The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (excerpt)

Over the past few centuries, both those who challenge the value of the Bible as a source of divine revelation and those who defend it have done so with the tools of the Enlightenment. Both sides of the debate believed they could ascertain the truth – either through historical criticism or through assumptions of historicity. As we take our journey of faith into the twenty-first century, many people both inside and outside the church believe that this earlier paradigm no longer works. If there is no certainty, can we still hope to hear the voice of God in an authoritative way in Scripture? That is, if the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, which emerged during the modern era undermines claims of infallibility and inerrancy, how do we know when we’ve heard the divine voice in these texts we call Scripture? That is, for those of us living on the moderate to liberal side of the Christian spectrum, what authority does Scripture have for our lives?

Many years ago, as I struggled with these kinds of questions, I found help in the writings of Karl Barth. It was during seminary, when I took a seminar on Barth’s understanding of the Word of God, that I found a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of historical criticism and biblical authority. As I read through the first two volumes of the Church Dogmatics, as well as Barth’s more accessible Evangelical Theology: An Introduction Evangelical Theology, I discerned a path to a place where I could look to Scripture for a Word from God even though this Word was embedded within very human and culturally bound words.

Of course, turning to Barth for help is not without its difficulties. Many evangelicals look at him as a liberal who jettisoned biblical authority, while many liberals see him as biblical literalist whose views aren’t in keeping with modern assumptions. His theology, which emphasizes God’s revelation, seems too old hat for the modern age. Nonetheless, Barth’s influence, which receded during the 1960s and 1970s, seems to be on the ascent of late, especially among those who are called post-liberals and proponents of narrative theology.  Whether or not Barth is liberal or conservative, he has been and continues to be a helpful conversation partner of those of us who seek to hear a Word from God in a book that he viewed as both human and divine in origin.

As I have read Barth’s discussions of the Word of God, I’ve found that he tries to put two specific concepts in balance. These concepts include a desire to be faithful hearers of Scripture and the belief that we must approach Scripture not only with reverence but with a critical eye, even making fruitful use of historical-critical tools. Barth never rejected the use of the historical-critical tools he inherited from his liberal teachers, but he believed that they must be put into the service of discerning God’s Word revealed in Scripture. For Barth the work of theology and exegesis must be done in service to the proclamation of the Word of God.

This is an excerpt from the introduction to my just published book  The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age: Some Help from Karl Barth (Topical Line Drives Book 9)  It is available on Kindle (click on link).  Or in print form from the publisher -- Energion Publications at:


Cynthia Astle said…
Bob, with the recent news that Christians support torture, I'd like to reprint this column on our forum, United Methodist Insight. Is that OK with you? I'll be glad to include a link to your book. Thanks!
Robert Cornwall said…
Cynthia that would be fine with me. I hope it helps open the conversation.
Cynthia Astle said…
Me, too, Bob. I've already written about this and taken some hits, so I'm hoping your temperate approach will do better. Thanks!

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