The doctrine of an infallible Bible, Barth labels “Docetism.” At the same time, he maintains that the church escapes this heresy only by acknowledging Scripture to be an error-prone book. One’s first reaction to the charge is to ask what “Docetism” can possibly have to do with the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Docetism is the heresy of denying the humanity of Jesus Christ. Those guilty of this heresy either out rightly deny or subtly emasculate the truth that Jesus Christ is “very man.” Jesus, according to them, was merely the appearance of a man or in one or another way was deficient in genuine humanity, lacking, perhaps, a human spirit.
The reason why Barth introduces the subject of Docetism into the controversy over Scripture is that he conceives of a strong parallel between Jesus Christ and the Bible. As Jesus is both very man and very God, so also the Bible is both genuinely human and truly divine. To deny or in any way weaken the humanity of the Bible, therefore, is to make oneself guilty of the heresy of Docetism. A denial of the Bible’s humanity not only shows that one also has grave difficulty with Jesus’ genuine humanity, but such a denial is itself an attack on Jesus’ humanity. So intimately are Jesus and Scripture related. Deny Scripture’s humanity and, by that very fact, you have denied Jesus’ humanity. By the Bible’s “humanity,” Barth understands not only the fact that God used men to write the Bible but also that the Bible is fallible, just as the men God used to write the Bible were sinful, fallible men. It belongs to genuine “humanity” to be fallible. Therefore, if anyone denies the fallibility of Scripture, he denies Scripture’s humanity. And since the strong parallel exists between Scripture and Jesus, one who denies the humanity of Scripture denies the humanity of Jesus, at the same time. Such an one has succumbed to the dread heresy of Docetism.
To men whose view of Scripture is that of the Belgic Confession, “we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures” (Art. III), or of the Westminster Confession,”. . .God (is) the Author thereof; . . .it is the Word of God.” (Chapter I, Art. IV), this argument may appear so poor as scarcely to deserve refutation. Yet, it is worth careful consideration. First, this argument for a fallible Bible serves notice that the struggle within the Reformed community over the matter of the doctrine of Scripture has taken a new turn. In former times also, there have been men within the Reformed community whose teaching contradicted the Church’s confession of an infallible Bible. But they usually, if not always, insisted that they were in full agreement with the Church’s confession of an infallible Bible. When the Church opposed their teachings by asserting that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, they readily agreed, although, in fact, their teaching was incompatible with that doctrine.¹ They were on the defensive. Now, it is quite different. Now, those who deny infallibility are on the offensive. Not they who deny, but those who assert infallibility are the heretics.
Secondly, Barth’s argument for the Bible’s inviolable humanity is worth careful attention because it has gained and, even now, is gaining widespread support. Although I intend to look more closely at this document later, it may be noted at this point, that the proposed “Confession of 1967,” drawn up as the credo of Presbyterians whose present confession concerning Scripture is that of the Westminster Confession, expresses, overwhelmingly, the humanity of the Bible.
“The words of the Scriptures are the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought-forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current, and the understanding of them requires literary and historical scholarship. . .” (“Confession of 1967,” Part I, Section III, B.)
It is far, far more than a curious fact that, whereas the historic Reformed creeds assert, exclusively, the divinity of the Bible, this creed will assert, exclusively, the humanity of the Bible. The committee which composed this confession explains the significance of the confession’s statement on the Bible to be that, under this confession, scholarship will be “uninhibited by the doctrine of inerrancy.”² With the adoption of this confession, thousands of Presbyterians will be committed to the doctrine of the Bible’s humanity, a “humanity” of fallibility.
One does well, therefore, to consider Barth’s argument for a Bible that is genuinely human and, therefore, fallible.
The very first objection that must be lodged against Barth’s view concerns his designation of Scripture as human. Barth likes to assume that friend and foe alike will agree to use the bare expression, “human,” in describing Scripture. By no means, however, is this the case. To call the Bible “human,” to speak of a human, as well as a divine, element in the Bible, or, even to speak of human authors of the Bible is, in itself, to take a step in the wrong direction. That the Reformed fathers used this or similar language, from time to time, can in large part be ascribed to carelessness. For us, who live in a time when the battle lines are clearly drawn, to use such language would be not only a careless inaccuracy but a foolhardy wrong. Nor does such a description of the Bible make it impossible for one to do justice to the fact that God used men to write the Bible, to the fact that men wrote, not as automatons, but as consciously active persons so that their personalities are reflected in the books they were used to write, or to the fact that the language of the Bible is thoroughly human language.³ It is striking and highly significant that the Reformed confessions, although recognizing full well God’s use of men to write the Scriptures, areunanimous in their failure ever to speak of a “human Bible” or of the “human part of Scripture.” The Reformed confessions regard the Bible only as divine and maintain but one Author of the canonical books, God Himself. To call Scripture a human and divine book is to imperil the truth that the Bible is exclusively the Word of God. With this confessional estimation of the Bible, the “Report of the Committee on Inspiration to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1958” is in agreement. This “Report” declares:
“. . .we may not say that Scripture is both human and divine or that it has a human element and one that is divine. Scripture is wholly divine though given in its entirety through the instrumentality of men.”4
If it were granted that a strong parallel exists between Jesus and the Bible so that, just as Jesus is very God and very man, the Bible is both divine and human, it would not necessarily follow that Scripture is fallible. One can do battle with Barth within his own framework of thinking. He contends that, like Jesus, the Bible is human. , If, for a moment, we grant this claim, we can put the question to Barth whether the humanity of Jesus implies that He was error-prone, that is, sinful. Jesus was genuinely human without being sinful. Similarly, the Bible is human without being fallible. As the Holy Spirit, in the miracle of the incarnation, guarded the humanity of Christ from defilement of sin, the Holy Spirit, in the miracle of inspiration, protected the humanity of the Bible from error. In keeping with Barth’s own presuppositions, therefore, to say that Scripture has errors implies that Jesus was sinful.
Even though we reject Barth’s strong parallel between Jesus and the Bible, we conceive of a most intimate relationship between Jesus and the Scripture. The Bible is Jesus’ Word, that is, not only the Word about Jesus but also the Word He spoke. Our attitude, therefore, must be the same towards both. That one attitude is the attitude ruled by faith. When Jesus says of Himself that He has no sin, we believe Him and view the whole of His life and works in the light of His claim to be sinless. The result is that we do not find any sins in His life. Now, if someone were to set aside this claim of Christ in order to scrutinize His life and works “objectively,” he would find many sins with which to charge Christ. Exactly this was the procedure of the wicked Jews of Jesus’ day. They examined Jesus’ life empirically, deliberately disregarding Jesus’ claim to be the sinless Son of God in our flesh. Of course, then, they spotted many sins. He broke the Sabbath, hob-nobbed with sinners, violated the law and blasphemed. They condemned Him to death for His sins.
The only alternative to a believing acceptance of Jesus’ claim to be sinless, as expressed in the question of John 8:46: “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” is the direct repudiation of that claim in unbelief. To disregard Jesus’ claim in order to proceed to an “open-minded” examination of the evidence of His life is the way of unbelief which cannot but result in the conclusion that Jesus’ original claim was a lie.
It is the same with the matter of Scripture’s claim to be the Word, inspired of God; and unbreakable. A man can disregard this claim in order to research the Bible, open-mindedly, and thus on the basis of the contents to discover for himself whether the Bible has errors or not. But such an one can spare himself time and trouble. He will find many errors and contradictions and much foolishness. He will conclude that the Bible errs. Then, if he is pious, he will begin to explain how this does not affect the basic realities of our comfort and salvation. In fact, the errors he will find do not exist. But they will exist to the satisfaction, even the sincere satisfaction, of one who chooses this way, just as there were sins in Jesus’ life, as far as the Jews were concerned. For the disregard for Scripture’s claim to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God is the way of unbelief. We may even go so far as to say that there is analogy between the Jews’ being offended at Christ’s claim to be God, looking, as they were, at His humanity without faith, and Barth’s being offended at the Scripture’s claim to be the Word of God, looking, as he is, at the human language of Scripture without the’ prior acceptance that it is the divine Word.
We conclude this section of “Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture” with a quotation from Barth and a question directed to this quotation. On page 529 of Volume I, 2, of the Church Dogmatics Barth states: “As truly as Jesus died on the cross, . . . the prophets and apostles . . . in the act of writing . . . were . . . capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.” Our question is: “If the prophets and apostles were capable and actually guilty of error in their writing of Scripture, how ‘truly’ did Jesus die on the cross ? What certainty do we have that He really died, as an historical fact and as the Savior of men?”
¹ One need think only of Dr. R. Janssen and the struggle of the Christian Reformed Church with him in the early 1920’s. Despite all his vitiating of Scripture he could insist that he held the doctrine of an infallible Bible. (“Wij gaan er van uit dat de Schrift de onfeilbare Godsopenbaring is.” Cf. R. Janssen, Voortzetting van den Strijd, p. 5.)
² p. 29 of the brochure, “The Proposal to Revise the Confessional Position of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.”
³ That the language of the Bible is “thoroughly human,” John Calvin emphasized more than once, expressing this fact in the memorable phrase, “God Stammered.” What Calvin intended to point out was that, in using human language, the language of men, God condescended toward us, in great mercy. God used language to reveal Himself that is limited in its capability to convey the glorious riches of the great God. But Lester De Koster may not use this vivid expression of Calvin to insinuate that Calvin might have backed the proponents of a fallible Bible. (cf. The Reformed Journal, June, 1959, p. 4). What may not be lost out of sight is the fact that “God stammered” so that for all the “roughness” and “meanness” of the Bible, its veracity (inerrancy) may not even be questioned. I cannot find De Koster’s reference to such an expression of Calvin in Calvin’s commentary on John 20:25. Calvin writes as follows in his commentary on John 3:12: “(God) condescends to our ignorance; and, therefore, when God prattles to us in Scripture in a rough and popular style, let us know that this is done on account of the love which he bears to us.”
4 “Acts of the Fourth Reformed Ecumenical Synod of Potchefstroom, South Africa, August 6-13, 1958,” p. 53.