Thursday, 2 December 2010

Barth on the authority of scripture (2)

In my last post on this subject I considered some of the questions that Barth raises for us about scriptural authority, the authrotiy of God, and ethical deliberation. I have continued to think along those lines for the past few days, and have been reading Barth's Ethics with a view to the question of the Bible's place. Barth's overwhelming theological apologia for the freedom and sovereignty of God, even over the scriptural witness, informs his approach to bibical interpretation. It is this that defines his account of revelation. Scripture is not permitted to occupy any of the space that is God's alone. The following quotation is indicative of where these theological presuppositions lead Barth with regard to the Bible and ethics:

...we have to remember that throughout the Bible the biblical commandments are not simple and direct revelation, but like the whole bible they are witness to revelation, and it is in this specific sense which excludes their use as general moral truths that they are God's Word to us. This means however, that they are not themselves the direct, definite, individual command to us which is alone the real command. Then and there as people heard it the real command was very different from the recollection of it which, in the form of the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, bears witness to us today of the way in which the divine Logos, the good, claimed people then and there. In their relative concreteness, however, they point us, as the whole Bible does, to the event of that claiming of men by the divine Logos which will be unavoidably the meaning of our own action (Ethics p.82)
What is interesting for me as I have pondered the question of how we read scripture together, is that for Barth the Bible opperates not as presciptive commands but as descriptive of the way in which the Commander relates to His people. The effect is to locate our concern for moral truth, or whatever other concern it may be, not in the text of scripture itself but in the actual lived relationship God has with his people, to which the scriptures bear witness and into which they seek to draw us deeper. The kind of moments of encounter between God and particular persons we read about in the Bible may also be expected in the life of the contempoirary Church. The meaning of my own action is the claiming of my life by the divine Logos (again with overtures from John 1 - Jesus Christ). The Word claims me. This is a present tense event. It is not an abstract account of my life, but a concrete encounter - as Moses and the Tribes encountered YHWH at Sinai, or the disciples heard Jesus on the Mount.

It is difficult to say what the effect of this is. It doesn't make reading the Bible any easier, and it doesn't answer any of the hermeneutical questions we may have. In fact that strangeness of the text is necessarily indicative of the strangeness of God to us (as the absolute other from human creatures). Nor does it mean we can get away with ignoring the Bible - as may be suggested as a response to more conservative theologians. It does go some way to locating the role or function of scripture dogmatically. Barth's approach demands attentiveness to the scriptures, not for themselves, not even so that in them we read what God wills, but so that through them we may encounter in the present the living God who was there in the past and promises his presence in the future. To me, this way of reading together is wholly more demanding. It means living with the difficulties of the texts, not rejecting the text because of them, but owning them and being prayerfully open to hearing God's voice in them. It also means living with the compexities of other peoples' reading of the texts, especially those with whom we do not agree. It demands that we think and pray together, and that we inhabit a gracious and humble space together.

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