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I read up on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture so you didn’t have to! Here are some of things I found possibly relevant. I have provided comment here and there to put the quotes in context.

Two places in the Church Dogmatics that Barth makes extended comment on the doctrine of Scripture are I/1, §4 and I/2, §19. The bulk of CD I/1 is devoted to the doctrine of revelation, which also provides the context for Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. That is because the doctrine of the Trinity is an answer to the question “Who is God in his revelation?” (297). Before this, though, Barth provides a preliminary comment on the doctrine of Scripture. He will treat this more extensively in CD I/2, on which I will write a separate post, only after he has detailed the doctrine of the Trinity. Traditionally, Protestant dogmatics addresses the doctrine of Scripture before the doctrine of the Trinity. However,

“The reason why we diverge from this custom is this. It is hard to see how in relation to Holy Scripture we can say what is distinctive for the holiness of this Scripture if first we do not make it clear (naturally from Holy Scripture itself) who the God is whose revelation makes Scripture holy” (300).

“The doctrine of the Trinity itself is threatened by the same danger, the danger of irrelevant speculation, if we state it only at a later stage and do not give it the first word as that which gives us information on the concrete and decisive question: Who is God?” (301).

Barth begins CD I/1 with sections on the task of dogmatics and the prolegomena (§§1-2). He then addresses proclamation of the gospel, the central calling of the church:

“Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together” (52; cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Cor 2:17; 1 Pet 4:11).

Nonetheless, proclamation is not made proclamation by virtue of human beings proclaiming. God does not even need proclamation, though he chooses to use this. Proclamation is an act of obedience to the commission of God and where he chooses he makes it his own in such a way that speaks to people’s hearts:

“It is always and always will be man’s word. It is also something more than this and quite different. When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. Upon the promise of this divine good-pleasure it is ventured in obedience. On this promise depend the claim and the expectation. But proclamation both as preaching and sacrament does not cease to be representation, human service” (71-2).

Barth includes the sacraments (as a Reformed theologian, baptism and the eucharist) alongside proclamation as the central calling of the church. He does not provide much comment on them here though because the context is revelation. Both proclamation and sacrament are related in that they are at once a fully human work and a work of God. Barth draws on the incarnation here to elucidate this. Just as Jesus is completely human and completely God, none of these being compromised in his being but rather upheld, so too are proclamation and sacrament human works in which God also works.

After addressing proclamation in §3, Barth goes on to address the doctrine of Scripture in §4, “The Word of God in Its Threefold Form.” The event of revelation is God with us, in Christ. This both proclamation and Scripture attest. In his work in proclamation, God directs his hearers back to himself in the person of Christ, by which he made himself known to human beings (revelation here also has a future element in which God will be fully revealed with the coming of the kingdom. Barth’s focus here though is on this retrospective aspect).

The middle term of revelation, Scripture, differs from proclamation:

“The distinction of the Head from the body and the superiority of the Head over the body find concrete expression in the fact that proclamation in the Church is confronted by a factor which is very like it as a phenomenon, which is temporal as it is, and yet which is different from it and in order superior to it. This factor is Holy Scripture” (101).

“With its acknowledgment of the presence of the Canon the Church expresses the fact that it is not left to itself in its proclamation, that the commission on the ground of which it proclaims, the object which it proclaims, the judgment under which its proclamation stands and the event of real proclamation must all come from elsewhere, from without, and very concretely from without, in all the externality of the concrete Canon as a categorical imperative which is also historical, which speaks in time” (101).

That is, if Scripture is just another form of proclamation then there is nothing by which the church can measure the validity of its proclamation. Not only would the proclamation of the church be disputable but Scripture itself. God would not have spoken. Moreover, Barth contends that the nature of Scripture as writing is essential to its role in relation to proclamation. An oral tradition, for example, lacks this same concreteness and can too easily be manipulated by successive generations. But the written word maintains a relative consistency from which it can confront the limits of proclamation. Anticipating the critique I had in mind here, that a written Scripture is as much open to abuse as an oral one, Barth writes,

“Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historico-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm” (106).

This is a necessary inference. If God works in proclamation such that he really does reveal himself in the midst of human words, then it is true here also with Scripture. Amid the vicissitudes of human interpretation, the written word maintains a kind of constancy against its interpretations which God brings to light again and again to call the church back to its roots in revelation.

Like proclamation, nonetheless, Scripture is human words through which God speaks. It is a witness to revelation, which is Christ. Of John the Baptist’s witness to Christ, then, Barth writes,

“Why and in what respect does the biblical witness have authority? Because and in the fact that he claims no authority for himself, that his witness amounts to letting that other [revelation] itself be its own authority. We thus do the Bible poor and unwelcome honour if we equate it directly with this other, with revelation itself” (112).

Yet this does not mean a denigration of Scripture. Rather, Barth seems to be reluctant to go anywhere which would effectively equate Scripture with God. He maintains, however, that it really is God’s Word:

“To hear the Bible as God’s Word means, therefore, that then and there, in the undoubtedly very modest, changing, perhaps increasing but possibly also decreasing compass in which it is true at any given time for an individual, we hear the human words of the Bible as the bearers of this eternal Word, based on this centre and having it in view again in everything they say. When the Bible itself is revelation in this way, it establishes the Church and makes its proclamation necessary and possible. The unity of revelation guarantees the unity of the biblical witness in and in spite of all its multiplicity and even contradictoriness” (116-117).

At the end of the section Barth asserts the unity of revelation in its threefold form.

It is useless to attempt to “understand the three forms of God’s Word in isolation. The first, revelation, is the form that underlies the other two. But it is the very one that never meets us anywhere in abstract form. We know it only indirectly, from Scripture and proclamation. The direct Word of God meets us only in this twofold mediacy. But Scripture too, to become God’s Word for us, must be proclaimed in the Church” (121).

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So my grades have been finalised which means I can put this online. For anyone interested it’s a postgraduate dissertation on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity in CD I/1, §§8-12. The first part is just exposition of these sections and then there are three chapters interacting with secondary literature that look at the relationship between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, divine personhood and modalist accusations made against Barth, and pneumatology.

Download here.

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In this next section, Barth’s focus is primarily on how to speak of God as both one and three.

Unity in Trinity

God’s unity is emphasised throughout Scripture. So, for example, the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew does not say in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the name. God is in his essence, substance, nature, etc, one. Nor is his unity collective but numerical. If he was three then we would worship three gods. However, “God’s triunity does not imply any threat to but is rather the basis of the Christian concept of the unity of God” (348).

Trinity in unity

Monotheism is much broader than Judaism and Islam so many religious and philosophical worldviews can be classified as in some sense being monotheistic. Trinitarianism is Christian monotheism. Although God is numerically one, this does not denote singularity or isolation. Rather one is a metaphor, even apophatic, so “the number 1 implies the negation of all plurality of or in God. All further deductions from the use of the concept of number are to be rejected as irrelevant” (354).

Barth goes on to enter into a lengthy discussion of one of the most disputed aspects of his doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of the word person to differentiate between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has mainly been criticised for depersonalising God and I think in English for the translation that suggests modalism, the heresy that God is not truly three but only appears to be so. In sum, his main contentions are that it was never clarified satisfactorily. Secondly, with the rise of the modern concept of a personality, i.e. a human subject, those who use person to refer to the Trinity cannot avoid its connotations. Three persons would entails three substances, and thus endorse tritheism. Barth instead opts for the German Seinsweisen, translated into English as “mode (or way) of being.” On the whole Barth does not appear to be a fan of Roman Catholic theology, haha. He is dismissive of the Church’s continued use of person, “as though the modern concept of personality did not exist, as though the definition of Boethius still continued to be relevant and intelligible, and above all as though the meaning of the definition had been so elucidated in the Middle Ages that it is possible with its help to speak profitably of the trinitarian three” (358).

The modes of being are distinct and non-exchangeable. In what I found a very difficult paragraph, Barth appears to make the argument that God does not just subsist in individual modes but if he subsists in one mode then he subsists essentially, that is, in his triunity as one and three. In his interaction with creation, God’s individual modes appear to be distinguished yet opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa [the external works of the Trinity are unidivided]; where one mode is at work, all three are, because God is one. All that is ultimately distinctive of the modes of being is their “relations of origin” within the Godhead, which nonetheless informs the distinctive works of these modes in relation to creation. Otherwise we would be worshipping three gods. The Father’s relation to the Son is that of begetting, while the Son’s relation to the Father is that of being begotten, and the Spirit is related to both in spiration, or proceeding from them. The modes are not entities but more properly relations. After all this, the Trinity remains a mystery and must be restated as such so “When we have said what that is: Father, Son and Spirit, we must then go on to say that we have said nothing” (367). And “Theology means rational wrestling with the mystery. But all rational wrestling with this mystery, the more serious it is, can lead only to its fresh and authentic interpretation and manifestation as a mystery” (368).

Triunity

Whether we say God is unity in Trinity or Trinity in unity, either puts an emphasis on his oneness or threeness. Triunity is to be preferred over Trinity as it better represents God as both three and one. Barth favourably discusses the concept of perichoresis, that is, each mode of being eternally participates in the other two modes of being. To say perichoresis is to say that the modes can only be known in their distinction from each other yet they cannot be known individually but only in unity. Barth now enters into a fuller discussion of the concept of appropriation, that although all of God’s attributes and external works properly belong to all modes, in revelation we may speak of particular attributes and works as appropriate to particular modes, so regeneration is properly the work of the Spirit. But this is only because God has revealed himself according to our “creaturely comprehensibility,” our epistemological limitations. In this sense, even Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not ultimately belong exclusively to any of the modes of being. Throughout, Barth has attempted to walk the fine line of God actually revealing himself in revelation and revelation not so totally encompassing God that humanity can control him epistemologically.

The meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity

Barth compares contemporary dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity with its place in the Church of an earlier age. It is easy to judge them as heretical or misguided without understanding their interest in the doctrine:

For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that in which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints. Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every kind, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of and in this worldliness.

(377-378).

The doctrine of the Trinity arose firstly out of theological meditation on the person of Jesus and as a response to the problem which Scripture leaves unanswered. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to answer the question, “Who is it that reveals Himself?” It is a centrally important dogma, though its measure is always Scripture.

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I’ve spent some time yesterday and today getting into Barth’s majestic Church Dogmatics (edited and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). It’s quite intimidating at first but I didn’t find it anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be, probably because I spent all the time in the secondary literature first. I’ve just finished §8, which I’ll do a little summary of in the first part of my dissertation so here’s an opportunity for me to practice and you, if, whoever you are, are interested, to be interested in what I’m reading.

§8 is divided into three parts, “The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics,” “The root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Vestigium Trinitatis”.

The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics

Barth begins this section with the threefold nature of God’s revelation to humanity: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself” (296). The structure of God’s self-unveiling to humanity is Trinitarian so the Father acts, the Son is the act and the Holy Spirit is the apprehension of this act in the human subject. So throughout, God is subject, predicate, object; Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost; Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

Barth’s structure of revelation allows him to find something like the Trinity in the Old Testament, which, despite emphasising God’s oneness also went beyond this in God interacting with his creation so “The angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament is obviously both identical and not identical with Yahweh Himself” (299).

Whereas the old Protestant dogmatics started with the doctrine of Scripture, Catholic dogmatics with the authority of the Church, and modern liberal Protestant dogmatics (at least those contemporary with Barth) with the truth of “religion,” Barth argues for the need to start dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity as a well-developed doctrine of God is first necessary to understand all else (300). Interestingly, Barth’s later interpreters have either critiqued or developed Barth on this same point in reverse, revising his doctrine of the Trinity in light of his later volumes.

Indeed, so Barth famously says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” (301). I love this. He follows it up with a collection of quotes from theologians throughout the centuries who have said similar things. I am increasingly swayed by Barth’s argument that the Trinity is distinctive of Christianity. We do not come to theology with a general concept of God and then find the Trinity to fit somehow there. Conversely, I am wary of the triumphalism that can come from this and in relation to other ideologies such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc. In agreeing that the Trinity is distinctly Christian and that I love it to be so, I do not thereby want to cut myself off from the insights and challenges of those on the fringes and outside of the Christian tradition.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity

In this subsection Barth goes on to discuss his theology of revelation as the root not of the Trinity itself, as if the Trinity only existed in our apprehension of God, but the doctrine of the Trinity. I am here a little perplexed at his earlier ambition to start a dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity before something like the doctrine of Scripture. Obviously such clear distinctions are neither possible nor desirable.

God is by nature unknowable, yet his freedom entails that he is free to overcome this unknowability and make himself known to humanity. Thus in revelation God “distinguish[es] Himself from Himself, i.e., to be God in Himself and in concealment, and yet at the same time to be God a second time in a very different way, namely, in manifestation, i.e., in the form of something He Himself is not” (316). So even anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Old Testament “are not just descriptions and representations of the reality of Yahweh; they are themselves the reality of Yahweh” (316).

Humanity cannot know God apart from revelation. Even in revelation, such as the ministry of Jesus, people cannot know this God unless he meets them in this revelation, so the confession of Peter is exemplary of this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17). “The neutral observer who understood the events recorded in it as revelation would cease thereby to be a neutral observer” (325). Followed by a beautiful smackdown reminiscent of Kierkegaard: “the philosophy of religion of the Enlightenment from Lessing by way of Kant and Herder to Fichte and Hegel, with its intolerable distinction between the eternal content and the historical ‘vehicle,’ can only be described as the nadir of the modern misunderstanding of the Bible” (329).

Vestigium Trinitatis

The edition I’m using translates the Latin as “trace of the Trinity,” that is the traces of the Trinity in things outside of biblical revelation such as nature (a spring, stream, and lake) or humanity (body, soul, spirit), going back to Augustine. When you investigate something, you look for the traces. Barth is ultimately dismissive of this, but notes that theologians throughout history were sincere in their presentations of vestigia, trying to communicate complex theological concepts in everyday language. Although theological language is itself a vestigium, the only true vestigium is God’s revelation. Theology is to interpret this, but it must not illustrate it (so e.g. spring, stream, lake) as it thus produces another source for knowledge of the Trinity, competing with revelation it attempts to interpret. Additionally, the illustrations themselves have many flaws (often leaning to either modalism or tritheism).

Pointing out the appeal to the Holy Spirit above Scripture of the radical reformers (an appeal that I open to in some sense still being valid), Barth writes “one might almost say [the Holy Spirit] became the specifically non-Church or anti-Church God” (337). Haha, I just thought that was poetic and interesting.

Finally, despite our limitations we cannot not speak of God: “theological language [is that], which even though it can only be the language of the world, must still believe at root, cost what it will, that contrary to the natural capabilities of this language it can and should speak of God’s revelation in this language as theological language” (341).

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