Monday, March 11, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Prolegomena Part 1

As I mentioned in the introduction last week, I intend to write a theology that is centered on Jesus, and I also took shots at the dominance of prolegomena in Christian theology. Among other things, prolegomena often includes discussion of hermeneutics and doctrine of Scripture. Hermeneutics is interesting but I don't see it as actually being a theological topic. Doctrine of Scripture is important, but I don't believe that the beginning is the place for full length treatment. At the same time, I do believe I need to inform my readers of how I approach Scripture at the start, as that will have an impact on the use of Scripture in developing theology. Part one of my prolegomena will lay out the basics of my doctrine of Scripture. Wednesday I will post part two, which will cover hermeneutics.

When one reads Karl Barth there sometimes is some confusion. Is Scripture the word of God or isn't it? The answer depends on what you mean by the word of God. What is the word of God? Is Scripture that? In what sense is the Bible inspired? How does Scripture function authoritatively? Below I will briefly outline my views with minimal defense. I am deeply indebted to Barth so I would commend you to his very full discussion in Church Dogmatics I.1 and I.2.

We will pick up those questions in order. The word of God is the self revelation of God. Or as Barth puts it, "God's Word is God Himself in His revelation."[1] Drawing from John 1, the word of God is God the Son, and in the incarnation, Jesus. Any encounter we have with the word of God is an encounter with the second person of the Trinity and an encounter that will not leave us unchanged. In this sense, it would be odd to call Scripture the word of God. Instead, I would say that Scripture is the authoritative witness to past revelation, authenticated by God and his primary means to continue to speak today. Scripture itself isn't the word of God, but it often does become it when God the Holy Spirit uses it to speak to us; when he actualizes it as God's word to us as a people and as individuals.

That brings us to the third question. Working from this understanding of the nature of Scripture and the word of God it becomes clear that the Bible does not possess the same ontological status or character as God the Son. Scripture is inspired as a witness to the word of God.[2] It arises from certain experiences that people in the past had of the Word of God. God revealed himself to them and they wrote what they heard and experienced. Scripture is inspired because the people who wrote, wrote in response to an experience of the living God. Inspiration is of the person, not something directly tied to the process of writing as is assumed under the popular notions of inspiration. The Bible is the primary inspired witness to revelation. 

The authority Scripture possesses, then, is derivative and must be subordinated to the authority of Jesus Christ himself, the head of the church. However, since it is the authoritative record of past revelation and the means that God uses to facilitate revelation today, there needs to be an attentiveness to it, a humility in approaching it, and a general respect for it. Our job is to listen to Scripture hoping to hear God speak afresh today. The process of listening isn't simple and a matter of plainly, 'putting into practice what the Bible says,' but an exploration of how to listen to the Bible is the topic of our next post.

For further reading: 
Church Dogmatcis Volumes I.1 and I.2 by Karl Barth

[1] Church Dogmatics Vol I.1 p. 295.

[2] As an aside, I believe this is what makes the doctrine of inerrancy unnecessary. The Bible isn't trying to give a perfect history in the modern sense. It's trying to witness to the character and actions of God. Of course this isn't always separable from history, but errors and contradictions in the text don't necessarily undermine the portrait of God revealed in the text. 

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