, Don't know if this will help but I found it helpful when I stumbled across Barth's 'God in Action'. There he speaks of the importance of the Nicene homoousios for *revelation*. Nicea means that the Word must be confessed to be 'of one being' with the God of Whom the Word bears witness. We must confess that the Word *is* God. And yet of course He is distinct - God from God, out of the substance of the Father, and yet fully divine.

In just this kind of way the bible *is* revelation - not by being identical with Christ but by bearing witness, by remaining other - but having that otherness-in-relation. The bible is 'Word from Word, out of the substance of the Word and yet fully God's Word.' The trinitarian analogy is crucial - we have here a distinct mode of revelation, but it is essentially one with its Source.

Then the question is, how is this one-ness to be conceived? More often than not Barth goes for a kind of eventism:

“Such direct indentification of revelation and the Bible, which is the practical issue, is not one to be presupposed or anticipated by us. It takes place as an event, when and where the word of the Bible becomes God’s Word, i.e. when and where the word of the Bible functions as the word of a witness, when and where John’s finger points not in vain but really pointedly [refering to the Isenheim altarpiece], when and where by means of its word we also succeed in seeing and hearing what he saw and heard. Therefore, where the Word of God is an event, revelation and the Bible are one in fact, and word for word one at that.” (I/1, p127)

To me it sounds like Barth's saying - when Christ actually confronts me in Scripture I am encountering the event of revelation.

Is this a sporadic thing? Barth often makes it sound like it is. But I think TF Torrance interprets him correctly when he prefers couching the one-ness in perichoretic terms (rather than those of eventism). It also allows him to make clear the role of the Spirit in all this:

“This calls for a dynamic, not a static, concept of verbal inspiration. All Scripture given by divine inspiration is and becomes what it really is through the presence and advocacy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is God in his freedom to be present to what he has brought into being through his Word and to realise its true end in himself through a relation of himself to himself.” (Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, p91-92)

So the Scriptures continually exist in a perichoretic union with Christ by the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ who authored them, now speaks them again to us such that through the distinct witness of Scripture we are nonetheless confronted with the One of whom the Scriptures continually testify (John 5:39).

Anyway that's my two cents worth - it's probably way off base and pretty elemental but thought I'd share the poverty!

Phil Sumpter said...

Glen, that's no poverty! Thank you. My main problem in thinking about this is that I'm based in Germany and so only have access to the German versions. Though I can read German, I can only do so slowly and I can't skim. So I can't find the time to read the entire vol. 1.

What you and WTM have said helps clarify what I was trying to say: the actuality of revelation is the real presence of Jesus, who enables the text to fulfil its kerygmatic function by helping me to see its true referent, which is its ultimate referent, who is either (1) Jesus himself or (2) something that he wants me to know (going on your quote from I/1). I'm afraid I don't know what "perichoretic" means, but I'm guessing that the scripture can only become a witness by the free grace of God, for which we have to wait expectantly.

One small caveat to WTM, I'd still say that the Spirit "quickens" the text, as without its presense it is a dead Word, isn't it?

Thanks again to you both!

W. Travis McMaken said...

Language of 'quickening' the text suggests that the text is an agent that accomplishes revelation once it has been jump-started, as it were. The text is the vehicle for revelation, but it is Jesus who does the revealing.

In response to Glen, I'm a big fan of TFT and I do think that Barth has resources for establishing a stability to the work of the biblical text, but I am also a little hesitant about TFT's way of smoothing over the event-character of things. If there is constancy to Jesus' self-witness in Holy Scripture, it is because of his commission to the apostles to teach (Matt 28.20), which establishes Scripture as normative for the church. I'm hesitant to posit any difference in kind between the relationship of Spirit to biblical text and the relationship of Spirit to anything else. There may be a difference in degree based on divine command or promise, but I want avoid differences in kind.

W. Travis McMaken said...

At least, that is, on Barthian soil.

Phil Sumpter said...

The text is the vehicle for revelation, but it is Jesus who does the revealing.

I can live with that. Thanks!

Another question (sorry): who can you recommend for a doctrine of scripture apart from Barth? I have N.T. Wright's Scripture and the authority of God and John Webster's Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch.

Glen said...

Hi WTM, you've definitely made me think. I would agree that, flowing from God's being in becoming (looking forward to the conference btw!), the ontology of all else will bear that character. And that the Spirit bears witness in all things (even the 'dead dog'). But if we're not going to divorce Spirit from Word, will we not have to see a special (three-fold) activity of the Spirit in - The Spirit Anointed Messiah, The God-Breathed Scriptures and The Spirit-Carried Proclamation? What I like about TFT's approach is that it handles the fact that the Scriptures *continually* witness to Christ (it's a present participle in John 5:39). You mention that Barth has resources for establishing 'stability' - if it's not the continual work of the Spirit how do we avoid having an arbitrary, sporadic 'where and when' to revelation?

W. Travis McMaken said...

Phil, Webster is where I would have sent you.

Glen, which conference are you looking forward to?

On your questions about stability; here is how I think it works. The relationship between Jesus' humanity and divinity is paradigmatic of but different in kind from any other relation between God and humanity. It is paradigmatic for this relation because it shows us how God relates to us; and it is different in kind because Jesus is the eternal Son incarnate.

Out of the question is anything that would make the biblical text another incarnation in any sense. So, any stability that we seek between the work of the Spirit and the biblical text must be different in kind than the relationship between God and humanity in the incarnation, which means that it is another case of that relationship paradigmatically demonstrated in the incarnation.

What is that paradigm? Conceptually speaking, Chalcedon: a unity in distinction of divine and human. Outside the incarnation, however, the fully human part is always true but the fully divine part never is. Instead, we have something like "fully human, use instrumentally by God."

Now, there can be degrees of this instrumental use. The special authority and stability of Scripture, which places it beyond the dead dog, is tied to the relation of God's activity to it.

This activity proceeds, accompanies and follows. It proceeds in that Jesus grants teaching authority to the disciples (NT at least, you need an account of prophets for the OT), teaches them, etc. It accompanies in the Spirit's inspirational and guiding work as the authors write. It follows in that the Spirit employs what the authors produced as an instrument to quicken us.

Now, it could very well be true - and in a sense it is - that the Spirit acts in analogous ways with our dead dog. But, what the dead dog lacks is Jesus' commission. Thus, it is on account of the authority granted to the apostles - ratified by the continual witness of the Spirit to the biblical text; what Calvin called Scripture's self-authentication - that it must have pride of place, and indeed sole normative status (Barth is a Protestant, after all) for church and Christians.

That is how I think Barth's logic goes.

Glen said...

Thanks for such a thorough response WTM. I was referring to the Barth blog conference on Jungel (hence the 'being in becoming' reference). Speaking of which, I must go and finish the book... Thanks again for your answers. Glen

W. Travis McMaken said...


I hope that you have found my ramblings helpful.

The Barth blog conference is shaping up nicely. Look for it to begin on Sunday. I wasn't sure that was what you were referring to because I'm also involved in organizing the "real" Barth conference at Princeton Seminary beginning on the 22nd.

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