G. W. Bromiley on Barth’s weaknesses

Geoffrey Bromiley, well-known as an editor and translator of Barth’s works, posed some criticisms and questions about Barth’s theology in his book, Historical Theology: An Introduction. Bobby Grow posted the following section from Bromiley’s book on his blog, to which I posted a response (found below). Here are comments by Bromiley:
If there is a pervading weakness in Barth, however, it is the tendency of his nimble mind to depart from this working principle and to go far beyond what the data of scripture legitimately allow. Thus the Word of God undoubtedly has a threefold form in scripture, but Barth’s account of the interrelationship, while fascinating, has little in the way of textual basis. Similarly his exposition of unveiling, veiling, and imparting, while not manifestly untrue or unhelpful, sounds a little too good to be altogether true, especially as so excellent an analogy of the Trinity finally results. The discussion of the root of the doctrine of Trinity has value in that it shows the church’s teaching not to be just an intellectual abstraction, but it also leaves us wondering whether Barth’s approach is not too generalized and circuitous. Finally, the doctrine of scripture, for all its unquestionable merits, raises some no less incontestable problems. Barth’s category of the vulnerability of scripture is itself highly vulnerable by reason of its ambivalence. Is there not also a failure in logic in the assumption that the fallibility of the authors necessarily involves the fallibility of all their acts or writings? And why should God’s speaking through fallible words mean a more authentic miracle? Is it a principle that the greater the falliblity the more authentic the miracle? Where does scripture itself tell us anything of this? One might also wonder whether it is not a mistake to stress the present ministy of the Spirit in the use of scripture at the expense of the once-for-all work of the Spirit in its authorship. Barth would later resist a similar imbalance in the matter of reconciliation. Is there not also a need for some rethinking in the matter of inspiration? (G. W. Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction, 420-21)
These are certainly criticisms to be taken seriously. Bromiley has read Barth thoroughly, so he writes this as one who knows Barth’s theology inside and out. Yet I find his criticisms to be misguided. My inchoate response to Bromiley is as follows:

Bromiley’s questions are interesting, but rather one-sided. For example, what is “legitimately allowed” by Scripture? Is the Chalcedonian Definition allowed by Scripture? What about Nicaea? It seems that if anyone is grounded in Scripture, it is Barth; I can’t think of any theologian who engages in more exegesis than he. Sure, the threefold Word of God is not stated in the Bible itself, but neither is the doctrine of inerrancy (or any other doctrine for that matter). The statement about some of Barth’s key terms (veiling, unveiling, etc.) is just an assertion and not an argument. Bromiley doesn’t say why these are “too good to be true.” Isn’t the gospel affirmation that Christ died for the ungodly too good to be true? Isn’t Paul infinitely more unbelievable than Karl?

The questions about Scripture are more substantive, but no less misguided. Certainly the Bible is vulnerable, and how could it not be? Everything human is vulnerable to abuse, distortion, and manipulation. Fallible, sinful humans wrote these words. And yet (an important qualification!) Barth also insists upon the “invulnerability” of Scripture, so to speak, and the infallibility of the biblical text. He speaks of the canonical text as a “free power” (CD I/1, 107); he speaks of the Bible as a text which speaks to the church, whereas tradition is the church having a dialogue with itself; and he even says that in the event of God’s Word, “revelation and the Bible are indeed one, and literally so” (I/1, 113). But this can never be a fixed permanent reality, because then we end up collapsing the salutary distinction between humanity and divinity. We must not divinize humanity or humanize divinity; the two are distinct, not only in Christ himself but also in the Bible.

Does this mean that we should emphasize the fallibility of the biblical authors in order to maximize the miracle of the Word? Well, that depends on one’s perspective. On the one hand, no, because to speak undialectically about the fallibility of the biblical writers misses the fact that these writers are also writing within the providential freedom granted by the covenant of grace and guided by the power of the Spirit. On the other hand, doesn’t Paul emphasize human fallibility in order to maximize the grace of God? Just look at 2 Cor. 4:7-12 and 2 Cor. 12:1-10! Bromiley speaks as if there is no precedent for viewing human fallibility as the occasion for a divine miracle, but the miracle and mystery of reconciliation as attested by Paul is indeed just such a miracle.

Finally, regarding the work of the Spirit, we must be careful here. The Spirit is not a separate agent apart from Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and as such, throughout the NT, the Spirit is not given a once-for-all mission but rather an ongoing mission within the life of the community on the basis of what Christ accomplished. To speak of a once-for-all act of the Spirit in the formation of Scripture is thus quite problematic for a number of reasons. There is only one once-for-all event in the economic life of the triune God, and that event is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 10). I think it is actually the case (ironically enough) that Bromiley’s statements have less biblical support than Barth’s! Bromiley’s statement is also problematic because it does not seem to take the historical formation of the canon adequately into account. He speaks as if the writing of the Bible was a one-time event. I suspect Bromiley would like Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal in The Drama of Doctrine, but even Vanhoozer would not speak of the Bible as a once-for-all event without some important (dramatic) qualifications. Finally, I am very uncomfortable with Bromiley’s suggestion that Barth’s moves in his doctrine of reconciliation should be replicated also in his doctrine of inspiration. Why make these parallel? Are Christ and the Bible parallel to each other? On what basis does Bromiley connect these two doctrines? Bromiley’s statement is one that can only be made by a person whose bibliology encroaches upon christology in ways that Barth himself would find quite unacceptable.

Questions for discussion:
  • What do you think about Bromiley’s criticisms? Are they valid?
  • What do you think about Barth’s doctrine of Scripture?
  • At what point do you think theologians go too far beyond the Bible? Is there a limit?
  • What would you identify as the main weaknesses in Barth’s theology?
  • What aspects of Barth’s theology are most misunderstood?

Comments

bobby grow said…
David,

it is true that Bromiley doesn’t say “why” it is to good to be true or provide any argument in the quote . . . but he provides more discussion, of course, in the body of his engagement of Barth’s theology prior to his summary (strengths and weakness section).

David said:

. . . Well, that depends one’s perspective. On one hand, no, because to speak undialectically about the fallibility of the biblical writers misses the fact that these writers are also writing within the providential freedom granted by the covenant of grace. . . .

Of course in order for this argument, or assertion to work, we would first have to define what the covenant of grace is since w/o it your point would flounder. In other words, hermeneutically I do not hold to the Covenental paradigm, so using it as an a priori category won’t work, w/o at least more qualification and explanation on your part.

David said:

. . . On the other hand, doesn’t Paul emphasize human fallibility in order to maximize the grace of God? Just look at 2 Cor. 4:7-12 and 2 Cor. 12:1-10. Bromiley speaks as if there is no precedent for viewing human fallibility as the occasion for a divine miracle, but the miracle and mystery of reconciliation as attested by Paul is indeed just such a miracle.

I think all Bromiley is saying is that Barth’s appeal to miracle in this regard is not an observable biblical category, thus there is an artificiality to Barth’s discussion on this point. There may be precedent for miracle and reconciliation in scripture, and there is, but does Barth make this correlation? According to Bromiley he does not.

I’m hittin the hay, more tomorrow.
I think your replies are strong. However, while it is true that Barth engages in more exegesis than any other theologian, that exegesis is not always convincing--this has been noted by many who have been influenced by Barth, including Robert McAfee Brown, Brevard Childs, Elizabeth Achtemeier and others.

As for your question about which part of Barth's theology is most problematic, I would have to say that it is his view of The Command of God as so always free and immediate that "summaries" (even those the Gospels attribute to Jesus) are just rules of thumb. This leads to Barth's form of situation ethics and, as Yoder shows, is what prevents him from following the logic of his own theology into pacifism: God could always command taking life in THIS instance.
Also problematic was Barth's almost total disinterest in the earthly ministry of Jesus.
D.W. Congdon said…
Bobby,

I'm interested in your comment that "I do not hold to the Covenantal paradigm." What paradigm do you hold to? I'm not sure what you are talking about here. Do you mean the dispensationalist/covenantal distinction? Do you mean that you do not think the covenant is a primary biblical/theological category?

I was trying to defend Bromiley's point, in so far as he is right that any simplistic discussion of the biblical writers' fallibility is misleading without the other side of the matter, viz. the fact that God's providence includes and involves human fallibility. Now perhaps you are questioning the possibility of God's providence making use of human fallibility in this way, but that would seem like a very odd and unbiblical thing to say, since the whole of Scripture is one long narrative about God using fallible human beings to accomplish the purposes of God.
bobby grow said…
David,

yeah, I don't think the covenant of "grace" is a primary biblical category, I think that is an artificial imposition on the text. And yes, I am a progressive dispy.

No, I'm not questioning God's use of human fallibility, I'm questioning the caste that Barth, and I would imagine you, believe that that fallibility implies towards God's disclosure through the writings of men and scripture. Surely God's providence is wide enough to at once allow space for the human author's personality and time/space realities to function w/o leading to the conclusion that these folks were so conditioned by their human locatedness/situadenness that God was unable to speak through them w/o error. You know that this is what is driving me by now, David.
D.W. Congdon said…
Bobby,

I see what the problem is now. You still think that the admission of human fallibility and error means that the text has errors. But I'm not saying that. You're making a categorical mistake. I have said and will say again that the Bible is inerrant, insofar as we mean that the Bible is entirely true and trustworthy and communicates exactly what God intended it to communicate. The contention that I and others have with doctrinal inerrantists is that they want to make the Bible something that it is not -- viz. a scientific-historical record, like a piece of ancient journalism. Biblical inerrancy can only have reference to what the Bible is intended by God to communicate. The fallibility of human authors is made evident in the fact that the biblical account is not a scientific-historical record. If it were such a record, it would no longer be human. Do you see what I mean? The admission that God used fallible human authors simply acknowledges the fact that the historical problems in the text are part of the human element, but they are "errors," because they do constitute the Bible's divinely intended communication. What God intends the Bible to communicate is entirely inerrant.

I find it much more surprising and interesting that you side with dispensationalism. I may not be able to get you away from inerrancy, but I sure hope I can get you to lose the dispensational thing. First, you need to get past your aversion to "covenant" that you probably got from dispensational teachers/friends growing up. When I speak about the covenant, or when Barth does, it is not in this context. The dispy/covenant divide refers to Protestant Orthodoxy, and the covenant theology spoken of there is something totally different and crazy. For Protestant Orthodoxy, there are two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. Adam screwed up the former and Christ accomplished the latter. There are a lot of nuances and for some theologians in this period there are actually three covenants, etc.

For Barth (and myself), there is only one covenant, the covenant of grace. This is the covenant that is spoken of from the beginning of the Scriptures to the end. You can call it what you want, but I don't think there is any denying that the covenant is the central thread tying together the entire Bible. I call it the covenant of grace, following Barth, for two reasons: (1) I stand more or less within the Reformed tradition, and (2) the covenant simply is a covenant of grace throughout the Bible. In the covenant God's grace to humanity is made known, from Genesis and Exodus to the Gospels and Paul's epistles.

Now I simply cannot comprehend how you still hold to dispensationalism. On what grounds do you still think such a view is valid? I'm actually rather shocked. I didn't think there were any dispensationalists left, but that was probably just wishful thinking.
bobby grow said…
David said:

Now I simply cannot comprehend how you still hold to dispensationalism. On what grounds do you still think such a view is valid? I'm actually rather shocked. I didn't think there were any dispensationalists left, but that was probably just wishful thinking.

You're funny sometimes, David. Go read Bock and Blaising (their book "Progressive Dispensationalism"), and you'll have a better idea about why and what kind of dispy I am. I was hoping there wasn't any neo-orthodox folk left, but I've come to realize that that was wishful thinking as well.

I understand Horton's kind of Covenant Theology (as well as Olievanus' and many others--i.e. English Puritanism, etc.). There's no doubt that covenant is the theme in scripture, but it's how one nuances that, of course, where we differ (I see discontinuity between the Old Cov. and New Cov. II Cor 3).

David said:

. . . What God intends the Bible to communicate is entirely inerrant.

How do you go about determining what God intended to communicate? Who is the arbiter here? Btw, there aren't historic errors in the scripture.
I've met Blaising and read his book. "Progressive Dispensationalism" is a pathetic attempt to salvage something from the heresy of Dispensationalism--which has its origins in the delusional utterings of a pre-teen girl in 19th C. Scotland! Blaising's project is an utter failure.

But, David, you really were being naive to think Dispensationalists were gone. In fact, they have spawned the horror known as "Christian Zionism," which backs every atrocity committed by the (secular)government of the modern (secular) State of Israel--even when committed against Arab Christians--because of the belief that political Israel is the key to prophecy and human rights be damned.
Dispensationalists in general and Christian Zionists in particular strain my commitment to nonviolence, because I have to pray for the strength NOT to beat sense into them.
Meanwhile "Progressive Dispensationalists" are like "Virgin Porn Stars," an extreme oxymoron.
bobby grow said…
Meeting Blaising doesn't lend any credibility to your assertions on Prog. Dispensationalism. Engaging in genetic fallacies, and such, doesn't help support your cariacture either.

If you're going to make such ad hominen hasty generalizations, there "Mike", your comments and appeal to "your people" will be just that--non-sequiter and fallacious.

You've grossly oversimplified dispensationalism, but I would suspect your blindness comes in via emotion instead of thoughtful consideration of the concepts reflected and articulated by Progressive Dispensationalists.

Peace.
D.W. Congdon said…
I was being facetious about thinking dispensationalism was a thing of the past. I grew up in a dispensationalist home, and up through my first couple years at Wheaton I still called myself a premill/pretrib dispensationalist. Of course, I had no idea what this meant; it's just what my parents believed and I went along for the ride.

Bobby, I have to side with Michael on this one. I may not have quite the same visceral reaction to it, but I know many, many dispensationalists and I still do not hesitate to call it a heresy. Any attempt to place a wedge between Israel and the church is a heretical attempt. It is simply following in the footsteps of Marcion, though he is by no means alone in taking the blame for this.

The church and Israel are two parts of the same covenantal community. If we cannot affirm this, then I am willing to say that our faith is null and void. Such a belief also renders Jesus entirely inexplicable. Dispensationalism extracts him out of his Jewish context and makes him meaningless to the covenant between Israel and God. Rather than seeing him properly as fulfilling in himself what God called Israel to be, dispensationalism confines Christ to the Pauline epistles and the future church of the Gentiles. In other words, dispen. places a wedge between Christians and Jews that is simply inexcusable.

Probably the biggest problem, however, is the failure of dispensationalism to read the Bible christocentrically. I'm not referring just to Barth here. This is something that the Reformers were keen on and why they could never accept dispensationalism. Reading the Bible with Christ at the center from beginning to end means that Christ does not enter the story of Scripture with Advent. Christ is rather at the heart of the biblical narrative, and not simply as a foreshadowing of what is yet to come. Christ is rather at the center of the "Old Covenant" as well as of the "New." He is not brought in as a divine fix after Israel failed; rather creation existed from the beginning for the sake of the cross, and Israel for the sake of the world.

Lastly, it seems to me quite obvious that the 2 Cor. 3 argument is completely empty in light of Jer. 31. Is Jeremiah speaking about some other "new covenant"? Or is it the same one? Christian tradition has continuously held that they are the same. But if this is the case, then it makes no sense for dispensationalism to say that the New Covenant of Christ has no relation to the covenant with Israel. Unless of course Christ is not the center and basis for the Israelite community, in which case Christ is not definitive for God's revelation and identity through the biblical narrative and thus he is not the center of one's faith.

I haven't read the essay on "Prog. Disp." and I don't think I will. There is just too much theological literature shooting dispensationalism to shreds, and I know of no intelligent theologian who holds to such a view. If you can find me one whose work is respected, I'll reconsider. But if they're just people from Dallas, then I'll consider my position upheld.

Sorry, Bobby, I respect you and enjoy our conversations, and I don't mind you differing from Barth, but the whole dispensationalism thing has to go.

Also, fyi, I am not "neo-orthodox." I never said that I was. And neither is Barth. You'll have to read Bruce McCormack to understand why.
Halden said…
On 'fallibility'. I think Kevin Vanhoozer is right to note that just because we may call the Bible as written by humans 'fallible' is not to say that it has failed. Fallibility implies that there is no immunity from human limitation, it does not, however imply defect any more than to say that God became human implies a defect in Jesus.
bobby grow said…
David said:

I haven't read the essay on "Prog. Disp." and I don't think I will. There is just too much theological literature shooting dispensationalism to shreds, and I know of no intelligent theologian who holds to such a view. If you can find me one whose work is respected, I'll reconsider. But if they're just people from Dallas, then I'll consider my position upheld.

Wow. I don't know . . . this is almost arrogant. Actually, since name dropping is important for you, Bock (the primary author of "Progressive Dispensationalism") has his PhD from the University of Aberdeen.

David said:

Sorry, Bobby, I respect you and enjoy our conversations, and I don't mind you differing from Barth, but the whole dispensationalism thing has to go.

Who are you, bro? Nothing has to go, if anything Amil Covenantalism should go!

Why do you speak as if you're THE authority, okay maybe you are on your blog, but other than that you're just another guy doing theology within a particular tradition who is a peer among equals in Christ.
D.W. Congdon said…
I'm sorry if I sounded arrogant, but I just don't respect much of anything that comes out of Dallas Sem. But that was a cheap shot, I realize. (I meant it to sound more cheeky than it did.) The Dallas thing aside, I still think it is a fair question. I'll accept Bock as a respectable authority, but he's just one guy -- and he's certainly not authoritative enough to trump the many, many refutations of dispensational theology.

But seriously, why are you a dispensationalist? It just doesn't make exegetical or theological sense -- at least not more sense than the other options.

I honestly don't care a bit about premill/postmill/amill debates. The whole framework is a waste of time, in my honest opinion. And I have nothing at stake in the covenant/dispy debate. I abandoned the whole framework. I speak of the covenant of grace, but that's just because I don't see any other way of discussing the relation between God and humanity. What other category would you replace it with? Even dispensationalists speak about the covenant (they have to!), so what's the problem? Why can't we all agree that the covenant is the central biblical category for the relation between God and humanity? Dispensationalists think that there are changes and divisions within the narrative, but no one can dispense with the category of the covenant without abandoning Scripture altogether.

Finally, I trust you recognize the problems with dispensationalism, or else you wouldn't try so hard to differentiate yourself from traditional dispensationalism. But I have yet to hear your arguments against amill covenantalism. (Of course, be sure to take into consideration the fact that I do not identify myself with this position.) What do you think this "has to go"? And why are your arguments against covenantalism stronger than the arguments against dispensationalism?

Finally, let us agree to the following rule: Whatever position makes the best sense of Scripture is the right position. If we can start here then I think we get into the exegetical and theological issues. As it stands, I do not think dispensationalism will be able to make better sense of the Bible. But I'm open to hearing why you think it does.