Neo-Orthodox Conceptions of Biblical Authority

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Teologie neoortodoxă. Autoritatea Scripturii
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  Neo-Orthodox Conceptions of Biblical Authority BY WALTER  M.  HORTON T HE  TERM   neo-orthodox in its widest extension can be used to describe all movements of Christian thought which react critically against the modern temper, and find the basis for a conservative reconstruction of theology in some pre-modern position. In this broad sense, Neo-Thomism in the Roman Catholic church and the repristination of Russian Orthodox theology by the Paris School are instances of neo-orthodoxy. A bit more narrowly considered, neo-orthodoxy is restricted to the Protestant sphere, and means an appeal from the principles of modern liberal Protestantism back to the classic principles of the Reformation—which might include the widespread back to Luther movement in northern Europe, and Rein-hold Niebuhr's fresh appreciation of classical Protestantism in our own country. Since, however, the term was first clearly applied to the dialectical or crisis theology of Karl Barth and Emil Brun-ner, and since their writings have done so much to precipitate the whole neo-orthodox movement, we shall mainly confine our study of neo-orthodox conceptions of biblical authority to Barth, Brunner, and their immediate associates in Switzerland. At the beginning and end, however, we shall endeavor to see this particular form of neo-orthodoxy in its wider content, at least so far as Protestant theology is concerned. There exists today throughout the Christian world what Suzanne de Dietrich calls  Le renouveau biblique. 1  Even (or perhaps especially) where biblical instruction had languished in recent years and the laity had become biblical illiterates, there has been a great return to Bible study. The war accelerated the movement  -  y  churches which had to live under tyranny, or in the midst of constant bombardment, found in the Bible their great strength and shield. Coming together since the war, to consider their duty in the new era, these churches have found their deepest bond of unity in their common rediscovery of the Bible and their unanimous acceptance of it as the charter of 1 Neuchatel >  1945. Cf. her companion volume,  Le dessein de Dieu. 42  CONCEPTIONS  OF  BIBLICAL AUTHORITY 43 Christian faith and action. Biblical criticism, which seemed to many a generation ago to be an impediment to faith in the Bible as God's authoritative Word for modern men, has moved into a new phase, where it tends to reinforce such faith. No longer concerning itself exclusively with problems of date, authorship, documentary sources, and historical influences, it has reached a point where it begins to grasp the message of the Bible in its unity—a message which, historically conditioned as it obviously is, speaks authoritatively none the less to our age and every age. Biblical theology and systematic theology, estranged for many years, have joined hands again. Though the movement back to the Bible is animated by a general feeling of respect for the authority of the Bible, no generally accepted theory of biblical authority has yet emerged from it. In Holland, one sees the unique spectacle of modernists, Barthians, and fundamentalists, brought together by common endurance of persecution, joining in a common program of social and political action and all appealing to the Bible—but using the Bible in radically  dif- ferent ways. Obviously, there is danger that this united front may dissolve when the memory of fellowship in suffering recedes into the past, unless some measure of agreement can be reached as to the proper use of the Bible. It is against this practical background that Barth's and Brunner's theories are to be viewed. Our concluding question, after we have endeavored to clarify these theories, will be, Can they furnish the needed theoretical basis for the world-wide movement of practical Christianity which is taking the Bible for its charter and the redemption of a decaying society for its great ob jective? I.  BARTH'S CONCEPTION  OF  BIBLICAL AUTHORITY In the preface to the first edition of his  Römerbrief   >  Barth said that if he had to choose between the historical-critical metnod of Bible study and the old inspiration doctrine, he would decidedly take the latter. In a way, he did make a choice of this sort ir writing the bookj for in his passion to make the eternal Word of God stand forth in the words of the Apostle, he rather roughly disregarded the usual amenities of biblical criticism, and tore the truth as he saw it  44 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT out of the text by main force. It was never his intention, however, to revert to any verbal-inspiration or plenary-inspiration view of the Bible; and in his more formal theological works he repeatedly makes this clear. If we compare his position in 1925, as given in his article on Das Schriftprinzip der reformierten Kirchen, 2  with his position in the latest volume of his  Dogmatik?  we shall find that it has not essentially changed. Barth's real appeal is not to the inspiration theories of the Protestant scholastics, but to the  sola  Scrittura  of the Reformers in its srcinal stark defiance. The authority of Scripture which the Protestant Reformation opposed to the authority of Catholic tradition was (he remarks) a self-vindicating  (in sich selbst)  authority, not grounded in the judgment of men. If Calvin occasionally allowed himself to add certain secondary rational confirmations to his primary affirmation of faith in scriptural authority, he attached little importance to these extra flourishes, and frankly confessed that his reasoning was circular: the Bible is  recognized   as God's Word because it  is  God's Word, and that is that. Any one who refuses to recognize the Bible as God's Word proves that he is not a Christian; any Christian who understands the implications of his baptism and church membership will  recognize the Bible as God's Word. No history or psychology or philosophy of religion can soften the harsh dogmatism of this assertion that God's Word is God's Word, nor fill its tautological emptiness with content. Only the Word of God speaking inwardly to the believer (witness of the Spirit) can confirm the  truth  of the written Word; only Christ, whom faith receives as the living Word, can define the  content and meaning  of the written Word. Faith in Christ as the message conveyed by the whole Bible, interpreted and confirmed by the Spirit, which is his own voice in our hearts: such faith is the axiom on which all sound Christian theology is based. To dispute it, or seek to support it by argument, is to set theology on the wrong footing at the very outset. Barth does not mean by this to deify the letter of Scripture nor to deny the historical contingency of its teachings, so clearly proved by ^Zwischen den Zeiten,  III (1925), 215-245. 8 III,  1.  CONCEPTIONS OF BIBLICAL AUTHORITY 45 biblical criticism. He lays down the proposition No recognition of the Bible as God's Word without concrete knowledge of its historical character.  (Zwischen den Zeiten  III, 226.) The Bible is not a directly speaking oracle, dispensing infallible truth in the form of ready-made propositions; it presents to us a wall of historical concreteness, full of many a rock of offense  (Ärgernis) , through which God's word must break with difficulty, helped by the believer's faith picking away at the wall on the hither  side.  The oracular, verbal inspiration view of the Bible is not good Reformation doctrine, for Barth. It developed, he says, when the Trojan horse of apologetics got inside Protestant theology, and the objective and subjective aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit got logically dissociated from one another: on the one side, an orthodox inspiration theory which emphasized the  was  und   das  of the written Word, as though God had been completely precipitated as a series of ink-scratches on paper; on the other side, a pietism and a theory of experience which emphasized the  der und dem  y  as though Christ could be immediately known by the Inner Light, without any intervening wall of historical contingency. But (says Barth) the Holy Ghost is neither an historical datum nor an inward feeling, but the third Person of the Trinity; God himself carrying on his commerce with man in a single timeless or better simultaneous act . . . in the darkness of the historical datum  and   in the darkness of our hearts and consciences.  (Ibid.) It might not be misleading to summarize this doctrine by saying that for Barth Christ, the living Word, is really present to faith, in, with, and under the words of Scripture, just as he is really present to good Lutherans in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. In both cases, scholastic theories which attempt to define the  how  of the Real Presence are fiercely rejected, but the  fact of it is stoutly asserted, The foregoing account of Barth's conception of biblical authority is taken from an early number of   Zwischen den Zeiten  }  the organ of the Barthian movement. In the latest volume of his  Church Dog-mattes  y  published during the war, he returns to the same theme without notable change of perspective. The volume is devoted to an exposition of a doctrine of creation, whose justification is, according to
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