Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture (8), The Reformers on Scripture (continued)

The Reformers did, as Barth contends, maintain that Scripture cannot be believed or understood without the activity of the Holy Spirit. In his The Bondage of the Will, Luther hammers on this point with vehemence:

“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures” (p. 73. These quotations are taken from the translation of Packer and Johnston—D.E.). “The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture” (p. 74).

Calvin is in full agreement:

“For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit” (Institutes, I, VII, 4). “Then only, therefore, does Scripture suffice to give a saving knowledge of God when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, I, VIII, 13). “We need not wonder if there are many who doubt as to the Author of the Scripture; for; although the majesty of God is displayed in it, yet none but those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit have eyes to perceive what ought, indeed, to have been visible to all, and yet is visible to the elect alone” (Commentary on

II Timothy 3:16).

“Without the illumination of the Spirit the word has no effect” (Institutes, III, II; 33). “The word cannot penetrate our mind unless the Spirit, that internal teacher, by his enlightening power make an entrance for it” (Institutes, III, II, 34).

In harmony with the Reformers, Dr. A. Kuyper wrote: “The Holy Scripture without the accompanying activity of the Holy Spirit is for us a dead book” E Voto, Vol. II, p. 402. my translation—D.E.). The Rev. H. Hoeksema expressed the same thing when, in The Lord of Glory; he wrote: “without the Spirit the Scriptures are dead” (p. 175). And. all Reformed believers confess their dependence upon the Holy Spirit not only for their belief of the content of Scripture but also for their reception of the 66 books as canonical when they say, with the Belgic Confession:. “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical . . . believing . . . all things contained in them . . . because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts, that they are from God. . .” (Art. V). There can be no quarrel with Barth over the fact itself. The teaching of the necessity of the Spirit for one’s acknowledgment and belief of Scripture occupies a rightful and important place in the Reformed doctrine of Holy Scripture. For this teaching is Scripture’s own testimony. The thrust of the second chapter of I Corinthians is that man cannot know God and the things of God except God reveal Himself to a man by His Spirit. Neither could Paul himself know God’s wisdom nor can any man know the words Paul speaks and writes except the Holy Spirit teach that wisdom and those words in their hearts. “. . .the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God. . .neither can he know them. . .” (I Cor. 2:14). Jesus, in John 14:26, promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit “shall teach you all things.” And Paul gives the Church to understand “that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (I Cor. 12:3). 

But Barth’s use and application of the truth that the Scriptures avail nothing apart from the internal work of the Spirit involve a serious error. For he appeals to this truth, especially, as expressed in the writings of Luther and Calvin, as an evidence of the weakness of the Bible, that is, the Bible’s fallibility and “humanity.” The Bible, according to Barth, can only be understood by a man when the Spirit’s internal work accompanies the reading or preaching of the Bible because the Bible is the fallible, erring and weak word of man. That this is the application Barth makes of the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” comes out clearly when he quotes approvingly Luther’s statement, “Thus Scripture is a book, to which there belongeth not only reading but also the right Expositor and Revealer, to wit, the Holy Spirit. Where He openeth not Scripture, it is not understood,” and goes on to speak of Scripture’s “human imperfection,” of Scripture’s “capacity for error,” which extends also “to its religious or theological content,” and of the Bible’s being “the vulnerable word of man” (CD, I, 2, p. 508ff.). This explanation of the Bible’s dependence upon the internal work of the Spirit in imparting the knowledge of God to men is the exact opposite of the explanation of the Reformers. That the Bible cannot be understood without the Spirit is not due to the weakness of the Bible but is due, rather, to the weakness of men. Because all men by nature are spiritually blind and ignorant, that is, totally depraved, the Bible alone does not suffice. When Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, defends the perspicuity of Scripture over against Erasmus, he admits that “to many people a great deal remains obscure” but he explains this to be due “not to any lack of clarity in Scripture, but to their own blindness and dullness, in that they make no effort to see truth which, in itself, could not be plainer” (p. 72). Men who do not know Scripture, in the pregnant sense, are “like men who cover their eyes, or go from daylight into darkness, and hide there, and then blame the sun, or the darkness of the day, for their inability to see” (p. 72). Again, Luther emphasizes that “nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of .what is in the Scriptures” (p. 73). But immediately he adds, “All men have their hearts darkened, so that, even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know any of it” (p. 73). Calvin’s view is precisely the same as Luther’s. He states: “without the illumination of the Spirit the word has no effect” (Institutes, III, II, 33). Why is this? “. . such is the proneness of our mind to vanity, that it can never adhere to the truth of God, and such its dullness, that it is always blind even in his light” (ibid.) As far as the Word itself is concerned, “A simple external manifestation of the word ought to be amply sufficient to produce faith. . .” The reason it does not is “our blindness and perverseness” (ibid.). The Word is the gloriously bright sun that shines on us; “we are all naturally blind. . .” (ibid., 34).

It is the same with Scripture and us as it was with Jesus and His audiences. Jesus taught and preached God’s Word, infallibly. Yet, many of His hearers remained ignorant of Jesus’ words, while those who did come to know them did so only because the Spirit was their internal Teacher. This may not be explained in terms of the weakness of Jesus’ words but rather must be explained in terms of the spiritual impotence of all men by nature. And even when men, lacking the illuminating Spirit, remain deaf to the words of Jesus or blind to the Scriptures, the words of Jesus and the words of Scripture have power and effect, through the same Holy Spirit—to harden in unbelief.

Having noted the illegitimacy of Barth’s appeal to the Reformers in support of his doctrine of Scripture, we must still come to grips with Barth’s conception of the work of the Spirit in bringing the Word of God to men through the Scriptures. Barth denies that the internal testimony of the Spirit consists of the Spirit’s binding the Scriptures upon our hearts. The Spirit does bind upon our hearts the “Word of God” and He binds this “Word” upon our hearts in connection with the Scriptures but that which is bound upon our hearts is not the Scripture itself. It is a “Word of God” that stands somewhere behind the Scriptures and a “Word of God” that may very well say the direct opposite of that which the Scriptures say in a given passage. Indeed, not only does not the Spirit’s internal testimony consist exclusively of convincing us of that which is written in the Scripture but the Spirit often is a critic of the Bible. The Spirit tells us, with regard to this or that passage of the. Bible, that the Scripture is in error, also theologically, and then, presumably, instructs us, with regard to that same erroneous passage, what the truth of the matter really is. 

This activity of the Holy Spirit, we emphatically deny. The Holy Spirit is no critic of the Scriptures. If He were, He would be a critic of Himself, for He gave the Scriptures. The Spirit testifies to the Scriptures, not “through” them, and He gives us understanding ofthem, not in spite of them. It is obvious that such a view of Scripture and the Spirit as Barth’s opens the way for any and every conceivable “explanation” of the words of the Bible. The criterion of exegesis (interpretation of Scripture) is not Scripture itself but this strange “Spirit” in the individual interpreter’s heart. In the end, the measure of the Scriptures is the mind of man. 

An example may serve to make plain the dread error to which Barth’s view exposes the Church. Several years ago, Markus Barth, son of Karl, debated a Christian Reformed theologian on the question of the infallibility of the Bible. It became plain that Markus’ doctrine of Scripture was similar to his father’s. In the course of the discussion, the subject of the imprecatory Psalms was brought up, especially, Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Markus was asked whether this passage was infallibly inspired. He replied that it was indeed God’s will that this text be in the Bible but only as an indication that the secondary authors were sinful men who let their cruel and bloodthirsty natures get the best of them, from time to time. In other words, the Holy Spirit testifies to our hearts that Psalm 137:9 is the product of the Psalmist’s corrupt nature, to be explained in the congregation as an evidence that the Psalmist was a wretch, no better than any one of us.* What havoc does not such a notion of the Scriptures and the Spirit wreak with Scripture? Such a theory gives to every interpreter of the Bible the right to make the Bible say what he thinks it should say or what he wants it to say. 

Ultimately, Barth’s view of the Scriptures and the Spirit does not differ from the view of the “fanatics” in Luther’s day who discarded the written Word in favor of “Spirit,” Both discard an objective written Word of God and bring in a Holy Spirit to replace that written Word. The Reformed reaction to this doctrine should not differ from Luther’s reaction to “the heavenly prophets.” Said Luther to them: I flatten your Spirit with the Scripture. “Ihren Geist haue er uber die Schnauze” (“I slap your spirit on the snout”).


*Compare with this “exegesis” of Psalm 137:9 the remarks of Calvin on the same passage: “It may seem to savor of cruelty, that he should wish the tender and innocent infants to be dashed and mangled upon the stones, but he does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling, and only employs words which God had himself authorized. . .” Calvin, who supposedly holds the low view of Scripture that permits such exegetical outrages to be perpetrated upon the Bible, recognizes full well the offensiveness of the passage to every human mind but does not on that account reject it. He does not reject it because for Calvin the Bible is not the word of man but the Word of God. Therefore, Calvin bows, even when the Word of God offends him.