I have just come across an interesting article by Dr. William B. Evans (Prof. at Erskine College), in it he is providing critique of Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack (one of the foremost, and controversial, interpreters of Barth), Barth’s view of Scripture; and how all three might, or might not, provide fertile theological ground for ‘Evangelically Reformed Christians’. He provides a brief survey on the history of both Barth’s thought, as well as the various interpretations of Barth (of whom McCormack, according to Evans, is providing a radically revisionist one). Here is a thesis statement, of sorts, that Evans opens his article up with:
A frequent topic of conversation in theological circles recently has been the general revival of interest in Karl Barth’s theology, and particularly the revisionist “Neo-Barthian” interpretations proposed by Bruce L. McCormack, currently the Weyerhauser Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and others. Considerable attention in all this has been focused on Barth’s view of Scripture. The rhetoric of some of those associated with this newer line of interpretation often seems to suggest that no one has really read Barth properly until now, and that earlier evangelical and Reformed critics of Barth (e.g., Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry, and Cornelius Van Til) were invincibly ignorant.
Evans proceeds to argue that McCormack’s appropriation of Barth, is indeed revisionist, and in fact does not, even given his “revision,” achieve his end of offering a fresh reading of Barth. Part of the problem for Evans is that Barth’s view of scripture will never be compatible with an “Evangelical” understanding; and that Barth’s Being and Becoming dialectic, when applied to scripture, results in subordinating scripture to a marginal place of ‘witness’, versus a primary place of ‘witness’. Beyond this he asserts that Barth, even as mediated through McCormack, is hostile to any ‘Evangelical’ approachment of Barth’s thought; because of Barth’s less than ‘Evangelical’ view of scripture. Evans also appeals to ‘the people’, Barth’s friends (Otto Weber, T. F. Torrance), to suggest that McCormack’s revisionism may be defunct precisely because it is at odds with how these two stand-outs understood Barth on scripture—amongst other things. Here is Evans:
Other questions can be raised about McCormack’s reading of Barth’s view of Scripture as well. For example, his revisionist reading implies that even Barth’s closest friends and co-workers (e.g., Otto Weber, T. F. Torrance) badly misunderstood him on this point. Barth had ample opportunity to correct them, but he apparently never did so. Also, this reading fails to explain Barth’s hostility to the evangelical doctrine of scripture–recall his cavalier dismissal of evangelical Christians with their affirmation of an inerrant Scriptural revelation as “blessed possessors.”
Finally, much hinges on highly technical questions such as the nature of Barth’s “actualism” and the precise character of God’s (and Scripture’s) “being in becoming.” Contra McCormack, I think one can plausibly argue that for Barth the “being” of Scripture is, in a real sense, subordinated to its “becoming” (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1:110, writes: “The Bible, then, becomes God’s Word in this event, and in the statement that the Bible is God’s Word the little word ‘is’ refers to its being in this becoming. It does not become God’s Word to us because we accord it faith but in the fact that it becomes revelation to us.”). One can even argue that there is a sort of right-wing Hegelianism at work in the broader structure of Barth’s thinking about God and Scripture, although it would take a lengthy paper to flesh that out that assertion.
I do not doubt that scripture, for Barth, is not the primary source, or even a source of God’s self-revelation —indeed Christ Himself is revelation, for Barth— but given Barth’s paradigm of the three-fold ‘Word’, one of which is scripture; I think I might dispute with Evans, a bit, over his reading of Barth at this juncture (and I am probably in agreement with Evans contra Barth on bibliology). At the same time, there is no disputing that Barth did not believe in the inerrancy of scripture, he certainly did not! And there is no disputing that this allowed Barth to in essence speak affirmitively with the ‘higher-critic’ of the scriptures; while at the same time speaking very Evangelically about the WORD, because he did (i.e. he could say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’). But I think Barth’s view, albeit refined through the critical thought of his day (i.e. Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kant, et al), was more on about emphasizing the instrumentality of the scriptures —commensurate with Calvin’s view of scripture as the spectacles— which ultimately point beyond the ‘witness’ or ‘spectacles’ themselves (they are a ‘means’ to something else). I think approaching Barth, this way, might allow for a fruitful appropriation of Barth; while not throwing out certain, distinctive “Evangelical” doctrines at the same time. I have found T. F. Torrance to be representative of someone who has synthesized Barth, very fruitfully, while maintaining certain “Evangelically Reformed” notions; at least insofar as I have assimilated him thus far.
My fear, with articles like Evan’s, especially for the ‘Reformed’, is that they will read it, walk away from it, and walk away from Barth; having any negative notions they have had and heard, reinforced —and thus miss out on some very healthy emphases, that Barth has brought about— especially his Christocentrism relative to election. Certainly one can, at least, appreciate Barth’s re-framing of double predestination, and not have to completely endorse the ‘more universal’ components of it; I am sure, once again, Torrance did just that! I digress, my hope is that ‘Reformed’ folks might engage Barth, critically and charitably, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I wonder if they (‘Reformed’) would do the same with Augustine (‘NOT’), given his ecclesiology.
Anyway, Evans said more (you can find that all here), and some of his analysis I agree with him on (in re. to his talk on the ‘apparent’ universalism latent in Barth, and more explicit in the ‘neo-Barth’ readings [e.g. McCormack, et al] of Barth); and of course, some, as I just highlighted, I do not. I would really be interested to hear a response from any of you current day Princetonians who might be reading here (I actually would be interested in anybody’s feedback on this), in regards to Evans’ article —which is one of the reasons I took the time to post this. So here is the link to the full article one more time: