BARTH’S DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
Reformed theologians usually begin their Dogmaticswith “The Doctrine of Holy Scripture.” This should always be the case. In treating the doctrine of Scripture before taking up the doctrines of God, man, and the rest, one follows the example of Calvin in his Institutesand of de Bres in The Belgic Confession. Such a beginning reflects the Reformed principle that Scripture, and Scripture only, is the source of all doctrine. In his treatment of the doctrine of Scripture, the Reformed theologian asserts that all his dogmatic labor, including that on the doctrine of Scripture, has its source, ground, and standard alone in the Bible.
How one conceives of Scripture is vital for the whole of his doctrinal thinking. If Scripture is not the sole source and criterion for the Church’s doctrine but merely a source and criterion alongside another, say, tradition, as is the case in the Roman Catholic Church, the result will be such doctrines as the assumption of Mary and the infallibility of the pope. However, even within the framework of the Reformation’s insistence that Scripture alone is authoritative for doctrine and life, there is room (whether there really is such room, “before the face of God,” is another matter!) for wide divergence of theological opinion as to what Scripture is. The questions that confront theologians at this point come down to one root question, “What is the content of Scripture’s designation of itself as ‘The Word of God?'” In the course of answering this question, the theologian must express himself on the inspiration of Scripture and the intimately related matter of the Bible’s infallibility/fallibility. What answer the theologian gives will affect the whole of his theology; the doctrine of Scripture is basic to all of dogmatics.
We will have taken a giant stride, therefore, in the direction of determining whether the “new Reformed theology” is genuine progress along the path of purity, as it claims, or whether it is deviation, all the more dangerous since heralded as “Reformed,” simply by putting its “Doctrine of Holy Scripture” to the test of Scripture.
Barth begins his massive Dogmatics with two volumes on The Doctrine of the Word of God in which he treats also the doctrine of Scripture. In this “prolegomena to dogmatics,” Barth “”inquire(s) into the word of God asinto the criterion of dogmatics” (CD, I, 1, p. 46, the italics are Barth’s, as always unless otherwise indicated). This is soundly Reformed method. He considers himself, in this opening Doctrine of the Word of God, to be evolving the “authority and normativity of Holy Writ” (ibid., p. 47), the doctrine “which Old Protestant theology, in its defense against Catholicism and also, soon after, against the inroads of Modernism, dealt with under the title De scriptura sacra” (ibid.).
Seemingly, Barth is also in agreement with the historic, Reformed estimation of the Bible. The Bible is of tremendous importance for the Church, in fact, it is absolutely necessary: “. . . this bit of past happening (namely, the Bible—DE) composed of definite texts is her (the Church’s—DE) directions for work, her marching orders, with which not only her preaching but she herself stands or falls, which, therefore, cannot under any circumstances, even hypothetically, be thought away or under any circumstances . . . be thought of as replaced by others, unless we mean to think away proclamation (preaching—DE) and the Church herself” (ibid. p. 114). He takes both Roman Catholicism and modern Protestantism to task for making the Church relatively independent of Scripture, “i.e . . . . . the relative devaluation of the said canon” (ibid., p.118). Against Rome, he claims that Scripture is an authority objective to and above the Church. The Church does not make the Bible the canon but “the Bible constitutes itself the canon. It is the canon because it has imposed itself as such upon the Church and invariably does so” (ibid., p. l20). Also, Scripture is inspired. The meaning of the classic passage on inspiration, II Timothy 3:16, is that “all, that is, the whole Scripture is—literally: ‘of the Spirit of God,’ i.e., given and filled and ruled by the Spirit of God, and actively out breathing and spreading abroad and making known the Spirit of God”” (CD, I, 2, p. 504). This inspiration must be understood as plenary (full, complete) inspiration. “It would be arbitrary to relate . . . inspiration only to such parts . . . . as perhaps appear important to us, or not to their words as such but only to the views and thoughts which evoke them” (CD, I, 2, p. 518). And “inspiration . . . must be regarded quite definitely . . . . as verbal inspiration'” (CD, 1, 2, p. 518). The “final word” is simply this: “Holy Scripture too is the Word of God” (CD, I, 1, p. 122). (1)
This is purest, Reformed language. Indeed, not only does this seem to square with the doctrine of Scripture embodied in The Belgic Confession but even to be an advance over it, inasmuch- as the confession does not, in so many words, specify “plenary” or “verbal” inspiration. It is important to note this carefully, since, in actual fact, Barth does not mean, with this language, what the Reformed faith has always meant with it. Into the containers of these phrases and words, “the Bible is the Word of God,” “inspiration,” “plenary inspiration,” and “verbal inspiration,” Barth pours wholly new content. Nor does he attempt to hide this. In distinction from the procedure of many heretics who tried to slip new meanings into the Church’s old terms when no one was looking and, then, clamored to high heaven that the Church had always really meant what the heretics were teaching, Barth readily confesses that his doctrine of Scripture differs radically from the teaching of the Reformed Church, from the 17th century on. Bluntly, he contends that, almost immediately, the Reformed Churches fell away from the doctrine of Scripture held by Luther and Calvin into the doctrinal position of “high orthodoxy,” (2) the view of Scripture, namely, that supposes “that the Bible must offer us a divina et infallibilis historia (divine and infallible history—DE); that it must not contain human error in any of its verses” (CD, I, 2, p. 525). “High orthodoxy’s” doctrine of Scripture, of which Barth will have no part and from which, according to him, the Reformed Churches must be delivered, maintains that “Should there be found even the minutest error in the Bible, then it is no longer wholly the Word of God, and the inviolability of its authority is destroyed. The same is true if even the tiniest fraction of it derives from human knowledge, reflection and perception. All Scripture is given by God . . . is what it says in II Tim. 3:16. Therefore we cannot find in it even the smallest word which is not given by God and therefore infallible truth. If it were otherwise, neither for theology nor for faith would there be any certainty, any certainty of grace and of the forgiveness of sins, any certainty of the existence and divine sonship of Jesus Christ” (CD, I, 2, pp. 524, 525). This doctrine is “almost terrifying pedantry” (ibid.). Indeed, “we have to resist and reject (it) . . . as false doctrine” (ibid., italics mine—DE). That doctrine which maintains an infallible Bible is false doctrine, asserting “things which cannot be maintained in face of a serious reading and exposition of what the Bible says about itself, and in face of-an honest appreciation of the facts of its origin and tradition” (CD, 1, 2, p. 526). As is always the case with false doctrine, this doctrine has a deleterious effect wherever it is maintained. It is “a kind of theological bogeyman . . . which has prevented whole generations and innumerable individual theologians and believers from seeing the true, spiritual biblical and Reformation meaning of the statement” (namely, “The Bible is the Word of God”—DE. CD, I, 2, p. 526).
There is no camouflage here. The historic, “orthodox” doctrine of an infallible, inerrant Bible must not be viewed as a somewhat stringent doctrine that, having gone too far, now needs to be modified; it is heresy! This charge is all the more grave since Barth is not one to bandy the term “heresy” about, reserving it only for desperate assaults on the faith.
What may not be missed is the fact that, although admitting the diametrical opposition of his doctrine to the historic and prevalent doctrine of the Reformed Church, Barth does not for a moment concede that he stands, regarding this doctrine, outside the pale of the Reformed faith. Not at all! On the contrary, he calls the Reformed Church back to her origins. She has not remained true to the genuinely Reformed faith on this point. What Barth advocates regarding the doctrine of Scripture is not some new, foreign idea, borrowed, perhaps, from modern Protestantism, but an authentically Reformed thought, even though neglected and combated these many years by Reformed Churches faithless to their own principles. His doctrine merits the appellation, “genuinely Reformed truth, “especially on two grounds: 1) It is the teaching of Scripture. 2) It was the doctrine held, in embryo, by the great Reformers. (3)
Undoubtedly, this is also why Barth refuses to give up the old Reformed terminology, such as “verbal inspiration,” although intending with that terminology a “wholly other” meaning. He does not desire to gull anyone. Rather, as far as he is concerned, that terminology belongs to him and his true expression of the doctrine of Scripture, not to the “high orthodox” and their false doctrine.
The claim of the “new Reformed theology” to-be the defender of sacred Scripture and the faithful representative of the Reformation, as well as its scathing and, ostensibly, scriptural criticism of the historic, Reformed position, makes it a challenge which they who love and confess the Reformed faith may not ignore. If Barth is right, about Scripture now, Reformed men cannot banish the doctrine of an infallible Bible too quickly.
If Barth is wrong, he poses a most serious threat to the Reformed faith, first, because he assails, head on, that doctrine basic to all other doctrines and, secondly, because he assails this doctrine from “within the gates,” in the name of the Reformation. And there is every reason to believe that his view of the doctrine of Holy Scripture has. had and continues to have much influence, whether tacitly or confessedly, in the sphere of Reformed Churches.
(1) A popular presentation of Barth’s view of Scripture has it that Barth states that “The Bible is not the Word of God but the Word of God is in the Bible.” Apart from the fundamental accuracy or inaccuracy of this popular presentation, Barth is not averse to identifying the Bible and the Word of God.
(2) In Barth’s usage, “high orthodoxy” is not a phrase of commendation. It is pretty much the same as “dead orthodoxy” connoting, perhaps, the superciliousness of the “orthodox.”
(3) Both of these grounds, we intend to examine, later.