Appreciating Barth

I’ve been reading a lot of Barth recently, especially on his views of revelation and Scripture, and for a change from my past discussions of him I’d like to write about him in an entirely positive way.

1) Though it is not mentioned much, I think one of Barth’s best challenges to the Protestant Orthodox doctrine of scripture is it’s weakness on the Canon. That is, in my humble opinion (which is indeed humble; I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic, more of an interested amateur), there is not a consistent, well thought out position among conservative Protestants on why Canonical books are recognized as such. One of the ways Calvin said the Canon could be recognized was actually by the inner witness of the Spirit. But this does open the door (possibly) to someone saying: “I haven’t received the witness of the Spirit that such and such a passage is Canonical, so it isn’t from my point of view.” Unless there is some identifiable objective (i.e., publicly accessible) feature of canonical books that allows them to be recognized as such, it is hard to avoid either something like Barth’s doctrine of inspiration, or else a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox doctrine, in practice. (And Barth has a pretty sophisticated understanding of the authority of the church for a Protestant: we must listen to the consensus of the church charitably, especially in relation to its beliefs about the identity of the Canon, before we try to challenge it if we want to; as well, if experience confirms the church’s Canonical decision in one place, this gives us reason to trust that it might be correct about the rest of its Canonical beliefs even apart from personal confirmation by the Spirit). Further, there is definite precedent for Barth’s attitude here among early Protestants (think of Luther’s comments about the Epistle of James being “an epistle of straw”.)

2) Barth’s “event” view of inspiration is sometimes chided for its denial of any objectivity to inspiration, but Paul does in fact say that without the Spirit the Scriptures remain “veiled” to those who don’t believe.

3) Barth seems to be reacting to a very specific way of construing inerrancy: not just believing the documents are inerrant, but that they can (and must) be demonstrably so to every interpreter (sympathetic, neutral or hostile). One could also justifiably say that such a construal was a capitulation to Enlightenment rationalism.

4) Barth has a fair warning against arrogance when interpreting Scripture: he at least gives us reason not to think that our exegesis is equivalent in authority to God Himself.