Barth’s thorough-going criticism of the doctrine of an infallible Bible proceeds from his conception of the Word of God. The Word of God has three important forms. They are Church proclamation, Scripture, and revelation. Of these three forms of the Word of God, Church proclamation and Scripture are the Word of God only conditionally. “They are God’s Word, by from time to time becoming God’s Word” (CD, I, 1, p. 133). “The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be His Word, so far as God’s speaks through it” (ibid., p. 123). Revelation alone is the Word of God without any conditions. For revelation is Jesus Christ Himself.”Revelation . . . does not differ from the Person of Jesus Christ, and again does not differ from the reconciliation that took place in Him. To say revelation is to say, ‘The Word became flesh'” (ibid., p. 134). That Jesus Christ in, the flesh is the Word of God really means that the Bible cannot be the Word of God. Barth may continue to say, and even vociferously to insist that Scripture is the Word of God but he does so having made crystal clear that, in reality, it is not the Word of God. Scripture witnesses to the Word of God, that is, to Jesus Christ. But Christ and Christ only is the Word of God. The word of the Bible and God’s Word are two different things, even though, from time to time, God may be pleased to make the word of the Bible “become” His Word. They are two different things because the word of the Bible is the word of men.
This must be our fundamental criticism of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. He does not go astray, to a greater or lesser degree in his explanation of the truth that the Bible is the Word of God; he maintains the opposite, namely, that the Bible is the word of men. He plays off Jesus Christ against the Bible so that the former is and the latter is not the Word of God: “in revelation we are concerned with Jesus Christ . . . , we are, therefore, concerned with the singular Word spoken, and this time really directly, by God Himself. But in the Bible we are invariably concerned with human attempts to repeat and reproduce, in human thoughts and expressions, this Word of God in definite human situations, e.g., in respect of the complications of, Israel’s political position midway between Egypt and Babylon, or of the errors and confessions in the Christian Church at Corinth between A.D. 50-60. In the one case Deus dixit (God said—D.E.), in the otherPaulus dixit (Paul said—D.E.). These are two different things” (ibid., p. 127). They are two different things indeed. The one is the Word of God and the other is the word of man. In light of this distinction between the Word of God and the Bible, Barth’s remark on the believer’s conscious attitude over against the Bible becomes understandable: “we have to subordinate ourselves to the word of the prophets and apostles; not as one subordinates oneself to God . . .” (CD, I, 2, p. 717). That Barth goes on to say that we ought to subordinate ourselves to Scripture as to “messengers which He Himself has constituted and empowered” does not undo the damage. There is now one kind of subordination rendered to God and another kind rendered to Scripture. This is so because Scripture is not the Word of God. If Scripture were the Word of God, our subordination to it would not differ from our subordination to words God might speak directly from heaven. This is, in fact, our contention.¹ But it is not Barth’s because Barth considers the Bible to be words of men.
We may carry this criticism through, even though it is premature. Scripture is full of errors, according to Barth, for the simple reason that its words are man’s words. And they are man’s words, not in the sense that God used humans to write His word, which no one denies, but in the sense that men, not God, are the authors of those words. This is the inescapable implication of every view of Scripture which posits errors in the sacred record. In so far as there are errors (and we have insisted in a previous article that to allow errors in any part of Scripture is to concede errors everywhere), the words of Scripture are not God’s Word but man’s. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2); Godcannot contradict Himself; God cannot slip up on historical and chronological details. Errors point directly to the authorship of men. Therefore, with the rise of the view of Scripture that teaches a fallible Bible; the authority of the Bible falls with the heaviest of all possible thuds: Men’s words are not authoritative. Man is a liar at worst and ignorant at best. By his view of Scripture, Barth not only surrenders the Reformation principle of the sole authority of Scripture but really makes it impossible to ascribe any authority to Scripture whatsoever. His doctrine of Scripture does less justice to the authority of the Bible than did Rome’s, at the time of the Reformation. For Rome, although placing the authority of Scripture under that of tradition and the Church, at least maintained that the books “both of the Old and of the New Testament” had “one God” as “the author” and went on to say that these books were “dictated either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost.”²
Since Trent, Rome has changed also. She too is willing to concede errors in Scripture. The document on Divine Revelation recently adopted at the Vatican Council not only reaffirms that tradition as well as Scripture is a source of Divine Revelation but also deliberately allows for historical errors in the Bible. The document carefully states that “those truths which God revealed for the sake of man’s salvation are to be regarded in the sacred books as true and unerring.”³ Here, we have the familiar distinction between a “central” part of Scripture (“those truths . . . revealedfor the sake of man’s salvation“), which is infallible, and a “peripheral” part, which may be regarded as fallible. One Roman Catholic writer calls this distinction “very useful.” “Thus,” he says, “the point of historical inaccuracies is bypassed while the essential inerrancy of the Bible is maintained.”
Concerning Rome’s concession of errors in Scripture, one can only ask, “Why not?” She has no need of an inerrant Scripture; she has the infallible pope. To weaken the authority of Scripture is not a fundamental loss to Rome. For the churches of the Reformation, it is different. To lose the authority of Scripture is to lose all. We cannot say less about Barth’s doctrine of Scripture than that it aims a blow at the cornerstone of the, Reformation, a blow that would topple the entire I structure of the faith of the Reformation. Personally, in all his bitter affliction, and theologically, in all his preaching, teaching, and writing, Luther stood rock-firm on the truth expressed pungently in this statement of his: “The supreme pontiff is a man, able to err. But God is true, who is not able to err.”4 Luther here opposes God’s infallible Word, the Bible, against the human and, therefore, fallible words of the pope. The historian sums up well, “The sole and infallible authority of the Word of God was the primary and fundamental principle of the Reformation.”5
There is a sense in which Barth would grant the validity of this criticism. That is, he freely acknowledges that the Bible does not claim authority for itself. “Why and in what respect,” he asks, “does the Biblical witness possess authority? In that it claims no authority whatsoever for itself, that its witness amounts to letting the Something else (namely, Jesus Christ—D.E.) be the authority, itself and by its own agency” (CD, I, 1, p. 126). Here, he continues to play Jesus Christ, the, Word of God, off against the Bible, which is not the Word of God but a witness.
Against this playing off of Christ against the Bible, we must register our strong protest. We do not, of course, protest against regarding the Bible as the witness to Jesus. Jesus Himself emphasizes this in John 5:39: “Search the scriptures . . . they are they which testify of me.” The whole of the Bible, every book, chapter, and verse, but each in its context and in its connection with the whole of Scripture, witnesses of Jesus Christ. We affirm what Luther said somewhere, that if anyone reads a passage of Scripture and misses Jesus in that passage, he has simply missed the Scripture altogether. We like, however, to emphasize more strongly than did Luther that Scripture witnesses to Jesus as the Revelation of the glory of the Triune God. That the whole of Scripture is gospel and that the gospel is the revelation of Christ is the point of Questions 18 and 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
But our protest denies that the witness cannot itself bethe Word of God, except with all Barth’s conditions and qualifications. The Bible is the witness to Jesus, to be sure, but it is Jesus’ own witness to Himself and, as such, the Word of God, needing only one qualification, namely, the Word of God written. In proof of the fact that the Bible is Jesus’ own witness to Himself, we adduce I Peter 1:11: “the Spirit of Christ . . . in (the prophets) . . . testified beforehand (“testified beforehand” being basically the same word that occurs in John 5:39—D.E.) the sufferings of Christ . . .” The prophets, that is, the Old Testament, did one thing. They witnessed to Christ. But their prophecy wasChrist’s own witness to Himself. In order to guard ourselves from the charge Barth would assuredly hurl at us, that we make the Bible into a second Jesus, we must be quite specific. If Jesus stood before us, at this moment, and said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” would that phrase not be rightfully called, “the Word of God?” Because it was the Word spoken, we would not say of that statement that it is the Word of God when and where it pleases God or that, from time to time, itbecomes the Word of God. No, it would be the Word of God. So it is with the Bible. Because it is Jesus’ own Word, it is the Word of God, albeit written. We do not mean that it is the incarnate Word, the personalWord, nor must Barth charge us with such folly. But it is Barth’s preconceived idea, which he takes with him tothe Bible and does not elicit from the Bible, that a book which is the Word of God, which is revelation poses a threatening challenge to the Lord Jesus. Ultimately, it is his presupposition that we may apply the title, “Word of God,” to Jesus Christ only. Thus, he begs the question, the question whether the Bible is the Word of God. Therefore, he plays the one off against the other and supposes that this enhances Jesus Christ. But the Bible must tell us whether it is the Word of God and whether calling it the Word of God infringes on the prerogatives of Jesus. The opposite is true. “The Bible, the Word of God” does not threaten Jesus. As little as one honors Jesus by denying that His spoken Word is fully the Word of God, so little does one honor Jesus when he denies that the Scriptures are fully the Word of God. Jesus’ own words are never a threat to Jesus; man’s words, however, are.
¹ In contrast with Barth’s assertion is this statement of Calvin: “the full authority which they (the Scriptures—D.E.) ought to possess with the faithful is, not recognised, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God has been heard giving utterance to them” (Institutes, I, VII, 1)
² Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Fourth Session, “Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures”)
³ Quoted in the Denver Catholic Register of Thursday, November 4, 1965, p. 2, Sec. 2. The pertinent statement on tradition is this: “The Church does not draw its certitude about all things that are in revelation from Sacred Scripture alone.” At the time of this writing, the entire document is not yet available.
4 My translation of a quotation in D’ Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, I, p. 317. The Latin reads: “Homo est summus pontifex, falli potest. Set veritus est Deus, qui falli non potest.” ibid., p. 204