‘The Only Sacrament Left to Us: The Threefold Word of God in the Theology and Ecclesiology of Karl Barth’, by Thomas Christian Currie, Pickwick Publications, 196 pp. $25.00
In this volume, Thomas Christian Currie does a service to modern theology by unpacking, at length and in detail, Barth’s theology and ecclesiology of the Word of God. There is, in all actuality, probably no more misunderstood aspect of Barth’s thinking than these topics, and I wouldn’t hesitate at all to say that Currie’s study here should be required reading for anyone engaging Barth.
The first chapter looks at the relationship between the threefold word of God and proclamation. There is a lot of ground covered here, and Currie does an admirable job of tracing the nature of and relation between God’s word and human words in Barth’s early work. The basic theme here is one that will be familiar to readers of Barth, especially with the Chalcedon-ian contours of his thinking: over against theologies that Barth sees as ‘freezing’ the Word of God and the presence of Christ into Scripture (Protestant orthodoxy) or in the sacraments (Roman Catholicism), Currie argues that proclamation becomes the Word of God in a moment-by-moment union of divine and human speech.
The second chapter zeroes in on the place of the Holy Spirit in the threefold Word of God, and since Barth isn’t typically thought of as the most pneumetological of theologians, this chapter goes a long way towards showing just how crucial the Spirit is. The above union of divine and human speech is only possible on the basis of the Spirit’s activity. It is only in virtue of the dynamic activity of the Spirit that the divine and human can be united while still remaining really distinct, and it is the Spirit which ‘enables the risen Christ to pass through closed doors, to be seen and heard in fallible human words, and to contain and embrace human proclamation in an act of God, in the event of the Word of God’. (p. 50)
The third chapter is a little bit more dense of a read than the preceding two chapters and focuses on the threefold Word of God as ecclesiology. It is here that Barth makes some controversial moves, by attacking what I’ll call the ‘given-ness’ of the church by arguing that the church is a community gathered by and under the Word. Here the proclamation and reading of the Word is where Christ becomes present – this, for Barth and according to Curries, is itself a miraculous event and so something that only happens via divine action. Barth’s ecclesiology is also seen to be thoroughly Chalcedon-ian, in that the church is fully sinful, fully made up of sinners, yet also the place where God’s revelation manifested itself. This identity is, as with proclamation, had only moment-by-moment on the basis of God’s free action.
The fourth chapter deals with Barth’s later development and revision of the threefold word of God. There is a good deal of interaction with contemporary scholarship here, and Currie draws out the rather subtle shift in Barth’s thinking quite clearly, which he sees as a shift from a very strict presence to a more pluriform and eschatalogical presence (Currie also notes a soteriological focus as part of this shift), where Christ’s presence is seperated, as it were, from the threefold Word, in order to allow for a fuller, contemporary presence.
The fifth and final chapter sketches the relevance for the contemporary church of the threefold word of God. Currie’s overall point here is that the church is formed by the Word, and following Barth, argues that the church is a community which has its being and unity in the presence of Christ. Curries sums it up quite nicely:
The threefold Word of God is not a solution to a problem, but an illustration of the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the identity and shape of the Christian community and its life together in the world. It is through the threefold Word of God that Christ comes into the incompleteness of the Christian community, enabling it to become an echo and witness as Christ speaks and shapes it life in the world, in the time between the times. (p. 166)
This is a fine study, and as I said before, one that needs to be required reading for anyone engaging Barth or even in general ecclesiology. I’ve already referenced this book several times after reading it through the first time and found myself learning a good deal about the ins and outs of Barth’s thought. A quibble I do have, however, is the length of time spent on the Bible as Word/witness to the Word of God. This is one of the, if not the most misunderstood aspect of Barth’s theology, in large part because it’s one of the few lines of his thought that have been engaged in a more ‘public’ way, and to devote only three pages to it seems to be misguided. I really can’t complain about too much more other than this – Currie has really knocked it out of the park with this study. I highly recommend this volume to students of Barth, Scripture and ecclesiology – you will only be a better person for having read this.
**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review