Berkouwer and Barth: The Nature of Truth

Emphasizing the close connection between Christ and the Bible, Donald G Bloesch writes, “The most potent symbol for the Word of God is not the book itself but the cross of Christ shining through the pages of the open Bible. For it is Jesus Christ whom the Bible attests; it is his salvation that the Bible proclaims and conveys” (“The Sword of the Spirit: The Meaning of Inspiration”, Reformed Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, Winter 1980, p. 68).
The close connection between Christ and the Scriptures has been emphasized by Barth.
He points out that “A witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us” (Church Dogmatics (CD), Vol. I, 2, p. 463. On the witness-character of Scripture, see also Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (HS), pp. 73; 147, n.17; 161, n.72; 162, n.75). He also places great emphasis on “the doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 537. See also Berkouwer, HS, Chapter Two, “The Testimony of the Spirit”, pp. 39-66).
Barth places a wholesome emphasis on the actual study of the Bible: “We must study it (the Bible), for it is here or nowhere that we shall find its divinity” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 463. See also Berkouwer, HS, pp. 105-106, 137).
He emphasizes that the Word of God in Scripture cannot be separated from the actual words of Scripture itself: “God Himself says what the text says. The work of God is done through this text … If God speaks to man, He really speaks the language of this concrete word of man … there is … the hearing of the Word of God only in the concrete form of the biblical word” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 532. See also Berkouwer, HS, p. 166).
Barth emphasizes that “the inspiration of the Bible cannot be reduced to our faith in it” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 534. See also Berkouwer, HS, p. 10).
He maintains that “Scripture is recognized as the Word of God by the fact that it is the Word of God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 537, emphasis original). See also Berkouwer, HS, pp. 317-318, 348-349).
There are, however, questions to be asked about the precise way in which Barth’s Christology has influenced his interpretation of Scripture.
The question has been asked whether Barth has introduced an unbiblical tension between the incarnation and other aspects of divine revelation.
Commenting on Hebrews 1:1, the opening verse of “the epistle which leaves no stone unturned to show that the absolute and exclusive salvation is in Christ”, Berkouwer points out that “This exclusiveness of salvation apparently does not at all conflict with the fact that God’s speaking in and by His Son is mentioned together with God’s earlier speaking ‘in divers manners’” (General Revelation (GR), pp. 104-105, emphasis original).
From the point of view of Barth’s view of revelation, “The Old Testament is the witness to the genuine expectation of revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 70, emphasis mine).
Berkouwer suggests that, from the point of view of Scripture itself, the Old Testament might be described as “God’s revelation of that which was not yet actually present” (GR, p. 104, ‘revelation’ – emphasis mine, ‘actually’ – emphasis original).
The general validity of Barth’s distinction between witness and revelation (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 463) should be acknowledged. The question should, however, be asked whether his particular use of this distinction may be derived from a Christomonistic tendency in his thought rather than from Scripture itself.
When Scripture is interpreted according to a Christomonistic conception of revelation, Christ tends to be understood as an almost self-evident truth. In making this point, I am not suggesting that Christomonism conceive of Christ as a self- evident truth similar to deism’s emphasis on the self-evident truth of a Divine Being. In his emphasis By understanding man’s appropriation of the truth in connection with the Spirit, Barth clearly distances himself from the idea of a self-evident truth of the kind associated with deism.
Barth emphasizes the work of the Spirit in man’s coming to the knowledge of divine revelation.
“God’s revelation occurs in our enlightenment by the Holy Spirit of God to a knowledge of His Word” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 203).
“The work of the Holy Spirit is that our blind eyes are opened and that thankfully and in thankful self-surrender we recognize and acknowledge that it is so” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 239).
“By the outpouring of the Holy Spirit it becomes possible for man … to be met by God’s revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 265).
The work of the Spirit is, however, restricted to the noetic aspect of man’s acknowledgment of divine revelation. Ontically, the truth concerning man’s revelation to God stands regardless of man’s acknowledgment of it
In his discussion of the relationship between the virgin birth and the incarnation, Barth uses the words “ontically” and “noetically” (Church Dogmatics (CD), Vol. I, 2, p. 202),
It is significant that he speaks of noetic understanding in terms of recognition and acknowledgement. This is precisely the terminology he uses in speaking of the Spirit’s work in man (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 239)
Barth’s concern to point to the foundation of salvation in Christ is to be welcomed. We must, however, ask whether he has introduced an unbiblical tension between salvation and faith.
When it is understood that “faith is not “a creative component of salvation … a merit which takes the place of good works … (and that it) does not compete” with the sovereignty of grace (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth(TG), p. 275, emphasis original, brackets mine), it becomes possible to lay full emphasis on the necessity of faith for salvation - not an ontological inevitability but an urgent summons (see Berkouwer’s comments on Hebrews 4:2, TG, p. 271).
It should, however, be asked whether Barth’s understanding of the work of the Spirit offers us an adequate perspective on the human contexts in which truth is received or rejected. We must ask whether the ontic structure of his thinking has not shaped his doctrine of the Spirit such that he fails to provide an adequate exposition of the “decisive choice” (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), p. 270, emphasis original) between faith and unbelief, which is set before men by Christ the Truth.
Despite his emphasis on the work of the Spirit, it is questionable whether Barth offers an adequate understanding of the truth which, in Christ, comes to us as more than simply the announcement of a new state of affairs in which man is reconciled to God, irrespective of whether he has faith (Berkouwer, TG, pp. 275ff). In raising this question, I am not suggesting that there is no exhortation to faith in Barth’s sermons. In his sermon, “The Gospel of God”, Deliverance to the Captives, pp. 67-74, he says, “Repent and believe in the gospel! We must hear this in the same way as we hear a call to arms. This is a command. Act now, immediately …” (p. 69, emphasis original). I am, however, drawing attention to the fact that while “Barth calls unbelief “fatally dangerous” … this now and then repeated expression is flanked by extensive reflection on the ontological impossibility of unbelief” which emphasizes that unbelief has been put away … by the decisive grace of God, which is so decisive that the inevitability of faith lies involved in it” (TG, pp. 269-270, emphasis original). I am questioning whether “the ‘open situation’ of the proclamation" can be expected to "solve the problem posed by Barth’s doctrine of election … (since) God’s decision, which is the content of the proclamation, leaves room for only one transition: from not-knowing to knowing” (TG, p. 293, emphasis original, brackets mine).
Berkouwer’s discussion of “The Value of Faith” (Faith and Justification (FJ), Chapter VII, pp.171-201) provides an excellent analysis of the relationship of faith to salvation.
He writes, “penitent faith … in its very nature, can know nothing but God’s mercy … We must not allow ourselves, in reaction to the doctrine of faith’s meritoriousness, to become too timid to speak of its necessity… God’s salvation … has been devised by no human mind and has risen from no human heart … this sovereign grace must be accepted in faith … To interpret faith as a condition that comes along with salvation to supplement and complete it, would be to manipulate faith into … a peculiar kind of work of the law … the way of salvation is the way of faith just because it is only in faith that the exclusiveness of divine grace is recognised and honoured … The potency of faith … is not an autonomous power side by side with the power of God; it exists only because faith is completely directed to the power and blessing of God. Faith is no competitor of sola gratia; … Only rationalism can make an unevangelical condition out of this correlation … a cooperating cause” (FJ, pp. 185, 188-189).For any truly Christian theology, the idea that Christ Himself is the Truth is fundamental. This conviction must lie at the centre of any Christian theology which seeks to make pronouncements about the nature of truth.
I believe that Berkouwer’s understanding of the relationship between salvation and faith opens the way to an understanding of the Gospel which is more Biblical than Barth’s theology (see Berkouwer, TG, pp. 196-198 where he states succinctly the difficulty Barth has in emphasizing fully the significance of faith in the light of divine grace).

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