The world of biblical imagination

Karl Barth memorably spoke of 'The Strange New World within the Bible'. The phrase is the title of a sermon in The Word of God and the Word of Man (Barth, 1928, p.28-50). Barth's early writings unlocked this strange new world. More than anyone else, he helped modern theology to rediscover the otherness, the difference of the Bible. He evoked its numinous power and reminded us that to enter the Scriptures is to tread on holy ground.

It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible. The Word of God is within the Bible.

Barth recovered those awesome sayings that liberal theology did not know what to do with: 'Our God is a consuming fire'; 'It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God'; 'No man can see God and live'; 'Who is sufficient for these things?'; 'Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel'; 'The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men'. Barth was right to suggest that the words of men (the sexist substantive seems right for the biblical writings which were not only written but read, interpreted and enforced by men) can never be identified with the Word of God. But he went too far, in this early stage of his development, in placing them in opposition. The perfect, paramount speech of God is contrasted with the blind and corrupt utterances of men. This is to simplify the unique phenomenon of divine revelation and to do less than justice to the humanity of God (to invoke Barth's own suggestive phrase).

Barth here eclipsed a fundamental fact about the Bible: that in it God speaks by the mouths of men and accommodates the divine speech to what human minds can grasp and human lips can utter. The Word of God is not so much in opposition to the word of man as in critical tension with it. Scripture is not so much a dialogue between God and humanity—still less merely a polite conversation—as a summons, a search, a calling by name, on the one hand, and a relentless quest, an on-going argument, on the other: 'the LORD hath a controversy with the nations' (Jeremiah 25.31 AV). This character of Holy Scripture as a divine-human encounter is brought home to us not only in the fact, so often reflected on by divines, exegetes and commentators in the past, that God deigns to communicate through ancient Hebrew and koine Greek, and subjects his majestic discourse to the constraints of grammar, but equally by the fact that God's revelation is conveyed or articulated not with clarity, precision and literalness, but in the obscure and opaque figures of metaphor, symbol and myth. Nowhere do we see more clearly the truth of Barth's great dictum that 'revelation comes to us clothed in the garments of creaturely reality' than in the fact that the Word of the Lord which is mightier than the sound of many waters obeys the universal genres of figurative discourse.

Edwyn Hoskyns was influenced by Barth and translated his commentary on Romans into English. In one of his Cambridge sermons Hoskyns seems to echo Barth's phrase about the strange new world of the Bible: 'Can we rescue a word and discover a universe? Can we study a language and awake to the Truth? Can we bury ourselves in a lexicon, and arise in the presence of God?' (Hoskyns, 1970, p.70). Clearly we can. In this chapter we shall attempt to evoke something of the vast biblical world of the imagination and draw out its texture as metaphor, symbol and myth.

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