The Word, Karl Barth


We will undertake to determine the special place of that theology, which, according to our previous explanation, desires to be evangelical theology. What concerns us is not the place, right, and possibility of theology within the domain and limits of general culture; especially not within the boundaries of the universitas litterarum, or what is otherwise known as general humanistic studies! Ever since the fading of its illusory splendor as a leading academic power during the Middle Ages, theology has taken too many pains to justify its own existence. It has tried too hard, especially in the nineteenth century, to secure for itself at least a small but honorable place in the throne room of general science. This attempt at self-justification has been no help to its own work. The fact is that it has made theology, to a great extent, hesitant and halfhearted; moreover, this uncertainty has earned theology no more respect for its achievements than a very modest tip of the hat. Strange to say, the surrounding world only recommenced to take notice of theology in earnest (though rather morosely) when it again undertook to consider and concentrate more strongly upon its own affairs. Theology had first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being. It will follow this law without lengthy explanations and excuses. Even today, theology has by no means done this vigorously and untiringly enough. On the other hand, what are “culture” and “general science,” after all? Have these concepts not become strangely unstable within the last fifty years? At any rate, are they not too beset by problems for us at present to be guided by them? All the same, we should certainly not disdain reflecting on what the rest of the academic world actually must think of theology. It is worth considering the place of theology within the university; discussion may be held about the reason and justification for locating this modest, free, critical, and happy science sui generis in such an environment. But for the present moment, this question may be considered secondary. Compared to it, other questions are much more pressing. Who knows whether the answer to such secondary questions might not be reserved for the third millennium, when a new light may perhaps be cast on theology and its academic ambiance?
The “place” of theology, as understood here, will be determined by the impetus which it receives from within its own domain and from its own object. Its object—the philanthropic God Himself—is the law which must be the continual starting point of theology. It is, as the military might say, the post that the theologian must take and keep, whether or not it suits him or any of his fellow creatures. The theologian has to hold this post at all costs, whether at the university or in the catacombs, if he does not wish to be imprisoned for dereliction of duty.
The word “theology” includes the concept of the Logos. Theology is a logia, logic, or language bound to the theos, which both makes it possible and also determines it. The inescapable meaning of logos is “word,” however much Goethe’s Faust felt that he could not possibly rate “the word” so highly. The Word is not the only necessary determination of the place of theology, but it is undoubtedly the first. Theology itself is a word, a human response; yet what makes it theology is not its own word or response but the Word which it hears and to which it responds. Theology stands and falls with the Word of God, for the Word of God precedes all theological words by creating, arousing, and challenging them. Should theology wish to be more or less or anything other than action in response to that Word, its thinking and speaking would be empty, meaningless, and futile. Because the Word of God is heard and answered by theology, it is a modest and, at the same time, a free science. editorial Theology is modest because its entire logic can only be a human ana-logy to that Word; analogical thought and speech do not claim to be, to say, to contain, or to control the original word. But it gives a reply to it by its attempt to co-respond with it; it seeks expressions that resemble the ratio and relations of the Word of God in a proportionate and, as far as feasible, approximate and appropriate way. Theology’s whole illumination can be only its human reflection, or mirroring (in the precise sense of “speculation”!); and its whole production can be only a human reproduction. In short, theology is not a creative act but only a praise of the Creator and of his act of creation —praise that to the greatest possible extent truly responds to the creative act of God. Likewise, theology is free because it is not only summoned but also liberated for such analogy, reflection, and reproduction. It is authorized, empowered, and impelled to such praise of its creator.
What is required of theological thought and speech, therefore, is more than that they should simply conduct, direct, and measure themselves by that Word. It goes without saying that they must do that; and it is equally true that such concepts are relevant to the relationship of theology to the witnesses of the Word, of whom we will speak next. editorial But for the relationship of theology to the Word itself, such concepts are too weak. The idea that autonomous man should be concerned with the response to the Word and its appropriate interpretation must be completely avoided. It cannot be simply supposed that man naturally stands in need of, and is subject to, the authority that encounters him in the Word. Before human thought and speech can respond to God’s word, they have to be summoned into existence and given reality by the creative act of God’s word. Without theprecedence of the creative Word, there can be not only no proper theology but, in fact, no evangelical theology at all! Theology is not called in any way to interpret, explain, and elucidate God and his Word. Of course, where its relationship to the witnesses of the Word is concerned, it must be an interpreter. But in relation to God’s Word itself, theology has nothing to interpret. At this point the theological response can only consist in confirming and announcing the Word as something spoken and heard prior to all interpretation. What is at stake is the fundamental theological act that contains and determines everything else. “Omnis recta cognitio Dei ab oboedientia nascitur” (Calvin). editorial Not only does this Word regulate theology and precede all theological interpretation; it also and above all constitutes and calls theology forth out of nothingness into being, out of death into life. This Word is the Word of God. The place of theology is direct confrontation with this Word, a situation in which theology finds itself placed, and must again and again place itself.
The Word of God is the Word that God spoke, speaks, and will speak in the midst of all men. Regardless of whether it is heard or not, it is, in itself, directed to all men. It is the Word of God’swork upon men, for men, and with men. His work is not mute; rather, it speaks with a loud voice. Since only God can do what he does, only he can say in his work what he says. And since his work is not divided but single (for all the manifold forms which it assumes along the way from its origin to its goal), his Word is also (for all its exciting richness) simple and single. It is not ambiguous but unambiguous, not obscure but clear. In itself, therefore, it is quite easily understandable to both the most wise and the most foolish. God works, and since he works, he also speaks. His Word goes forth. And if it be widely ignored de facto, it can never and in no place be ignored de jure. That man who refuses to listen and to obey the Word acts not as a free man but as a slave, for there is no freedom except through God’s Word. We are speaking of the God of the Gospel, his work and action, and of the Gospel in which his work and action are at the same time his speech. This is his Word, the Logos in which the theological logia, logic, and language have their creative basis and life.
The Word of God is Gospel, that is, the good word, because it declares God’s good work. In this Word, God’s work itself becomes speech. editorial Through his Word, God discloses his work in his covenant with man, in the history of its establishment, maintenance, accomplishment, and fulfillment. In this very way he discloses himself (both his holiness and his mercy) as man’s father, brother, and friend. At the same time, however, he discloses his power and his eminence as the possessor, Lord, and judge of man. He discloses himself as the primary partner of the covenant—himself as man’s God. But he also discloses man to be his creature, the debtor who, confronting him, is unable to pay. Man is lost in his judgment, yet also upheld and saved by his grace, freed for him and called by him to service and duty. He discloses man as God’s man, as God’s son and servant who is loved by him. Man is thus the other, the secondary, partner of the covenant. The revelation of the primacy of God and the station of man in the covenant is the work of God’s word. This covenant (in which God is man’s God and man is God’s man) is the content of the Word of God; and God’s covenant, history, and work with man are the contents of his Word which distinguish it from all other words. This Logos is the creator of theology. By it, theology is shown its place and assigned its task. Evangelical theology exists in the service of the Word of God’s covenant of grace and peace.
What follows now is in no wise different from what has been said already, but it now says the same thing concretely. Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, andwill speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel. To reverse the statement, theology responds to that Word spoken in the history of Israel which reaches its culmination in the history of Jesus Christ. As Israel proceeds toward Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ proceeds out of Israel, so the Gospel of God goes forth. It is precisely the particularity of the Gospel which is its universality. This is the good Word of the covenant of grace and peace established, upheld, accomplished, and fulfilled by God. It is his Word of the friendly communion between himself and man. The Word of God, therefore, is not the appearance of an idea of such a covenant and communion. It is the Logos of this history, the Logos, or Word, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as such, is the Father of Jesus Christ. This Word, the Word of this history, is what evangelical theology must always hear, understand, and speak of anew. We shall now try to delineate what this history declares.
First of all, this history speaks of a God who calls his own people to himself. Out of a tribal community which exemplifies all mankind, he calls his own people by acting upon it and speaking to it as its God and treating and addressing it as his people. The name of this God is Yahweh: “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” And the name of this people is Israel, which means—not a contender for God, but—“contender against God.” The covenant is the encounter of this God with this people in their common history. The report of this history, although strangely contradictory, is not ambiguous. This history speaks of the unbroken encounter, conversation, and resultant communion between a holy and faithful God with an unholy and unfaithful people. It speaks of both the unfailing presence of the divine partner and the failure of the human partner that should be holy as he is holy, answering his faithfulness with faithfulness. While this history definitely speaks of the divine perfection of the covenant, it does not speak of its human perfection. The covenant has not yet been perfected. Israel’s history, therefore, points beyond itself; it points to a fulfillment which, although pressing forward to become reality, has not yet become real.
At this point, the history of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, commences. In it the activity and speech of the God of Israel toward his people, rather than ceasing, attain their consummation. The ancient covenant, established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, proclaimed by Moses, and confirmed to David, becomes in Jesus Christ a new covenant. The holy and faithful God of Israel himself now calls into existence and action his holy and faithful human partner. In the midst of his people he lets one become man and espouses the cause of this man totally. With him he expresses the same solidarity that a father has with his son; he affirms that he, God, is identical with this man. Certainly, what is fulfilled in the existence and appearance, in the work and word of Jesus of Nazareth, is the history of God and his Israel, of Israel and its God. But the fulfillment of Israel’s history is not its own continuation, as though God should raise up and call a new Moses, a further prophet, or a hero. Its fulfillment, instead, is the indwelling of God in this man, working and speaking through him. Anything less than this, obviously would be too little to fill up that vacuum. What the history of Jesus Christ confirms in the consummation of the history of Israel is this event in which the God of Israel consummates the covenant established with his people. The history of Jesus Christ is rooted deeply in the history of Israel, yet it soars high above Israel’s history. It speaks of the realized unity of true God and true man, of the God who descends to community with man, gracious in his freedom, and of man who is exalted to community with him, thankful in his freedom. In this way “God was in Christ.” In this way this one was and is the one who, although expected and promised, had not yet come forward in God’s covenant with Israel. And in this way the Word of God was and is the consummation of what was only heralded in the history of Israel: the Word become flesh.
The history of Jesus Christ took place first and foremost for the benefit of Israel. It was the history of the covenant of God with Israel which attained its consummation in that subsequent history. And so God’s Word, which was fully spoken in the history of Jesus Christ when it became flesh in him, remains first and foremost his concluding word to Israel. This ought never to be forgotten! Nevertheless, Israel was sent precisely as God’s mediator to the nations; and this remains the meaning of the covenant made with it. The presence of God in Christ was the reconciliation of the world with himself in this Christ of Israel. In this consummating history, God’s Word was now spoken in and with this, his work, which was done in and upon Israel. His Word remains a comforting announcement to all fellow men of the one Son of God, an announcement calling for repentance and faith. It is God’s good Word about his good work in the midst, and for the good, of all creation. It is a Word directed to all peoples and nations of all times and places. The task of evangelical theology, therefore, is to hear, understand, and speak of the consummation of God’s Word, both its intensive and its extensive perfection as the Word of the covenant of grace and peace. In the Christ of Israel this Word has become particular, that is, Jewish flesh. It is in the particularity of the flesh that it applies universally to all men. The Christ of Israel is the Saviour of the world.
This whole Word of God in Christ is the word to which theology must listen and reply. It is God’s Word spoken both in the relation of the history of Israel to the history of Jesus Christ and in the relation of the history of Jesus Christ to the history of Israel. It is the Word of God’s covenant with man—man who is alienated from God but who nevertheless is devoted to him, because God himself has interceded for man.
If theology wanted to do no more than hear and relate this Word as it appears in the conflict between God’s faithfulness and man’s unfaithfulness, theology would not respond to the whole Word of God. Should it limit itself to the conflict which would be characteristic for the history of Israel as such, theology would completely miss the central truth of this Word. The fact is, there is no history of Israel in itself and for its own sake. There is only the single history which, though it has its source in God’s good will in overcoming Israel —the “contender with God”—nevertheless hastens toward a goal. It hastens toward the history of Jesus Christ, the establishment of the human partner who, for his part, is faithful to the divine partner. In Israel’s history there is no message that does not point beyond itself, that does not express its character as the Word of the divine partner at work in it. Every such message strives toward its consummation in the message of the history of Jesus Christ. Already containing this message within itself, Israel’s history is to this extent already Gospel.
Theology would not respond to the whole Word of God if it wished only to hear and to speak of the Word become flesh. It would totally miss the truth of this Word if it proclaimed simply and solely the history of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. As if the reconciliation of the world with God were made at the expense of, or in abstraction from, the promises given to Israel! If theology wishes to hear and repeat what God has said, it must remain attentive to what happened in Israel’s history. What happened was the fulfillment and accomplishment of thereconciliation of Israel. The old, untiring, but now weary contender with God was reconciled by the will of the one true God. All the same, it was in this Jewish flesh that the Word of God now went forth into the whole world. “Salvation is from the Jews” ( John 4:22). The covenant of God with man consists neither simply in the one nor simply in the other, but rather in the succession and unity of both forms of the history of the work of God. Similarly, the Word about this covenant goes forth in the same unity, since it is the Word of the selfsame God spoken both in the history of Israel and in the history of Jesus Christ. Their succession and unity form the whole Logos, and it is this unity of which evangelical theology must hear and speak. When theology fulfills this command, it takes
and holds its post. To use a remarkable expression of Paul’s, theology is then logike latreia. Not theology only, but among other services rendered in the church, theology specifically is committed to offer “reasonable service” to God.

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