The Secularity of the Word (Barth, Summary of I/1, §5)

Invariably, then, faith is acknowledgment of our limit and acknowledgment of the mystery of God’s word, acknowledgment of the fact that our hearing is bound to God himself, who now leads us through form to content and now from content back to form, and either way to Himself, not giving Himself in either case into our hands but keeping us in his hands.

Karl Barth, I/1, p. 176.

After discussing the form of the Word of God (§4), Barth examines the nature of the Word of God (§5).  In this section, Barth works out how the Word is spoken to the creature without becoming the creature’s possession.  The Word spoken to the creature is Jesus Christ (153), God with us, and hence the what is actually a who, and as a divine who can never be equated or placed under the control of the creature.  Accordingly, Barth shifts the emphasis from the what to the how:  if God’s Word–which cannot be “anticipated or repeated” (132)–is spoken to us in three forms, how is it spoken to us?  

To answer the question how, Barth invokes the distinction between form and content.  The Word (content) is given to us (unveiled) but in a hidden (veiled) way (form).  The content (the Divine Word) is never accessible apart from the form it takes as a free address to specific, sinful creatures.  The form, for its part, only bears the content by virtue of the divine freedom and grace:  whether the form truly is the Word of God depends solely on God’s free choice.

God speaks concretely, and since it is God who speaks, God’s Word is productive:  God’s Word claims fallen humanity for Godself, and in so doing, creates a new situation and a new being (one who is summoned to respond to God’s claim).  God’s Word precedes, and hence does not depend, on the human response:  “the Church is the Church as it believes and proclaims that prior to all secular developments and prior to all its own work the decisive word has in fact been spoken already regarding both itself and also the world” (155).  Mission can only precede on the assumption that “the heathen” is “already drawn into Christ’s sphere of power” (153).  

If the form can never guarantee the content, then we can never speak about the how of God’s Word except in response to God’s actually spoken Word (164).  Since God’s Word never comes at us directly, but indirectly–in the garment of fallen, creaturely reality–all “we think and say about its how has its substance not in itself but outside itself in the Word of God, so that what we think and say about this now can never become the secret system of a what” (164).  The indirectness of God’s Word can never be dissolved; it never becomes clear (and hence possessed):  “the veil is thick.  We do not have the Word of God otherwise than in the mystery of its secularity” (165).  The form of God’s Word is an “unsuitable medium for God’s self-presentation” (166).  Unsuitable, but not impossible.  The form veils the unveiling:  “He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself” (165, emphasis added).  The veiling is necessary, not for God, but for us.  “If God did not speak to us in secular form, He would not speak to us at all” (168).  Christ enters into our world, the world of estranged creatures, the secular world.  Therefore, “to evade the secularity of His Word is to evade Christ” (168).

One cannot peer behind the form–the garment of fallen creation–to get hold of the content (divine Word).  Humans never have a direct hold on God.  The Church is not “outside with God” while the world “is inside without God” (155).  Barth offers two arguments against this church-world distinction.  First, the Word of God is spoken to the whole “world of man standing over against the Word of God” (155).  Therefore, “the world cannot be held to its ungodliness by the Church” because Christ has already spoken to–claimed–this ungodly world (155).  Secondly, due to the distinction between form and content, we can never guarantee that our own words actually convey the Word of God.  Considered “in and of itself our thinking is irrefutably non-christian” (176).  To place the Church outside of or over against the world necessitates placing our faith in the propriety of our own speech (our “Christian grammar”).  However, our faith rests not in our thoughts–the form–but in the one who has pledged to be with sinful humanity, i.e., God’s Word, Jesus Christ.  The “real interpretation of its form can only be that which God’s Word gives itself” (167).  We can never interpret the form ourselves but always depend on God’s Word to interpret itself.  The church, therefore, can never interpret its own form, and thus can never set itself over against the world.  The Church knows itself only in faith, that is, in God’s Word, which it can never possess but on which it always and constantly depends. 

Barth’s use of the form/content distinction actually undermines the coherence of that distinction.  Ordinarily, we think of the form/content binary along the lines of the split between sign/signified:  what is present to us (form/sign) provides what is absent (content/signified).  Instead of providing a deconstructive analysis of the endless deferrals within language (différance), Barth fundamentally places language–at least the language of proclamation–beyond any self-mastery (whether mastery over a stable or an unstable linguistic order).  The content is not a what but a free who:  linguistic operation has its goal and meaning outside of itself.  Barth sets up no analogy of being whereby we can discern (and hence regain control of) this linguistic transcendence (169, 173).  The presence of God within our words has no basis in these words but only in God’s freedom to be with us (through the Spirit, 181).  Therefore, the linguistic practice of the Church (it’s “grammar”) is an exercise in humility, weakness, and dependence:  without any guarantee that our words will actually become proclamation of the Word, we continue to speak our secular words, confident that God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus will redeem our words, since God has already brought all words inside of God’s Word, Jesus Christ.  Far from leading us to disparage our creaturely words, we can find new delight and pleasure in them, knowing that God is free to be with us (speak to us) in any word, and knowing that God only comes to us in the poverty of our own speech.  

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