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Barth and the Bible

I’m reading for an essay on the theology of the Bible of Karl Barth at the moment. I generally try to use my essays as a chance to address an issue I have and clearly, I have a lot of ‘I wonders’ about the doctrine of scripture! Much of that has come from Barth’s teaching being used against me so I thought this would be a good chance to sort out what I think about that. The basic line I’ve heard, mainly from people in some sort of ‘liberal’ camp is: to say that the Bible is the word of God is too narrow because God doesn’t fit into human frameworks and therefore you can’t take what the Bible says too seriously.

So here’s the thing that amazed me when I started reading on Barth – he was actually writing AGAINST liberals! In his day, the liberal academy had followed the likes of Schleiermacher who thought of religion in purely human terms and had taken modern values to a point where they thought that humans could think or reason their way to God. They were big into historical-criticism which focuses on the origins of the Bible and they used some of those tools to get rid of or ignore parts of the Bible. (That wasn’t a problem to them because religion was fulfilling your own needs by thinking about God.)

And Barth started out as one of them. But with WWI making it clear that perhaps humans weren’t as good at reasoning as they thought they were, and with the necessity of preaching to a congregation each week, Barth started looking for something more. And he found in the Bible, not so much human words about God, but God’s revelation of himself and his judgement of humans. Barth’s point was this: If God is to be known, it will be on God’s terms. Imagine what a slap in the face this was the liberal scholars but Barth stuck to his guns – if God is God, he is sovereign and he does not neatly fit into institutions and human frameworks.

But here’s the thing, Barth’s argument about God not fitting into human boxes was not so that we would mistrust the Bible but exactly the opposite! Barth saw people who were approaching the Bible as its judge and wrote to say that in fact, God was their judge. God doesn’t fit into human frameworks, so that’s why you have to be careful when you read the Bible – God might say something you don’t like!

There’s more to the argument than that, and certainly more to Barth than that, but I was struck by the importance of understanding someone’s context when they write. And Barth’s context was one of defending against hyper-modernist liberals. Yet, I wonder whether modern evangelicals need to hear Barth again because we fall into the same kinds of traps?  Craig Bartholomew had these challenging words for those of us in the ‘evangelical’ camp:

Academic interpretation of the Bible has often failed to have as its goal hearing God’s address. Barth is at pains to defend historical criticism, but always insists that it must serve the large goal of listening to Scripture to hear God speak. Sadly this has also been true of much orthodox biblical scholarship. Perhaps because of the fierceness of the battle, much Evangelical biblical scholarship has tended to cover the same ground as their liberal opponents but in a conservative fashion. Niether approach has had as its goal to listening [sic] to Scripture…. The result is that so much work on the Bible fails to help us hear God’s address.

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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