Thursday, May 15, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §20.2 "Authority Under the Word" pp. 585-660 (Part 3)

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."

We're working in section §20 ("Authority in the Church") and in subsection §20.2 ("Authority Under the Word"), and in my last post I considered the second part of this section (pp. 603-620). Continuing on then, Barth continues with a discussion of the third historical form of authority - the creeds and confessions. He writes:
We assume that between the Church to-day and here and the Church then and elsewhere there must be a unity of confession in respect of specific declarations of the common faith, i.e., of confession in the strictest sense of the concept: the confession of the Church. A Church confession is a formulation and proclamation of the insight which the Church has been given in certain directions into the revelation attested by Scripture, reached on the basis of common deliberation and decision (620).
Barth gives five necessary characteristics by which we can evaluate whether a creed or confession is authoritative.

1) First, it must be a common statement or confession expounding holy scripture:
The confession of the Church involves the formulation and proclamation of a definite ecclesiastical understanding of the revelation attested in Holy Scripture. Therefore from the outset the confession and its authority does not stand above or alongside, but as a Church confession under Holy Scripture. Therefore it does not speak by direct revelation, and what it says cannot be a source of revelation for the Church which listens to it (620).
Self-evidently the confession of the Church cannot speak on the basis of a supposed and immediate revelation which is different from that attested in Holy Scripture. It does not confess God in history or God in nature, as individuals, and it may be many individuals, in the Church think they see Him. It does not confess this or that element of Church tradition and custom. It confesses Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ as attested by the prophets and apostles. It confesses the one Word of God, beside whom there is no other. This does not prevent it confessing in definite historical situations, in answer to definite questions, contradicting and explaining in a definite antithesis. But it does prevent it speaking on any other ground than Holy Scripture or any other truth than that attested in Holy Scripture (621).
The confession of the Church explains Scripture, it expounds and applies it. It is, therefore, a commentary. It is not enough for it to repeat biblical texts. It can point to them in order to make clear in what connexion it wishes to explain Scripture. But at bottom it must speak in its own words, in the words and therefore in the speech of its age (621).
But because it is the Church itself which speaks, listening to Scripture and bearing its witness to its truth, the confession cannot be anything more than a commentary, or try to stand on the same level as Scripture (621).
2) Second, the confession must confess an insight that has been given to the church:
The confession of the Church involves the expression of an insight given to the Church. Holy Scripture has been given to the Church as the source of its knowledge of divine revelation. It is not individuals, or any group of individuals, but the Church itself, represented by those who can and must speak in its name, which has to give an account of its faith to itself and the world in the confession of the Church. The confession speaks for and to the one universal Church. Obviously we cannot and must not understand this in any legal or statistical sense. We can only understand it spiritually. From the legalistic and statistical standpoint, no confession (not even those of the so-named “general” councils) ever arose and was proclaimed as the confession of the whole Church for the whole Church. From the legal and statistical standpoint every confession has only been a confession in the Church, proceeding from one part and directed to the other parts of the Church. Its calling to speak in the name of the one universal Church to the one universal Church is grounded only on the Holy Scripture which is given to the one universal Church as the witness of the one revelation given to all. Therefore no ultimately decisive justification can be adduced for the summoning and meeting and special authorisation of individual members of the Church as “authors” of a confession except once again Holy Scripture itself. Those who find themselves assembled to draw up and impose a confession (even though in virtue of their office as the representatives of many communities they are a more or less legitimate “synod” or “council”) dare only adduce to others as their authorisation and authority that they have come together in obedience to the Word of God and have to confess this or that. It is quite clear that when they do this they put themselves under the judgment of the Word of God, accepting the risk that they may be publicly disavowed and given the lie by the Word of God to which they appeal and think and declare that they are obedient. There is no confession without this risk and danger. And obviously for those who venture to come before the Church with a confession, there is also the danger that they will have the witness of Holy Scripture in their favour, but that in the rest of the Church they will speak to deaf ears and therefore, isolated with the Word of God, they will necessarily be in their Church heretics and oddities, unauthorised innovators or even invincible reactionaries. But this does not alter the fact that if the claim of their confession to be Church confession is to be heard or even discussed they must dare to speak to the whole Church in the name of the whole Church. How can it be otherwise if they are really trying to speak from Holy Scrip-ture and to attest the Word of God? The courage to accept the risk involved is at least one test of the genuineness of their enterprise and action (622-623).
What a fascinating insight from the primary author of the Barmen Declaration!

3) Third, the insight of the confession must owe its material context to the scriptures as a gift of the Holy Spirit:
The confession of the Church involves an insight which is given or gifted to the Church. This is bound up with the fact that it has not invented its content, but discovered it only in Holy Scripture and as a gift of the Holy Spirit. But this discovery has to be distinguished from the kind of discovery which might at any time be the result of the searching of the Scriptures enjoined upon us. A confession is distinguished from a summarising of the results of theological work by the fact that its authors did not set out to comment on the Bible or to understand the nature of Christianity or practically to preach again, except that this time this preaching was to everyone. All that can and should take place at any time. But not every time in which it can and should take place is also a time of Church confession (624).
Church confession is a Church event. It is the result of an encounter of the Church with Holy Scripture, which in its contingency cannot be brought about by even the most serious theological work. When in a special situation in the Church Holy Scripture speaks to the Church, when in view of definite and urgent questions nothing remains but what Scripture has to say, when in the avoidance of definite errors we can take refuge in the scriptural truth which opposes them, when in the Church we cannot lay hold of scriptural truth, but only receive it, when therefore the Church has not found this truth but this truth has found the Church—then and then alone can there be Church confession. The genuine Credo is born out of a need of the Church, out of a compulsion which in this need is imposed on the Church by the Word of God, out of the perception of faith which answers to this compulsion. Credo in the sense of Church confession the Church can say only when all its other possibilities are exhausted, when reduced to silence it can say nothing else but Credo. But then it can and will say it with certainty and power. If the Church’s confession involves an insight given to the Church, then the confession cannot understand itself or rightly let itself be understood as an exposition of favourite human ideas, or convictions, or the so-called reflections of faith. It certainly rests on exegesis, but it is more than biblical inquiry. It certainly arises only with a dogmatic consciousness, but it will proclaim more than theologoumena. It is certainly proclamation, but its power will not be only that of edification. The faith of its authors will certainly be heard in it, but it will not be because of this subjective faith that it has a right to be heard. Because and to the extent that it rests on an insight given to the Church, a genuine Church confession can and must speak authoritatively: it cannot simply publish its findings as a subject for discussion and free choice. What the confession formulates and proclaims claims to be Church dogma. In saying Credo it has characterised its pronouncements as those whose content it cannot and will not force on anyone, but with which it challenges everyone to take up a position, to decision whether he can reject them as contrary to the Word of God or must accept them as in agreement with the Word of God. Here again it is Holy Scripture which is the basis of the certainty of the confession and the judge over it. It is Scripture which—in this twofold sense—stands behind dogma (624-625).
4) Fourth, the insight of the confession should be expressed in defined limits (time, place, and circumstances of the debate)
The confession of the Church always involves the statement and expression of the insight given to the Church in definite limits. This limitation does not contradict either the intended universality of the confession or the certainty proper to it as Church dogma (625).
In the first instance, the limit of Church confession coincides remarkably with geographical limits (626). [E.g. a confession for American Christians vs. African Christians]
But the definite limit of Church confession may also have a temporal character (626). [E.g. the confessions of the Reformation churches vs. the confession of the Early Church]
A Church confession with Church authority has always arisen in a definite antithesis and conflict. It always has a pre-history, which does not consist in the discussion of an academic or even an ecclesiastico-political desire to re-confess the common faith, or in the discussion of the fulfilment of this desire. It consists rather in controversies in which the existing confession of the common faith and therefore the existing exposition and application of Holy Scripture is called in question because the unity of the faith is differently conceived, and there is such different teaching on the basis of the existing unity that the unity is obscured and has to be rediscovered. The expression which is valid and which was once really the expression of unity no longer suffices. If the Church wants to preserve its unity, it must give it a more accurate expression: an expression in which a judgment is pronounced and a decision made in matters of doctrinal difference, an expression which recognises the one doctrine or the other or perhaps a third which mediates between them as the doctrine of the Church, and is therefore confirmed and confessed by the Church. On the basis of such a pre-history every confession acquires and possesses its own particular aspect. It is certainly not that of a truncated summa theologiae. Neither is it—not even if it has the form of a catechism—that of a popular biblical theology or dogmatics. It is rather the aspect of the Church declaring itself in the act of that definite decision, the necessity of which makes the confession necessary. When the Church confesses or when confession is made in the Church, then the Church or those who confess in the Church stand face to face with what is claimed to be a definite exegesis of Scripture, perhaps a new one, perhaps one that has disturbed the Church for some time: or it may be with a doctrine which claims to be taken from Scripture or related to it. This confronting doctrine is the occasion of the confession in that it claims to be the expression of a possible expression no less justifiable than others of the existing unity of the Church in faith (628).
5) Finally, the confession is formulated and proclaimed, it based on common deliberation and decision, and enacted by the Church, despite debate and counter pressures which attend the process of constructing the confession (633-657 for small print discussion and excurses).

This brings us to the last point in our deliberations.
As a Church authority the authority of the confession, too, cannot be an absolute, but only a relative one. The infallible and therefore final and unalterable confession is the praise which the Church as the body eternally united to its Head will offer to its Lord in this its own eternal consummation; it is thus an eschatological concept, to which no present actualisation corresponds, to which every reality of Church confession, everything we now know as dogma old or new, can only approximate. What we know as dogma is in principle fallible and is therefore neither final nor unalterable (657).
If divine infallibility cannot be ascribed to any Church confession, then in practice we have to recognise that every Church confession can be regarded only as a stage on a road which as such can be relativised and succeeded by a further stage in the form of an altered confession. Therefore respect for its authority has necessarily to be conjoined with a basic readiness to envisage a possible alteration of this kind (658-659).
But what is true of a change in the judgment of the Church regarding the extent of the Canon and the definition of fathers and brethren is also true of an alteration of the confession. We cannot regard the process as any easier or less responsible than that of drawing up the confession. It is not for any abstract reason, but recognising the Word of God in Holy Scripture, that we have now to speak as we do—and therefore differently from the fathers and brethren. There has to be an occasion important enough to justify as necessary the undertaking to speak differently from them. What we have to say on this occasion has to be so fresh and different from what they said that it will be worth disturbing the unity of faith to speak differently from them. In some recognisable and compelling way—decisive by reason of the inner weight of what is stated, in virtue of its agreement with Scripture—it has to be the Church which undertakes to speak in another way. Before the work goes forward, in addition to Holy Scripture all the voices of the now effective confession have to be seriously heard, so that nothing is lost of what it has perhaps to say, in spite of and in our new situation and task. Our own undertaking has then to prove its sincerity by its courage in laying it before the rest of the Church as a decision which we ourselves believe to be grounded in a divine decision, and therefore with the claim that a decision has to be made concerning it, and therefore without fear of a definite Yes or a definite No. And then a corresponding practical attitude has to accompany the altered confession from its inception as the indispensable means of its proclamation (659).
We cannot have a new confession on any easier conditions than these—or with the omission of any one of them. If these conditions are present, we not only can but must venture a new confession. But we can also regard all these conditions as the presuppositions on which a new confession must be attempted and the problem of whether we can and ought ceases to be a problem. Attempted on these conditions, it will definitely create for itself authority and respect (660).