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Karl Barth on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

Swiss theologian Karl Barth was famously described by Pope Pious XII as the greatest Christian thinker since Thomas Aquinas. The fact that it was a Catholic pope who said this should not distract Adventists from the fact that Barth’s theology was as deeply Protestant as any one might find. His life work was from first to last a theology of the Word, grounded in a sense of the absolute authority of the God disclosed in Scripture and accepted by faith. Sola scriptura. Sola fides. One could not point to a stronger champion of these principles among twentieth century Christian theologians. Yet Karl Barth was not a biblical literalist. In a letter to his niece Christine he wrote: “one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.” What led Barth to describe a literalistic approach to the creation narrative not simply as incorrect but as shutting oneself off “completely” from faith in God’s Word?
The Revelation of Jesus Christ and Paper Popes
Barth’s key hermeneutical insight (which I was first introduced to by my friend Matt Burdette, who has blogged about this on his site “Constructing Adventist Theology,” and which I am indebted to George Hunsinger for explaining in his accessible book How to Read Karl Barth) is that for the true believer, Scripture is in fact not the revelation of God. It is an authoritative witness to the revelation of God, which is God incarnate—the person of Jesus Christ. God’s revelation—his complete self-disclosure, to which the inspired Word leads us—is, in other words, not a text but a person.
Literalism assumes, however, that human language is intrinsically capable not only of guiding us toward God but also of unequivocally revealing or disclosing God in the form of linguistic signifiers. What is more, it confidently declares that we can read these signifiers without any necessary gap between what the signifying text says and who God really is. In the name of honoring God’s Word, literalism thus subtly displaces God’s actual sovereignty. It tends toward a kind of idolatry—what we might call “bibliolatry”—that stresses propositional truths and human cognitive powers in a way that denies the radical “otherness” of God and the freedom of the Creator to be the Creator beyond all human signifying speech.
A parable: To plagiarize Dostoevsky’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor, let us imagine that Christ one day appeared on earth and began to teach and preach among us, leading his church into greater truth. Let us imagine also that one of the things Christ taught us was that we have been mistaken in our tidy language of “six literal contiguous 24-hour days” when we have talked about the creation. What if Christ told us that something far more mysterious, terrible, and at the same time glorious than anything we have ever imagined had unfolded, and that this was what Genesis had really been saying to us all along. How would we respond to the living Word? Would we embrace Christ’s message? Or would we “correct” God himself for shattering our systematic theology? Would we give thanks for the new light Christ had given us? Or would we declare him to be a blasphemer and a false Messiah and drive him from our midst (or worse) because we could not reconcile living Truth with our most deeply held assumptions about our sacred book?
Another Barthian thinker who recognized this great peril in literalistic readings of Scripture—and rejected them as a result—was the French sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul. I mention Ellul because Clifford Goldstein, in his 2003 Adventist Review editorial, “Seventh-day Darwinians,” quotes Ellul in support of his own uncompromising literalism on Genesis. The “church has become what Jacques Ellul called ‘an empty bottle that the successive cultures fill with all kinds of things,’” Goldstein wrote. But Goldstein is here treating a serious Christian’s theology as an empty bottle he can fill with all of his own assumptions about Scripture.
The great danger of literalism, Ellul wrote, is that it “closes its ears to the critics almost to the point of credo quia absurdum,” “attaching faith to a record rather than to Jesus Christ.” Literalism, he wrote in The Ethics of Freedom, is “a paper pope” that “transforms the freedom of faith into an arrested system that cannot avoid being scholastic in intellectual form and repetitive in the ethical domain.”
Literal Truth or Literalism?
Yet there is an opposite and equally dangerous error that many “liberal” Christians fall into, which Barth referred to as the error of “expressivism.” Expressivism declares that theological language is purely symbolic or “mythical,” based upon noncognitive or emotive experiences. In this view, the Bible tells us more about the people God spoke to than about God himself and so is best approached through modern tools of historical-critical scholarship. Expressivism therefore fails to acknowledge God’s desire to be known. While uncovering the ways people have grasped for God through history, it denies and masks the fact that God has indeed entered history. God has taken the initiative. God has graciously given us his Word. “Whereas literalism underestimates the mystery of God’s otherness,” writes Hunsinger, “expressivism underestimates the miracle of God’s self-revelation.” We are able to speak of the Bible as God’s Word because, by a miracle of grace, God overcomes our intrinsic human and linguistic incapacities.
So where do these statements leave us? Clearly in a place of unresolved tension and paradox. Instead of attempting to resolve the tension and force epistemological and semantic closure on the text, however, Barth suggests that we need to learn how to live in that place of tension. We need to learn how to read Scripture dialectically, analogically, and Christologically in community with other Christians—those alive today and those who have thought deeply about the Bible through the centuries and whose shoulders we stand on. We must maintain a constant awareness both of God’s self-revelation in the Bible by grace, and of our own limitations in approaching his Word.
Put another way, we need to be absolutely faithful to the words of Scripture. We need to read them as literally true in every regard because they are the words God has given us. We must not subtract one thing. But we must at the same time refuse to add one thing to Scripture. When people declare that the days of Genesis must now and forever be read to mean “literal, contiguous, 24-hour periods occurring within the past six to ten thousand years,” they are in fact adding words to Scripture. They are placing themselves under the judgment of Revelation 22:18. The question Adventists must ask themselves is: Are we in danger of transforming the literal truth of Christ into the literalism of fallen human minds and imaginations?
Matt Burdette, Constructing Adventist Theology Blog:
George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).
Jacques Ellul, The Judgment of Jonah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).
Clifford Goldstein, “Seventh-day Darwinians,” Adventist Review on the web at:

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