Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §20.2 "Authority Under the Word" pp. 585-660 (Part 1)

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §20 states: "The Church does not claim direct and absolute and material authority for itself but for Holy Scripture as the Word of God. But actual obedience to the authoritative Word of God in Holy Scripture is objectively determined by the fact that those who in the Church mutually confess an acceptance of the witness of Holy Scripture will be ready and willing to listen to one another in expounding and applying it. By the authority of Holy Scripture on which it is founded, authority in the Church is restricted to an indirect and relative and formal authority."

In section §20 ("Authority in the Church") and in subsection §20.2 ("Authority Under the Word"), Barth (in another longish reading!) starts by continuing the discussion of authority which he left off with in the previous section. He is interested now in the question of the authority of the Church underneath the Word. How does this authority come into being? It comes into being by a common hearing and receiving of the Word in the Church (588). And this common action is made concrete in the Church's confession (588). What is meant by 'confession'? Barth writes:
Confession in the most general sense is the accounting and responding which in the Church we owe one another and have to receive from one another in relation to the hearing and receiving of the Word of God (588). 
But it is obvious that before I myself make a confession I must myself have heard the confession of the Church, i.e., the confession of the rest of the Church. In my hearing and receiving of the Word of God I cannot separate myself from the Church to which it is addressed. I cannot thrust myself into the debate about a right faith which goes on in the Church without first having listened (589). 
If my confession is to have weight in the Church, it must be weighted with the fact that I have heard the Church. If I have not heard the Church, I cannot speak to it. I have from the very outset excluded myself from the fellowship of the Church’s confession, which is the aim of the debate which goes on in the Church (589).
My first duty is to love and respect it as the witness of my fathers and brethren. And it is in the superiority posited by this fact that I shall hear it. And as I do so, as I recognise the superiority of the Church before and beside me, it is to me an authority. This is how the authority of the Church arises. It always arises in this way, that in the community of hearing and receiving the Word of God which constitutes the Church, there is this superiority of the confession of some before others, this honour and love, this hearing of the confession of some by others, before the latter go on to make their own confession. Before both and therefore above both is the Lord of the Church with His Word. Only under His Word can some confess and others hear their confession before they confess themselves. But under His Word there does arise this priority and superiority of some over others, the necessity that in the Church we should listen to other men before we go on to speak. Under His Word there is, therefore, a genuine authority of the Church (590).
Barth asks another question: In what does the authority of the Church consist? A debate, a conversation, and chorus of voices that serve a common purpose:
First, we might mean the totality of voices which together make up the chorus or choruses of the fathers and brethren, who as such witness to others how the Word of God has previously been and is heard and received in the Church. But there must obviously be a chorus or choruses, not a confusion of many independent voices, if we are to hear not a cacophonous chaos, but wholeness and therefore the confession of the Church (591).
How do these choruses arise, i.e., how does there arise this common speaking out of the community of hearing and receiving the Word of God? We have already described the life of the Church under the Word as a debate which comes into being because the members of the Church owe and pay one another and must receive from one another a mutual accounting, responding and witness of their faith (591).
But the Church is not a poor theological seminar. Much less is it a religious debating club. Its debate stands under a binding purpose and this purpose is that of union or unions in relation to a true faith. The immediate goal cannot be that of remaining apart, but of coming together and standing together in view of the actual coming together in proclamation. The immediate goal and necessary result of a debate on true faith conducted in the Church is that those who take part in it should make a common confession of their faith (592).
In such agreements in the Church it is better not to claim the prophetic “Thus saith the Lord” and the apostolic “It pleased the Holy Ghost and us” (Ac. 15:28). The prophets and apostles could and had to speak in that way, but not the Church, which only applies and expounds their witness to revelation (592).
To sum up: The authority of the Church is the confession of the Church in the narrower meaning of the concept, i.e., the voice of others in the Church reaching me in specific agreements and common declarations and as such preceding my own faith and the confession of it. Church authority always consists in the documented presence of such agreements. If there are definite limitations in the nature of such agreements and their results, this does not hinder the fact that in this limitation they are and have authority, that they have to be heard by others, and indeed heard before these others speak—that is, especially before they question these agreements and their results and their authority either in part or in whole. It is enough for the moment that they are radically questioned by the Word of God. But this is true of others, too, and of the whole Church. Within this common questioning there does exist this precedence—human, partial, preliminary, but set up as a sign of the basic questioning of the whole Church within the Church—of the confession of the Church over the faith and the confessions of faith of others (593).
Barth reminds us that the Church's confession, and our individual confessions, involve a decision to be made: will we make them in relation to historical forms of authority?
We stand in Church history. Church history is lived. We are concretely claimed for the task of the common hearing and receiving of the Word of God, for the task of its common proclamation and therefore for discussion concerning true faith. We are claimed because we ourselves are always summoned to confess. We will always be open to projected agreements and Church confessions. In fact we will be on the lookout for them. And from the infinite variety of ecclesiastical happenings, certain events will stand out of themselves in virtue of their content, i.e., in virtue of what they have to say to us in our position in the Church, in our confessional situation, in the face of our encounter with the Word of God and the task which evolves out of it. Whatever may be the case with others in another position and another situation, in this event, and not in the many others, we ourselves encounter the confession and therefore the authority of the Church. Others may be responsible for overlooking this event, not hearing in it the confession of the Church, not acknowledging the authority which we think we perceive in it. And we ourselves will be responsible for overlooking events in which others think they hear the confession of the Church and see its authority. But where in our position and our situation face to face with Holy Scripture we receive an answer, an answer given in the light of Holy Scripture to the question of our faith, there we must hear the confession of the Church and affirm its authority and there, and only there, we can do so. Decision therefore is not merely the Church’s confession as such, as laid down in the Church. It is also its recognition in the rest of the Church and its validity as Church authority accorded in that recognition. Decision is, therefore, the institution and existence of the authority of the Church in the entire range of this event: a common decision of those who speak—perhaps centuries ago—and of those who hear to-day (595).
And now in and because of this common decision, the confession of the Church there, which is prior to the Church here, has a specific historical form: the form of the event which answers the question of the Church here in its own position and situation. This confession has therefore a historical meaning and content; it has form and contour. It consists in letters, words and statements. It is distinguished from so many other authorities, which might in themselves be an authority for the Church but in actual fact are not, by the fact that according to the will of the Lord of the Church it is this confession which speaks to it, and that according to the will of the same Lord it has heard this confession (596).
Theologically, we can, properly speaking, only point out: (1) that wherever the Church exists and lives there will and must also be Church authority, and in a specific historical form; and (2) that granted the existence of this authority in a specific historical form, it has as such to be respected (597).
Barth, having suggested that the Church's confession needs to be made in relation to historical forms of authority, now turns to a long discussion of three primary historical forms: the canon, the Church fathers, and the confessions. We will look at just the first, the biblical canon, in this post. Barth writes,
1. We assume that between the Church now and here and the Church then and elsewhere there exists a unity of confession in respect of the compass of Holy Scripture, the so-called biblical Canon. We have already touched this question in an earlier context, but we must take it up again, because the fixing of the Canon is the basic act of Church confession and therefore the basic establishment of Church authority. The fact that there exists a Canon of Holy Scripture, i.e., a prophetic-apostolic witness of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ which in principle is prior to all the proclamation, teaching and decision of the Church, is posited in and with revelation itself. What this Canon is, of course, is also decided with revelation by God Himself and therefore in heaven, but not in such a way that the Church on earth is spared from having to decide it itself, that is, to know and confess what is in concreto* the compass of that witness posited with revelation by God Himself. As a human document, this witness waits for human faith in its character as witness, and therefore for the counter-witness of this human faith. It is marked off by God and therefore in itself, but it waits to be taken and understood as marked off in this way and therefore to become the divine-human basis and law of the Church. It is only by becoming this, only in this decision, that it can be. It is only by being taken and understood and attested that it is marked off for us and exercises its function as a first and dominant sign of divine revelation. If the Canon has divine authority from God and in itself, its establishment as the Canon, its designation and delimitation as such, is an act of the Church, an act of its faith, its knowledge, its confession (597).
The Church has had more than one discussion on the subject [Indeed! - M Dowling]. Expressly or tacitly it has later repeated and reaffirmed its agreement to meet certain doubts. Upon each new generation, baptised and instructed in it, and hearing its preaching and called to the preaching office, it lays the confession that this or that belongs or does not belong to the Canon of Holy Scripture. It is only with human, not with divine authority, that this can be said to the younger Church by the older. Similarly, it is only with human, not with divine authority, that in this matter a protest can be made by the Evangelical Church against the different Roman Catholic contribution, against its inclusion of the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha in the Canon. But this confession and this protest is the confession and protest of the Church, in whose fellowship the Word of God must have reached us if we ourselves are to believe and confess it. If the Church can only serve the Word of God and if this service is only a human and, as such, a fallible service, we cannot escape this service, what it says to us in this service has authority, we have to accept it as at first normative for us, and therefore until we are better informed we have to approach the Holy Scripture laid before us by the Church—not otherwise, and in its full compass as presented to us, and therefore without addition or subtraction—the collection of those documents in which we too have to seek the witness of divine revelation (598-599).
The question of the genuine Canon is not basically closed by the existence of the Church’s Canon. Even in the light of the Church’s Canon individuals have every right to raise it. Indeed, it is in practice the rule that it is an open question for the individual. But this does not affect in the least the existence and validity of this Canon. So long as it is not abolished or replaced, its proposal remains, and with it its authority and dignity and validity and the need to take it seriously, to have confidence in its promise, i.e., always to return to it (601).
We will pick up with the historical authority of the Church Fathers in my next post...