Biblical inerrancy—the belief that Scripture is completely without error—has become a central belief of evangelicalism. I am a member of several Facebook groups, including those in the Calvinist/Reformed perspective, and I have seen time and time again when a theologian or a preacher is dismissed solely because they have a “weak view of scripture”—meaning they do not profess inerrancy. In some cases, denying Biblical inerrancy is grounds for applying that dreadfully overused term, “heretic.” It is also why so many reformed Christians resist picking up a book by my favorite theologian, Karl Barth.
The issue of Karl Barth and inerrancy is a subject I discussed briefly in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English. There my purpose was to show that Barth did not profess inerrancy, that, for Barth, the Bible is “vulnerable to errors,” and ultimately that his reasons for this are worth considering. Barth offers a carefully thought-out alternative to the rigidly dogmatic way so many have professed inerrancy: he at once highly-regards the Bible as normative for all theology, yet he does not have to deem it perfect to do so.
His reasons are clear: the Bible is not the Son of God. It is a human book. As a human book, it is vulnerable to the errors of human, historical limitations. It is not a divine oracle sent down from heaven. However, it bears witness to the Word of God, and it is thus an indirect form of the Word by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Bible points beyond itself to the Word of God; it does not contain within itself the Word. The Word of God is not bound to a book, yet this human book becomes God’s Word in its witness. We depend on the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, not on the “perfection” of a book.
Continuing a blog-series about the new volume, Barth in Conversation, I wanted to share an answer Barth gave to the question of Biblical inerrancy. It provides us with insight into how Barth considered the Bible to be at once authoritative in its witness to God’s Word and yet limited as a human book.
Here is the question Barth was asked:
In this connection how does Dr. Barth harmonize his appeal to Scripture, as the objective Word of God, with his admission that Scripture is, indeed, sullied by errors, theological as well as historical or factual? (CD I/2: 507-12)
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. 1
There are two significant moves Barth makes here that will be important for those wanting to consider the issue of inerrancy for themselves. The first is to recognize that the Bible is an instrument; it serves a particular end. That means it is not in itself such an end. The Bible’s role is to point human beings towards the Word of God, and Barth makes an important point when he says that the Bible has proven itself worthy of this purpose. It is a “true and fitting” instrument. Therefore, it is reliable and trustworthy in its particular purpose.
But we should not make it into something it is not. The second move, therefore, is that the Bible is not the second incarnation of the Word. Surprisingly, however, I have heard it argued from inerrantist that in the Bible the Word of God “inscripturated” itself. That is nonsense. The Bible is not God-on-paper in the same way we confess that Jesus was God-in-flesh. The Bible, therefore, cannot be deemed sinless and infallible in the same way that Christ was sinless. Even if we attempt to claim that it is “perfect,” it cannot be in the same way that God is perfect. Might it be “perfect” in the sense that it is a “true and fitting” instrument to witness to God’s Word? Yes! But it is not free from errors because of its historical limitations. It remains a human book, despite being ordained by God for special use.
Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is worth examining more closely if you have concerns about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. You can read his full treatment of the Bible in Church Dogmatics I/2 but can also find helpful material in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Barth’s approach is a useful way forward between the form-critics of liberalism and the inerrantists of fundamentalism. Here we affirm with Barth that the Bible is reliable, true, and faithful in its witness to the Word of God, and thus it is normative in the Church and for theology. However, we confess that it is also a time-bound book, a book limited by human history. It is not sinless, therefore, but it is a suitable instrument.