In The Word of God and the Word of Man, Barth remarks on the so-called “formal principle” of the Reformation, the principle of the sole authority of the Bible, and, in one statement, shows his deep disagreement with the historic, Reformed estimation of Scripture: The Reformers “had the courage to allow so accidental, contingent, and human a thing as the Bible to become a serious witness of the revelation of God, to allow a book which was in itself profane to becomeHoly Scripture” (in the chapter entitled, “Task of the Reformed Churches.”). The Bible is accidental and contingent, even profane, that is, secular, worldly. It is these things, with all they imply, because the Bible is thoroughly human. Barth loves to speak of “the humanity of Scripture,” most forcefully when opposing the historic, Reformed dogma of an inspired, infallible Scripture. We have seen that Barth utterly repudiates the “orthodox” doctrine of an infallible, inerrant Scripture. We must now note with what Barth would replace that doctrine in the mind and confession of the Reformed Churches.
The Bible is a fallible book, full of errors of every kind.(l) In our day, the introduction into a church of the denial of an infallible Bible inevitably takes the form of an arbitrary distinction between that which is “central” and that which is “peripheral” in the Bible. That which is “central,” including Scripture’s teachings on the great facts of redemption and on the believer’s walk, is said to be infallible. That which is “peripheral,” including Scripture’s “incidental” historical, geographical and scientific facts, is fallible. This distinction between “central-infallible” and “peripheral-fallible” is supposed to permit the Church to recognize and admit the “obvious” discrepancies and mistakes in the Bible, while, at the same time, safeguarding all the doctrinal and ethical passages from suspicion of error and attack. Drawing false security from this distinction, men have allowed, perhaps grudgingly, within the Church the teaching of a fallible Bible, who otherwise were inclined to resist the entrance into the Church of any and all forms of the view that Scripture contains errors. They console themselves with the notion that the “important” parts of Scripture are safe. In reality, they have taken the Trojan horse into their city. For the fact is that the distinction is sheer human invention, not only without basis in Scripture but, in fact, a contradiction of Scripture’s testimony concerning its own essence. That “all Scripture is God-breathed” (II Tim. 3:16) means, at the very least, that “Scripture” is not a conglomeration of books and texts but a single, unified entity. There is such a unity as “all Scripture.” And the essential oneness of all these books and texts is their common “God-breathedness,” their inspiration, and, therefore, also, their fallibility or infallibility. The point here is merely that Scripture demands, on the matter of inspiration and the intimately related matter of infallibility, that all its parts be regarded in the same way. If the inspired historical parts are fallible, the inspired doctrinal parts are fallible also. Thus, the distinction between “central-infallible” and “peripheral-fallible,” no matter how unwitting and sincere the defenders of it may be, will not and cannot stand. Eventually, the concept of fallibility will be applied to the entire Scripture, also the doctrinal and ethical parts. (2)
Common as this distinction is in introducing into the Church the idea of a fallible Bible, it is not at all the approach of Barth. The Bible is indeed a fallible, erring book but the fallibility holds for every part of the Bible. Scripture errs in its historical, geographical, chronological, and scientific material but, as well, fallibility “extends to its religious or theological content.” “There are obvious overlappings and contradictions—e.g., between the Law and the prophets, between John and the Synoptists, between Paul and James” (CD, I, 2, p. 509). The so-called secondary authors “speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves” (CD, I, 2, p. 507). “The prophets and apostles as such, even in their office, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word” (CD, I, 2, p. 529). Over against the doctrine of an inerrant Scripture, Barth becomes extremely bold: “To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they (the prophets and apostles—D.E.) must be inerrant in every word, we appose the even bolder assertion, that . . . they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word . . .” (CD, I, 2, p. 530). All of the words of the Bible are fallible, human words and, therefore, we must acknowledge the Bible’s “historical and scientific inaccuracies,” its “theological contradictions,” and “the uncertainty of (its) tradition” (CD, 1, 2, p. 531).
A concrete instance of the Bible’s fallibility is the presence in Scripture of saga and legend. This pertains, of course, to the Bible stories. Although these stories present themselves as actual history, as the literal account of the way things happened, in fact most, if not all of the stories are a mixture of history and saga. “Saga” is the “share of the narrator or narrators in the story narrated” (CD, I, 1, p. 376). And “legend” is “the depiction in saga form of a concrete individual personality” (CD, III, 1, p. 81). That is, saga and legend are the embellishments of an event or personality by the story-teller, namely, the human writer of the Bible story. Usually, the Bible stories are the combination of history, that is, actual fact, and saga, that is, the imagination of the story-teller. But there is one story, at least, that is “pure saga.” That story is the Biblical account of creation. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are “divinatory and poetical . . . saga” (CD, III, 1, p. 82). This means that some human or humans guessed how this present, visible world began (“divination”) and, then, poetically articulated this guess. Barth will not deny, concerning the Biblical account of creation, “that there are myths, and perhaps in part fairy tales, in the materials of which they are constructed” (CD, III, 1, p. 84). (3)
The Canon of Scripture itself may not be regarded by us with certainty. The Reformed Churches have confessed, through the years, that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are canonical Scripture, the divinely inspired rule and authority for the Church. None of these books may be challenged and no writings may be added. The Canon is closed, absolutely. Having listed the sixty-six books of the Bible, the Belgic Confession states: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical. . .” (Art. V). With an appeal to Luther and Calvin, Barth dissents. “With a view to the future,” we must say that “the Canon is not closed absolutely, but only very relatively” (CD, I, 2, p. 476). We must allow for the possibility that there lies buried “in the sands of Egypt”—a book which the Church must and will confess to belong to the Canon, perhaps, Paul’s missing letter to the Laodicaeans. (cf. Co1. 4:16 and CD, I, 2, p. 478). Possibly, the Church will even have to declare that one of the sixty-six books now accepted does not belong in the Canon: “We cannot rule out a consideration of the possibility of an open alteration in its (the Canon’s—DE) constitution, either a narrowing as in the 16th century (4) or, an extension” (CD, I, 2, p. 478).
All of this is necessary, Barth insists, if the Reformed Churches are going to give due honor to the Word of God and the wholly gracious character of God’s revelation of Himself to us. This is the only way, in the matter of Scripture, of saying “No” to our natural arrogance and “Yes” to Jesus Christ, the
(1) Literally, the word fallible only means “liable to error” or “capable of a mistake.” Thus, someone might press the distinction between a “fallible” Bible and an actually “erring” Bible, as if he could teach a “fallible” Bible without committing himself, at the same time, to an “erring” Bible. Now and then, Barth plays with this distinction and rather speaks of the “vulnerability of the Bible” and its “capacity for errors” than of the concrete errors of the biblical authors (CD, I, 2, pp. 508, 509). This is an impossible distinction at best and a deceptive one at worst. For consider: if someone means by a “fallible but inerrant” Bible that the Bible might have contained errors but that God, when He authored it through the prophets and apostles, actually kept it free from all mistakes, he is saying nothing else than that the Bible as God gave it to men was from the outset without an error and, therefore, also without any capacity for error. Only if the Bible actually errs does it also have a capacity to err. Barth, in all his distinguishing, does not mean to teach a bare capacity of the Bible to err but an erring Bible. Throughout, we will use “fallible” as the practical equivalent of “containing errors” or “erring.”
(2) The Reformed confessions know nothing of this division of the Bible into parts, one central part that is reliable and another peripheral part that is untrustworthy. On the contrary, the Heidelberg Catechism states that “True faith is . . . a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word” (Lord’s Day VII, Q. 21) and the Belgic Confession puts into the mouth of the Reformed Christians: “We receive all these books . . . believing without any doubt, all things contained in them . . .” (Art. V).
(3) Klaas Runia mentions that Barth, lecturing in Holland, was asked whether the serpent of Genesis 3really spoke. Barth replied that he could not take the Genesis account as historical “for a speaking serpent—well, I cannot imagine that any more than anybody else.” Those who defend this account as literal history, Barth refers to with typical, if sarcastic levity as “friends of the speaking serpent.” (cf. K. Rwnia, Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture, pp. 100, 101)
(4) Barth maintains that the Churches of the Reformation excluded from the Canon, in the 16th century, those books which we now consider to be apocryphal but which the Church for a thousand years before the Reformation had received as canonical. He probably refers to the fact that the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), which declared on the New Testament Canon, included in the Canon of Scripture, such books as Judith and the Maccabees.