All posts in “Inerrancy”

“The Bible is not Sinless” – Karl Barth (Barth in Conversation)

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 EnglishThere 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 ConversationI 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)

Barth responds:

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 IntroductionBarth’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.

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  1. Barth in ConversationKindle Loc. 4382-4391

Divine Interpretation by T.F. Torrance: a Review

Book: Divine Interpretation: Studies in Medieval and Modern Hermeneutics by Thomas F. Torrance (edited by Adam Nigh and Todd Speidell) (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf&Stock) (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: Released only this month, this collection of essays by Torrance is a valuable addition to his current body of work. While the two essays on Barth stood out as the high points of the book, each essay was a masterful piece of scholarship.

Undoubtably, the great benefit of this book is the republication of two important essays on Karl Barth written by Torrance and published in the now out of print (and therefore very costly) volume, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianI’ve wanted to read this book for some time now, but the near $100 price tag has prohibited me from getting my hands on a copy.

The essays “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy” and “Karl Barth, Theologian of the Word”, were naturally the high point of the book for me. Yesterday I posted an article examining several quotations from the first essay. Reading my article from yesterday will give you a taste of this essay, which you can do so by clicking here.

Continue Reading…

The Bible is Inadequate (& That’s Why It’s True)

unnamedThe bible is a tremendous gift to mankind. It is true, it is right, and most of all it is a witness to the Word of God. But it is not perfect. And in fact, the whole “true”-ness of the scriptures depends upon its inadequacy.

It is a hotly debated subject to say the least, the nature of the scriptures. But it’s an essential one. So you have to understand something before we begin. I do value the bible highly, and furthermore, I feel I value the bible even more than ever now that I understand it in this way. The bible has a special place in my heart, and has always been an important part of my journey as a believer. But in recent years I’ve begun to question the idea that it is, in and of itself, absolutely perfect. I still believe that it is true, and that it is filled with life and meaning and beauty—but I no longer see every single letter of the bible to be perfect. And so, let me tell you why I believe that’s a good thing.

Scripture as Witness

First, let me quote the man who summed up so well what I’ve been feeling about the bible for some time now: Thomas F. Torrance. I already listed several quotes from Torrance in my last article, but today I will expound on a few of them:

“In a realist theology this will mean that we must distinguish no less sharply between dogmatic formulations of the truth and the truth itself, in the recognition that even when we have done all that it is our duty to do in relating them rightly (i.e., in an “orthodox” way) to the truth, they nevertheless fall far short of what they should be, and are inadequate. Indeed, it must be said that their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.1

And also this one:

“That is to say, biblical statements are to be treated not as containing or embodying the Truth of God in themselves, but as pointing, under the leading of the Spirit of Truth, to Jesus Christ himself who is the Truth. We have to recognize the fact, therefore, that the Scriptures indicate much more than can be expressed, and that there is much more to their truth than can be reduced to words.” 2

Thomas Torrance is not the always easiest to understand, so let me unpack a little about of what I think he means here.

First of all, he is writing about the nature of scripture in relation to objective truth (Jesus Christ). Jesus Christ is truth. He is the Word of God. In other words, Jesus is God saying what He has to say about Himself. He is the objective center to which the bible points. All that we say about God should be said in the light of Jesus, since no knowledge of God is possible “behind the back” of Christ. The question then is, how do the scriptures relate to Jesus? How does a witness to the truth relate to the truth itself?

The scriptures themselves are not the Word of God. John 1 clearly ascribes the Word of God to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. Although, following Barth, it is important to see how the scriptures can become the Word of God, when breathed upon and illuminated by the Spirit of Truth. However, this does not make the bible itself perfect, that is, infallible or inerrant. Instead, the bible is a witness to the truth, and only becomes the truth itself when the truth illuminates it and speaks through it. With Barth 3, Torrance is affirming that the scriptures accurately give witness to the Revelation of God, but that in themselves they do not contain the perfect, infallible truth. That is, they are not perfect in themselves, but they are in what they give witness. They become perfect as God speaks through them.

Jesus is the objective truth of the scriptures. The scriptures speak of Jesus in human words, and human words will always be inadequate. They are inadequate words in relation to their object. Yet it’s exactly this fact that makes them true. As Torrance said above: “…their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.”

The bible points beyond itself. It is inadequate because its center is not in itself, but outside itself. It is also true for this same reason. Inadequacy is proof that the scriptures are true and give accurate witness to the Word of God. Because the scriptures point beyond themselves to the “truth they serve”. The objective truth is not found in the scriptures, but in the truth the scriptures give witness to. The truth of scriptures is above the scriptures themselves. They must be inadequate, or else they might replace the truth which they point to: the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

What this means

What does this mean for how we read the bible today?

It means, firstly, that we can trust the bible even more. More, not because we trust in the bible itself, but because we trust in the truth to which the bible points. We trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading us into all truth, giving witness to Christ, through the scriptures. Our trust in the bible is not in the bible itself, and therefore it is not in the endless history and criticisms which such trust ultimately involves, but instead it is in the God of the bible, in the Spirit that leads to truth. Our trust is in God, not a book. Though this book is God’s witness to Himself. Truth about God is found not in the bible, but through the bible in the Spirit of Truth witnessing to Christ. And only when we see this can we fully trust the bible.

This also means, secondly, that we can no longer be “literalists” in our reading. As I quoted from Torrance here, fundamentalism tends to elevates the bible above the truth they point to. In other words, the bible gets placed above God! We have become enslaved to a literalist word-fight, with proof-texts abounding, and only a proper understanding of the bible as witness can set us free. The bible is not a set of ready-made truths. The truth of scripture is found outside the scriptures in what they point to.

Thirdly, this means in practice that we no longer look to the bible for the bible’s sake, but through the bible for Christ’s sake. Thomas Torrance writes that, “The Holy Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are brought to know the true God…” And also that, “Christ Himself is the scope of the scriptures.” 4 We read the bible as a pair of glass through which we see the truth of God’s Word to mankind.

Far from devaluing the scriptures, this re-understanding places the bible into a context it belongs: as a witness to the objective truth of God’s Word. Out of this context the scriptures become an unhealthy obsession, fixating on every jot and tittle we find, instead of looking beyond them to the face of Jesus.

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  1. Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical TheologyJohn Knox Press, 1982, P. 50-1
  2. ibid, P. 119
  3. A great article on Karl Barth’s understanding of the scriptures and error, can be found here (by Postbartian)
  4. ibid, P. 64 and 107, respectively.