Friday, 26 November 2010

Barth on defining the authority of scripture, and issues in the Anglican communion

Barth is notorious, particularly amongst evangelical scholars, for his view of the authority of scripture. He is right, I think, to argue that scripture's 'authority' is relative to the authority of Christ. This is precisely why his threefold definition of the Word does not privilege scripture, but acknowledges its principal witness to the 'wordiness' of Jesus (John 1 - a passage of which Barth was very fond). Where I think his approach to scripture becomes more complicated, and difficult to understand, is in passages relating to moral authority, such as this one:
All biblical imperatives - and we do not say this to impugn the authority of the Bible but to define it - are addressed to others, and not to us, and they are addressed to others who differ greatly among themselves, to the people of Israel in different situations, to the disciples of Jesus, to the first Christian churches of Jews and Gentiles. Their concreteness is that of a specific then and there...This means, however, that no biblical command or prohibition is a rule, a general moral truth, precisely because it comes to us as witness to the absolutely concrete real command. (Ethics, p.80-1)  
At once I see the theological presupposition that leads Barth to argue against the generalizing of the divine command - to prevent supposed 'access' to the will of God without encounter with God himself - and I think this is a correct move. But, I also see the potential problems if the scriptures are divested of authority in the church and am left wondering what normative role the Bible could have in Barth's schema. Why should we read it, especially with regard to ethical questions? Barth's response is that it bears witness to the command of God (p.82) - and so in that sense reading scripture may be, what Nigel Biggar calls, 'an aid to hearing' God's command for ourselves. But this still leaves me with, as yet, unresolved questions about the actual task of reading scripture - especially when we do that together as the Church seeking moral guidance. How do we resolve our disagreements on issues when we read the same texts?

The problem is demonstrated acutely in the present situation in the Anglican communion. Reading scripture together on issues of sexuality, or womens' ministry (note: I'm not conflating these into the same issue), throws up huge questions about the way we use scripture in ethical deliberation, and how we aim to hear God's voice in and through its witness. Some of these questions are hermeneutical and exegetical, but some are also theological. What place does scripture have in the moral life of the church? What does the theological category of witness do to the way we read the Bible ethically? My tentaive conclusion is that the common groud we must share is not in the way we read, but the fact that we read together - and ultimately pray together. Prayer forces us beyond the pages of the Bible to the God who breathes life into it. If Barth is right, then it is in allowing scripture to turn us toward Christ in prayer, together in our disagreements, that some way forward may be forged. But then, prayer is itself is as big a mine-field as biblical authority...

I will revisit these thoughts myself in coming days, but I'd be interested to hear yours.

4 comments:

  1. "it is in allowing scripture to turn us toward Christ in prayer"...I agree. Although reading scripture for me provides the framework for Christ, the history, the times, the teachings of Jesus. I wish there was a "Book of Jesus" (His writings) in the bible, instead of the Books of Mat/Mark/Luke/John. Whenever a moral issue is discussed, I ask myself "what would Jesus teach?", as oppose to "what does the bible say?", especially in regard to Old Testament issues, or Paul, Peter, John, or James's opinions. As an example - the disciples wanted the woman with the perfume to not waste it on Jesus, or the disciples wanted to keep the children from bothering Jesus, or Paul's obvious problem with women speaking in church. I can't help but think - when Jesus left - did the diciples all of a sudden become endowed with the wisdom of Jesus. Not likely. But we take their writings without question. But I'd accept their writings before I'd accept some in the OT, as an example Leviticus. But I must admit, I am not a bible scholar, just a retired engineer/physicist, and liberal. I do not even know who Barth is. Just my opinion - expanded from the Matrix blog.

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  2. Thanks Gary. I agree with much of what you say here. I particularly like your insistance on asking what Jesus would do/say/teach. I suppose one response might be to ask how we know about that? Like you, I think I want to ask questions about the way we read the Bible, especially how we engage with the pedagogical content. What I find compelling about Barth (Karl Barth was a twentieth century Swiss Reformed theologian, 1886-1968) is that he shifts the authority of scripture away from the authors, and to an extent what is actually written, onto God who speaks in and through scripture by his Holy Spirit. This is surely better theology. It doesn't make our joint reading any easier, nor does it make our conversing (here I suppose I mean more conservative people like me, and more liberal people like you) a smoothe venture. But there is someting humbling in our mutual submission to one another and to God in prayer.

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  3. "he shifts the authority of scripture away from the authors, and to an extent what is actually written, onto God who speaks in and through scripture by his Holy Spirit"...again I agree. For me, at least, reading the scriptures develops the framework for me to make a decision about my own beliefs...I guess I could say that the Holy Spirit influences me for what I NEED to believe in Christ (in my case, a leaning toward liberalism). For other people, maybe they need to be influenced toward conservativism to believe in Christ. Since believing in Christ is the determining factor in recieving grace and being saved, the influence of the Holy Spirit provides each of us with what we need. Of course, discussing it with other people brings out the agressive human-like characteristics in me, which for me may result in arguments (especially on blogs). I have to work on that.

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  4. Again, thanks Gary. What you say about the work of the Holy Spirit gives me hope about the discourse between Christians like us. We wont agree on hermeuetical issues but we may find our common ground in our Christ-centredness, and Spirit filled conversation. Of course, that's not to dismiss scripture - the conversation about how we read together is still a lively and important topic. But it may make the discourse more fruitful.

    I hope to publish more thoughts on this in coming days. Finding time to do the thinking is my present challenge!

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Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts...