Edmond La B. Cherbonnier

Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Religion (Vol. XXXIII, January 1953, Number 1) published by the University of Chicago Press, copyright 1953 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

     0ne aspect of the current impetus toward a return to the Bible as the foundation and norm of theology has been the attempt to develop what theology has too often neglected: a method appropriate to its content - one which would provide a third alternative to fundamentalist literalism, on the one hand, and speculations derived from the presuppositions of some philosophy, on the other. Efforts in this direction have begun to bear fruit in a revitalization of the conception of the “word of God” as the special avenue through which the Bible may be apprehended in its uniqueness and distinctiveness, and apart from which its revelation remains inaccessible. The present inquiry proposes to consider three questions relating to the so-called “theology of the word of God”: What distinctive characteristics render it advantageous and even indispensable to a biblical theology? What criticisms are currently being raised against it? And, finally, in what direction might a resolution of currently outstanding disagreements be sought?


     The following are four of the various marks which distinguish a “theology of the word” and set it over against other theological methods. The first three all serve to guard against the man-made gods, the idols, which so frequently infiltrate Christian thinking, whether the rigid, strait-jacketed god of biblical literalism or the gods made to fit human specifications by the speculative imagination - gods constructed on the basis of the reasoning process, or mystical contemplation, or the moral conscience, or aesthetic sensitivity, or pious sentiments. None of these gods can hide the trademark of his particular manufacturer, and each is a far cry from the “high and holy One of Israel.” The fourth serves to restore to Christianity the life-and-death relevance which so distinguished it in the early centuries and which it has so largely lost in modern times.

     1. The general subordinated to the singular and unique. Perhaps no single aspect of speculative theology has come under heavier attack from the “theology of the word” than the sacred cow of Greek and German philosophy - the general concept. For if general concepts are given free reign, they very soon usurp the place of God himself in one of two ways: either God is subsumed under some higher generalization (as, for example, in Meister Eckhardt’s conception of Gottheit, “divinity-in-general,” which is prior to God) or-and the two tendencies are often concomitant-the word “god” is


transferred to this "highest," most inclusive of all possible concepts, as in the countless philosophies, and even theologies, which equate "god" with "Being-as-such" (cf. Paul Tillich's "God above God"). Whatever impression such a "god" may make, declares Karl Barth, is in fact merely the impression made upon himself and his followers by the philosopher's own powers of invention and abstraction. That such a "god" is merely the projection upon the heavens of the end result of the process of ratiocination, a sophisticated product of human concoction, is cogently testified by the simple fact of its constant recurrence, in strikingly similar form, throughout the thought of both Orient and Occident.

     On these grounds, Barth looks with suspicion upon any theology dominated by the assumption that the most universal is the most real, fearing that it will in the end make a captive of God. He seeks to preclude the infiltration of any such tendencies into his own theology by avoiding all appeal to general truth and taking instead as his starting point the word of God. For a spoken word is a single, unrepeatable event, never to be exactly duplicated. At the opposite pole from abstract generalization, a word is something which happens, here and now, once for all (ephapax). It is, as Barth says, concretissimum. What classical philosophy regards as an offense to the intellect becomes in Christianity a positive desideratum. The Greeks, like most practitioners of the fine art of philosophic abstraction, are embarrassed by the singular and unique because it confronts with an "irrational" recalcitrance the pure universals with which reason is exclusively concerned. The biblical attitude, on the other hand, is exactly the reverse. The very "irrationality" whereby the spoken word defies reduction to any preconceived category delivers it from the paralyzing clutch of the all-devouring general concept. The Bible's central category, freedom, which would be eliminated if reality could be exhaustively comprehended under rational concepts, is preserved and emphasized by a "theology of the word." What traditional philosophy derides as the "scandal of particularity" is thus the sine qua non of biblical religion. As an event-in-time (in contrast to the static timelessness of the universal), the "word" is something which is brought-into-being, an expression of the creative freedom of the speaker. On account of this dynamic quality, it is never completely calculable in advance, and, by virtue of this element of unpredictability, it defies subsumption under arty general heading. To the philosopher who would evolve out of his own mental processes a ready-made description of God, it says, in effect, "Be still and listen. If God in his freedom is to be known at all, it can never be through preconceived ideas but only through his freely spoken word."

     2. Decision and purpose restored to God. - A second way in which speculative theology tends toward idolatry is its inability to grant to the gods of its creation an independent will or purpose. Indeed, the most thoroughgoing of the philosophers, from Aristotle to Spinoza, have not hesitated to deny that God wills anything at all. For if he did, they argue, it would imply a lack in God - and everybody knows that, as the repository of all fulness and perfection, God can lack nothing. Therefore there remains nothing for him to will. The conclusion from this argument has been that, if God causes anything to happen at all, he does so in sublime indifference, with no care or concern for the result. History is then conceived, as in Hinduism, as a mere sport of the gods, and a cruel one at that. The result is, of


course, that while these gods are thus stripped of the power of free decision as being "beneath" them, their creators retain it! As free agents they are able to exercise a covert dominion over the gods they profess to worship. Relative to these prefabricated deities, it is they who are "gods"!

     All this is obviously remote from the religion of the Bible, whose God not only laments, pleads, angers, loves, but actually takes action toward the ends which he wills. Surely it is beyond cavil that these two gods are irreconcilable with each other - that a man is obliged to choose between the indifferent, impassible, unmoved god of so much speculation (and religion) and the God who not only has a will for men but is himself an agent acting upon and even within their history.

     Nothing is more distinctive of such a God than that he speaks. For speech is at the same time both the expression of the will of the speaker and a specific, directed act itself. Theologians are showing increased appreciation of this close interdependence of word and deed; for example, they are much less inclined to cut the gospel narratives in two, to separate the preaching of Jesus from his actions. And likewise, with regard to the Bible as a whole, they regard it as an indissoluble unity consisting of both the word and the mighty acts of God in strict correlation with each other. Without action mere words are ineffectual; without words, the purpose of an act can remain obscure - just as I am apt to misconstrue a slap on the cheek until I am told there was a poisonous insect there. It is noteworthy that in cases where God's word and act actually coalesce, where his spoken word is itself efficacious, as in the account of creation ("Let there be light," etc.), the resulting compound is still referred to as speech. A God who wills and acts is thus pre-eminently a God who speaks and whose freedom of action is preserved and' emphasized by a "theology of the word of God."

     3. No independent derivation of the content of revelation. - A third clue to the existence of a covert idolatry in any theology is provided by the question, "Can its content be derived independently from some other source, apart from revelation?" Any "god" whose attributes man could discover on his own investigations, as he has in fact found out the secrets of nature, would simply no longer be God. If man can "pluck out the heart of his mystery," whether by scientific researches, metaphysical speculation, moral intuition, or mystic contemplation, then in fact it is man who is "god." For knowledge is power, and whatever can be known by man is ultimately at the disposal of man, just as the loss of nature's secrets has served to put her in his mastery. Indeed, the fact that the phrases "to master" and "to grasp" can also mean "to know" implies (like the Greek episteme) that to understand thoroughly is to have power over.

     Consequently, just as one's knowledge of another person depends upon what he does and says, and is not otherwise accessible, so also, if we are to "let God be God," must our knowledge of his will wait upon his initiative. The content of such knowledge is neither discoverable by any human effort or derivable from any other source. In the very nature of the case it must be revealed by his "word." This, says Karl Barth, is to thrust home the bolt against any Platonic doctrine of "recollection," according to which the truth of God is the deepest truth within ourselves. A theology based on such a doctrine, he maintains, boils down to no more than a monologue with


one's self. It never really gets beyond its starting point: man's own consciousness. Any revelation worthy of the name, on the contrary, would have to come to man from beyond himself. And this is precisely what a "theology of the word" allows for: not a monologue with one's self but a dialogue with an "other." Martin Buber's development of the concept of dialogue has revivified and magnified for the twentieth century Martin Luther's appreciation of the biblical emphasis on hearing as the medium of knowledge of God, in contrast to the visual metaphors so preferred by philosophers and mystics. The ear, even more than the eye, is the organ through which I receive the kind of knowledge which I could never derive on my own resources: knowledge of another self and his will. In speaking to man, God reveals what must otherwise have remained hidden, and in fact has so largely remained hidden, outside biblical faith.

     As a corollary to the underivability of revelation, Barth maintains, if we are to prevent the fabrications of human fancy from usurping the place of God, we must stipulate explicitly that revelation not be judged according to standards imported ab extra as criteria. The proper procedure is in fact the reverse: it is not man who sits in judgment upon the word of God, but rather man who is judged by the Word. It is therefore the Word which must be the starting point and ultimate criterion in theology.

     4. The Bible made inescapably relevant. - Finally, the renovation of the concept of the word of God stems the tide of irrelevance which was engulfing the Bible and recovers its crucial significance for the destiny of each and every man. One no longer has to do with an academic religion, to be learned by rote from a divine textbook, or with a scheme of rational propositions about the universe interlarded with high-sounding platitudes, moral exhortations, or saccharine sentiment - all of which could either be tailored to suit the fancy of the individual or simply abandoned altogether. Instead, every man is confronted by the word of God, spoken directly to him in his own concrete situation, and demanding a response in terms of decision - a life-and-death decision for or against God himself. As Martin Buber has put it so vividly, God's question, "Adam, where art thou?" is addressed anew and inescapably to every human being.

     When the religion of the Bible is thus transposed back into its original form, that of a dynamic and dramatic encounter between an initiating God and reluctant men who try to flee from his presence, then the attempt to reduce Christianity to a set of rational propositions, and to reduce God to "Being-itself," actually appears to represent one of man's more sophisticated efforts to evade this encounter. For to render biblical religion in such an impersonal (and therefore subpersonal) way is effectively to neutralize it. It becomes something which I can hold at arm's length, analyze, and evaluate. I can take it or leave it. And, conversely, the one thing I cannot do vis-a-vis the Word directed to me personally is to sidestep it. Confronted with the summons, "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve," I may not remain on neutral ground. Any attempt to ignore the alternatives constitutes by default a decision against God.

     Seen in this context, many key biblical words which had become watered down and meaningless suddenly regain their impact. "Responsibility," for example; which otherwise may have been at best no more than a vague "responsibility-in-general," or "accountability to one's


self," now regains the only secure basis which it can ever have: responsibility to someone - to the God who seeks out each man and calls him by name. The decisions and actions of which my life consists, whose significance is otherwise more and more dubious, now become charged and laden with meaning, standing as they do in an immediate, direct, positive-and/or-negative relation to the will of God. Similarly, the promises of God, formerly exchanged for a precarious conjecture that somehow the universe must know what it is about, now acquire the reality of a person-to-person pledge, a promise to men by him alone whose word is wholly trustworthy. In like manner, God's judgment and wrath (which for a time seemed all but forgotten), his mercy and love (which were caricatured as "pie in the sky bye and bye") - these and other aspects of the relation of the biblical God to the believing community recover their decisive power and fateful significance. Apprehended in terms of the actual, purposive initiative of a Living God toward men about whom he is concerned, they again become alive and vibrant. Through the "theology of the word" they become "existential."


     Despite these strong assets of a "theology of the word," however, it has not met with unanimous acceptance. On the contrary, it continues to encounter the strongest resistance. In addition to its rejection as merely a "new modernism" from the side of biblical literalism, it has also come under attack from two other quarters: first, from those who detect the very grave (though perhaps unnecessary) difficulties which its defenders have created for themselves - difficulties which will be examined in Section III - and, second, from proponents of a theology more in keeping with traditional metaphysics. The present section will consider the criticisms made by two outspoken representatives of this school: Austin Farrer and Paul Tillich.

     1. Austin Farrer and the theory of images. - A dissent to the "theology of the word" is registered by the Anglican, Austin Farrer, an acknowledged admirer of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who maintains that by a rational investigation of nature the creature can gain a natural knowledge of the Creator. His principal objection is that it is impossible to construct a theology, as Barth would do, by making explicit what is implicit in the Scriptures. The attempt to put the content of revelation into words is foredoomed "to fall into absurdity at the first inferential step,"1 for the words of the Bible are in hopeless conflict with one another. Consequently, any theological implication of the Bible "can be determined only by a subtle and risky construction of inferences."2 Instead of engaging in debates over what the Bible means, debates which, he is convinced, must remain forever inconclusive, Farrer proposes another method; namely, the study of what he calls the "sacred images" revealed in the Bible, such as the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, or the Kingdom of God, which "set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching."3 Theology is therefore the analysis and criticism of these images.

     Furthermore, in addition to this more technical criticism, Farrer adduces another from personal experience. It seems that for many years he himself did wait for some manifestation of the word of God, either in scripture or in prayer, but without issue.


     No "other" stood beside me, no shadow of presence fell upon me .... And this is why, when the Germans set their eyeballs and pronounce the terrific words, "He speaks to thee" (Er redet dich an), I am sure, indeed, that they are saying something, but I am still more sure that they are not speaking to my condition.4

      In reply to these objections, it is fairly safe to say that Farrer has not adequately represented what is meant by the "theology of the word." He refers to it most often as a "mental colloquy," which is precisely the subjective interpretation which it sets out to avoid. As a guaranty of objectivity, and insurance against the possibility of a mere monologue with self, it signifies precisely that which must come to man, underivably, from beyond himself. Farrer's second objection to the "theology of the word," the more personal one that he has never succeeded in hearing it, is probably due in part to this misunderstanding; that is, he may well have been listening for the wrong thing. But besides that, although failure to hear the Word might indeed raise some valid questions, it by no means constitutes in itself a refutation of a theology based upon the Word. On the contrary, the objectivity of the Word, and the freedom of him who speaks it, would require at least the possibility of its being withheld. Barth underscores this point by reference to the prophecies of Amos (8:11) and Micah (3:6) concerning the "famine of hearing the words of the Lord," when there shall be "no answer from God."5 Prophecies like these, emphasizing as they do the indissoluble connection between man's hearing the Word and the will of him who speaks it, make Farrer's objection difficult to sustain.

     It remains to inquire whether the "theology of images," with which he seeks to replace the "theology of the word," may not contain grave difficulties of its own. The issues become clear when he allows that the object of faith is naturally not the images themselves but rather the reality beyond them, to which they point. The question then arises: Is it possible to say anything about this reality, or must we remain content to apprehend it simply by gazing at the images? This question presents the theory with the horns of a dilemma. For if the answer is that the reality behind the images can be expressed in words, then ipso facto the spoken word has been reinstated as the basis of revelation, thereby rendering the images unnecessary. Consequently, for the sake of consistency, Farrer attempts to take the other horn of the dilemma, to maintain that the content of revelation is contained in the images alone and may not be translated into words: "Images. . cannot be decoded, but must be allowed to signify what they signify of the reality beyond them."6

     This is the position which he must take if he is to save his theory of images. However, the implications of such a position are so grave that in actual fact he withdraws from it step by step until finally, out of fidelity to biblical faith, he has in fact left his theory behind. His retreat begins with the recognition that, if there is no verbal parallel to what, the images represent, revelation is then at the mercy of fantasy without limit. One man's interpretation of images is as valid as any other. There is no touchstone by which it may be tested. Anglican theology being the last place one would expect endorsement of such a chaotic state of affairs, Farrer accordingly modifies his conception of theology. He recognizes that if "theology is the analysis and criticism of the revealed images," if "theology tests and determines the sense of the images,"7 the images are thereby subor-


dinated to the word. That is, theology says what they do mean and what they do not mean. One is not free to interpret them according to fancy. In his insistence on this point, Farrer even grants that at least some images can be translated without loss into language,8 acknowledging with disarming ingenuousness that this contradicts some of his prior assertions.9 With this concession, an impasse has been reached. For if, after all, images can be translated into speech, what is the criterion which determines whether such a translation is accurate? The answer is that in the theory of images there is simply no room for such a criterion, and he is consequently driven from one ad hoc expedient to another in search of one. One of the escape routes which he tries is the statement that all speech is metaphorical and that therefore speech itself is made up of images.10 But this would only mean that the distinction between the "theology of the word" and the "theology of images" is abolished - that the two are, after all, reduced to the same thing. Elsewhere he appears to give up the ghost with the observation that all human knowledge of the infinite is but nonsense anyway.11 And, finally, still in search of a criterion by which the revealed images might be tested, he appeals in desperation to natural theology: "Natural theology, then, provides a canon of interpretation which stands outside the particular matter of revealed truth."12 At this point the dead end has been reached, and Karl Barth's trap has been sprung.

     From this analysis of Austin Farrer's ingenious but finally abortive attempt to replace a "theology of the word" with visual images as the primary medium of Christian truth, the conclusion may be drawn that the biblical revelation could be apprehended through images only on one condition - that God had embodied his revelation, not in words, but in a book of pictures. Is the fact that he has not done so only accidental or, on the contrary, is it of the highest significance for the understanding of both man and God that he has in fact revealed himself by his Word?

     2. Paul Tillich and the theory of symbols. - Not only has criticism of a "theology of the word" come from an Anglican position, but from within the Lutheran tradition itself it has been branded by Paul Tillich as the "Protestant pitfall." His argument takes the form of a question which he hopes will confront the "theology of the word" with two equally unpalatable alternatives: "Is ‘word,’ "he asks, "to be understood literally, as a word which is actually spoken, or has it a more inclusive meaning?" If it is not taken strictly literally, if it is "used with such a wide meaning that every divine self-manifestation can be subsumed under it," then, he concludes, it loses its significance, for "the specific sense of the term ‘word’ is lost."13 But the alternative is equally embarrassing. Suppose that "word" is taken literally. In that case, he argues, "God is thereby prevented from any nonvocal self-manifestation," and this would "contradict the meaning of God's power.”14 It thus appears equally awkward to interpret "word" literally or figuratively.

     Finally, noting that "theologians of the word" do in fact understand it in a more restricted, literal sense, Tillich complains against this as an "overintellectualization" of revelation which was foreign to the early church. He then makes the startling proposal that this danger can be avoided only if the phrase "word of God" is understood, not as a spoken


word, but as logos in the Greek sense - a usage which he contends was originally applied as a weapon against intellectualization.15

     When these three objections are considered in turn, the first turns out to be far less damaging to the "theology of the word" than to Tillich himself. For although the former does indeed expand the meaning of "word" so that it refers to the person of Christ, it does not allow it to become so diluted as to include everything and to lose thereby its specific character. On the contrary, it is Tillich's conception of the "word" as logos which accomplishes this. It becomes "the all-embracing principle of the divine selfmanifestation,"16 the "necessary element in all forms of revelation."17 Since for him everything "participates in the Ground of Being," and since there is consequently "no difference between a stone and a person in their potentiality of becoming bearers of revelation,"18 it is evidently his own use of "word of God," rather than Barth's, which stretches the phrase to include everything.

     Having sought to convict the "theology of the word" of too great an inclusiveness in his first objection, Tillich chastises it for its exclusiveness in the second. The superiority of his own use of "word" in the sense of logos, he maintains, rests precisely on the ground that it is more all-embracing than the literal sense and hence does not restrict God to a single pre-eminent medium of revelation. But is it self-evident that inclusiveness is of itself a valid criterion for judging between these two uses? Upon what basis is this merely quantitative standard adopted? Might not the medium of revelation depend upon the kind of God who is revealed? In the case of a God who is discriminating and selective, for example, a God who judges, certain media might be qualitatively more adequate than others. And this is precisely what the "theology of the word" takes into account. When Tillich insists, in the interest of God's freedom and power, that all objects must be potential bearers of revelation, he is in fact denying to God the power of choice and discrimination. If God is not free to choose and select, just how free is he? The very exclusiveness for which he reproaches the "theology of the word" thus proves to be the safeguard of God's freedom.

     Third, Tillich's argument that the "theology of the word" represents an "overintellectualizing" which his logos usage prevents is indeed astounding. For he himself repeatedly emphasizes that logos refers to the "rational character of mind and reality."19 His attempt to combine these two apparently incompatible statements rests upon one single argument: that, for the Greeks, the goal of intellectual endeavor was "union with the unchangeable" and that this "mystical element" proves that metaphysics is "existential" rather than sheerly intellectual.20 The key to this argument is the word "existential." While there is some ground for using it together with "mystical," as though the one entailed the other, confusion is apt to arise if it is not also recognized that in addition to this mystical variety there is also a second kind of existentialism which must be sharply distinguished from it. What both kinds have in common, that which justifies their both being labeled "existentialism," is their mutual estimate of freedom (and its exercise) as the problem of human existence. The irreconcilable difference between them lies in their respective answers to this problem. For the first kind, freedom itself is a curse, from which


the only escape is the annulment of selfhood in the mystic ecstasy of "union with the unchangeable." For biblical existentialism, on the contrary, freedom in itself is a blessing, and salvation consists in the fulfilment of selfhood through the conquest of its abuse (sin). By not taking note of this crucial distinction, Tillich leaves the impression that logos-mysticism is "existential" in the biblical sense and therefore not intellectualistic. The fact of the matter, however, is exactly the reverse. Great mystics of, all times have emphatically insisted that their position rested upon the most rigorous logical grounds - upon what the consequences are if reality corresponds to the requirements of logic, if "thought and Being are one."21 Consequently, if logic issues in mysticism, what this proves is not that logos is not intellectualistic but that mysticism is.

     The complaint of intellectualism against the "theology of the word" is thus one which boomerangs. For it, the "word" is primarily the expression, not of reason alone, but of free will. Tillich's failure to appreciate this reflects the general absence from his theology of either self or will. Of this deficiency there could be no more appropriate illustration than his own analysis of the concept "word." According to him, the entire content of words is exhaustively divisible into two components: the "denotive," in which the general is conveyed, and the "expressive," in which personal states of feeling are communicated.22 The first finds its pure form in an algebraic equation, the second in an outcry. Having thus reduced "the word" to these two categories, he thereby excludes from it precisely what the "theology of the word" regards as primary. For what Yahweh says to Israel can be comprehended in terms neither of algebra nor of an animal cry, but of will.

     Finally, it remains to examine Tillich's alternative to the "theology of the word": his religious symbolism. According to this theory, as already suggested, anything at all can become a medium of revelation, in the sense that it can become "transparent to the Ground of Being." The spoken word merely takes its place alongside all other objects, not only enjoying no primacy, but possibly even suffering a handicap, in view of the visual metaphors in which a doctrine of symbolism is regularly expressed. The reality beyond the symbols, as in the case of Austin Farrer's theory of images, is ineffable. Unlike Farrer, however, Tillich refuses any compromise of his theory for the sake of a criterion for the interpretation of the images. He sticks to the primacy of images and symbols as against the discriminative capacity of the spoken word. But this is not the end of the matter. Indeed, a study of his theology is nowhere more rewarding than at the point where he attempts consistently to avoid applying such a criterion to the symbols. For by a subtle irony the very principle of discrimination which he consciously and explicitly rejects can be detected silently at work in his theology after all. While according to the theory all symbols are equal in their revelatory potential, it turns out nevertheless that some symbols are in fact regarded as "more adequate" than others. Why, for example, is "lordship" more adequate than "Lord," "fatherhood" than "Father," "divine life" than "Living God"? In every case the general term is preferred to the particular, a preference which culminates in the one word which is held to be most adequate to God, the most general of all abstractions, Being-itself. Be-


hind the explicit attempt to let all symbols speak for themselves, there thus lurks the implicit and contrary principle that the most general is the most "godlike." The end result is not only a theology whose "god" bears scant resemblance to the Lord of Hosts but which finally forfeits the very logical consistency in whose name such a "god" was posited in the first place. In this respect it contrasts sharply with that of Austin Farrer, who is quite willing to abandon theoretical consistency in search of some criterion by which the images could be tested, illustrating thereby the undoubted British genius for arriving at a sensible position by a reasoning which appeared to lead in the opposite direction. A unified theology has to succeed in both respects: it has not only to define and consolidate a biblical position but also to establish and develop the total world view which it implies.


     The foregoing expedition into the territory of the opponents of the "theology of the word" has apparently ended in success. Not only do their criticisms miss the mark but their proposed alternatives either break down under the strain of incompatibility with the biblical God or else replace him with a god of a different sort. On the positive side, the "theology of the word" boasts four distinct assets: it precludes the subsumption of God under any general concept; it provides for the freedom of God by waiting for his Word, instead of manufacturing him in accordance with some preconceived pattern; it prevents both the derivation of Christianity from any independent source and its subjection to any alien criterion; and it restores the existential relevance of Christianity for every individual.

     However, such a black-and-white presentation of the case, intended to elucidate by abstraction the issues at stake, necessarily distorts somewhat the actual status of current theological discussion. Far from siding definitely with one camp or the other, many theologians have strong reservations concerning the "theology of the word" without subscribing to the alternatives proposed by its antagonists, while others who are sympathetic toward it are dismayed by some of the pronouncements of its protagonists. Reactions to it include different shades of opinion, considerable honest doubt, and no little confusion.

     1. The key to the problem: the nature of God. - Is a resolution of this present state of indecision possible? If so, in what direction is it to be sought? Throughout the preceding discussion there was one recurring issue which continually emerged as the key to the situation, providing at once both its explanation and its possible resolution. It is this issue which is now suggested as the fundamental one upon which a "theology of the word" stands or falls: the question of the nature of God. Is God "wholly other" than man? If so, then only negatives may be applied to him. Or is he the most universal, the most all-embracing essence? If so, we must call him "Being-itself," the "Absolute." Or is he a God who speaks? In that case, the truest words which can be applied to him, by analogy, derive from the only other realm of our experience in which we encounter true speech. Truer than anything else which might be said about a God who speaks, and certainly truer than saying nothing at all, is the frankly anthropomorphic conception of God as a free agent, a self, a Person.


     Philosophers generally, and theologians after them, have instinctively reacted against such expressions as these on the grounds of blasphemy and idolatry. They have sought instead to use more "exalted" and "sublime" words for God, such as "Infinite," "Unconditioned," "Absolute." But the simple question remains: Is the "Infinite" compatible with the kind of God the Bible is talking about? Can the "Unconditioned" speak? Can the "Absolute" judge, forgive, promise, love? Some theologians have attempted to answer these questions in the affirmative. Austin Farrer, for example, is quite certain that Aristotle regarded Being-as-such, the theos of his metaphysics, as persona123 - a suggestion which Aristotle himself would most certainly have regarded as blasphemous. And Paul Tillich tries to maintain that the "personal element" is subsumed in Being-itself.24 But is not the uniquely and distinctively personal precisely that which defies subsumption? Does not that which makes the free agent free ipso facto prevent his reduction to any general concept? A burning question for contemporary theology may well be the question whether, in their very zeal to elevate God above the mundane, theologians have not all too often reduced him to the sub-personal and the unfree. Certainly this question is paramount for the "theology of the word." For the "word" without a speaker is stripped of all the advantages established in its support. It becomes merely another theological catch phrase, and a misleading one at that, as the following paragraphs illustrate.

     2. Unnecessary difficulties created by "theologians of the word." - Despite its crucial importance, however, "theologians of the word" have not only hesitated to raise this question but by their reluctance to do so have in fact contributed to the prevailing confusion. Their anxiety not to be caught in the act of "speculating" has betrayed them into an uncritical doctrine of God which in fact undercuts their whole case. The classic illustration of this unfortunate tendency occurs in the theology of Karl Barth himself. His fatal misstep, the one which colors all his thinking, arises from his very ardor to protect the freedom of God and to insure revelation against the possibility of man's deriving it independently. If this is to be done thoroughly and without reservation, he maintains, it requires that knowledge of God be alien to man. Uncompromising insistence on the complete discontinuity of the Word with anything in human experience, radical rejection of any Anknüpfungspunkt between God and man - these have become the cornerstone of Barth's theological method: the denial of any analogy between human words and the content of divine revelation. This unwarranted, unsubstantiated, unbiblical assumption provides the clue to the recurring embarrassments which beset his theology, notably its infiltration by Gnostic presuppositions. In spite of his emphasis upon the "otherness" of God, upon the total gulf between God and man, or rather, precisely because of this emphasis, God is in fact not set free at all but put in chains! He is so bound by the "divine no" that he is not permitted to utter the "divine yes." Karl Barth knows a priori what God "must" be like (or unlike). He does not leave God free to break out of this preconception and confound it. The result is a theology which capitulates at many points to the very mystical metaphysic which it decries.25

     When a "theology of the word" is thus deprived of a Speaker in any recognizable sense, the Word is progressively emptied of its content, and all its above-men-


tioned assets begin to wither away. Although Barth does insist upon the centrality of such biblical key words as "Lord," "decision," "person," "history," he constantly invokes his rubric forbidding any such analogies and is forced by it to add that these words do not mean what they seem to. They have a different meaning when used theologically. In fact, he says, the content of revelation is "irreproducible in human language, and therefore insusceptible of adequate expression in human language."26 The inexorable logic of such a position leads to the further assertions that revelation is ineffable, indeterminate, inconceivable, absolute, unconditioned?27 It is even contrary to the human words in which it is cloaked, or concealed - so irrelevant to them that the biblical message might just as well have been delivered through a dead dog !28

     The net effect of these statements is that the word has been rarefied into a sort of theological Ding an sich. It is an ironic paradox that Barth's theology should have forsaken its hopeful beginnings and at some points shriveled into a dry scholasticism. The very Barth who so declaims against philosophy and reason frequently comes out with a highly rationalistic conception of the "word" which does actually resemble logos after all.29 Revelation is conceived more and more as the communication of divine truth, which it is the sole duty of the church simply to proclaim. Faith, too, acquires a correspondingly noetic connotation: it consists simply in the acknowledgment of what is revealed, scarcely distinguishable at times from mere intellectual assent to dubious propositions. It turns out finally to be a "point of view!30

     As the advantages of a "theology of the word" are thus progressively surrendered, Barth is driven by the logic of his position explicitly to repudiate any such advantages. Indeed, as far as human understanding can discern, there are nothing but disadvantages to revelation by the "word." It has no significance for the nature of God, or man, or the relation between them. It is a sort of unpalatable pill which man must swallow as a punishment for his sin. Before the fall, there was "direct discernment" of divine truth. The "Word" is simply God's accommodation to the present sinful state of man, a constant reminder of the superior kind of knowledge no longer possible for him. The "Word" thus becomes a stigma whose removal will be one of the blessings of the eschaton.31

     The final outcome of this insistence on the irrelevance of Christianity to human life is Barth's denial in many contexts that it has any effect on the believer. Any such effect, he argues plausibly, would render faith subject to an extraneous criterion. Furthermore, the same effect might be produced apart from the gospel, and then, of course, Christianity would be superfluous. Even the reconciliation of mankind, he fears, could be achieved independently.32 Consistently with this reasoning, he has no alternative but to insist that any experiential concomitant of faith is positively undesirable. Indeed, it would "spoil everything" !33 The relentless inner logic of such a position imparts one final ironic twist to Barth's ethics; namely, that a theology which should know something of justification by faith, and hence transcend an ethic of mere legalism, tends to oscillate between antinomianism, on the one hand, and an ethic of rigid obedience, on the other. The biblical alternative to these equally unsatisfactory substitutes, agape, is significantly rare in his writings.

     3. Resolution of the difficulties? - It is


the present thesis that when the Word is deprived of its Speaker, it is thereby transposed out of its proper "I-Thou" context and diluted into a sterile rationalism. The foregoing analysis has sought to corroborate this thesis by showing that Barth's difficulties arise precisely at the point where he departs from the kind of God upon whom "theology of the word" depends for its punch and without whom it loses its meaning. In accordance with his fatal assumption that the only way to insure the underivability of revelation is to insist on its discontinuity with everything human, he can give no recognizable content to God conceived as Free Agent, Self, Speaker. Although no one makes more faithful use of the word "Person" than he, its content is so indeterminate that he can also refer to God without compunction as the Unknowable, the Infinite, the Unconditioned, Essence, Substance, Being.34 At this point he could learn from speculative metaphysics, which knows only too well that between the Unconditioned and a Person the difference is irreducible.

     Nor is Barth by any means alone among protagonists of a "theology of the word" who fail to maintain this distinction as rigorously as do the metaphysicians. Martin Buber himself, and many others besides, continue to refer to God as Person and Agent, on one page, and as the Absolute and Unconditioned, on the next. Failure to distinguish between these two gods results in a repetition in their theology of some of the less fortunate aspects of Barth 's. No doubt their reluctance to abandon the conception of God as the Unconditioned springs from a healthy respect for Barth's warning that any analogy between God and man leads to idolatry. What the foregoing analysis surprisingly suggests, however, is that the thoroughgoing application of this very principle does itself end in both idolatry and analogy! Its "god" is tailor- made to fit the specification that he must contradict everything human. And its method turns out to be analogy in disguise: to insist upon what God must be unlike is, ipso facto, to construct him in the likeness of certain speculations of human reason (the via negativa). The attempt rigorously to carry through the principle of God's "otherness" manages only to illustrate the impossibility of avoiding analogy of some sort. The crucial issue is thus no longer between analogy and "no-analogy" but, rather, which analogy?

     Is there an analogy which, Karl Barth to the contrary, would in fact preserve the distinctiveness and underivability of revelation? The foregoing version of a "theology of the word" suggests what the biblical doctrine of the imago dei strongly corroborates: that just such an analogy is uniquely provided by man himself. However implausible and even idolatrous such a proposal may appear at first sight, the realm of creative human freedom and its exercise is precisely the realm in which knowledge can neither be deduced a priori or induced by investigation. Although I can "know" (in the sense, of savoir, wissen) data about someone from a sheet of statistics without ever encountering the person himself, no amount of private research will enable me to "know" him (in the sense of conna-tre, kennen), to experience the orientation of his will and its exercise in freedom. On the contrary, acquaintance with another "center of freedom," another self, is "revealed" to me in the dimension of concrete, person-to-person encounter, as a by-product of what he says and does. 35 If the revelation of God is conceived on this


analogy, then theology has an Anknupfüngspunkt which forfeits nothing of the underivable uniqueness of revelation.

     Finally, this same realm of human freedom provides the answer to Barth's argument that to acknowledge any effect of Christianity on the believer is to subject the faith to a criterion - one which might even be reproduced apart from the gospel. And here again there is the strongest biblical corroboration. For there is one test of experience which the Bible is quite willing to apply: the test of agape, of whether a man loves God with his whole heart and soul and mind, and his neighbor as himself. Nor is the Bible at all afraid that this test might be fulfilled apart from God. The doctrine of sin is too realistic for that. Whatever partial realizations of love occur outside the church simply serve by virtue of their very fragmentariness as a daily rebuke to all men. A religion whose God is love and whose understanding of sin allows no sentimentality or verbalization to hide the secret hatreds in the hearts of men - such a religion runs no risk of being liquidated by the universal increase of good will among men. It knows only too well that love, as William Temple puts it, is not at man's command. Where it occurs, it is the achievement of the Holy Spirit.

     Does a resolution of current perplexities lie in the direction of a "theology of the word" based upon the undoubted mystery, yet the equally undoubted fact, of what happens in the exercise and interplay of free wills? The foregoing considerations suggest that such a theology can avoid the idolatries against which Barth warns without falling into his manifold embarrassments arid without dissipating the existential content of revelation - difficulties which seem to follow inexorably from his unscriptural separation of the realm of creation from the realm of redemption. Analysis of these problems encourages the suspicion that to take the bull by the horns and break with the conception of God as Being, the Absolute, the Unconditioned, not only does more justice to biblical religion but at the same time actually constitutes a stronger philosophical position. On the philosophical side there is evidence of a fatal inner logic at work in any theory which denies the centrality of choice and decision, which seeks instead to avoid any criterion (Tillich) or analogy (Barth) - an inner logic which eventually confronts it with the nemesis of self-contradiction. And on the biblical side, if to conceive God on analogy with man proves to be the only way to attribute freedom to him (as the doctrine of the imago dei suggests), then the charge of anthropomorphism, so often dreaded by theologians, is one at which to rejoice.


1. Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1948), p. 46.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., pp. 7 and 8.
5. See Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thompson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), p. 180.
6. Op. cit., p. 148.
7. Ibid., p. 44
8. Ibid., pp. 128 and 132-33.
9. Ibid., pp. 62 and 76.
10. Ibid., pp. 74-75.
11. Ibid., p. 130.
12. Ibid., p. 111.
13. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 122.
14. Ibid., p. 123.
15. Ibid., p. 157.
16. Ibid., p. 123 (my italics).


17. Ibid., p. 124 (my italics).
18. Ibid., p. 118.
19. Ibid., p. 119 et passim.
20. Ibid., p. 157.

21. Ibid., p. 251.
22. Ibid., p. 123.
23. Op. cit., p. 10.
24. See his article, "The Idea of the Personal God," Union Review, November, 1940.
25. At times he appears to grant this. Cf.: "A mystic train of ideas has already indubitably taken the stage. We ought not to object to it, because this train of ideas is scarcely to be avoided at this point .... If we care to give the name of mystical to the thought of what is beyond all experience . . . , it is not worth while objecting to the expression" (op. cit., p. 254).
26. Ibid., p. 149.
27. Ibid., pp. 271, 285, and 398.
28. Ibid., p. 60.
29. Ibid., pp. 152 and 261. Barth thus presents a perfect target to Tillich's charge that the "word" loses its specific meaning and that it is overintellectualized. Significantly, however, the points at which he does so are precisely the points at which he forsakes a "theology of the word."
30. Ibid., p. 529.
31. Ibid., pp. 147, 192, and 273.
32. Ibid., p. 486.
33. Ibid., p. 533.
34. Ibid., pp. 179, 352, 403, 451, and 557.
35. The classic application of this conception to the gospel is of course Emil Brunner's The Divine-Human Encounter, trans. Amandus W. Loos (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943).

Written in 1953:

     E. La B. Cherbonnier is assistant professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, and lecturer in philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He holds the A.B. degree from Harvard (1939), the B.D. degree from Union Theological Seminary (1947), the B.A. degree from Cambridge University, England (1948), and the Ph.D. degree from Columbia University (1950). Dr. Cherbonnier has studied also at the universities of Zurich, Strasbourg, and Paris. Before coming to his present post he was professor of religion at Vassar College. He has published articles and reviews in Theology Today, Christianity and Crisis, Christianity and Society, the Journal of Philosophy, and the Review of Religion.

Journal of Religion