What is and isn’t the Word of God – I guess I’m Barthian

“The statement that the Bible is the Word of God cannot therefore say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible. On the contrary, what it must say is that the Bible is tied to the Word of God.” (ht)

I am thoroughly Barthian in my view of Scripture, I’ve been told. To me, Scripture contains the word of God, but is not the word of God. The Word of God alone is Christ. Christ alone is the fullness of the revelation of God.

The word of God is preaching and the prophetic messages, even of modern day prophets,

“Real proclamation, then, means the Word of God preached and the Word of God preached means… man’s talk about God on the basis of God’s own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation, which cannot, then, be put on a human basis, but which simply takes place, and has to be acknowledged, as a fact” (CD I/1, 90).

Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. John Calvin, and others.

To say then, that Scripture is the Word of God, something it never actually says about itself, or perhaps, the authors ever contemplated when they were recording the collective memory of those who came before, is misleading and indeed, disallowing the real word of God. Scripture contains the word of God, but unless acted upon, are mere words. When it is proclaimed, that proclamation becomes the word of God.

This power in the proclamation is what has, I guess, attracted me to rhetorical criticism of Scripture. George Kennedy summarizes Ernesto Grassi in relating the power of the preaching, the kerygma, and of course, why Scripture is Scripture. He believes that the rhetoric of sacred language embodies five characteristics:

  1. It has a purely revealing or evangelical character, not a demonstrative or proving function; it does not arise out of a process of inference, but authoritatively proclaims the truth.
  2. Its statements are immediate, formulated without mediation or contemplation
  3. They are imagistic and metaphorical, lending the reality of sensory appearances a new meaning.
  4. Its assertions are absolute and urgent; whatever does not fit with them is treated outrageous
  5. Its pronouncements are outside of time.


I like them all, but the first one has an important and immediate meaning. When we attempt to logically declare Scripture anything more than it declares itself, we are removing the sacred language of it, and inferring upon it the need for it to be something more than that which it claims. It never once claims to the pure, without error, infallible word of God, but many have a need and will go through great lengths to infer that because of a, b, and c, then d equals that it is the word of God. It doesn’t. No logical or post-scriptural formulation infers upon it anything which is actually needed. To call it, then, the Word of God, is to remove from it the actual authority which they who insist upon calling it, and then appending to such a title adjectives as infallible and inerrant, insist it has. Scripture doesn’t need our help. Proclaim the grand narrative of Scripture, denying nothing in it, even the contradictions, but instead, relying that when the Spirit moves, the effective proclamation of Scripture becomes the word of God.

Scripture is holy and the Word of God,” he indicated, “because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.”

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

7 thoughts on “What is and isn’t the Word of God – I guess I’m Barthian

  1. I was thinking about this issue a few days ago, when my pastor (at a PCUSA church I’m attending) was being reconfirmed in his ministry. My pastor was asked this: “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s word to you?”

    Does that sound Barthian to you?

  2. I appreciate all of this, but would like to amplify a particular point, raised in the first of the five points regarding the rhetoric of sacred language. I am always hesitant to use the word “truth” in any context, because it is such a contentious word. In discussing theological issues in particular, I think we Christians too often forget that “Truth” is not a quality some sentences posses. Nor is it something arrived at through reason, logic, or argumentation.

    Truth is nothing more or less than the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father. When we Christians are teaching and preaching and living in and through the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Son, for the sake of the Father, then our words and deeds are “true”, regardless of the various rules of logic, reason, or even rhetoric. This is my own, personal, theological presupposition for anything anyone says about the faith. It is an echo, or perhaps amplification, or maybe better, slight revision of T. F. Torrance’s claim that theology is little more than “thinking in Jesus Christ.”

    Not sure if it’s relevant at all, just wanted to toss that in the mix.

    1. Nope, I agree. Truth is not subjective, but rather objective. The issue about sacred language is, is that is proclaims the truth. We do not have to infer anything else on it – which is why I do not care much for apologetics. Our sacred Language proclaims Christ. If we continue to infer something upon that sacred language which is claimed only by Christ, then we are diminishing the Truth of Christ.

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