I thought this assessment of Karl Barth and Neoorthodoxy’s understanding of “authority” and Scripture was interesting; I thought I would share it:
Neoorthodoxy has sometimes been classed with liberalism and sometimes with conservatism. The reason for this confusion is that, on the one hand, it broke with liberalism by insisting that God, not man, must initiate revelation (and thus seemed to be conservative); while, on the other hand, it continued to teach liberal views concerning the Bible (and thus seemed to be liberal).
The basis of authority in neoorthodoxy, at least as expressed by Karl Barth (1886-1968), is the Word. However, the Word is mainly Christ. The Bible witnesses to the Word, and does so fallibly, and Christian proclamation is a word about the Word.
The sovereign God took the initiative in revealing Himself, centering primarily in the revelation in Christ. The years of Christ’s life exhibited the epitome of revelation, and His death was the climax of revelation. The Bible witnesses to the revelation of God, even though it is interpreted by all the canons of liberalism. The Bible, then, has no absolute authority, but only instrumental authority, since it serves as the fallible instrument by which we encounter Christ the Word. And it is that encounter of faith at the point of “crisis” in which God communicates Himself. That is absolute truth.
Though neoorthodoxy seeks objectivity in God’s sovereign initiative, it practices subjectivism in the experiences of faith’s encounters. Even though the Bible is involved in those experiences, it is not allowed to be the ultimate judge of those experiences. Neoorthodoxy lacks an external, objective standard of authority. (Charles Ryrie, “Basic Theology,” 21)
I realize that some of Ryrie’s characterization is somewhat oversimplified, and at points overstated; nevertheless, he captures a salient point, at least relative to some of my own misgivings with Barth (and I also realize that many Barth guys would say that Barth was not truly Neoorthodox, instead folks like Brunner better fit that “bill”). I appreciate Barth’s christocentrism; I appreciate his reframing and retooling of predestination and election. But I continue, like Ryrie, have problems with Barth’s view of scripture. I do think, maybe contra Ryrie, that Scripture needs to be seen more instrumentally than many “Evangelicals” might want to approach this; but I would want to qualify that in more “Calvinian” ways (how John Calvin spoke of Scripture as “spectacles”) — I think Scripture points beyond itself to Christ (cf. Jn. 5.39). Unlike Barth, though, and along with Ryrie, I do believe that Scripture is infallible; that it is not just imbued with a human witness and/or reflection upon say the Apostle’s or Prophet’s “encounter” with the God of Israel in Jesus of Nazareth. There is certainly encounter with the “Word” by the Apostles and Prophets (subjective), but their witness was divinely “given” and spirated by God the Holy Spirit Himself (cf. II Tim. 3:16).
One of the only real beefs I have with the Barthian view of Scripture is that it winks too much at the higher criticism that seeks to undercut the very “authority” and infallibility of this most special witness to Jesus Christ. Other than that, there are many things I still can appreciate about Barth’s emphases and themes articulated in his deep and wide theological approach.
*P.S. I think Kevin Vanhoozer has some good words on how to appropriate Barth, but to do so with “Evangelical” sensibilities.
**P.P.S. Expect to hear more from Ryrie. His was the first “Systematic Theology” I ever read (years ago, in fact my copy is autographed by Ryrie); it is quite “basic,” but I think would still be fun to interact with along the way.