It is a most happy coincidence that the celebration of Karl Barth’s seventieth birthday should have seen the completion of the translation of the second part of Volume I of his Dogmatics. The English-speaking world has had to wait almost twenty years for this continuation of the series, although it is hoped that the other volumes on the doctrines of God, Creation, Reconciliation and Redemption can now follow in fairly regular sequence. But the importance of the initial volume has not diminished, for it is here in his Prolegomena that Barth lays the foundation with his doctrine of the Word of God. In particular, the second part volume treats in some detail of Holy Scripture, and contains a full and balanced statement of Barth’s maturer doctrine of the Bible. It is with this specific topic that we are to deal in the present discussion.

Setting of Barth’s Exposition

First, we must note the general setting of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture within his general treatment of the divine Word. It follows the long chapter on the revelation of God as a work of the Trinity, and precedes a concluding chapter on the proclamation of the Church. In other words, as the Word written, Scripture is preceded by the Word revealed and followed by the Word preached. The chapter on Scripture (I, 2, pp. 457–695 E.T.) is itself divided into three main sections, each of which has two sub-sections. The doctrine of inspiration is handled in the first section, “The Word of God for the Church,” under the more detailed headings “Scripture as a Witness to divine Revelation” and “Scripture as the Word of God.” The other sections are devoted to questions of authority and freedom, and although they have their own importance, we may discount them for our present purpose.

It is a pity that considerations of space do not allow a more rigorous analysis of this first section (pp. 457–537). All that we can do for the moment is to indicate some of the main points that are made, listing the valuable emphases and marking the points which call for criticism or query. A consideration to bear in mind is that the whole of this volume was written almost twenty years ago, and it may well be suspected that in some respects Barth himself might place the emphasis differently if he were to rewrite the work today. At any rate, there is a marked shift in his doctrine of reconciliation (IV, 1) in answer to the wholesale subjectivisation of Bultmann.

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Beyond the Liberal View

We may begin with some confident endorsements. For example, the practice of the Church is often better than its theory in the acceptance of Scripture’s authority. And it is as well to start from the fact of biblical supremacy as Barth himself does. The doctrine of the Canon is also thoroughly in the tradition of the Reformation—even to the point of admitting that the Church’s decision might conceivably be overthrown by the self-authentication of newly-found documents. Barth thinks of this only in terms of possibility, his main point being that the Church’s judgment is fallible as such and can only follow the self-witness of Scripture. A further point is the definition of Scripture primarily in terms of witness. This is contested in some quarters as depreciatory of the true nature of Scripture. But it is difficult to see how the concept can legitimately be resisted, for we must obviously safeguard the primacy of God, and especially of the Logos, in and over Scripture, and Jesus Himself refers to the Old Testament Scriptures in these terms: “They are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). It is worth noting that Barth categorically asserts the uniqueness of Scripture in this capacity. The indefinite article “a” is added in the English title to the first sub-section to give it a more natural ring, but it is not actually in the German, and 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.

Role of Biblical Presuppositions

Another important and welcome contention is that a truly historical study of the Bible demands an acceptance of the Biblical presuppositions and teaching. It is not enough to try to use “historicist” methods, for the Bible is an interpretation and demands a wider decision. To try to sift out the “historical” elements from the theological is ipso facto to reject the latter and therefore to become unhistorical in the wider and deeper sense. The matter cuts very deep, for in this as in all our dealings with God we must allow our study to be determined by its object, i.e., Jesus Christ Himself, and therefore as far as possible accept only the biblical presuppositions. Barth realizes that this is not easy. That is why he is mild enough in his strictures on the Aristotelianism or Cartesianism of many of the seventeenth century divines. But he is surely right in principle. If the Bible is so important, it must be the Bible in terms of itself, not the Bible in terms of a current or traditional philosophy, however imposing. No wonder that Barth reminds us that genuine reading of the Bible is possible only in obedient humility, and therefore with prayer.

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Compromise of Reliability

When he comes to the historical reliability of the Bible, Barth is not quite so happy. He allows himself to make rather sweeping and categorical judgments which he mostly ignores in his own practice and which seem largely designed to clear him from a possible charge of Fundamentalism. He does not actually discuss these matters in detail, but takes it that the historical deficiencies belong to the human side of the divine word in Scripture. How far the christological analogy allows us to adopt this attitude is a query to which we may return. For the moment, however, we may object that Barth seems to commit the very error of judging Scripture which he had formerly rejected, and that he uses the presuppositions of historicism to do it. If his criticisms of an unhistorical historicism are justified, as they may well be, it is surely puzzling that Barth adopts this attitude. On the other hand, if we are to make historicist judgments, we must treat each case on its merits, and miracles especially will constitute a permanent stumbling block. All in all, the remarks on errors, and so forth, seem very like lip-service to current notions, but the matter evidently needs to be thought through with rather greater rigor.

Inspiredness Versus Inspiration

We may now turn to inspiration proper, and here the main contention of Barth is that attention has been too conclusively directed to the given fact of inspiration, i.e., what he calls the inspiredness of the Bible. In a valuable historical survey he shows how very quietly this aspect came to the forefront, and naturally resulted in rigid and sometimes docetic views of inspiration. As he sees it, it was a hardening in this direction, and the consequent attempt to prove rationally the integrity of Scripture, which led to the reaction of Liberalism. A better way indicated by the Reformers was not followed by their successors. This better way, while it involved the traditional doctrine, consisted primarily in a new emphasis on the dynamic operation of the Holy Spirit. And it is this way which Barth himself attempts to follow. The all-important thing in inspiration, as Barth sees it, is the present action of the Spirit giving life and actuality to the apostolic and prophetic word as it is heard and read. In other words, inspiration is not an attribute or state. It is an event. This event has happened in the past, so that we can look back to it; and it will happen again in the future, so that we can also look forward to it. Inspiration itself, however, is the present act between this recollection and expectation. It is the divine act which cannot be seized or stated because as soon as it takes place it becomes again the past which we recollect, and the future which we expect. This is the heart of Barth’s doctrine of inspiration, and it is by this assertion that it must ultimately stand or fall.

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We must not misunderstand it. Barth does not envisage it as a thoroughgoing subjectivisation. It is not just as the act in me that inspiration is important. It is as the act of God in me. Nor is this an unrelated and capricious act. It is referred strictly to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and its attestation in Old and New Testament Scripture. These are given facts which stand outside the momentary act. It is also to be remembered that the recollection and expectation are of definite events of inspiration, not only in our own lives, but also in those of others. Even in his dynamic and subjective preference, Barth plainly does not intend that the doctrine should be subjectivized and therefore undermined.

At the same time, the teaching is not immune from serious criticism. In the first place there is the biblical objection. Barth attempts to sustain his thesis by an exegesis of the two main texts, in I Timothy and II Peter, and passages in I and II Corinthians. But his attempts to read into the passages on inspiration a movement from recollection to expectation—with the assertion of inspiration between—are not a very convincing exposition; and although there is a valuable truth in his understanding of 2 Corinthians 3, it seems to be given a disproportionate emphasis in relation to the whole. Again, the historical argument is not by any means conclusive. No doubt a rationalized orthodoxy did contribute to the rationalistic revolt. But so, too, did the false subjectivism of the various “Inner Light” movements. And while the Reformers emphasized the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, they did not abandon a strict doctrine of inspired authorship. To be sure, they knew better than to try to prove, and therefore to master, the truth and authority of the Bible. Its ultimate validity lay in its true Author and Expositor. But all the same, the fact that it had this Author and Expositor meant that it was itself an inspired test, and this is presupposed in all Reformation discussion. At any rate, the evidence may be read in different ways and cannot therefore be pressed in support of any particular interpretation.

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Does the Christological Analogy Hold?

But the understanding gives rise to the very basic questions which we have to address to Barth’s teaching. Before we pursue this, we will return briefly to the earliest question of the christological analogy. As Barth puts it, the human phrasing of the Bible corresponds to the human nature of Christ as the divine Word in the Bible does to the divine. But he will not allow that there is a corresponding unity of “person.” The unity of words in the Bible is a unity of special divine act. This is a distinction of great importance, and it is worth noting that it was a distinction drawn by the Reformers (e.g., implicitly by Zwingli and quite explicitly by Cranmer) in the parallel doctrine of the sacraments. Indeed, we may say that in certain respects it is a necessary and inevitable distinction. But can we really press it quite so far as Barth does, or in the same direction? Is it a genuine basis for ascribing historical error to the Bible, or virtually rejecting its objective inspiration?

Priority of Inspiration

At this point, the question merges into the second, whether the term inspiration is correctly used of the internal work of the Spirit in relation to the hearers and readers. Barth is undoubtedly right that this is necessarily complementary to the work of the Holy Spirit in the authors. An inspired Bible is of little value unless it comes alive for the reader—just as Christ Himself must be perceived and known as Christ if His gracious work is to avail for us. Yet the fact remains that as Christ was and is the Son of God and Savior irrespective of our human response, so too the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and is therefore God’s Word even if hearing we do not hear. And in the Bible it is surely the case that inspiration is used primarily of the act of the Holy Spirit in and through the authors, not the readers. By extension it may also be used in reference to the readers. But although it is a work done through the text, it is really a work done in the readers rather than the text. It is a work of enlightenment or illumination rather than inspiration. We may be grateful to Barth that he has directed our attention again to this aspect. We may join in prayer that the Spirit will breathe upon the Word and thus “inspire” it to us and for us. But we have still to recognise, have we not, that there is a prior work to which this present work is correlative, that the Spirit breathes upon a word which He has already inbreathed through the prophetic and apostolic authors. Otherwise it may be doubted whether all the safeguards that Barth genuinely proposes will preserve us from a final, radical subjectivism.

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The Rev. G. W. Bromiley was senior scholar at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he took a first-class honours degree in Modern Languages, followed by a Ph.D. and D.Litt. at Edinburgh. He was lecturer and vice-principal at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, from 1946 to 1951, and is now rector of St. Thomas’ English Episcopal Church, Edinburgh. His most recent work, Thomas Cranmer Theologian, was published by Oxford University Press.

Preacher In The Red


Early in my ministry I was called to conduct the funeral for the wife of one of the church members. She was not a member and never attended, having been ill for a long time. I had not been on the field long and was not well acquainted with the families in the church.

The funeral was held in January and shortly after, the husband of the deceased left for Florida.

I did not see him again, until one extremely hot afternoon in August. Meeting him on the street, I tried to be cordial and concerned, though I could not remember just what the situation was in his life. I had a faint recollection of his wife’s illness, but had forgotten her death. So, after a moment’s greeting, I asked, “How is your wife standing the heat?”—Dr. F. H. JOHNSON, Pastor, Central Baptist Church, Dayton, Ohio.

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