Barth on the Relative Authority of the Church
A curious aspect of the conservative Evangelical critique of Karl Barth concerns his views on ecclesial authority — particularly as expressed in the creeds and confessions of the ancient church. Of course Barth does not reject these, by any means. Indeed, he seeks to engage in the task of theology in the sphere of the church’s historical witness. But he does regard the confessions as bearing relative and not absolute authority. This gives us insight both into Barth’s doctrine of Scripture and an inconsistency in some Evangelical positions.
The authority of the church is mediate in relation to Holy Scripture, according to Barth:
It has and exercises it by refraining from any direct appeal to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in support of its words and attitudes and decisions, by not trying to speak out as though it were infallible and final, but by subordinating itself to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the form in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is actually present and gracious to it, that is, in His attestation by the prophets and apostles, in the differentiation from its own witness conditioned by its written nature. Therefore, it has and exercises it in the concrete humility which consists in the recognition that in Holy Scripture it has over it everywhere and always and in every respect its Lord and Judge: in the incompleteness of its own knowing and acting and speaking which that involves, in the openness to reformation through the Word of God which constantly confronts it in Holy Scripture. It is in this way, in this concrete subordination to the Word of God, that it has and exercises genuine authority. (Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 586)
Barth is often criticized for having a low view of the nature of Scripture — that it is “mere” witness to God’s revelation, and not revelatory itself. (See this post for a bit more on this topic.) What we see here is that Barth’s view of the function of Scripture (read: its authority for believers) is, in fact, quite high. From its sermons and teachings to its theology, from its worship to its sacramental practice and its mission in the world, the church stands under the authority of Holy Scripture. It cannot do an end-run around the Bible and appeal to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit in any form other than the one in which they present themselves to us.
But the church’s speech, including its historic creeds, is derivative of this. In short, the church only speaks truth in the formulation of dogma insofar as it is faithfully explicating the Word of God in Scripture. The standard by which the rightness of doctrine — or “orthodoxy” — is to be measured is ultimately not the creeds but the Scripture to which they point. This was the view of the Reformers. The creeds and confessions of the tradition do play a regulative role, of course, but this role is largely sociological.
Barth, then, ought to be judged an “orthodox” Christian theologian insofar as he gets Scripture right, and finally on no other basis. Scripture in turn is to be read and interpreted in the community of faith, and so the question of Barth’s relation to the ecclesial tradition is an important question for students of his thought to consider. But the relation of these two authorities, Scripture and the church, must be properly ordered.
It’s curious that the way Barth has related these two, Scripture and creed (or tradition), further exposes an inconsistency in some conservative Evangelical viewpoints. Those who reject Barth’s doctrine of Scripture often further criticize him as heterodox, as unfaithful to the confessions of the historic church — and instead “liberal,” an inheritor of Kant and Schleiermacher who simply dresses up his heterodoxy in the language of the ancient church. In this way the critics themselves, however, betray the disorder in their own view of Scripture and ecclesial authority. The confessions (whether Nicaea and Chalcedon, or Dordt and Westminster) are accepted as true to Scripture without further criticism — one must submit to them at all points — with the result that the Bible is read in their light rather than vice versa.
Only Barth’s position — that the confessions have a relative authority and therefore ought to be subjected again and again to a fresh hearing of the Word of God in the Bible — maintains the proper order between Scripture and tradition. The creeds derive from Scripture and so are under the continual authority of Scripture, and they function in this order in their use by the church (including its task of theological reflection). This requires that the church remain open to reformation, Barth says — i.e. a reconsideration of its creeds in light of the witness of the Word of God in Holy Scripture. This is the church’s orientation of “concrete humility” to the Word of God.