Karl Barth on modern Biblicism: is it an Absolutism of the Enlightenment?
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Karl Barth

I found the following quotation from Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics I.2 on the problem of modern Biblicism. Biblicism may be described as the error of turning the excellent doctrine of sola scriptura of the Reformers into the erroneous idea of solo scriptura. It is also a distortion of sola scriptura, in turning the Bible into lifeless golden plates that descended from Heaven. The Bible is a divine witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ, and it is the highest authority and witness for all Protestants. In honest desires to praise and honor the Scriptures, and to emphasize its preeminent position in the Church, many Protestants make a false dichotomy between the Holy Scriptures and the tradition of the Church. And in the extreme cases, Biblicists receive Church History as if it were an enemy of the Holy Scripture, rather than a living witness to what the Holy Scripture witnesses too. 

Agree or disagree with Barth, I found this summary helpful to describe the problem. I've divided it into three part, the first contains the large print introduction, the second paragraph contains a definition of Biblicism and quotations from a 19th century biblicist, and the last paragraph as Barth's response to Biblicism. I recommend reading atleast the last paragraph, which I have made bold.

Barth introduces the problem of reading the bible in isolation and independently against all traditions and authorities:

To get to the root of this matter we have to be clear especially about this point. Holy Scripture in its divine authority speaks to each generation in the Church in the form of a definitely defined Canon. To that extent it speaks with human authority, the authority of the preceding Church. But similarly, it never speaks to any generation or individual in the Church alone, as the naked, written word which has come down to us. It speaks to us as to those who belong to the fellowship of the Church and have a place in its history. Most frequently, perhaps, it speaks externally not as the word written and read but as the word preached. But even as direct readers we cannot withdraw from our particular place in the Church which has baptised and instructed us, or from its witness with regard to the understanding of what we now undertake to read and understand. If Holy Scripture alone is the divine teacher in the school in which we find ourselves when we find ourselves in the Church, we will not want to find ourselves in this school of the Church without fellow-pupils, without cooperation with them, without the readiness to be instructed by older and more experienced fellow-pupils: as fellow-pupils, but to be instructed. And basically the older and more experienced fellow-pupil is simply the Church teacher. He is, in fact, older and more experienced in a qualified sense of the words. He is not only a son but a father in the Church. We have to be instructed by him. But the fact that he is so is something which can only happen. We have to treat it as a presupposition. Therefore if we are asked how we came to accept the existence of these teachers, we can only reply with a counter-question: how can we be members of the Church and obedient to the Word of God and not do so? What is sure is that the Church hears—and it is only as its members and not as spaceless and timeless monads that we hear the Word of God in Scripture. But if we hear it as members of the Church, then we also hear the Church, and therefore we do not hear the echo of the Word of God only or first of all in our own voice, but in the voice of others, those who were before us in the Church. All others, and all who were before us? No, not all, but those who according to the confession of the Church have spoken and still speak in such a way that others had and still have to listen to them. Those, then, in whose voice, according to the confession of the rest of the Church, we have to hear the Church’s voice, whom we have to hear therefore with the authority of the Church. Can we deny in principle the existence of these older and more experienced fellow-pupils, and therefore the ecclesiastical authority of particular teachers? Surely not in principle. And even in practice we could not do so without the danger and suspicion that the real concern of the self-glorifying which we enjoy as those who hear only the Word of God is a secret emancipation from a genuine hearing of the Word of God rather than the assertion of that Evangelical Scripture principle of which we perhaps make such ostentatious parade.

Barth uses Menken to embody an exemplify modern Biblicism with the following quotations from Menken's 19th Century Biblicism:

An interesting peripheral phenomenon of Neo-Protcstantism is the peculiar behaviour of the so-called Biblicism whose existence and character are strikingly presented in Gottfried Menken (1768–1831) of Bremen, a writer who has never received sufficient notice in dogmatic history. Even in his youth the characteristic complaint was made against Menken that it was “his obsession to try to construct his Christianity out of the Bible alone” (Gildemeister, Leben und Werke des Dr. G. Menken, 1861, II, 7). That is the more or less explicit programme of this modern Biblicism. “My reading is very limited yet very extended; it begins with Moses and ends with John. The Bible and the Bible alone I read and study” (ib. I, p. 21). He is not concerned with “what is old or new, with defending or attacking, with assent to the doctrine of any ecclesiastical party, with orthodoxy or heterodoxy, but only with the pure and genuine teaching of the Bible” (Schriften, 1858f. VII, p. 256). And the Church? Menken prefers to avoid the word. For him and for all modern Biblicists it is a question of “Christianity,” “reality” the “truth,” the “kingdom of God.” The Church is “the eternally pure possessor and preserver of the divine.” Yet only too often its doctrine has “come under the influence of a passing philosophy or the superstitiously venerated theology of the fathers” (Schriften VII, p. 264). “In any case, where is the Church? Is it in the East or the West? Does it gather under the staff of the ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople or under the threefold crown of the Pope at Rome? Finding no rest or portion in the world, did it long ago retire with the ancient Syrian Christians into the heart of Southern India or with the Waldenses into the valleys of Piedmont? In the fellowship of the Holy Ghost did it infallibly and irrevocably express itself at the Diet of Augsburg or at the Council of Trent or at the National Synod of Dort? Or finally is the true and perfect idea of Christian truth and doctrine to be found in the Idea fidei Fratrum? These few questions point to many things and embrace a large part of Christianity; but many different events, and systems and confessions and millions of Christians are outside their scope: Nestorians, Monophysites, Mennonites, Arminians, Jansenists, Mystics and Quakers; and many others, who all make claim to the name of the Christian Church and the treasure of Christian orthodoxy. These few questions are enough to show that, if we are not ignorant, or if after the customary manner and usage of sectarianism which becomes almost second nature, when we use the word Church we do not regard the confession of the Fathers and the sum total of those who agree with it as the only Christian fellowship in which true doctrine is to be found and to which alone, therefore, or primarily the name of Church belongs, it is not easy even to know what the Church believes and teaches. At an informative glance at so many different periods, countries, languages, systems, costumes and customs, at the confusion and tumult of so many different and contradictory and warring sects, at the medley of so many different confessions and catechisms, it seems difficult and almost impossible to find a standpoint where with insight and material truth we can say: I believe and teach what the Church believes and teaches” (Schriften VII, p. 238).

Barth's response to Menken is as follow: 

In these circumstances how can the Church have authority? “What is offered me as old is honoured by you as such only because it is found in a 16th-century catechism from the Palatinate or Saxony, or because an 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury or a 5th-century Bishop of Hippo thought in this way and formulated and determined the matter accordingly. But if you could add to these human authorities a greater one in the utterances of a 2nd-century Bishop of Lyons, which you cannot, it would not make any material difference. For it does not matter to me to learn how Ursin or Luther or Anselm or Augustine or Irenaeus thought about the matter and formulated and determined it—they and their decisions are too new. I want that which is old, original and solely authentic: Holy Scripture itself” (Schriften, VII, p. 263 f.). If these statements and arguments had been handed down without name or context, we might suppose that their author was of the Enlightenment instead of the passionate opponent of the Enlightenment which Menken actually was. And we find a similar agreement with Neo-Protestant anti-confessionalism in the later writer J. T. Beck, and partly too in Hofmann of Erlangen, and occasionally even in A. Schlatter. What does this agreement mean? We obviously have to ask whether here the Bible individually read and autonomously understood and expounded is not set up with the same sovereignty as others have exalted reason or feeling or experience or history as the one principle of theology? In this context does not the special treatment of the Bible—to the extent that it does not come under the relativism with which the Church is considered—take on something of self-glorification? Are we not dealing with a pious, but in its audacity no less explicitly modern leap into direct immediacy, with a laying hold of revelation, which, involving as it does a jettisoning of the fathers, although it purports to be a laying hold of the Bible, is perhaps something very different from the obedience of faith which only occurs when revelation lays hold of us by the word of the Bible? By nature is this absolutism of the Bible any different from that other absolutism which constituted the decisive characteristic of the spirit and system of the 18th century as it culminated in the Enlightenment? And can it be very different in its consequences? Will those who will have the Bible alone as their master, as though Church history began again with them, really refrain from mastering the Bible? In the vacuum of their own seeking which this involves, will they perhaps hear Scripture better than in the sphere of the Church? In actual fact, there has never been a Biblicist who for all his grandiloquent appeal directly to Scripture against the fathers and tradition has proved himself so independent of the spirit and philosophy of his age and especially of his favourite religious ideas that in his teaching he has really allowed the Bible and the Bible alone to speak reliably by means or in spite of his anti-traditionalism. On the contrary, in the very Neo-Protestant peculiarities which we find at crucial points especially in Menken but also in J. T. Beck, we are instructed that it is not advisable for serious students of Scripture so blithely to ignore the 16th century catechisms of the Palatinate and Saxony, or that 5th century Bishop of Hippo, or to refuse the guidance and correction afforded by the existence of Church fathers, as that biblicist programme involves. Otherwise there may be too easy and close an approximation to all kinds of other modern Titanisms. The Biblicism of the Reformers, as distinct from modern Biblicism, did not make this approximation because not in spite but in application of the Evangelical Scripture principle it kept itself free from this anti-traditionalism. J. A. Bengel, whose name is often mentioned in this context, showed at this point much greater wisdom than his more recent followers. Of course, we must not ignore but properly respect the fact that this modern Biblicism did find itself in a relative opposition to Neo-Protestantism generally. It did give a necessary reminder of the Evangelical Scripture principle and in its own way it made an effective modern application of it at a crucial period. By way of it some important and true exegetical discoveries were made, and its outstanding representatives had a great personal dignity. But again that cannot prevent us from definitely rejecting its procedure in relation to the fathers as a basically liberal undertaking, just as we reject the thoughtlessness and lack of respect shown by all Neo-Protestantism in this regard.

 -- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2, Section 20.2, pg607-609

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