Thursday, 26 March 2009

Response to Barbara Messner

By the Revd Dr Phillip Tolliday

I really enjoyed this article about the Word of God and Human Presumption. The words ‘Penned,’ and ‘Pinned’ function as the negative pole to the ‘Freedom of God’s Word to Speak,’ and the ‘Dialectic of the Canon,’ respectively. Although I appreciated these oppositional headings from a stylistic viewpoint I was left wondering whether the nature of the interaction was sometimes a bit stark. For example, the first opposition between ‘Scripture Penned vs. the Freedom of God’s Word to Speak,’ suggests a model of ‘penning?!’ that virtually equates with scribes taking dictation. Perhaps some do believe that’s the way things happened but others, such as Barth, take the ‘penned’ with all due seriousness. The Bible, he says, is ‘always there as a sign, as a human and temporal word—and therefore also as a word which is conditioned and limited.’(CD I/2, 507). At the same time he can write, as you point out, that the Bible becomes the Word of God as it is recollected and expected by us in faith. Given that these two emphases are found in Barth it seems to me unnecessary to opt for such a mechanical interpretation as divine dictation. I think you are right however, to point out a tension between the facticity of the text and the freedom of God’s Word. This has raised the suspicion of some evangelicals that Barth is far from being an ally to their interpretation of Biblical authority. Faced with an alternative between claiming that the Bible is the Word of God on the one hand, and the sovereignty and freedom of God on the other, we might consider the following from Barth. ‘That the Bible is the Word of God cannot mean that with other attributes the Bible has the attribute of being the Word of God. To say that would be to violate the Word of God which is God Himself – to violate the freedom and the sovereignty of God. God is not an attribute of something else, even if this something else is the Bible…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.’(CD I/2, 513). All this is by way of suggesting that you can get a stimulating interaction between these two poles without opting for what might be seen as an overly naïve approach to Scripture.

In your second section ‘Scripture Pinned vs. the Dialectic of the Canon,’ I’m wholly in agreement with your claim about the ‘plain sense’ and ‘consensual reading’ in their singular form. Their singularity is, I think, their particularity to a place and time, but it cannot be justified as a singularity across all places and times. I have a question in terms of the canon: what is the relationship between the internal difference that legitimize diversity and the unity which legitimizes dialogue? It seems that you might incline toward diversity and if so, then can you explain what sets bounds for the diversity or ‘countervoices?’ I guess I’m asking whether you think the canon is flexible or fixed, and if flexible, then how pliable? To mis-apply some words from Hans Frei, ‘Does it stretch or will it break?’

Thanks Barb. It provides a lot of food for thought.


  1. Phillip, thanks for nuancing the starkness, and pointing out the presumption in my parodying of the polarities! (Perhaps I should add "parodied" to my list of presumptuous "p" words!) In particular, I enjoyed the extra perspectives from Barth you added to the ones I chose. Thanks for the warning to "take the 'penned' with all due seriousness." I was trying to discourage people from "such a mechanical interpretation as divine dictation", but perhaps in so doing I was guilty of a caricature of those who seek one "plain and canonical sense" in Scripture. The second quote from Barth helps underline one theme in the paper, the freedom and sovereignty of God which cannot be controlled or protected. In contrasting that to human presumption, I also want to give due weight to human creativity and humility in response to inspiration. As for the setting of bounds for the countervoices, I tend to have faith in the dialectical process (hence my enjoyment of Barth), provided the countervoices engage with one another with respect and discernment and a long theological view. I think the elasticity and authenticity encouraged by the Spirit resist either stretching out of shape or breaking in the long term. That springing back into shape promoted by the Spirit operates in community, and therefore I agree with Warren that "no-one can come to a true knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ in the abstract, detached from the life and teaching of the church, that body of disciples who have carried this revelation for 2000 years, and embodied this truth in their Scriptures, Creeds and liturgy." I'm not sure where this leaves us, in our proclamation of the gospel, in a society that is largely detached from the life and teaching of the Church. Regards from Barbara Messner

  2. I wonder answering your last question there Barbara if it leaves us with the responsibility to seek people to understand the Church better and to encourage them to seek what makes us tick rather than reject us as "boring" and "past our used by dates". Perhaps we need to also take the church to the society at large so that they are not detached. They have moved away but we have not followed to stay connected with them.

  3. Barbara MessnerSunday, April 19, 2009

    Your last comment so well describes the grief I feel at the generational gap in my congregation and I am sure many others. Three quarters of our members are 70 and up, and their children and grandchildren have moved away "and we have not followed to stay connected with them." How do we follow now when the gap is so great? How do we show that we are not "boring" and "past our use by dates" when unfortunately so much of what we do must seem that way, at least on the surface, and how do we get past the rejection of the surface to the real issues of meaning at a depth where I fervently believe we are still connected?