Is The Bible God’s Inspired, Infallible Revelation? Karl Barth and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy

|

In 1978, over 300 pastors and scholars met and wrote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) to affirm the traditional view of the Bible “in the face of current lapses from the truth of inerrancy among our fellow Christians and misunderstanding of this doctrine in the world at large.” These lapses were due, in part, to Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy.

In an earlier article, “Karl Barth: A Bomb on the Playground of Theologians,” I noted that  Barth deserves a hearing, if only because he is a giant who is too tall to look over. Understanding Barth, however, is no easy task. With millions of words to assimilate, his “somewhat circular manner” of argument, and numerous contradictions in his own writings, it is not always clear what Barth actually believed. Princeton has an entire Center for Barth Studies devoted to unpacking his legacy.

In his introduction and reader to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Michael Allen warns, “Many a reader has gone wrong in biting off a small portion of text, coming across one aspect of Barth’s argument or even a hyperbolic claim and thinking this is his settled view.” In this article, I have done my best to avoid this error by reading Barth’s own words in Church Dogmatics, as well as his prior works (especially The Göttingen Dogmatics) in light of respected interpreters and Barth’s own development.

“Barth made it possible for theologians again to take the Bible seriously,” while ultimately denying inerrancy, showing that the debate is not as simple as taking a high or a low view of Scripture. Highlighting the points at which Barth diverges from the Chicago Statement (hereafter referred to as CSBI) should, therefore, help to clarify the battle lines.

Revelation

CSBI: SCRIPTURE IS REVELATION

Revelation is the disclosure of truth. Something is revealed when it is made known, i.e., by divine communication. William Burt Pope says that “The sum of all revelation is really the mystery of Christ, of God manifested in His Son, who is Himself the revelation and the revealer of it.” But Pope goes on to affirm that “all revelation, in its highest sense, is contained in the Holy Scriptures, which therefore have been generally and rightly spoken of by metonymy as a Divine revelation.” In this sense, Scripture is revelation, as attested to by Christ. “By authenticating each other’s authority, Christ and Scripture coalesce into a single fount of authority. The Biblically-interpreted Christ and the Christ-centered, Christ-proclaiming Bible are from this standpoint one” (CSBI).

The Chicago Statement centers on preserving this view of revelation. R. C. Sproul, the original framer of CSBI, explains:

The spirit of these articles is to oppose a disjunction between the revelation that is given to us in the person of Christ objectively and the revelation that comes to us in equally objective terms in the Word of God inscripturated. Here the Bible is seen not merely as a catalyst for revelation, but as revelation itself. If the Bible is God’s Word and its content proceeds from Him, then its content is to be seen as revelation. (emphasis added)

Article 3 of CSBI affirms the traditional view over and against the neo-orthodox view:

We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God. We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity.

BARTH: SCRIPTURE ATTESTS REVELATION

Rather than say that the Bible is God’s revelatory Word, Barth contends that the Bible, revelation, and the Word of God are not the same things. In Barth’s view, God’s Word comes to us in threefold form: revelation, Scripture, and preaching. Only Christ is revelation in the proper sense, while the prophet’s words and the church’s proclamation witness or attest to this revelation. John 5:39, then, is taken as a categorical statement: “They [the Scriptures] are they which testify of me [Jesus].”

In Barth’s view, revelation happens when “Scripture and preaching reach man and touch his heart,” so that a person reads Scripture’s testimony to Christ and is spoken to directly by God in a personal encounter. In other words, “To receive revelation is to be addressed by God,” i.e., directly, and not merely by Scripture; “Being revelation only in action, in the event of address, revelation is not a direct openness on God’s part but a becoming open.”

While Barth ultimately denies Biblical inerrancy, he holds to Biblical supremacy by saying that the Bible is the primary witness to revelation:

Barth goes out of his way to scotch the widely circulated caricature that the Holy Spirit “might” use other books and make them the Word of God to various individuals. In Barth’s theology there is no space for this kind of “might.” The truth is that the Holy Spirit does not do so. Only the Bible is a primary witness and therefore the Word of God. Christian preaching and literature may also be secondary witness and therefore the Word of God too, but, as Barth points out later, they are this only in strict subordination to Scripture. The holy books of other religions or philosophies are ruled out in toto. (G. W. Bromiley, “Barth’s Doctrine of the Bible,” Christianity Today, Vol. 1, Number 6, December 24, 1956.)

Barth therefore avoids saying that the Bible is not the Word of God; rather, he says that “to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself.” [16] God reveals himself by speaking directly to individuals as they read the Bible, but God’s communication is never truly inscripturated in the Bible’s written propositions. A man reads the Bible and the Spirit uses it to bring the Word of God to that man, but the Bible itself is not the Word of God properly-so-called. Through the present activity of the Spirit, the Bible becomes the Word: “As the Bible and proclamation become God’s Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation they are God’s Word.”

In Barth’s view,

The Bible has its being in becoming by God’s free decision to make it his Word again and again. Barth’s point is not to render its nature as Word dependent on the subjective experience of the reader, but the renewal of God’s objective decision to speak through it.

Inspiration and Illumination

CSBI: INSPIRATION GAVE US GOD’S WORD

In the traditional view, inspiration is the means by which revelation is given. It is “By inspiration [that] revelation has been made permanent in an authentic and authoritative record” (W. Graham Scroggie, “Living 55 Years with the Bible,” Christianity Today, Vol. 1, Number 11, March 4, 1957.) Article 8 of CSBI clarifies the relationship between inspiration and the Word: “We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word” (emphasis added). It is “from the fact of inspiration we infer that what Scripture says, God says” (CSBI). Kenneth Kantzer explains:

By inspiration God also saw fit to provide His own divinely guided prophetic and apostolic Word about the revelatory acts and words of God given in history. Scripture, therefore, is the divinely guaranteed record of God’s words and acts provided by human authors who were so motivated, guided and taught by the Spirit that they convey exactly that which God wishes to say to men. It may thus also be said quite correctly: “The Bible is the Word of God.”

Article 6 of CSBI affirms verbal plenary inspiration: “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” Not only did the Spirit inspire the writers, but he inspired all that they wrote (plenary), down to the words that were written (verbal). This applies to “only the autographic text of the original documents” (CSBI).

BARTH: INSPIRATION GIVES US GOD’S WORD

In The Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth rejects the traditional view of inspiration with its implications for revelation:

Later Protestant orthodoxy did incalculable damage with its doctrine of inspiration in which it did not accept the paradox that in scripture God’s Word is given to us in the concealment of true and authentic human words, when it removed the salutary barrier between scripture and revelation, when it adopted pagan ideas and made the authors of the Bible into the amanuenses, pens, or flutes of the Holy Spirit, and thus found in the Bible an open and directly given revelation, as though this were not a contradiction in terms. Long before the Enlightenment this meant no more and no less than a pitiful historicizing of revelation, which then continued if in another form. To deny the hiddenness of revelation even in scripture is to deny revelation itself, and with it the Word of God.

Barth thought of himself, not as undermining God’s Word or revelation, but as safeguarding its true nature. He contended that reducing God’s Word to a static, sacred book written by human authors and able to be carried around and “mastered” would turn God’s living and spiritual Word into a thing valued over Christ himself. Carson explains that

when [Barth] talks about inspiration and the truthfulness of Scripture, he wants to integrate both how God gave the Scripture, as Scripture, and how that Scripture is received by human beings, which requires the Spirit’s work in us to illumine us. He puts all those things together in one package and refuses to separate them.

Ralph Earle explains Barth’s neoorthodox view in plain terms:

Neoorthodoxy has emphasized the idea that inspiration is primarily, if not altogether, a subject-to-subject relationship. God the subject speaks to man the subject. The Word of God is not the Bible but the voice of God speaking directly to people today.

Earle goes on to make an all-important point:

Obviously the neoorthodox theologians have left out one essential factor. Communication is not just a subject-to-subject relationship, but a subject-object-subject process. It is God the subject reaching man the subject way of the Bible, the object. Without any written revelation the door is thrown wide open for all kinds of fanatical vagaries to be proposed as God’s will and word for man. [26]

Mark Bird explains, “Believing that revelation is non-propositional makes truth subjective. We could never know what was absolutely true.” This brings us to infallibility. But first, it is necessary to affirm that Barth’s instinct was not altogether wrong, and that a proper doctrine of illumination is both necessary and compatible with the traditional view of inspiration, revelation, and God’s Word.

CSBI: ILLUMINATION ENABLES US TO RECEIVE GOD’S WORD

John Wesley said that “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it [the Scriptures], but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer.” [28] What Wesley calls continual inspiration or supernatural assistance, evangelicals now call illumination. A proper view of illumination addresses Barth’s concern that God’s Word must come directly to men now. Kantzer goes as far as to say that “Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit all direct personal relationship to God would be lost.” Indeed, if the Bible was read but never understood, God’s divine object (Bible) would never connect subject (God) and subject (man).

CSBI does not use the word illumination, but the third point of the Short Statement amounts to the doctrine: “The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.” Article 17 of CSBI adds, “We affirm that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, assuring believers of the truthfulness of God’s written Word.”

Infallibility and Inerrancy

CSBI: SCRIPTURE IS WITHOUT ERROR OR FAULT

To say that the Bible is infallible is to say that it is “completely trustworthy, incapable of erring or failing.” If inspiration means that Paul, Peter, and John wrote exactly what God wanted them to write, then it follows that their writings are infallible, since God cannot fail. Inspiration is by definition “that extraordinary or supernatural divine influence vouchsafed to those who wrote the Holy Scriptures, rendering their writings infallible.”

Article 11 of CSBI moves from the traditional view of inspiration to its logical conclusion: infallibility, and thus inerrancy:

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

That is, “the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration” (CSBI).

The fourth point of the Short Statement affirms that

Being wholly and verbally God-given [inspiration], Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching [infallible], no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

God’s words in Scripture are unable to be improved or corrected. Wesley affirms, “the Holy Scripture…is that ‘word of God which remaineth forever’; of which, though ‘heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away.’”

BARTH: SCRIPTURE IS VULNERABLE, BUT BECOMES INFALLIBLE

Barth contends that Christ alone is of infallible divine authority, and that this authority cannot be inscripturated by fallible humans; to the degree that it is truly the words of men, it is vulnerable to error. “The vulnerability of the Bible, i.e., its capacity for error, also extends to its religious or theological content.” Barth said:

The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God. No wonder that seen from the perspective of the worldviews and the concepts of other ages; the question may arise whether we have to conclude that the Bible is not solid. I should never say such a thing, but would admit rather the occurence of certain, let us say, tensions, contradictions, and maybe if you prefer, “errors,” in its time-bound human statements.

While Barth did not make it a point to attack the Bible’s accuracy or reliability, he ultimately denied its nature as absolute truth and went so far as to say that it errs. He explicitly states, “No human word, no word of Paul is absolute truth. In this I agree with Bultmann—and surely with all intelligent people.”

This is, of course, the implication of Barth’s view that the Bible becomes the Word of God. Since only the Word of God is infallible, the Bible also becomes infallible in the moment when the Spirit speaks to us through a direct, personal encounter. Barth scholar Bruce McCormack calls this “dynamic infallibilism.”

CSBI: INSPIRATION PRECLUDES HUMAN ERROR

In response to Barth’s view, it is helpful to make a few more comments on the nature of inspiration, since inspiration is what precludes human error. Article 4 of CSBI states,

We affirm that God who made mankind in His image has used language as a means of revelation. We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.

Klaas Runia explains:

Barth is guilty of a leap of thought which has no adequate grounding. Humanity and fallibility may indeed coincide on the purely human level, as we all experience daily, but this gives us no right to draw the same conclusion with regard to the Bible. For—and this is the decisive point—we are not on a purely human level here. We have to do with the inspired Word of God, i.e., with the Word that came into being not by human activity only, but in and through this human activity by the operation of the Holy Spirit. There is therefore no ground for such a straightforward identification of humanity and fallibility. (emphasis original)

Standing With the Chicago Statement

The position of CSBI may be summarized by saying that the Bible is God’s Word written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and thus inerrant in the original manuscripts. Barth’s neo-orthodox position may be summarized by saying that the Bible attests to the truth that God personally revealed to men by his Spirit, and that this Scripture again becomes revelation as the Spirit inspires the reader.

While Barth raises some important concerns, the traditional view is consistent with what Jesus said about Scripture and what Scripture says about itself. All Scripture is theopneustos, given by inspiration of God or God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), since the authors wrote as they were pheromenoi, carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:2). The result is that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

With the Chicago Statement, “We affirm that what Scripture says, God says. May He be glorified. Amen and Amen.”

Avatar
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.