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In Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, chapter 8, Karl Barth writes:

It is splendid and beautiful to be assigned a duty by the God of the Gospel who is the object of evangelical theology, but it is also demanding, exalting, and finally terrifying. A nobile officium, a noble charge, is confided and entrusted to man; but this charge implies that he is expected to fulfill his ministry. He is privileged to do what is expected of him. But he also must do what he is chosen to do.

I was struck by the Latin phrase "nobile officium", which has a specific meaning in Scotland. For the Church of Scotland, at least historically, it refers to the power of the General Assembly to regulate itself (including to modify its own rules of procedure as necessary) and to act in the interests of justice when the existing law does not provide a remedy. Likewise, in the civil courts, the Court of Session is said to have a nobile officium, described by Andrew MacDouall, Lord Bankton, as follows:

They are intitled, in some cases, to interpose, otherwise than according to the ordinary rules or forms of law, and even contrary to the form of ordinary proceedings, when the case requires it, in order to bring out the truth, which could not otherwise be done; or to interpose in points necessary for the public good of the society; or for making justice effectual in private cases, where the ordinary forms cannot reach the end [...] This is a supereminent power, founded in their high jurisdiction. 1

I am not convinced that Barth had this meaning in mind, but I also don't know what he did mean to imply, and I don't know of any other use of the term nobile officium. Elsewhere he refers to theology as a "free science" - free from "any dependence on subordinate presuppositions" - so perhaps there is some connection with the concept of a supreme court being free to act. But I can't quite seem to make this work in my mind.

Can any Barth experts help me out?

1. From An Institute of the Laws of Scotland in Civil Rights, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1752), p517. Compare Viscount Stair in The Institutions of the Law of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1693), book 4, title 3; and other institutional writers.

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You did well, I believe, in beginning your search for the meaning of nobile officium vis-à-vis the powers of the General Assembly in the Church of Scotland. You might also take a dip into the strictly legal/civil application of the concept to centuries of Scotch and English Common Law. See, for example, a condensed version of Black's Law Dictionary at thelawdictionary.org.

Barth, though a "professional" theologian, was at one time a church pastor. We should not be surprised, then, he would view theology as vital to the task of a pastor. In his own words:

"Theology is committed directly to the community and especially to those members who are responsible for preaching, teaching, and counseling. The task theology has to fulfill is continually to stimulate and lead them to face squarely the question of the proper relation of their human speech to the Word of God, which is the origin, object, and content of this speech" (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, p. 41).

I would not be surprised, then, if by nobile officium Barth was alluding to what we call the “Great Commission.” Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-20:

”’All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”

There could not be a charge more noble than Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and

  • Make disciples
  • Baptize disciples,
  • Teach disciples to obey all Jesus’ commands

Barth himself said, "the hearing, understanding, and application of the biblical message . . . is the fundamental task of all theological study" (id., p. 175).

One difficulty I have with Barth’s theology, however, is his view on what constitutes the “biblical message.” While Barth sees Scripture as a witness to the Word of God, he does not consider the written Word of God (as canonized and preserved through the centuries) to be the Word of God. Perhaps out of fear of being labeled a “fundamentalist” and a “literalist” he preferred to elevate the authority of biblical witnesses over the authority of the written record of the witnesses' testimony.

Moreover, according to Barth, “even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly and sagacious latter-day theologian". (id., pp. 31-32). In other words, Barth would call the Bible a “witness of divine revelation,” and as in all human testimony, whether in a court of law or in the world of fallible people, “A witness is not absolutely identical to that to which it witnesses” (ibid., my emphasis).

A question naturally arises, then:

If all Christians in general, and Christian pastors in particular, have a divine mandate—or nobile officium—to teach the kerygma (loosely, the content of the gospel) to every creature, how can we know what parts or aspects of the kerygma are the Word of God, and which are not?

From my point of view, and the view of many evangelical Christians and theologians throughout the world, I regard the Bible’s witness, in and of itself, revelatory. As theologian John Murray said,

”Scripture is God's own witness to us, borne through the instrumentality of men but borne by such a unique mode that the witness of men is God's own witness” (Collected Writings of John Murray. 4: Studies in Theology, p.3).

Put differently, God does not speak to us through Scripture so that the Bible becomes the Word of God. No, God reveals himself to us in the witness of the written Word of God. That God was both willing and able to accomplish this revelation without bypassing each biblical writer’s personality, background, education, and culture, and yet still communicate accurately and completely His will and Word for humankind, is a miracle of the first order. Does one therefore have to be an inerrantist to pass theological muster? No, but to be an inerrantist is not necessarily the same as being a “wooden literalist.” But I digress.

A more significant question is, Who determines what the message of the Word of God is? Theologians? Pastors? Average Christians? Missionaries? Academics? Who? What happens when one preacher, teacher, or exegete of the Word comes to a completely different conclusion from that of another preacher, particularly when the other preacher considers his conclusion to be a non-negotiable tenet of the faith? Who is to settle the contradiction, and how? Or is the message sufficiently flexible to accommodate almost any teaching and interpretation so long as it doesn’t go too far afield. Who determines, however, whose view is too far afield and whose is not? I’m not sure how Barth would answer these questions, though I am sure he would.

In short, Barth’s concept of nobile officium is likely at odds with that of many evangelical theologians and students of the Bible, which of course does not make Barth wrong. Moreover, he certainly has many worthwhile insights. If the heart of any “noble charge” emanating from God resembles a plebiscite more than a fiat from on High, however, then theologically and practically we are on shaky ground indeed. Peter said,

”If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God . . .” (1 Peter 4:11 KJV).

As a pastor friend of mine likes to pray before he preaches and teaches:

"Lord, make my words a true echo of heaven."

When as communicators of the oracles of God we say humbly, yet fervently, “Thus saith the Lord,” we are simply obeying the nobile officium of God Himself, and He alone can take His Word, through the instrumentality of mere vessels of clay, and can cause that Word to echo His truth in convicting power.

When an earthly court, tribunal, or council is faced with the dilemma of having to make a decision in equity but there is no existing law enabling them to do so, they choose to err on the side of fairness, grace, and mercy and not on the letter of the law. That is nobile officium.

What a privilege is ours as believers in Jesus Christ to bear witness to the truth on behalf of the One who said “I am the truth” (John 14:6). Moreover, He is the one of whom John said,

"And we beheld His glory, the glory of the only Begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth" (1:14, my emphasis).

In God's dealings with human beings, His grace always precedes His truth. The truth of God condemns us, and rightly so; His grace, on the other hand, when received by faith, delivers us from condemnation (John 3:16,17).

Praise God that

"There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).

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Thank you very much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking answer! –  James T Sep 30 '13 at 13:39
    
@JamesT: You're welcome, I'm sure. I enjoyed putting it together. Don –  rhetorician Sep 30 '13 at 13:59
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