The claim with which church proclamation steps forward and the expectation with which it is surrounded should not mislead us; it is always and always will be man’s word. It is also something more than this and quite different. When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 §3.2.
Karl Barth penned the above words in regard to Church proclamation. Proclamation (the preaching of the Word) in the context of a Christian community is the formative event. This is true to a lesser extent, for example, in Catholicism where the sacraments are the formative event. What has always set Protestants apart (and should continue to do so) is the primacy of proclamation. For, we hold that proclamation is not merely man’s (sic) word. It is, without a doubt man’s word and cannot cease to be so. Thus, in one sense proclamation of the Word is human service. However, there is another sense “when and where it pleases God” in which proclamation is God’s “own Word” to the community of believers. This is why proclamation is the event for Protestants. It is that moment when we are confronted by God’s own Word and beckoned to obey. Yet, in affirming this we all too often forget that proclamation is an act of human service. These are and “always will be” our words. And so, inevitably, we end up being far too trusting of our own words. They become God’s Word because we say so. God’s Word is unassailable, thus, our words become unassailable (A different example of a similar confusion might be a Toronto Police officer who assumes that the power granted him by the city gives him the sort of authority that permits him to kick the shit out of homeless folks. Here is a situation where the officer is clearly confused about the sort of authority granted to someone in his position).
To the degree that [proclamation is human service], it is not an unassailable action whose authenticity is assured. Like all human action it is exposed to the question of its responsibility…Thus it is precisely in terms of its origin and basis, of the being of the Church, that Church proclamation, and with it the Church itself, is assailed and called in question…Because it is God’s service that Church proclamation seeks to be, it is God Himself and God alone who asks here and to whom response must be made here. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 §3.2.
Because proclamation is a human action it is to be held to account. It must be exposed to the question of its responsibility (is it really the responsibility of Toronto police to kick the shit out of homeless folks? In light of the real responsibility of Toronto police these sorts of actions must be exposed and held to account). Because proclamation claims to be God’s Word which gives birth to and forms the Church it must be “assailed and called in question”. Now, this happens all the time of course. People “outside” or opposed to the Church call into question her proclamation and then some. Yet, for Barth, there is a louder and more terrifying voice which calls Church proclamation to account, namely, the voice of God. Because proclamation seeks to be God’s own Word, God Himself (and He alone) is the one who “asks here and to whom response must be made here.”
And so the Church is burdened with this great responsibility. Of continually submitting ourselves to God and willingly allowing Him to call our words which claim to be His Word into question. This is the burning responsibility of the Church (I hear Hauerwas here). If this self-critique ceases to be the burning issue for the Church, “if the Church with its proclamation can feel secure before God,” then other responsibilities become the burning issue for us. When this occurs, when we begin to feel “secure before God” in our proclamation and other responsibilities become the burning issue then all of the opposition to Church proclamation from state, society, culture etc. “though not intrinsically justifiable, will be legitimate in relation to the Church” and will indeed become necessary criticism of the Church in its failure to be the Church (oh hey, there’s Hauerwas again!).
Our main concern must be our own proclamation. We must be conscious of this responsibility and be “seriously concerned about it”. It has always struck me as odd what we get our feathers ruffled over. Be it homosexuality, small/big government, cultural dis/engagement etc. many sermons preached from pulpits and many conversations had between (mostly) comfortable Christian folks portray the Church as under attack. The gays! Big government! Evolution! We consider these all serious opponents. This, to me, betrays just how self-assured we are. For, as Barth notes, it is only an “unconcerned and self-assured Church”, which is not assailed at it’s own centre (proclamation), that views these “opponents” as at all serious opponents. In other words, our first and foremost concern ought to be submitting ourselves before the God who examines and calls into question our proclamation. The attacks we ought to be concerned with come not from man, but from God.
The Church should fear God and not fear the world. But only if and as it fears God need it cease to fear the world. If it does not fear God, then it is not helped at all but genuinely endangered if it fears the world, listens to its opposition, considers its attitudes, and accepts all kinds of responsibilities towards it, no matter how necessary and justified may be the criticism it receives from this quarter. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 §3.2.
This, I think, raises a whole host of questions about everything from apologetic ministries to Christian lobby groups and poses a challenge to liberal Protestants and Christian Re-constructionists alike. When we fear the world and it’s perceived attacks on Christianity perhaps this is because we have ceased fearing God. May we fear God instead and realize that there is no need to fear the world. We are never “genuinely endangered” by the criticism we receive from the world. Rather, if we indeed fear God then perhaps this criticism can serve as a help. Perhaps we may even recognize God’s voice in these alien voices and be reminded of the burden of our particular ministry and all of the promise it thus entails. The Church that submits herself to God has little energy to spend defending herself against perceived threats. Conversely, the Church with energy to spend defending herself against perceived threats loses sight of her call to submit to and fear God alone.
Drawing by this nudist.