Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture (7), The Reformers on Scripture

Two matters remain to be treated in this investigation and critical analysis of the doctrine of Holy Scripture held by Karl Barth. These matters concern two main grounds advanced by Barth in support of his view of Scripture. Barth appeals, in defense of his position, to the teaching of the Reformers, especially, to the teaching of Luther and Calvin, and to the teaching of Scripture itself. In connection with the all-important latter “ground,” Barth offers explanation of the crucial passages in Scripture which state what Scripture is and how Scripture came about, especially, II Timothy 3:15, 16 and II Peter 1:19-21. We intend to take note, briefly, of these two matters: the teaching of the Reformers and the teaching of Scripture itself. We will then take leave of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture by considering the recent struggle within the Christian Reformed Church over the question of the infallibility of the Bible and the proposed “Confession of 1967” of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which, in its statements on Scripture, is heavily influenced by Barth’s thought. 

We have already noted that, although he freely admits his doctrine of Scripture to be a radical departure from the teaching of the Reformed Church from the 17th century on, Barth claims to be in fundamental agreement with the great Reformers. Although he says that the strong statements by Luther and Calvin on the verbal inspiration of the Bible “were not free from ambiguity” (CD, I, 2, p. 525) and could “later lose (their) context” and thus be misunderstood, Barth makes no serious criticism of Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture. On the contrary, he praises highly their view of the Bible: 

“If we take Luther and Calvin together, we can say that the way to that universal and moving view of inspiration which answers to the majesty of God, and as we find it in Scripture itself, was again opened up by the Reformation. The Reformers’ doctrine of inspiration is an honoring of God, and of the free grace of God” (CD, I, 2, p. 522). 

But the development of the doctrine of Scripture in the post-Reformation period represents a falling away from the soundness of the Reformers, the result being the present day heresy of an infallible, inerrant book. 

Put briefly, the question is: did Luther and Calvin hold a doctrine of inspiration which maintains the Bible to be an infallible book or a doctrine of inspiration which allows for errors of all kinds in the written record? Did the Reformers teach the doctrine of strict, verbal inspiration or was this doctrine the invention of later theologians, who, by this doctrine, came into sharp conflict with the Reformers? 

It must be remembered, first, that the teaching of the Reformers is not the basic criterion for the Church today. Even though the Reformed, Churches would be foolish to ignore Luther and Calvin, the final and only incontestable authority is Scripture itself. Secondly, in all our investigation of the writings of Luther and Calvin and, especially, when we observe that Luther and Calvin are comparatively silent on the subject of an infallible inspiration of the words of Scripture, we do well to keep in mind that the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture simply was not at issue, in their day. Dr. A.D.R. Polman emphasizes this, in connection with his explanation of Article III of the Belgic Confession (I translate): 

“in the days of the Reformation, the doctrine of inspiration stood wholly outside the discussion” (Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, Vol. I, p.183) “In the sixteenth century, the confession of the infallible inspiration of God’s Word was catholic. In this, Rome and Protestants were one” (ibid., p.186) 

Polman’s point is that, although Calvin was in full agreement with the confession of the Reformed Church that “The Holy Scripture is the infallibly inspired Word of God, which has absolute authority” (ibid., p.195), Calvin was not faced with the specific conflict that faces us today and, therefore, cannot be expected to provide full and pointed explanation of Scripture’s inspiration and infallibility. “Nearly four centuries have passed since the Reformation and in this time much has changed in the Christian Church with respect to the matter of the Scripture-question” (ibid., p. 186). The change, of course, is that whereas at the time of Calvin all of Christendom, except for some sects, agreed that the Bible was infallibly inspired of God, today, much of the Church-world denies infallible inspiration. In this respect, defenders of an infallibly inspired Bible are confronted with a new challenge and a new task. 

No one denies that Luther and Calvin held the Bible to be a God-inspired book. That which Barth and others deny is that Luther and Calvin viewed the doctrine of inspiration as implying the inerrancy of Scripture. It is the contention of some that the Reformers found the doctrine of inspiration and the presence of errors in the original manuscripts of Scripture to be compatible. To support their claim that the Reformers viewed the Bible as an error-prone book, some point to certain statements made by the Reformers that supposedly are acknowledgments of errors in the Bible. Lester De Koster, writing in the Reformed Journal of June, 1959, in an article entitled “Calvin’s Use of Scripture,” gives a list of quotations from Calvin, some of which are supposed to indicate Calvin’s alliance with those who affirm Scripture’s infallibility and some of which are supposed to indicate Calvin’s agreement with those who assert the fallibility of Scripture. De Koster does not help us out by telling us which of the two positions, in reality, was Calvin’s (obviously, Calvin did not maintain both positions, teaching that there were and that there were not errors in the Bible); but he does state that, on the basis of the quotations, men have the right to decide that Calvin taught a fallible Bible. The quotations in which Calvin supposedly allows for errors, therefore, may very well be decisive to prove Calvin a cohort of those who teach fallibility. 

To make these statements of Calvin carry the load of proving Calvin to have been a proponent of fallibility or even to allow the possibility of their carrying this load is to burden them with weight they cannot bear. Calvin did not produce his voluminous writings in the midst of a controversy over Scripture’s infallibility. In his day, as Polman has pointed out, the inspiration and authority of the entire Bible stood outside the sphere of theological discussion, as accepted truths. At least, the authority of the Bible was not attacked in the manner in which it is under attack in our day. Certainly, however, even in the days of Luther and Calvin, men assailed the authority of the Bible. One need think only of the implicit attack on Scripture’s authority by Rome’s elevation of tradition and the Church to an authoritative position alongside the Bible. There were also, in the days of the Reformers, those who dispensed with the “ignoble letter of Scripture” and heralded the lofty guidance of the “Spirit,” Starch, Stubner and Munzer in Luther’s day and the “fanatics” Calvin speaks of in hisInstitutes, I, IX, 1. In the Reformers’ fierce, almost brutal, condemnation of those who jeopardized Scripture’s authority, one can see how precious they esteemed the authority of Scripture, how they safeguarded it with holy jealousy and, to my mind, how strongly they would oppose those who undermine the authority of Scripture by the teaching of fallibility. 

But in the second place, it is reprehensible for someone to bypass what Calvin wrote when he was dealing specifically with the doctrine of Scripture, as the Institutes, I, VI-IX, and his commentaries on II Timothy 3:15, 16, and II Peter 1:20, 21, for statements dropped here and there by Calvin, when the doctrine of Scripture is not even the matter with which he is concerned. In theInstitutes, explaining the doctrine of Holy Scripture, Calvin writes: “the full authority which they (Scriptures) ought to possess with the faithful is not recognised, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them” (I, VII, 1). In the next paragraph, he goes on to say, “A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed—viz. that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, Who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times. . .?” To be sure, he aims the latter remark at Rome. But it fits as well those who posit errors in the “periphery,” that is, the “unimportant” portions of Scripture. For these men make the importance and truth of Scripture depend upon the decisions of individual theologians—a “great insult to the Holy Spirit,” perhaps, a greater insult than Rome’s, who, at least, has the Church make the decisions. 

In his commentary on II Peter 1:20, 21, again treating the doctrine of Scripture directly, Calvin says: “Peter says that Scripture came not from man, or through the suggestions of man. For thou wilt never come well prepared to read it, except thou bringest reverence, obedience, and docility; but a just reverence then only exists, when we are convinced that God speaks to us, and not mortal men.” Now, although those who maintain a fallible Bible have great fun with anyone so naive as to argue that Scripture is God’s Word and, therefore, is inerrant, since God neither lies nor makes mistakes, we ask whether it is conceivable that anyone can approach the Bible, “convinced that God speaks to us, and not mortal men” and, at the same time, allowing for errors. Calvin goes on to say, “they (the holy men) dared not to announce anything of their own, and obediently followed the Spirit as their guide, who ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary. Understand by prophecy of Scripture that which is contained in the holy Scriptures.” The commentary on II Timothy 3:15, 16, contains the same strong statements: “we . . . are fully convinced that the prophets . . . only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare. Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasure of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit.” “. . . we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.” If Calvin taught the fallibility of the Bible, he also taught the fallibility of God and the errors of the Holy Spirit since Scripture “proceeded from him (God) alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.” 

Concerning the quotations from Calvin that supposedly acknowledge errors in Scripture, we may say also that each ought to be closely scrutinized, in its context. To take only one of the quotations, adduced by De Koster in his article referred to above, let us note what Calvin says concerning the apparent discrepancy betweenGenesis 46:27 and Acts 7:14 on the number of souls which came down to Egypt with Jacob. De Koster quotes only a very small part of Calvin’s treatment of this apparent discrepancy in his commentary on Acts 7:14. One would gather from De Koster’s quotation that Calvin merely “brushes. . . aside” the admitteddiscrepancy “as unimportant to the intent of the Spirit.” In fact, however, Calvin neither admits the discrepancy nor brushes the problem aside. Rather, he busies himself at length with the apparent discrepancy, obviously convinced that, although the difference in number in itself is not important, whether there were 70 or 75, it is important that there is no actual discrepancy inscripture. Calvin does not say: “There is an error here, students. Let us go on.” Instead, he laboriously attempts an explanation which protects Scripture’s infallibility. His explanation is that copyists of the Greek version of the Old Testament made an error, changing the number 70 in Genesis 46:27 to 75. Then, copyists of the New Testament also changed the number in Acts 7:14from 70 to 75 to agree with the number in Genesis 46:27. Calvin writes: 

“. . . it may be that he himself (Luke, in Acts 7:14—DE) did put down the true number (i.e., 70—DE); and that some man did correct the same amiss (i.e., changed it to 75—DE) out of that place of Moses. . . Therefore, to the end that the words of Stephen might agree with the place of Moses, it is to be thought that that false number which was found in the Greek translation of Genesis was by them put in also in this place; concerning which, if any man contend more stubbornly, let us suffer him to be wise without measure.” 

What Calvin’s explanation is, is not as significant as the fact that he insisted there must be one which safeguards Scripture from any charge of error, even on so “peripheral” a matter as that of a number. Barth himself does not try to find statements in Calvin which express the view that the Bible has errors. Evidently, he realizes that such procedure would prove inconclusive, if not hopeless. The statements he does refer to are strong ones which Barth himself admits to be indicative of Calvin’s agreement with defenders of infallibility (cf. CD, I, 2, p. 520). Barth rather appeals to Calvin and Luther as substantiating his doctrine of a fallible, human Bible, because of the fact that both Reformers emphasized that no one could benefit from Scripture, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. That Luther and Calvin stressed the necessity of the Holy Spirit for all right reading and understanding of Scripture nullifies their strong statements which apparently teach verbal inspiration and proves that they too regarded the Bible in a “Barthian” way.