This is not a full review, since I am not dealing with sections 15-18. Those are important because of his discussions of asarkos/ensarkos, but since he takes up that theme elsewhere, I won’t worry about it.
I don’t think this is one of Barth’s more important contributions, but it is one on which most Evangelicals think he is “the bad guy.” It is in this volume where he more explicitly denies that the text in your hands is the revelation of the Word of God. Rather, it is a witness to that revelation. What Barth is actually doing is making use of the divine/human model of Christology and applying it to Scripture.
On other areas he explores how is model impacts dogmatics within the Church and the proper limits of Church authority. He makes an important point that is often missed by evangelicals: he is adamant to deny that the church is in any sense the custodian of God’s revelation (and keep in mind on Barth’s gloss, revelation does not necessarily equal Scripture). When churches do this (EO and Rome), they make themselves above God’s revelation and beyond any real critique. Barth’s model, by contrast, can assign a lot of authority to the church while never fearing of an abuse of infallibility claims
Barth also advocates a role for the laity perhaps more than other communions. He doesn’t develop the point, but his model could alleviate a lot of the problems associated with subjectivity in Scripture. In fact, one can even develop a robust personalism on this point. If what it means to be a “person” is an opening to the other, and if everyone is engaged in the reading and practice of Holy Scripture, then everyone’s so-called subjective interpretation is taken into the “other’s” interpretation.”
Subjectivity is only a problem when each man is an island unto himself. This is a problem for congregationalist models. For Reformed (and Anglican and Lutheran) this isn’t near a problem. I think Barth makes some valuable suggestions, but they won’t impress everyone. He talks about fear and bravery at the end of this volume. If we allow dogmatics to become a lay enterprise, and each one has to bring his interpretation for correction and critique, then there will be the fear of “I don’t have complete control.” This is perhaps why anchoretic communities love to rail on the “subjectivity” of sola scriptura. It is scary, but it is also how we grow.
§19, chapter 1 deals with Scripture as a witness to God’s revelation. Resisting the urge to attack Barth because he “doesn’t believe the Bible is the Word of God,” let’s actually see what he is saying and what it means for our own situation. A witness to a thing is not the same thing as the thing (and if anyone maintains it is, he or she will have to explain precisely why transubstantiation is wrong). Further if we collapse the sign into the thing signified, is this not a movement towards nominalism? The sign is pointing beyond itself to the “real.” If we remove the “sign,” how can we have access to the real? We are then saying that the “sign” is merely a “name” for the thing signified.
Before people fear too much, Richard Muller, while perhaps not necessarily endorsing this view, does allude to several Reformed scholastics who said something similar.
For whatever demerits Barth’s project may have, one cannot help but notice Augustinian themes. If you attack Barth, then you must continue and attack Augustine.
Chapter 2: Canon
Barth gives an unusually careful discussion on the nature of canonization. Surprisingly, given his anti-Roman polemic throughout this series, he faults the position of Luther and Calvin and gives more weight to the role of the church. However, this can only work when the Church submits to the same revelation.
Towards the end of chapter two he gets into why he doesn’t believe Scripture should be considered “inerrant.” I can’t follow him at this point, though Evangelicals really haven’t reflected hard enough on his concerns. We believe the Word of God is self-attesting. If we leave the discussion of “self-attesting” in the arena of the Triune God, well and good. Because then self-attestation is truly a triune act, and if you deny it then you deny God. If we maintain, however, so Barth reasons, that self-attestation is an act of the text of Scripture, then we open ourselves to lots of devastating criticisms by Anchorite traditions.
Barth tries to play the “Calvin vs. Calvinists” card. Historically, such a claim is simply false. However, even Richard Muller admits that the epistemology of later 17th century scholastics was such that they really couldn’t avoid the later criticisms of the Enlightenment.
We should be all means reject Barth’s conclusions–at least, if we want to stay in good position in conservative, American churches–but be forewarned that Barth’s position can avoid all the pitfalls facing Evangelicals in their debates with anchorites. The downside, though, is that it is particularly difficult on Barth’s gloss to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” To Barth’s credit he emphasizes the preaching of the word. However, at this point in Church Dogmatics Barth is not clear on how his view of the Bible can be authoritative for the church.
In §20 chapter 1 Barth gives a very thorough discussion of tradition and authority and its development in Roman Catholic history (warning: this lasts for about ten small-font pages). In the previous section I critique Barth for not giving any reason why one can take his position and say, “Thus saith the Lord” (which Barth admirably wants to do). He does work out some of the weaknesses and reduces some of the subjectivity in Evangelicalism by anchoring the Bible in the Church. However, he avoids leading us back into Anchoretic slavery by saying that the Church, like Holy Scripture, is a witness to God’s revelation. Anchoretic communities make it an aspect of God’s revelation (and hence, above the ability of being critiqued). This doesn’t alleviate all of the problems, but it is a better start.