It’s difficult to plod through Barth’s Church Dogmatics without being tempted to post something on one of the lines he takes or even simply the adventurous and often moving quality of his prose. The section in CD handling “the knowability of the Word of God” is a fascinating one and, though I would parse the concept of the word of God differently than Barth does, it is one that I find instructive in several ways for contemporary evangelicals.
Barth repeatedly voices his skepticism about the event of the coming of the Word of God to human persons engendering a knowledge of the Word such that the knowability of the Word begins properly to belong to its human addressees. He mentions the possibility that the event of the Word of God is helped along in its epistemic work by the human addressee’s “potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection.” However, Barth is quick to add another possibility:
It might be also that this event did not so much presuppose the corresponding possibility on man’s part as bring it with it and confer it on man by being event, so that it is man’s possibility without ceasing (as such) to be wholly and utterly the possibility proper to the Word of God and to it alone. We might also be dealing with a possibility of knowledge which can be made intelligible as a possibility of man, but in contrast to all others, only in terms of the object of knowledge or the reality of knowledge and not at all in terms of the subject of knowledge, i.e., man as such (CD, I/1, p. 194).
What follows is a lengthy vying for this second option. Barth contends that locating the knowability of the Word of God in even “the religious man” or “the believing Christian man” renders such a person the Word’s “opposite subjective pole” and, in turn, the locus of experience of the Word and the criterion for speaking of the Word in the vein of a Cartesian epistemology which situates the ground of human knowledge in the human person (ibid., 213). Certainly, the Word has “its special bearers, its experts, its representatives,” but making the move of “indirect Christian Cartesianism” removes all hope of epistemic assurance: “When we try to find the content of divine Spirit in the (pardoned) consciousness of man, are we not like the man who wanted to scoop out in a sieve the reflection of the beautiful silvery moon from a pond.” How, Barth asks, can we be sure that in trying to scoop out of the religious person the content of God’s Word we have in hand a faithful reflection of that Word? Can we be sure that this one’s experience is authentically experience of God’s Word (ibid., 216-17)? In contrast to this approach, one who really suffers the divine address attests that “real acknowledgement of the Word of God does not rest at all on a possibility imparted to man and thus integral to him or immanent in him, but that it rests in God’s Word itself, which man and his possibilities can in no sense precede but only follow” (ibid., 218).
An adequate consideration and appropriation of Barth’s emphases would require, I think, a fair amount of conceptual analysis and formal adjustment (as I said, I disagree with some of Barth’s description of the word of God), but I wonder if we could glean, albeit somewhat hastily, some worthwhile insights and criticisms with respect to the tenor of contemporary evangelicalism. What might this section imply about our tendency to latch onto celebrity preachers or teachers and uncritically absorb their every sermon, book, podcast, and so on? How could it shape our prayers for the preacher’s Sunday morning sermon and the posture we adopt as we listen to that sermon? Any thoughts?