Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Verbal Inspiration (4)

And so we come to the point. Throughout the history of God's dealings with his people, there has just one way for them to know anything about him: namely, revelation. If anything is to be known about God by human beings, it must be revealed to them by God. Israel knew God only because he revealed himself at Sinai; the disciples knew (more of) God only because Jesus stood in front of them; the early churches knew God only because of the witness of the apostles to Christ. Revelation all the way.

What the doctrine of verbal inspiration particularly safeguards is an implication of this basic fact. Because revelation was given in a specific form, that form is not incidental or accidental, and cannot be changed, ignored or somehow minimised. Just as you could not be a committed Yahwist and yet dispense with certain ceremonies of the law; just as you could not be a disciple of Jesus and yet ignore a few things he said ("get behind me Satan"!); just as you could not be a primitive Christian and yet disparage the authority of the apostles; so you cannot be a Christian today and not take every word, phrase, concept, image - in short, every jot and tittle - of Scripture with absolute, earnest seriousness.

God revealed himself in Christ. God commissioned the apostles as his witnesses. God oversaw the preaching, teaching and writing of the apostles such that their witness is also his witness by the Holy Spirit. And that witness is now collected for us in Holy Scripture, which we must take as it comes, recognising our inability to establish even one thing about God without it.

The way the doctrine of verbal inspiration has traditionally been stated and used, and particularly the place it has been given at the very doorway of evangelical theology, can (and I think should) be subjected to critique. But we must be absolutely certain that the critique of this doctrine is not driven by a desire to wriggle out of the fact that Scripture comes to us in a concrete, solid form - a form with edges, as it were - which we must take seriously and must consider ourselves bound to. Otherwise, the slide into idolatry has already begun. We begin by assuming that the form in which God's revelation comes is secondary - just packaging. That implicitly permits us to engage in the task of discerning what is 'secondary' and can be discarded and what is 'the real thing'. And that, of course, allows our preferences to override God's revelation. May he keep us from it.

Now, there's much that could be said in critique of Barth's doctrine of inspiration, but in defence of the master I must point out that he definitely believes in verbal inspiration as I have just stated it, and I'd like to leave off with a quote from him. (You can find it on page 533 of CD 1.2)

We can sum up all that must be said on this point in the statement that faith in the inspiration of the Bible stands or falls by whether the concrete life of the Church and of the members of the Church is a life really dominated by the exegesis of the Bible. If the Biblical text in its literalness as a text does not force itself upon us, or if we have the freedom word by word to shake ourselves loose from it, what meaning is there in our protestation that the Bible is inspired and the Word of God? To say "Lord, Lord" is not enough. What matters is to do the will of God if we are to know His grace and truth - for that is the inspiration of the Bible.


  1. So, is the Bible God's revelation, or merely a (albeit Sprit inspired) witness to God's revelation?

    This is where Barth goes wrong IMHO (although, to be honest, that weird dialectical method means summing up what he says on any point is pretty difficult) Especially as he says you can only indirectly identify the truth about God with the words that witness to that truth.

  2. Hi Mo,

    I'm not really wanting to defend everything KB has to say on this subject. I think the question you raise is interesting, and I may well write a whole post about it tomorrow...

    Actually, I think the main critique to launch against Barth's view of inspiration is that he wrongly assumes that human language is incapable of being free from error. That is linked to his assertion that Christ has a sinful human nature - but that's a whole different can of worms. On the whole, I think the indirect identity thesis serves to preserve an important truth - that Jesus is The Thing and the Bible is not The Thing. (In a very specific sense - I will write about this tomorrow, I feel a blog post growing in my brain).

    Note, though, that Barth's doctrine does not permit the sort of liberal sifting through the Scriptures for the bits I like - which is what evangelicals are often rightly fearful of, I think.

  3. I agree with you on this point: "I take issue with the way this doctrine is often applied in evangelicalism today" (post 1).

    That's a fairly general statement... what I mean by it is to say that to assume that verbal inspiration means that God only has one particular thing to say at every point in Israel's history is a mistake which doesn't take the form of the bible seriously.

    An over-systemisation and generalisation of God's revelation blends out the polyphony - rather like the attempt to create a harmony of the gospels.

    I'll be concrete: What does God say about the relationship between suffering and sin? If we don't hear the different answers being given in say Proverbs, Lamentations, Kings, Ecclesiastes and Job then we overlook how special and specific God's words are to different situations. We must have a sense of the development and progression of God's revelation through real human agency - even of the "conversation" within Israels blossoming "theology". If we don't, then we are in danger of idealising our view of the bible, imagining it to be a book of timeless statements rather than reading what's there.