Two British intellectual giants, atheist Richard Dawkins and former atheist Alister McGrath, engage in a friendly interview. Dawkins probes McGrath’s Christian worldview, wanting to know how McGrath can claim that his faith in God is rational.
In a recent compendium of evangelical scholars re-thinking Karl Barth’s theology, Kevin Vanhoozer addresses Barth’s doctrine of Scripture vis-a-vis conservative Barthian angst in previous years, terming the rub a great “misunderstanding.” His main point is stated thus, “The differences between Barth and evangelicals on the matter of the Bible being the Word of God stem from mutual misunderstandings that can be accounted for in terms of speech-act theory” (“A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, p. 57).
While Vanhoozer’s analysis is important and beneficial, I offer this humble question about the conclusion he draws about the help which speech-act theory provides for re-uniting conservative evangelicals with Barth’s doctrine of Sacred Scripture, and I ask for those who have read Vanhoozer’s essay, “What is your take?”
Caveat Lector: I sub-titled this post “a humble question” because I am in no wise a dogmatician, much less a Barthian master. With such a prologue, let me proceed with caution to my twofold question:
- Could it be that within a “canonical” understand of Barth’s theology that Barth’s being/becoming ontological distinction of Sacred Scripture rests too much on his commitment to universal election unto salvation, thus exalting the blessings side of the covenantal nature of revelation to the exclusion of the attending curses of the covenant? (“Canonical” is Vanhoozer’s own term employed to point out the fact that, in his opinion, early evangelical critiques of Barth were highly selective, de-contextualized critiques, thus being unfair for not reading Barth within the whole context of Barth’s full writings. See p. 28.) In the same volume see Alister McGrath’s essay, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Justification,” esp. pp. 187ff.
- Does re-painting Barth’s distinction with the brushes of speech-act theory really produce a new painting, or does it merely define the same dilemma with different strokes?
Unpacking Question 1
In regard to the former, I get the impression after reading Vanhoozer’s essay that Barth’s doctrine of Scripture addresses only the community of receiving believers. All the fuss about the Bible “becoming” the Word of God seems to only regard believers who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit to hear God’s Word. If I am understanding Vanhoozer’s interpretation of Barth correctly, for believers alone does the “becoming” of God’s Word happen. Unbelievers do not experience the “becoming” of God’s Word because they are not enlightened by the Holy Spirit, etc. In Vanhoozer’s words:
Readers come face to face with the object of Scripture’s witness only when they encounter what the prophets and apostles themselves experienced; here, too, it is a matter of the triune God, as the sovereign subject (and subject matter) of Scripture, making himself present as the referent of the words. The Spirit, as “Lord of the [reader's] hearing,” is also Lord of the text’s referring. With [sic; I'm pretty sure this is a typo. I think it is supposed to read, "Without the Spirit's work..." based on footnote 117] the Spirit’s work in the reader, the words of the Bible work in vain inasmuch as their signification falls short of the thing (the Sache) itself. While the sense of the Bible’s words is intelligible to unaided human reason, the mystery to which they testify is not. (“A Person of the Book?” p. 50.)
The footnote explaining this paragraph reads thus:
Without the Spirit, the Bible renders the conception (e.g. the esse in intellectu) but not the reality (res) itself. Becoming aware of the res is not the same a receiving more information; it is rather a matter of grasping not merely the conception of the thing but the thing itself. (Ibid.)
So what’s my beef? Vanhoozer’s explanation here rubs me the wrong way in that he seems to bifurcate the holistic, covenantal nature of Scripture into a false epistemic dilemma: the Scriptures are known either existentially (i.e. truly) or rationally (and by implication, empirically, i.e., falsely). Furthermore, this bifurcation coexists with an ontological counterpart: The Word of God as it “becomes” so existentially is only actualized in a believer’s personal experience with Jesus through the pointing of Scripture’s words to Jesus; thus, in this view, the Bible is not God’s Word to non-regenerate people. Logically, then, the covenant curses of God’s Word are not ontologically actualized toward non-regenerate people because of their inherent incapability to know Jesus existentially.
In other words, when a Christian reads the Bible he or she rides the existential bus to Jesus and finds the full truth (the res). Non-Christians read the same Bible but miss the existential bus and thus are left standing in cognitive pools of dead, meaningless words (esse in intellectu).
If I’m interpreting Vanhoozer properly, Barth’s epistemic shift off of the rational and empirical realms and onto the subjective/existential allows him to sidestep any need to prove the empirical veracity or rational coherence of Scripture’s claims. In other words, the truth of Scripture is deeper than the empirical or rational levels of knowledge in that the truest truth offered in the Bible is the believer’s existential relationship with Jesus, the Living Word of God.
While such thinking seeks to preserve the distinction between believing and unbelieving knowledge of God, in my estimation it does more to blur this distinction than to clarify. No orthodox theologian would quibble over whether an unregenerate sinner has the same existential knowledge of God via Sacred Scriptures as does a redeemed believer who has been given “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” But if one follows Barth’s route in explaining the doctrine of Sacred Scripture, how does one account for the unregenerate person’s true, though suppressed knowledge of God (Romans 1), much more God’s covenantal condemnation of unregenerate people to eternal damnation? For, on Barth’s terms the Word of God appears to be dead to unbelievers; it only “becomes” the Word of God to believers indwelt with Holy Spirit. What then of God’s personal speaking with unbelievers (i.e. Cain, Pharaoh, Balaam, etc.)? If God’s Word only becomes God’s Word to believers, how does one account for unbeliever’s existential knowledge of God’s revelation in its function of cursing?
It appears that Barth didn’t account for the downside to existential knowledge of God (i.e. covenant curses). Instead, his theological system eventually loads everyone on the existential bus to true truth with a theory of universal election unto salvation for all people. (Again, caveat lector: I have not read Barth for myself, and I am relying upon Alister McGrath’s essay in the same volume which appears to me to state clearly that Barth was a universalist. See earlier footnote in my post.) Much further study on my part is needed here, but unless Vanhoozer is holding something back in his explanation, it appears a huge gaping hole exists in Barth’s doctrine of Scripture: How does God’s Word do anything for non-Christians if it only becomes God’s Word via Holy Spirit’s existentially uniting the words of Scripture to Jesus? (I.e. How does a “dead” word of God give the manifold blessings of common grace, providence, etc.? Or how does a such a word mete out judgments against sin? How does a “dead” Word speak of non-Christian knowledge of God, as in Romans 1?)
In my estimation Barth’s line of thinking on the doctrine of Scripture does not properly account for the covenantal nature of God’s revelation nor display the full power of God’s word. On the former, the revelation of God’s Word always contains covenant blessings for obeying and curses for rebellion. And just as sure as the blessings are known existentially by the believing receiver, so the curses to the unbelieving rejector:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:21-25 ESV)
And on the latter, God’s word is nowhere powerless, even where it is inscripturated:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)
In short my ontological question for Barth is how can he avoid a docetic view of Scripture by denying it any measure of truth outside of the function of pointing to Jesus. And epistemically, how does Barth avoid subjectivism when shifting revelation from the rational and empirical planes to the existential? Is such a shift proper, for example, in poetry or prose?
Unpacking Question 2
My second question addresses Vanhoozer’s use of speech-act theory to mediate between conservative evangelicals’ stance upon verbal inerrancy and Barth’s recasting the Word as a “witness” to the Living Word. He says that the speech-act perspective gives us a new view of Sacred Scriptures being and function:
The notion that the Bible is caught up in divine discourse casts new light both on Scripture’s ontology and its role in the economy of divine revelation. (“A Person of the Book?” p. 57)
He goes on to say in his concluding section that the divine words of God (which Evangelicals are good at highlighting) must also be divinely received as existential knowledge via Holy Spirit’s mediation (which he claims was Barth’s big point and helpful corrective to unbalanced evangelicalism). Thus, the “middle way” that speech-act theory helps us to see between Evangelicals and Barth is to recognize the strengths of both: Evangelicals rightly hold Barth in check by highlighting the necessity of the inspired Words; Barth rightly holds evangelicals in check by highlighting the necessity of Holy Spirit’s mediation.
My question, then, is how is this insight differs from what Reformed believers have confessed with chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession for hundreds of years?
To Evangelicalism’s corrective:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (WCF I.1; emphasis added)
And to Barth’s corrective:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. . . .
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; (WCF I.5 and I.6a; emphases added)
Am I missing something that is new and different from the WCF in Vanhoozer’s analysis?
Dr. Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford University, has released free audio lectures from Wycliffe Hall‘s summer school program. These fascinating lectures begin by briefly defining Christian “apologetics” and then proceed to pithy presentations on using various genres of literature apologetically. With British wit and humor Dr. McGrath explores the question, “In what ways can Christians use literature to explain and defend the Gospel?”
(I have had a few difficulties downloading and streaming the audio files directly from Oxford’s site, so I have provided an alternate download of all 6 lectures for you to use if the links below do not work.)
Lecture 1a: What is Apologetics? And using stories apologetically.
Lecture 1b: More on using stories apologetically.
Lecture 2a: Using Poetry and Detective Novels Apologetically.
Lecture 2b: More on Using Poetry and Detective Novels Apologetically.
Lecture 3a: C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.
Lecture 3b: More on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.