G. W. Bromiley on Barth’s weaknesses
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:
Questions for discussion:
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.
- 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?