Karl Barth and the Neo-orthodox View of the Bible

Karl Barth is considered by many the single most influential Christian thinker of the 20th century.

"Widely recognized during his own lifetime as a modern church father, he is often classed together with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher because of his massive, original contribution to theology." (Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson)

Barth was born May 10, 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, the son of a Swiss Reformed minister. He studied in Germany at Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg under Von Harnack and other well known liberal theologians. His training in liberalism led him to preach according to reason and experience only, but not as an authoritative word from God.

Through the horrors of World War I, Barth realized the shallow nature of the liberal message was unable to minister to people in a time of adversity. This drove him to a new study of the Bible and of the Reformers.

Neo-orthdoxy is born

The emergence of Neo-orthodoxy is generally inked to the publication of Barth's commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans in 1919. Neo-orthodoxy means “new orthodoxy.” It implies a return to orthodox Christian beliefs after two centuries of liberalism.

Barth's Commentary on Romans:

* Made theology God-centered rather than man-centered.

* Deprived man of all self-righteousness and self-reliance and exalted the grace of God in Christ.

Critics of neo-orthodoxy contend that the designation "orthodoxy" is a misnomer. Reformed theologian Paul Enns concedes that neo-orthodoxy "takes the Bible more seriously than older liberalism." Nonetheless he insists that it has "retained the foundations of liberalism.”

Karl Barth and Biblical Inspiration

I appreciate the view of inspiration proposed by Barth (1886-1968). This view is gaining wide acceptance among the postmodern emerging churches. His "neo-orthodox" perspective challenged the fundamentalist notion of an "infallible written Word." He called this view a “paper-pope.”

Barth argues that the Bible is not the objective Word of God, but rather a witness to the Word. He categorizes the Word of God into three realms:

(1) The “Revealed Word” is God revealing himself by speaking to the apostles and prophets.

(2) The “Written Word” is the deposit of revelation made by man.

(3) The “Preached Word” is the proclamation of the Word, and when the grace of God breaks through to the individual, then theBible becomes the Word of God. In his influential Church Dogmatics, Barth writes, “What we have in the Bible are in any case human attempts to repeat and reproduce [the] Word of God in human words and thoughts and in specific human situations.” He argues, “The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that He speaks through it.”

In contrast to Emil Brunner and other neo-orthodox thinkers, Karl Barth rejected the idea of God's general revelation in nature. Barth believes that the possibility of knowledge of God lies in God’s Word and nowhere else. The event of revelation is Jesus Christ and the Triune God is the entire subject of revelation.

Karl Barth affirms that “The eternal God is to be known in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.”

Neo-orthodoxy emphasizes Scripture as the source of theology.

When neo-orthodox theologians talk about the “word of God,” they do not usually mean the Bible.

The Bible is a witness to the revelation of God which is found, not in a set of verbal propositions, but in an existential encounter with Jesus Christ.

Because the Bible is a book written by human beings, it need not be absolutely inerrant.

Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology (1963)

According to Barth, the term "evangelical" relates theology to both the New Testament and the Reformation.

"Theology" is primarily concerned with God himself. He agues, “If theology wished to reverse this relationship, and instead of relating man to God, related God to man, then it would surrender itself to a new Babylonian captivity. It would become the prisoner of some sort of anthropology or ontology.”

Note: anthropology is the study of man; ontology is the study of being or existence.

Concerning the place of theology, Barth contends that theology stands and falls with the Word of God. It is the Word God spoke, speaks, and will speak to all men. “Regardless of whether it is heard or not, it is, in itself, directed to all men.”

Karl Barth identifies two biblical witnesses of the Word:

* The prophetic men of the Old Testament.

* The apostolic men of the New Testament.

Anything other than the intention of these witnesses of the Word “cannot be the substance of evangelical theology."

Postmodern Evangelicals embrace Karl Barth

In the 1980s I had the opportunity to get to know the post-evangelical thinker and writer Dave Tomlinson.

Dave describes Karl Barth as “the first truly postmodern theologian.” Like neo-orthodoxy, post-evangelicalism speaks of the Bible becoming, rather than being, the Word of God.

The important thing for many postmodern believers is the existential encounter that is possible with the Word of God even though the actual text may be tainted with factual errors, because of the human dimension of who wrote the Bible.

This neo-orthodox view of the Bible has much to commend it to the postmodern believer seeking an authentic Christianity in an era of deconstruction. However, Paul Enns wisely cautions, “In this view the authority is the subjective experience of the individual rather than the scriptures themselves.”

Return from Karl Barth to Who Wrote the Bible.

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Karl Barth is considered by many the single most influential Christian thinker of the 20th century. I have recommended some of Barth's most important and influential texts that deal with his doctrines of the word of God, revelation, and his theology proper.

A lot of my students like to read "about" Barth. My advice to you is "Don't read about Barth... just read Barth!" Always read the primary source.

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