Karl Barth’s True Bibliology: "Being is in Becoming"

Despite some of the traditional interpretations of Karl Barth’s bibliology, which have misguidedly divided Scripture from his understanding of the “word of God” (as though the two were not equivalent and Scripture only becomes the word of God adoptionistically), Barth’s true understanding of the Bible is intimately related to his understanding of the ontological Word of God (Jesus Christ). In fact, Barth’s ontology of Scripture and his christological ontology both derive from the very same assertion that “being is in becoming.”

To begin, in Church Dogmatics I/1, Barth explains that only the divine Logos (the incarnate Christ) is the true Word of God and that the biblical writers are witnesses to this fact. Therefore, the Bible becomes the word of God as it testifies to the ontological Word of God in Christ. Here, the ambiguity of Barth’s statements appear to emphasize an existential and experiential encounter with God through the texts of Scripture, but the Bible (apart from this event) is simply the human writings about the Word of God. Only by the miraculous “inspiration” of the Spirit’s presence does Scripture manifest as God’s word within the life of the church and, subsequently, its individual members. Much like the incarnation, Scripture appears to have a dialectical tension between being simultaneously the words of humans and the word of God.

Yet, only by the will of God does Scripture become God’s word to the church.

Therefore, Barth defines Scripture as being a witness to Christ, suggesting the Bible functions derivatively as a spectator or observer to the divine revelation (who is Christ), thereby signifying it is not ontologically the same as Christ himself. This distinction is necessary because of the (fallibleness of the?) human authors who wrote Scripture. Though Barth implies this ontological distinction, pragmatically he views Scripture as united with Christ since it also attests to Christ.

The misinterpretation of Barth’s bibliology occurs when readers take these statements from Church Dogmatics I/1 in isolation while discounting the christocentric trajectory of his overall theology. In other words, Barth’s overall theological and christological ontology helps explicate his doctrine of God’s word/Word. Articulated with the phrase “being is in becoming,” Barth intends to represent God as the causa sui of his own existence and manifestation to humanity. This ontological context becomes even plainer in Church Dogmatics I/2ff. As the purest form of ontological “being,” God therefore embodies any and all sense of “becoming.”

Thus, when Barth claims that Scripture “becomes”the word of God, he is in fact claiming that the Word of God is identical with God’s “being” since God freely chooses to manifest (or reveal) the Logos (himself) to humanity.

The problem was that Barth stressed the functionality of Scripture as witness to Christ so

much so that he softened his already-held belief that God had inspired (and, therefore, revealed himself in) Scripture. The Bible does not become the word of God in an adoptionistic sense because, for Barth (especially in relation to God’s “being”), something can never become (ontologically) what it never was in the first place. The Bible is God’s word because it functions derivatively as the principal medium for encountering Christ.

Hence, only at the subjective level of human experience does Scripture “become” the word of God, but this encounter is only the existential realization of what Scripture already is prior to the “Christ event.”

Ultimately, all that exists ontologically has its grounding (or essential “being”) in the act or process of“becoming.” Nonetheless, Barth still makes a distinction between the incarnate Word of God in Christ and the literary, inscripturated witness to the incarnation. Jesus Christ (and God more generally) is a person, whereas the Bible is simply an inanimate object. But as the divine Logos, Christ had commissioned (by his Spirit) the apostles and prophets to write the biblical texts. Not only that, but Christ superintended and guided its content and composition. Thus, though only an object, the Bible is thereby infused with the authority and ontology of the living Word of God.

The Bible “becomes” what it always was: a human-divine witness to and revealer of God without mixture or division in its human-divine natures (though Barth makes sure to clarify that Scripture is not identical to the hypostatic union). Thereby, the Bible is properly viewed as both witness to revelation and, derivatively, revelation itself. Stated differently, Barth stresses Scripture as both a functionally derivative witness to the Word of God and (simultaneously) a possessor of the ontological Word of God. Whereas Church Dogmatics I/1 appears to divide the Bible from God’s word, Church Dogmatics I/2ff shows that Barth believed Scripture had always been God’s word in derivative, inscripturated form.

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