1 December 2007

Michael Pailthorpe gave a presentation for discussion on an essay by Kevin Vanhoozer on Karl Barth’s approach to Scripture in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology – Convergences and Divergences, edited by Sung Wook Chung, (Baker, 2006).

Karl Barth’s view of the Bible [download paper here]

This presentation will be informed by Vanhoozer’s essay “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation” found in a book entitled Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology – Convergences and Divergences. By “informed” what I mean is that I have incorporated summaries of his arguments or observations from his essay so as to help us to understand Barth’s approach to the Bible and its interpretation. This presentation is really a summary of his essay or most of it. So, what I’ll be doing is presenting Barth’s doctrine of scripture with Vanhoozer as our guide but we’ll be relying on my own reading and summary.

Kevin Vanhoozer is currently Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Editor of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Author of The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Is There a Meaning in this Text? the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics, etc.

Vanhoozer, thus, speaks on the subject of hermeneutics with authority. But does Vanhoozer approach Karl Barth too kindly? His essay is a fairly mediating position as well as a promoting of his own theories. In the end, it is Vanhoozer who is the mediator between Barth and evangelicalism. Though, Vanhoozer is most helpful in outlining the historical reaction to Barth, drawing out the differences between various theories and helps us to appreciate their arguments and concerns. Barth’s approach is opposed or maybe a reinterpretation of what we may know as verbal inspiration and concepts such as inerrancy and infallibility.

~ Questions to keep in mind for later discussion ~

When it comes to ministry what are some of the strengths / problems of Barth’s approach to scripture as opposed to theory of verbal inspiration?

Is Barth’s view compatible or helpful for pastoral ministry?

When we preach, in what sense is it the Word of God?

What is the relationship between Jesus Christ – the Logos (John 1) and the Bible, which is also dubbed the “Word of God”?


I, like many others, would have loved to have been at the 2007 Karl Barth Conference where the theme was the question “Evangelicalism: Friends or Foes?” held at Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ. [We can download the lectures for free by emailing PTS media.] Noticeably absent at the conference, for whatever reason, was a paper on Barth’s doctrine or approach to Scripture. This is interesting considering the historical reception that Barth received.

~ Scripture as form of and witness to God’s Word~

In a helpful summation Vanhoozer outlines Barth’s approach to scripture and the cause of misunderstanding.

“Barth never tired of insisting that only God can make God known. The overarching theological presupposition, without which Barth’s doctrine of Scripture cannot be understood, is that revelation is a predicate of God as a free, gracious, and active subject. Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh – is the definitive Word. Yet both Jesus in his humanity and Scripture in its humanity become revelation only when God acts in and through them to make himself known… It all boils down to a case of mistaken identity. For evangelicals, the Word of God is an object – the deposit of revealed truth in Scripture. By contrast, for Barth the Word of God is a subject whose speaking in and through Jesus Christ creates both the canon and the church.” (p39)

A term important to Barth is the term of “witness” with its imagery of pointing away from oneself nicely illustrated by Barth’s favourite painting Grünewald’s crucifixion panel. The scriptures, then, are a testimony to the Christ event, and are a form of the Word of God.

For Barth, inspiration and inerrancy is a matter of miracle and mystery or paradox. He believed that the Protestant doctrine of verbal inspiration did “incalculable damage” and shifted revelation to a level that became “subject to human investigation and control” and he was also comfortable in affirming the fallibility and authority of the scriptures. It is a miracle that fallible human words become the Word of God like Jesus healing the blind and the sick. The authority of scripture does not come from a “contingent outcome of scientific or historical corroboration” but from faith; not from inerrancy but an embrace of the mystery or paradox of something both divine and human.

“God’s sovereign freedom remains the leading motif in Barth’s discussion of
the canon and biblical authority. The basic principle is simply this: God’s use
of Scripture is prior to and decisive for the church’s use of Scripture.”

The place of Barth’s form of inerrancy is that the Bible is an “inerrant testimony to God’s self-revelation.” The Bible’s telos is its authority over the church, confession, theology and theologian. Vanhoozer suggests that Barth’s rejection of the doctrine of inerrancy may be more rhetorical than a matter of theological consistency and Bromiley seems to see a form of inerrancy as an implication of Barth’s position.

Vanhoozer sees a weakness in criticism that does not examine Barth’s use of scripture throughout his theological work. Vanhoozer reminds us, in case we thought that Barth‘s method was superfluous, that for Barth, dogmatics is secondary to exegesis, the authority of the church is an authority under the Word, and that he cites more scripture than any other theologian in history (is this because he has simply written more?). In principle, the interpretation of scripture is Barth’s sole aim and “the primary task of theology is to clarify what is written in Scripture.” Scholars Francis Watson, John Webster, Kenneth Kantzer sustain this characteristic of Barth’s work and prompt us to consider Barth’s actual practise and not simply with his theory.

Vanhoozer points out, in reference to Der Romerbrief, that Barth’s break with theological liberalism was hermeneutical as well as theological.

“His hermeneutical revolution stemmed from his growing convictions that, (1) a truly critical or scientific approach is one that is appropriate to that particular subject matter being discussed and, (2) the particular subject matter or Sache of the Bible is neither subjective religious experience (contra theological liberals) nor the objective history of the historian (contra conservative evangelicals) but rather the revelatory and redemptive self-presentation of God in the person and history of Jesus Christ.” (p46)

Barth once said that “the historical-critical school must become more critical in order to suit me!” which Eberhard Jungel points out means “grown-up scholars whose reflective exegetical labours have made them rigid must become as children, who see and hear more because they know less.” For Barth, biblical interpretation is not about mastering the text through the greatest methodology but instead being mastered or gripped by the text or subject matter; hearing and obeying the text rather than scientifically subduing it.

“Barth’s decision to read all of Scripture as a unified witness to God’s Word and his concomitant tendency to read the Bible as a literary whole leads him to focus on large canonical patterns and to make typological connections in a way that makes evangelical exegetes trained to read in grammatical-historical fashion uneasy.” (p47)

How then does Holy Scripture become the Word of God? Vanhoozer writes, “what happens is that the Sache – the free God in his self-revelation – “commandeers” the biblical language, and the thoughts of the reader, so that the text actively points to the living Christ. It is ultimately the Holy Spirit who closes the gap between what is written and what the reader discovers therein.” (p48)

The reality of the scriptural witness then is not based on literalism or mythological expressivism but purely on the author’s testimony of Christ. In the case of the gospel accounts of the empty tomb it is a referent to the physical and living Christ. The problem with literalism and historical verification (or falsification) is that it assumes autonomous contact with God’s self-revelation apart from the testimony of scripture and of faith. For Barth, the referent of the scriptures in Jesus Christ is unavailable to historical confirmation of exactness and the difference for Barth is,

“Revelation is in history, but it is not of history. While the
resurrection is a historical event, Barth distinguishes between the sheer occurrences of events and God’s self-revelation in them. The Gospels are not historical records but testimonies to God’s self-revelation in history.” (p50)

The scriptures then are not to be treated as evidences but faith-based observations. This form of biblical interpretation is exciting in considering the canonical and systematic reading of the whole of scripture in its entire narrative and what’s more that I am not lord of the Bible but the Holy Spirit is Lord of the mystery that has been made known and moves me from concepts to reality.

Bruce McCormack sets to correct a misunderstanding of Barth in his concept of the “becoming” of scripture. McCormack points out that being in becoming does not merely relate to scripture but to everything in Barth’s theological ontology.

“When God chooses to bear witness to himself to a particular person reader, then the Bible does not become what it is to that reader: in this case, it is not (actually) what it is (essentially).” (p51)

The key then is “divine discretion” – grace not nature. McCormack thus dismisses the subjectivist accusations directed toward Barth. McCormack labels Barth’s approach as “dynamic infallibilism” which is in contrast to a belief in the divine truth of scripture being static, being apart of its nature, as opposed to its authority being an act of grace from the Holy Spirit.

John Webster’s concept of “Exegesis is an aspect of sanctification” helps us to understand the term “Holy Scripture” and what makes it “holy.” Scripture is holy because it is has been set apart (sanctified) for a divine purpose. This affirms Barth’s embrace of the divine activity on Scripture and pushes us to see the interpretation of scripture as not merely a human act toward a passive object but rather the opposite in that we are the object of Holy Scripture.

OK, now to the historical reception of Barth. Vanhoozer begins his essay by outlining certain reactions to Barth’s approach to the identity of Scripture as becoming the word of God. Through many attempts to understand Barth’s approach, some better than others, Vanhoozer focuses on the significant individuals who were in direct opposition and then some who were more tentative. Vanhoozer believes that the initial evangelical response was “largely negative and reactionary” and maintains Cornelius Van Til and Carl F. H. Henry were the movers-and-shakers of this initial reaction. Vanhoozer believes that the response to Barth was characterised by a,

“(1) disproportionate concern for epistemology, (2) focus on certain statements in isolation from their “canonical” context (viz. the whole of Barth’s work), and (3) lack of attention to Barth’s actual exegetical practice.” (p28)

Cornelius Van Til saw Barth as “a dangerous enemy precisely because he comes in the guise of a friend” using orthodox terms but with unorthodox meanings. Van Til struggled with the concept of the Bible not being the Word of God in and of itself as opposed to Barth’s less tangible approach to the Scriptures as having their being and authority tied to God’s freedom to speak. This concept, Van Til believed, was formulated from a philosophical humanist approach and did not grasp Barth’s thesis of Wholly Otherness.

Carl F. H. Henry also struggled with the fluidity of Scripture becoming the Word of God and with Barth’s emphasis on God’s Wholly Otherness for he saw it leading to scepticism. “How can one treat a fallible book as an authoritative norm?” Henry believes that Barth works from an irrationalism and would benefit from the law of non contradiction. It is telling then that Thomas F. Torrance tells of a time in his Union Theological College lectures once engaging with Carl Henry with his presupposed rationalism with the concept of falleness extending even to human rationality.

Kevin Vanhoozer continues to focus on the reception of Barth in America. Two theologians who didn’t knee-jerk to Barth but have engaged and in some sense appropriated his thought are Bernard Ramm and Donald G. Bloesch. In the 1970’s the general consensus regarding a Barthian approach to scripture was an understanding that Barth distinguishes between revelation and the Bible similar to an Arian view of the Logos i.e. there was a time when the Bible was not the Word of God in that it becomes the Word of God. However, of course, fundamentalism may be criticised for a Docetic view of the Bible or an approach similar to Islam.

Bernard Ramm saw problems with the evangelical movement of his day and found solace in Barth’s method and was challenged by the true subject (the Word) and true object (the reader) of the Scriptures, which is somewhat of a reversal to the fundamentalist model.

“Ramm sees Barth as charting the way forward for theology, neither succumbing to the Enlightenment and becoming revisionists as the liberals did, nor ignoring the Enlightenment and becoming obscurantists, denying the validity of modern knowledge, as the fundamentalists did.” (p34)

Throughout Ramm’s contribution to How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, Edited by Donald McKim, (Wipf & Stock, 1998) he is full of praise for Barth and is indebted to him though still sees problems in Barth’s theory which needs to be more workable or more convincing. I agree here with Ramm, that sometimes when it comes to my own exegesis and hermeneutics I find myself rethinking how to exactly appropriate Barth’s theory.

Donald G. Bloesch seems to come across as more cautious than Ramm throughout Vanhoozer’s essay and Bloesch’s contribution to How Karl Barth Changed My Mind. Though, Bloesch is most certainly strongly influenced and closer to Barth than say Tillich or Carl Henry when it comes to biblical authority and interpretation. Bloesch is certainly unsatisfied with conservative approaches and warns against a rationalism that infers that the Word of God can be grasped by deductive reasoning and exegetical procedures. For Bloesch, the Holy Scripture is a God appointed vessel for God’s revelation and it is the work of the Holy Spirit that differentiates between the word of God and the word of man. This work of the Spirit brings a spiritual meaning to the scriptures throughout history which is perceived only through faith (Fideistic revelationalism).

“We should not thereby conclude that we are passive in the process of understanding. We strain with all our efforts to discern the full impact and meaning of a biblical passage as it bears on our lives here and now. But this meaning will elude us until we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit in order to see the relation of the text to the cross of Christ, the centre and apex of Scripture. It is when we begin to apprehend the Christological significance of the text that we enter into what Barth calls “the strange new world of the Bible.” It is when the text speaks to us through the power of the Spirit that our lives begin to make sense, for we now see ourselves in the light of eternity. The breakthrough into meaning occurs when the text is no longer the interpreted object but the dynamic interpreter (Johann Albrecht Bengel).”

Donald G. Bloesch, Christian Foundations: Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, (IVP, 1994), 178-181.

Vanhoozer points out that it was Yale Divinity School that picked-up and ran with Barth’s hermeneutic, which Hans Frei describes as realistic narrative and allows the biblical narrative to speak through itself without imposing additional criteria. George Lindbeck, influenced by Barth through Frei, coined the term intratextuality (interpreting a world into a text) as opposed to extratextuality (interpreting a text into a world). Vanhoozer helps to clarify the contrast by highlighting an encounter between Carl Henry and Frei where,

“Henry viewed the gospel narratives primarily as reports about historical facts, while Frei saw them as depictions of a particular unsubstitutable Person.” (p38)

Vanhoozer’s Doctrine of Scripture:

“The bible is the word of God insofar as its inspired witnesses – which is to say the inspired locutions and illocutions – really do present Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible also becomes the word of God when its illumined readers receive and grasp the subject matter by grace through faith, which is to say, when the Spirit enables what we might call illocutionary uptake and perlocutionary efficacy. The full measure of scripture as a communicative act of God, then, involves the-Spirit-testifying-about-Jesus-through-Scripture-to-the-church.” (p57)

To summarise Vanhoozer’s conclusion: “evangelicals and Barth can agree, at the very least, that the Bible is a central ingredient in the economy of God’s self-communication. As to ontology, Scripture is divine-human communicative action: the Bible has it being in its locutions and illocutions, yet the Bible becomes what it is when the illuminating Spirit ministers those locutions and illocutions in order to bring about the divinely intended perlocutionary effects.”

Presentation by Michael J Pailthorpe

  • “Witness to the Word: On Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture” by Mark D. Thompson in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques


  • Jason Goroncy article: The Error of Inerrancy



(Transferred from previous page. Hence the strange format of comments below)

aabecina said:
December 13, 2007 at 1:53 am

Attending Michael’s presentation helped me to appreciate Vanhoozer all the more as a mediating position between, say, Henry and Barth. Vanhoozer’s threefold distinction between the locutions, illocutions and perlocutions of scripture helped greatly in our discussion of the objectivity/subjectivity of the Word, it’s “being and becoming” and the role of Word and Spirit in God’s communicative action.If I could just re-iterate a question/scenario I posed at the meeting: Two preachers sit down to prepare their Sunday sermon based on some bible passage. One subscribes to biblical inerrancy whilst the other believes, along with Barth, that the Word of God is not an object but subject (cf. Michael’s paper). What actual difference is there between the way that these two preachers prepare and deliver their sermons?

aabecina said:
December 21, 2007 at 12:47 pm

Well, maybe the readers of this blog might feel more inclined to respond to the question if I get the ball rolling.As far as I can see there aren’t necessarily any differences between the sermon preparation of either preacher.Both I presume perform some act of exegesis; that is to objectify the text under the use of interpretive/hermeneutical methods etc. And also both, I presume, may realise that the Word addresses them as subject, as God freely speaking to them, even through a fixed text.So, no difference in practice huh? Maybe I’ve overlooked something here…Further thoughts?

mjpailthorpe said:
December 22, 2007 at 2:27 am

Hello Alex,Thanks for being the first to ask a question and kick off discussion. I share your concern for maybe something that might be merely theoretical without a practical impact. I think in a general sense you are right and the differences may not be apparent until the two views in question are pushed to their extremes. Though I think due to the contrast between Barth and verbal inspiration (especially in the subject/object relationship) that there would have to be implications or at least subtle nuances in the approach to preaching. In what sense, can we say when we preach that we have spoken the word of God? I think for a verbal inspiration approach that human words become divine words because of a pure exegesis and faithfulness to the text. Barthian motifs affirm that human words become divine words (despite careful exegesis) only in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. My concern for a doctrine of verbal inspiration is that it is does not have a Trinitarian nature and is more Unitarian. Barth, I think, is more Trinitarian in his approach and preaching is thus participation through the Holy Spirit, in the Word’s proclamation of the Father. Verbal inspiration allows the word of God to be grasped, which sounds Pelagian to me. The implications, therefore, would be in the impact of the different approaches – their fruit. I have made allusions (rightly or wrongly) to Unitarianism and Pelagianism and so (if not straw men) what would these views foster in people, where God could be grasped without a mediator and preaching is all about what we do. I will continue to think this through Alex and I know I haven’t directly answered your question but look forward to your response and others.

aabecina said:
December 22, 2007 at 2:11 pm

Hey Michael, thanks for taking the time out to continue the discussion. Here are some of my further thoughts in response to some of the points you raised.On the topic of verbal inspiration: I have personally heard many preachers who subscribe to so called verbal inspiration, who undergo the exegetical hard yards in preparing their sermons, and who yet pray before delivering the sermon that God would speak through them. Now, it’s not that their act of prayer is the finishing touch that will finally secure God’s speaking. Rather, there is a realisation and humble admission here that God will speak in his own freedom, even if it is not articulated in Barthian terms. A belief in verbal inspiration for these preachers doesn’t necessarily imply that good and thorough exegetical work somehow automatically guarantees God speaking. Preaching God’s word is therefore not so much about what we must “do” (your reference to Pelagianism) for the many who subscribe to verbal inspiration.

mjpailthorpe said:
December 27, 2007 at 3:26 am

Merry Christmas Alex, I’m not too sure if a prayer that we pray which requests God to speak removes the emphasis of what we do. If we do all the work and we ask God to bless it, how does this remove a Pelagian or Unitarian critique? There is, for all preachers, a challenge of where we place our belief and confidence and a realisation of who speaks. Is it in the exegetical hard yards, the hermeneutical techniques, rhetorical strategies, and other devices and aids or in the fact that God speaks through Christ and through Christ we hear and respond? The Barthian approach seems to be clearer as to who speaks. I can see how, when the Word becomes subject (and we object) that there would be an emphasis on the grasping or handling as opposed to Scripture’s handling of us. The strength of the Barthian approach would be that in spite of time restraints, peer or denominational pressures, and indeed our own weaknesses that our confidence is in Jesus Christ, who as Immanuel preaches himself. The emphasis then is taken away from our performance and onto Christ’s. This is an exciting and sustaining notion for the ministry of preaching but also its reception and response.

aabecina said:
December 27, 2007 at 8:29 am

Thanks for your reply. On the subject of prayer -the point I was intending to make was that the praying preacher recognises that only God can speak for God. Neither exegesis nor prayer acts as a catalyst for God speaking. I think we’re on the same page here!What place does exegesis, prayer etc. have then in preaching? I think that you tend to see these as outright human efforts, which led to your comments on Pelagianism and Unitarianism. Can I propose that we could understand these instead as the perlocutionary effects of God’s spirit speaking through his word?In the same way that God’s Spirit sanctifies human reason (Webster’s ‘Holy reason’) and even texts (cf. Webster’s comment below) he may also sanctify exegesis and prayer through the ongoing and desired effects of his spirit speaking through his word. So, I think I can basically agree with what you’ve been driving at, except the point I’m trying to make in addition is that I’m pretty sure that you can believe in verbal inspiration along with it.Michael Jensen has posted a timely comment on his blog – a quote from John Webster:http://mpjensen.blogspot.com/2007/12/webster-and-inspiration-verbal.htmlCheck it out.I do appreciate your practical concern for the preacher to depend not on his own strength, but on God’s. How would a minister like yourself survive otherwise? Brekky 2moz? cya then.

mjpailthorpe said:
December 30, 2007 at 12:43 am

Hey Alex, You’ll be at the airport now but this is only chance I have to get to the internet. But to your response: Yes, I agree, I am emphasising a Trinitarian approach where our acts are not or become priori as separated from Christ as mediator. I am concerned that once we try to advance human action subtly or unconsciously there are soon the practical implications and pressures upon efforts, performance, method and skill. There is most certainly the necessity for human action that is united to Christ’s humanity and ‘witness of the Holy Spirit’ (Calvin). In referring to Webster, we have moved on in our definition of ‘verbal inspiration’. The reaction to Barth was maybe a misrepresentation of the doctrine of ‘verbal inspiration’ as upholding a Docetic view of scripture. Webster alludes to misrepresentation. I am happy with Webster’s refining or restating of the doctrine of ‘verbal inspiration’ and I am indeed reacting to a Docetic view and hopefully not creating one. In Vanhoozer we see a bi-polarity of views of which he (Vanhoozer) is the mean and so Webster is helpful.As to the pragmatic differences, I don’t think there is any between Webster and Barth though for a Docetic and tangible (distorted) view of the Word of God in scripture, I think, essentially there is no need for prayer and on some level exegesis, for the Word is contained literally and, therefore, grasped. Exegesis is only employed when things are hard to grasp or in support of a presupposition. Though, putting distortions aside, in essence there would be unnoticed any dramatic differences in the scenario of the two preachers. I look forward to your response once you’ve settled in and recovered from your flight. Although, knowing you, you’ll probably be waiting anxiously at an internet café or something. God Bless brother.

mjpailthorpe said:
January 1, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Comments emailed by Alan Harley in regard to Alex Abecina’s original question:It’s difficult to provide a simple answer to that one. When I was in North America pre-1980 I was involved in church union discussions between two bodies – the Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church. In terms of their mission, their basic theology, number of members, and modus operandi the two groups were almost identical. But the union talks foundered and came to a halt over the doctrine of inerrancy/ verbal inspiration. The Wesleyans insisted on it; the Free Methodists (to which I belonged) did not. The former accused the latter of neo-orthodoxy (Barthianism), and the latter charged the former with fundamentalism. Yet in terms of their respective preaching ministries, it was impossible to tell them apart. There was not, and is not, a drift away from an evangelical, orthodox position on the part of the Free Methodists. Outside of Australia they are still busily evangelising and planting churches. Historically, evangelical Methodists were content to affirm the position of the 39 Articles that “the Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation”. This, like 2 Tim.3:16, places the issue of inspiration in terms of what the Bible accomplishes rather than the ontological essence of the Bible itself. The same could be said of the Salvos who have never officially embraced verbal inspiration/inerrancy and by and large do not affirm it but have not in their 140 plus years ceased to be evangelical. It’s the only denomination outside of Pentecostalism where one can be sure that wherever they preach it will be acceptable to issue an ‘altar call’.
So, as with Barth’s ‘actualism’, I respond to this issue at a practical level. Often those most insistent on verbal inspiration are the weakest when it comes to affirming Word and Spirit. The Reformers, who affirmed Word and Spirit, talked of the Spirit ’superintending’ the writing of Scripture to assure freedom from doctrinal error; but that’s different from the sort of thing promoted in the name of inerrancy today.
Probably I have not answered your question. If I haven’t, get back to me (although I still may not have the answer).
Blessings for the New Year,


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