Theology and Scripture: Barth’s Assessment of Their Relationship

In 1962, Karl Barth delivered a series of lectures, beginning first in Basel, Switzerland, and then at Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago. Barth summarized the contours of his life’s work in theology in these lectures. These served as the basis for the book Evangelical Theology: an Introduction, which serves as a far more accessible Barth than his Church Dogmatics would lead one to believe.

In the opening chapters of the body of Evangelical Theology, Barth discusses “the place of theology.” Under the subheading “The Witnesses,” Barth delineates the relationship between theology and Scripture, “clarify[ing] how evangelical theology is related to this biblical witness to the Word of God [that is, Jesus]” (30). Barth finds seven ways in which theology and Scripture correlate.

(1) Both Scripture and theology are geared towards “a common concern for human response to the divine Word” (30). Barth does not believe that proper theology is satisfied with an intellectual assent to truth.

(2) Barth discusses Scriptural witness as being either prophetic or apostolate. Theology is neither. Theology merely correlates different witnesses and attempts to synthesize or understand each on its own terms.

(3) Theology never rises above Scripture, because the biblical witnesses were “directly confronted” (32) by God in a manner that theologians could not hope to emulate.

(4) More pointedly, theology always remains below Scripture, because Scripture is holy and has “a direct relationship to God’s work and word” that cannot be superseded.

(5) Theology becomes evangelical when its object is “the God of the Gospel,” and theology’s object is this God when theology “comes from the Holy Scriptures and returns to them,” (32, 33) being reassessed and reimagined by Scripture. Barth states it well when he says, “Theology becomes evangelical theology only when the God of the Gospel encounters it in the mirror and echo of the prophetic and apostolic word.” (33)

(6) Theology, as a discipline, does not disintegrate in its various emphases and contradictory positions. Rather, it mirrors Scripture in this way because Scripture is also “an extremely polyphonic, not a monotonous, testimony to the work and word of God.” (33) Barth does not here refer to superficial differences of style, genre, or cultural situatedness. He means a material difference in theological positions justified by the different (covenantal) moves of God in history–of Israel and the world.

(7) Theology responds to the Logos only when its work is grounded in Scripture. The theologian must wrestle with the text, like Jacob, and force the text to surrender its witness to the Word. (34) He disagrees that a method (particularly, the exegetical-theological) is sufficient to guarantee an uncovering of the witness to Christ in the text. “The truth of the Word must be sought precisely, in order to be understood in its deep simplicity.” (35) All methods are open and ought to be used, but none guarantee a legitimate reading.

Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: an Introduction. Trans. Grover Foley. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1963.

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