As the Church accepts from Scripture, and with divine authority from Scripture alone, the attestation of its own being as the measure of its utterance, it finds itself challenged to know itself, and therefore even and precisely in the face of this foundation of all Christian utterance to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day.
-Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics 1.1.1.)
If you read this sentence from Barth’s Dogmatics with a keen eye, you will notice the deep density of it. Barth is squarely in the stream of Pauline thinking in that regard. One could reflect on this single sentence for days. There is more than I could hope to unpack here, but I want to sketch out a few points.
(1) A call for self-assessment: Barth is urging the church to be humble in her speech. He does so with this phrase (a phrase that frequently appears in his writings, though it takes various forms) – “the attestation of its own being as the measure of its utterance.” This is a way of awakening the church to the reality that our witness is only as meaningful as our action in the world. I am always mindful of Saint Francis’ saying, “Herald the gospel always, and, if necessary, you may even use speech!” Barth’s awareness of this concern is ubiquitous in his writing. I get the sense that he is aware of this need from both a cultural perspective (in terms of the cultures reaction to the kingdom), and from a biblical/theological perspective (what his contemporaries – like Bonhoeffer – would call a “concrete” witness). The idea is that when the church loses its own life as a measure of the faithfulness of her speech, then she runs the risk of have a life that is disconnected from her speech. Example – American culture doesn’t buy into so much of American Evangelical language about how God is loving, given that the church itself often models unloving actions toward the culture it speaks to.
(2) A call for humility: “…with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know…” How do Christians engage scripture – theology – language – mission – etc.? Barth’s recommendation here is that we do so with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know. I have to be honest, I see quite the opposite in contemporary Christian sub-cultures. There is very little admission of “not knowing”… well… anything. I have difficulty conjuring up a SINGLE MEMORY of a Christian saying “You know… I don’t know.” It seems we know everything. Yet it is painfully obvious we know very little – much like the rest of humanity. I think, in an effort to connect this point to the first one, we would do well to not say anything about anything we haven’t lived. And that is called humility.
(3) A call to “to-day”: It’s important to recognize that what we say about God is said to a particular time in history. There were different prophets for different times. David served his generation well and then entered his rest. Paul gospel speaking sounded different in Athens than in other cultures. And speech about God in 21st century America is and must be for “to-day.” This is different than being overly concerned with “relevance”. The Christian message is relevant in the sense that it seeks to redeem culture and orient it toward the aims of the kingdom. The Christian message is not relevant in the sense that it adapts itself thematically to the times. The gospel is always that the kingdom of God is now here, and that God has made reconciliation possible. The core question for speaking about God to-day is not “will this message be well received if we say it like that?” – rather, the core question is “What is the message of reconciliation, restoration and redemption for our time?” Those are very different questions. What the church is called to is to be a “counter-culture” – not to be relevant to culture. Counter-culture is often misunderstood. Counter-culture does not mean to be opposed to culture – quite the opposite. To be counter-culture means to be an alternative culture that celebrates all the God-bearing qualities of the host culture, but re-orients the brokenness around an alternative vision for human flourishing.
(Gabe Lyons articulates this idea of “Counter-cultural, not relevant” in his book “The Next Christians”. I strongly recommend reading it.)