Although there is a sense, carefully circumscribed by Barth, in which Barth. maintains that the Bible neither claims nor possesses authority—it is “merely” the witness to Christ, who possesses all authority—he would vehemently deny the validity of the criticism we raised against his view of Scripture in the preceding article. That the Bible is the words of men, even to the extent of being their fallible words, does not mean, according to Barth, that the Bible cannot be the Word of God. In fact, this error-prone book is the Word of God. And being the Word of God, it has authority in and over the Church of Jesus Christ. Its errors do not destroy its authority.
We must now attempt an understanding of Barth’s conception of the Bible as the Word of God.
As we have noted already, we may not, according to Barth, simply identify Scripture and the Word of God. We may identify the Word of God only with Jesus Christ. Only, Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Although Barth does not hesitate to say, “The Bible is the Word of God,” he qualifies the statement in such a way as virtually to negate the force of the word is. Since, by the assertion “The Bible is the Word of God,” Barth only means that the Bible is the Word of God “so far as God lets it be His Word, so far as God speaks through it” (CD, I, 1, p. 123) and “where and when it pleases God” (ibid., p. 131), the statement is misleading.
We have also briefly noticed the popular presentation of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. According to this popular presentation, Barth denies that the Bible is the Word of God but teaches that the Word is in the Bible. This presentation is not wholly inaccurate. In fact, Barth says, again and again, that the Word of God is in the Bible. Appealing to Luther’s statement about the Bible, “It holdeth God’s Word,” Barth declares: “It (the Bible—DE) only ‘holds,’ encloses, limits and surrounds it (the Word of God—DE)” (CD, I, 2, p. 492). Yet, to say that Barth teaches that the Word of God is in the Bible is unsatisfactory. It fails to do justice to Barth’s view. For this explanation implies that the Bible is composed of two (basically different) kinds of texts and passages, texts and passages that are divine and infallible and texts and passages that are human and erroneous. Then, the reader has the duty of culling out the divine and infallible passages. To say, “The Word of God isin the Bible,” leaves the impression that the Word is in the Bible as gold is in the ground. Thus, someone might suppose that Barth believes that the reader of the Bible has the same task as does the miner of gold—he must dig through and discard much worthless dirt in order to discover, here and there, the precious gold buried in that dirt.
Many do regard the Bible precisely in this way. Essentially, this is the position of all who hold that Scripture is made up of two parts, a “central-infallible” part which bears on our salvation and a “peripheral-fallible” part which is extraneous to the matter of our salvation. But this position is hopeless. Its futility is exposed by the question, “Who or what is to determine the passages which are central, important, and infallible and who or what is to determine the passages which are peripheral, insignificant, and false?” The only possible criterion is the mind of man, the mind of each reader. One can scarcely conceive a more hopeless, chaotic way in the Church than that one in which each man distinguishes for himself the Word of God in she Bible from the words of men, the gold from the dirt. This theory, in effect, makes the mind of man the measure of the Word of God.
Barth knows the folly of this conception quite well and repudiates it outright. He is not about to set supercilious or even conscientious men to work chopping the Scripture into fragments. When he says, “The Word is in the Bible,” he does not mean that Scripture has two kinds of contents, “gold” and “dirt,” which we must now distinguish. Says Barth, “we are completely absolved from differentiating in the Bible between the divine and the human, the content and form, the spirit and the letter, and then cautiously choosing the former and scornfully rejecting the latter. We are absolved from differentiating the Word of God in the Bible from other contents, infallible portions and expressions from the erroneous ones, the infallible from the fallible, and from imagining that by means of such discoveries we can create for ourselves encounters with the genuine Word of God in the Bible . . .” (CD, I, 2, p. 531). Of course, Barth warns against this picking and choosing because, for him, all the words of the Bible are fallible. Nevertheless, he sees the notion that we can and must distinguish in the Bible the Word of God from the word of man, the true from the false, and the fallible from the infallible to be an impossible notion, a wrong way.* Since Barth means by the phrase, “The Word is in the Bible,” something different than do most who employ it, I would rather not characterize Barth’s doctrine of Scripture with this statement.
Barth teaches that the Word of God sounds throughthe Bible. The Bible is like a telephone through which God speaks to men or like an electric wire through which the current of His divine Word flows. When God actually speaks through that telephone, we may say that the telephone is the Word of God. Then, the Bible “becomes” the Word of God. We recall Barth’s statement: “The Bible is the Word of God . . . so far as God speaks through it” (CD, I, 1, p. 123), Of course, when God does not speak through this “telephone,” it is nothing but apiece of human workmanship. Barth himself uses the example of the pool of Bethesda. The Bible, the 66 books of canonical Scripture, is like the pool of Bethesda. As the pool became troubled from time to time so that it became a healing bath, so the Bible from time to time is spoken through by God so that it becomes God’s Word (cf. John 5 and CD, I, 1, p. 125). God can and does from time to time use all the fallible books, chapters, verses, and words of the Bible as the vehicle to carry His own divine, infallible Word to men. “It then comes about that the Bible . . . is taken and used as an instrument in the hand of God, i.e., it . . . is therefore present as the Word of God” (CD, I, 2, p. 530). We are not to be ashamed of Scripture’s errors because God is not ashamed of them; we are not to turn away from the fallible Bible because God still uses that fallible word to transmit His divine Word; we are not to attempt a picking out of the infallible parts in order to acknowledge their authority because, first, all the parts of Scripture are fallible, and, secondly, God, by using all the parts to transmit His Word, renders all the fallible parts authoritative.
In this light, we must, says Barth, understand verbal inspiration. “Verbal inspiration does not mean the infallibility of the biblical word in its linguistic, historical and theological character as a human word” (ibid., p. 533). Verbal inspiration rather means that God, when it pleases Him, gives us His divine Word through the fallible words of this or that text, with its definite, particular words. He does not give us His divine Word alongside the human, fallible words of the texts but really through them and in connection with them. This implies that we may not dispense with the written Word, expecting direct, mystical revelations from heaven. We are tied to the Bible for the Word of God. But, going to the texts of Scripture, “we must dare to face the humanity of the biblical texts and therefore their fallibility . . .” (ibid.). There, at the door of the Biblical texts, we must patiently wait for the moments when God will open the door to send through His divine Word. To change the figure, we are to sit expectantly about the lifeless pool, waiting for the angel to stir the water.
Is this doctrine of Scripture not obviously imperfect harmony with the basic principle of the Reformation, asks Barth. The Reformation was the defense and the extolling of the sovereign grace of God. The Reformation insisted that the whole of salvation is God’s gift, His free grace, so that we, at every point, are dependent upon the Giver. But the doctrine of Scripture that posits an infallible, inerrant book that is the Word of God represents a falling away from the Reformation teaching of God’s free grace. It is false doctrine. It is the refusal of proud man to be dependent upon God, to wait humbly for God’s gift. It embodies the desire of man’s desperately arrogant heart to have God and salvation under his control. “The mechanical doctrine of verbal inspiration” is a means “by which man at the Renaissance claimed to control the Bible and so set up barriers against its control over him, which is its perquisite” (CD, I, 1, p. 125). It put the Bible, as the saving Word, at man’s disposal to do with what man pleases. The Word of God which saves no longer can be a free, wholly gracious decision and miracle of God. The Bible, thus conceived, becomes an instrument of “human power” (CD, I, 2, p. 525). Those who regard the Bible as an infallible book, as the Word of God in itself, no longer need God, in His grace and Spirit. They have the Bible and they control the Word of God. Once that book is given them, they can seize their salvation from it at will, as a little child seizes cookies from a cookie jar set too low. Formally, they may still contend that their salvation is of grace, since God gave the Bible in the first place but, actually, their daily reception of the necessary words of eternal life is a matter of their own work. On the contrary, Barth’s view of Scripture makes us totally dependent upon God at every moment, also when we have the Bible in our hands. God must flash His saving Word through that book. Roughly, this is Barth’s argument. No wonder, then, that he takes his polemic against the historic Reformed doctrine of Scripture into the open.
We would let this fierce accusation fall on that segment of Protestantism which both defends the Bible and its infallibility and also maintains the free will of man, the ability of the natural man to read, understand, and save himself from the Bible. They, and Billy Graham fits here merely praise man’s power and ability when they seemingly exalt Scripture But Barth’s attack does not devastate the historic Reformed doctrine of an infallible Bible. It does not because the Reformed position includes the confession that no one, whether in his first reading of the Bible or throughout his life of the study of Scripture, can ever receive or believe what this infallible Word teaches without the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart, a work of God’s sovereign grace that precedes and bears the fruit of our belief of the Word.
But before we go further in rebuttal, we must let Karl Barth advance the pillars on which his doctrine stands.
*In the April, 1962 issue of The Reformed Journal, one of the most significant magazines published in the Reformed community, a notable Christian Reformed theologian asked the question, “Can We Learn from Karl Barth?” evidently, in all seriousness. I would reply, with the same seriousness, that the Christian Reformed Church could have taken a lesson from Barth on this matter of dividing the Bible into two parts, a fallible and an infallible, which we can and may distinguish. I intend to examine the recent debate and Synodical decision concerning Scripture, within the Christian Reformed Church, later. Now, I merely note that in the discussion prior to Synod’s decision, Dr. Harry Boer, a member of the “party” contending for a fallible Bible, not only insisted that he could pick out fallible portions but actually listed some errors he had found. In The Reformed Journal of May, 1961, he suggests that the accounts of the “David-Saul relationship” in I Samuel 16, 17 cannot both be “infallibly true.” And he asserts that the “two accounts of the death of Judas . . . as facts cannot be squared . . .”