Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth (Part One): The Threefold Word of God and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

As a Wesleyan studying systematic theology at Princeton, I am often asked why I am here. Particularly, my interest in Karl Barth seems peculiar to both my fellow Wesleyans and my Princeton colleagues. Honestly, I have been asking myself for years how these two worlds might congeal. So, here is the first installment of a non-consecutive three-to-five part series on what Wesleyans (or at least this Wesleyan) can learn from Karl Barth.

What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth
Part One: The Threefold Word of God and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Both those within and without the Wesleyan tradition are familiar with the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. The Quad was first lifted up by Albert Outler as a description of Wesley's eclectic use of sources and norms in his theology. From its inception, it was used as more than just a historical description of Wesley; it was offered as a normative method for establishing doctrine and guiding life.

As a method, the Quad has fallen on perennial hard times. Despite its initial attraction as a mediating and inclusive method, it unfortunately raises more questions than provides answers. How are these four entities to be related? Does one rule over the others? Are they sources or are they norms? Does the Quad affirm Sola Scriptura in any meaningful sense? Is there an ordering principle? All of these questions deserve answers, but this last one is particularly interesting to me. It comes up often when I have presented the Quad to others for the first time. Since I do not want to give up on the Quadrilateral entirely, I have long searched for a satisfactory understanding of the ordering of the four corners.

Enter Karl Barth. Barth's presentation of authority in theology is different than Wesley-via-Outler. Instead of a Quadrilateral, Karl Barth speaks of the threefold Word of God. There is one Word of God spoken to us and on which theology reflects. This one word of God can be found in three forms: (1) the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, (2) the written Word of the Bible, (3) the proclaimed Word of Christian preaching through the centuries up to and including today. At the most basic level, this is just a linguistic insight into the three things which are referred to by Christians as the "word of God." But at a deeper level, Barth has found a way to affirm Sola Scriptura in a complex manner so that the lordship of Jesus Christ himself over even his Scriptural witnesses while at the same time the Bible is not set aside but re-established on the sure ground of the incarnate Word of God. The living Lordship of Jesus means also that he continues to call witnesses today. So all three (Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the proclamation of the church in word and deed), are the one Word of God, differentiated, united, and in proper order. So theology is not concerned with one thing, two things, or four things, but attends to the one threefold Word of God in all its unity and richness.

I think Barth's Threefold Word of God can embrace the best insights of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral while at the same time helping it to answer the question of an ordering principle. The ordered, differentiated unity of the Threefold Word of God includes the eclecticism of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral without the usual confusion. First of all, the center would remain firm as the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Secondly, the written Word of Scripture can be rightly placed in the second ring in close proximity to Christ yet under his authority. Next, the proclaimed word of God through history (tradition) and today (experience) forms the third ring. Note that I am adjusting Barth's language (though not necessarily his substance) in ordered to include Wesley's "experimental Christianity" or "practical divinity", treating the lives of believers as a testimony to Jesus Christ's living Lordship. This embrace of the Quadrilateral within the Threefold Word of God presents the authorities in an ordered unity that affirms a complex approach to theology yet anticipates the question of priority.

Finally, one might note a conspicuously absent member of the Quadrilateral from this diagram: reason. Now, I am no irrationalist. I love to think clearly and rationally. But reason, sorry to say, is not really something you have, but something you use. It is not "there" like the God-human Jesus, or the text of Scripture, or the Church's proclamation in word and deed. So I have not left reason out as much as redefined it as something that is in play at any moment of theological reflection on the threefold Word of God. Once again, I am taking my cue here from Karl Barth. While on his first and only lecture tour of American, Karl Barth was asked by a young University of Chicago graduate student, "What is the status of reason in your theology?" Barth replied, "I use it."

Any Thoughts?
Is the Threefold Word of God a compelling presentation of theological authority?
Does it really help solve some of the problems inherent in the Quadrilateral?
Does it ruin something you like about the Quad?
Have you had any additional misgivings about the Quadrilateral?
Could the threefold Word of God help these matters too?


David Drury said...

Beautiful. Well done. {{{{applause}}}}

Thanks for the helpful paradigm in overlapping the diagrams, as it were. I would call this a "napkin-worthy" concept... in that it is visual, memorable, and easy to draw on a restaurant napkin to describe to someone over a conversation. I like.

For once I'll answer your questions instead of spouting off my own replies...

Is the Threefold Word of God a compelling presentation of theological authority?

-For me the most compelling part of this presentation is the fact that it centralizes Christ (giving a much more solid "hinge-point" to the Quad) and, equally compelling, it removes reason as a foundational item, which was always squeakily tempting to make the key hinge of the quad. Well done in showing it's proper role as a tool not revelation itself.

Does it really help solve some of the problems inherent in the Quadrilateral?

-Some of the problems = Yes.

Does it ruin something you like about the Quad?

-No: but I bet it will for those that always tipped the diamond up on it's reason corner... collapsing all four into some semblance of Reason is King. But we're all to Pomo for that these days, eh?

Have you had any additional misgivings about the Quadrilateral?

-My misgivings are more about the systematic theological paradigm solutions in the first place. I wonder if they all tend to break down when applied as "univeral field theories", used in extreme applications, or defended through a near-gymnastic use of random biblical texts. I suppose I have the same warning for the threefold Word of God if over-codified.

Could the threefold Word of God help these matters too?

-No. It's limited for me. Perhaps this concentric circles paradigm is best to *correct* other over-extensions than it is setting up some vast system of interpretation. In the end all is trumped, I suppose, by Christ. And Who is Christ?

Well, that's the question that will still leave us in conversation with whomever we meet.

Dan said...

I am a novice here, but does the center of the circle (the top priority for theologians) refer to the words/actions of Christ as recorded in scripture? If so, why is it a separate category? Doesn't it simply reiterate sola scriptura, emphasizing Christ's teachings as primary?

I have heard it described, "If one disagrees with the other, we go with Scripture." That is easy to say, but this really means "we go with MY understanding of Scripture." Sola Scriptura is easy on the surface but incredibly messy and difficult as we dig deeper. Not sure if Barth can help us out of this but I will wait to pass judgment. Not to say I have a better paradigm than Luther or anything.

I look forward to your further development of this topic. I'm no theologian, but it seems like we should shade the whole diagram gray to show the limits of our understanding. (especially my own)

Mike Langford said...

Nice. A few thoughts...

1) Regarding your notation of reason. If you are looking at sources of revelation, then I follow you in eliminating reason. However, if we take the Quad as norms or measures or "receivers" of revelation, then reason remains one of the four, probably. Further, left-wing postmodernists would say that NONE of the four corners of the Quad are "out there"; just like reason, Scripture and experience and tradition all reside as interpretive frameworks within our skulls. THere is no raw data or, for our purposes, raw revelation. But I agree with your take.

2) I am not sure we can so cleanly identify tradition and experience with Barth's Word proclaimed. KB is mostly talking about preaching. But if we expand his understanding of "Word proclaimed" to embrace how people in the past and present receive the "spoken" direction of the Spirit, then we're OK. But, of course, while the Spirit speaks surely in preaching, it also speaks through sacrament, koinonia, prayer, etc.

Good stuff.

James B. said...

I appreciate the diagram and think this is a compelling presentation, but I am not sure it eliminates or diffuses all of the quads problems. A prof of mine, gave the the example of the quad as a stool (just like the diagram, illustrations help me out) with scripture being the foundation (floor) and history, experience and reason are the legs of the stool and doctrine was seat. I am not sure if that is any better.
We seem to pick and chose which "leg" or corner to stand upon based upon our need. I like the fact with the 3 fold, Christ is the central and non-wavering foundation upon which everything is built upon.

I am waiting to read your next issue. In addition, was there or is there a Barth theologian at PTS which was once a Nazarene or Wesleyan and graduated from NTS? Do you have a name, or is this a myth?

ap said...

john, i agree with your brief consideration of reason as a tool to consider the other sources. chuck gutenson suggested that perhaps reason could be understood as the "colour" one applies to the diagram. just a thought.

Aaron said...

Dan- my understanding of barth is limited at best. However my understand of him is that the incarnate word is number 1. What scripture reveals to us about him is number 2. H. Orton Wiley actually says that as well.

1)Is the Threefold Word of God a compelling presentation of theological authority?

Yes it is. I think as evangelicals (and not fundamentalists) this is a great thing that shows the living word is above the written word.

2) Does it really help solve some of the problems inherent in the Quadrilateral?

I don't know, I guess I've always seen the quad as how we make up our own theology, not so much as which one is more athoratative than the other?

3)Does it ruin something you like about the Quad?

NOt that I'm aware of ... I like how reason is acknowledged as a part, but not clung to.

4) Have you had any additional misgivings about the Quadrilateral?
Could the threefold Word of God help these matters too?

I don't think so, perhaps I haven't thought about it enough, but I kinda like it.

Ken Schenck said...

My reformulation of the Quadrilateral (as you know) is into a trilateral of Scripture, Spirit, and the Church. I take it from the perspective of me as a knower (since I can't adopt any other perspective) and thus the question the trilateral answers is how we can know theological truths (in a broad sense).

Reason and experience are both always presupposed as unavoidable channels of inputting truth. The Spirit of Christ is the most direct avenue through which truth might be inputted. Scripture itself as text is polyvalent and has no fixed meaning until I specify a context against which to read its words. As Christian it is a three-fold sacrament (first context, canonical context, Spirit context). The church is a primary medium of the canonical context.

My model...

David Drury said...

I confess, Ken, I had to look that one up:

pol·y·va·lent . adj.

1. Acting against or interacting with more than one kind of antigen, antibody, toxin, or microorganism.

Ken Schenck said...

One of the lesser known properties of Scripture.... :0

Phil Harrold said...

In your outer ring of tradition and experience Barth might take issue, given his tendency to equate tradition with 'religion,' which is that self-justifying world of man that must be abolished.

How does 'tradition' as you understand avoid the trappings of 'religion' as Barth defines it?

See esp. Ch. II, Part III, #17-- The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.

Phil Sumpter said...

This one word of God can be found in three forms: (1) the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ

Isn't the point that the first "form" isn't a form but is the substance itself, whereas the other two mediate it? But then, I don't get how how they can all be called a unity.

This is probably obvious, but I'm new to Barth.