The Bible is Flawed and Inspired: Learning to Read Christocentrically with Karl Barth

Saturday, May 23, 2015

In Disarming Scripture I point out that there are many things in the Bible, and in particular in the Old Testament, that we would regard today as profoundly immoral, such as genocide and slavery committed in God’s name. This raises the question, not only of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, but of its inspiration.

If the Bible contains things that are wrong – not just errors in terms of science, but things that are morally wrong – how can we say that it is inspired? Can the Bible be flawed, and at the same time inspired? If so, how can we trust it, and what would that look like?

What I propose is that as Christians we should not ultimately place our trust in a book, but rather place our trust in Christ. The Bible is used by the Spirit to lead us to Christ, but the Bible itself is not Christ. The Bible is not the eternal Word of God, rather it is the vehicle used by the Spirit that leads us to encounter the Word of God, the living Jesus. As Luther puts it, we love the Bible because it contains Christ, just as the manger did. But we dare not mistake Christ for the manger he is laid in.

In Disarming Scripture I point out that the word “inspiration” literally means in-Spirit-ed. Scripture is inspired through God’s active illumination of the text, breathing life into the page and revealing its truth to our hearts. The text alone is not inspired apart from the Spirit. Rather, it becomes inspired (in-Spirit-ed) as the rema word of God breathes life into Scripture so that it becomes a sacrament for us where we can encounter the living God. Scripture is therefore not infallible, Jesus is.

Now, I realize that this may be a new conception of inspiration for many. So I want to do two things here. First, I want to give a little history, and establish some roots for this view. It is not a view I just made up, and that kind of is important. Second, I want to discuss the practical implications of it and how it addresses the moral problems we find in the Bible, that is, how can we believe that the Bible is at the same time a flawed book, and that it is inspired?

Let’s begin with the history part.

Renewing our Evangelical Center (by remembering our own history)

In Disarming Scripture, following the work of the late Stanley Grenz, I note that the view of inspiration that I propose is not new or novel, but in fact can be traced back to pre-Fundamentalist Evangelicalism before the 20th century.

In his book Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era, Grenz characterizes this earlier Evangelicalism as having a “gospel-focus” which looked to the Bible as a source for encountering Jesus through the Spirit. It saw the Bible as the means to this encounter, and spoke of the illumination of the text by the Spirit. Grenz further describes how with the advent of Fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century, and the “new Evangelicalism” that came after it, the focus shifted to a “book-focus,” rather than a gospel-focus. Now the Bible was seen as a repository for absolute truths which one could find if they understood how to read it properly.

Grenz, in seeking to “renew the center” of Evangelicalism, proposed that we need to regain that gospel-focus of our earlier Evangelical heritage. Because the Bible is central to any Evangelical theology, making this gospel-focus the center has a direct impact on how we understand inspiration. The “center” however is not a book, rather Jesus is the center. Grenz thus speaks of the Bible as the “instrumentality of the Spirit” meaning that it is the vehicle used by the Spirit to speak to us today.

To use a contemporary example, my sister and I live on opposite sides of the country. I can talk to her face to face using Skype on my iPad. My iPad thus becomes the instrument through which I can see and speak with my sister. I am, however, of course aware that my iPad is not my sister, and is only a means for me to connect with her. I love it because it allows me to connect with my sister, but I don’t confuse the two.

The Bible is a lot like that. It is the primary means used by the Spirit through which we encounter Jesus. It is how we hear his words, learn what his values are, understand his heart, and how we should orient our lives around his way. However, the goal is much more than information alone. The goal is to connect with the living Spirit of Christ who indwells our hearts. We don’t just look at the way of Jesus and adopt it, rather Christianity begins with “For God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). It is from this starting point of experiencing love from God that we are transformed by that love into the image of Christ. We, in turn, then respond to that love by loving others as we have been loved by Christ.

So we read the Bible not only for information, we read it devotionally, prayerfully, as a kind of sacrament which brings us into a living connection with God. We read the Bible and encounter God in Christ in its pages – powerfully, personally, transformationally. 

That’s why we love the Bible, because it is how we encounter the loving living Jesus! But just like my iPad is not my sister, we need to remember that the Bible is not Jesus, it is merely the vehicle used by the Spirit for us to encounter the living and eternal Word of God, Jesus. That’s something I think a lot of us can relate to, and it is an experience we share in common with the original Evangelicalism that emerged out of Pietism and Puritanism in the 18th century. As Grenz writes, this was

“an Evangelicalism that looked to Scripture as the vehicle through which the Spirit worked the miracles of salvation and sanctification. Sparked by their experience of the nurturing work of the Spirit through the pages of the Bible, Evangelicals’ overriding aim was to allow the message of the Bible to penetrate into human hearts and to encourage the devotional use of the Bible.” (Renewing the Center, p. 72-73)

As Grenz unpacks our Evangelical history, we see that the focus of that earlier Evangelicalism was on a way of reading the Bible that put Jesus at the center, rather than a book. The historical perspective Grenz presents us with is helpful and needed, as we Evangelicals are often unaware of our own history, forgetting that what we call “Evangelicalism” today is really post-Fundamentalist neo-Evangelicalism, and that there was centuries of Evangelicalism before it that had quite different ways of seeing things.

From this historical perspective we can appreciate how the focus of that earlier Evangelicalism was on a way of reading the Bible that put Jesus at the center, rather than a book, and we can observe the ways that the “new Evangelicalism” that we know today has taken some wrong turns, and is indeed in need of renewing its center in Jesus.

At the same time, as Grenz notes, the way that the Puritans, Pietists, and early Evangelicals understood inspiration and authority of Scripture was not really worked out in detail. Grenz writes,

“Evangelicals were generally in agreement that the Bible is inspired by God. Nevertheless, like their Pietist forebears, they were not particularly concerned to devise theories to explain the dynamics of inspiration. Further, Evangelicals displayed a remarkable fluidity of opinion about the ins and outs of inspiration... The Evangelicals who emerged from the awakenings exhibited little interest prior to the 1820s in elaborating precise theories about biblical infallibility or inerrancy.” (Renewing the Center, p. 73)

So to really discover what this Jesus-centered focus might look like when worked out in detail, we will need to look elsewhere. This is important if we wish to articulate the ins and outs of what a Christ-centered approach to Scripture looks like in practice. With that in mind, we turn to the work of Karl Barth.

Don’t make me Barth

Barth (who’s name, despite the joke in my above subtitle is pronounced “Bart”) has had an uneasy relationship with Evangelicalism, mostly because his approach challenges many of the assumptions of conservative neo-Evangelicalism, and in particular, its understanding of the authority of Scripture. For this reason, those Evangelicals who sought to defend this view of inerrancy rejected Barth, while other Evangelicals who found his approach illuminating sought to integrate and embrace it.

Now, for the above reasons, I realize that referencing Barth is not always a slam dunk among my fellow Evangelicals, but I do think it shows that the view of inspiration I put forward is certainly not a flimsy and rootless one, since as we will see below, we can pin it to the very center-point of Barth’s massive multivolume Church Dogmatics. I am also, as an Evangelical, hardly alone in doing this. With that in mind, we’ll begin with an overview of Barth’s view of Scripture, and then turn to how this has been embraced by a number of Evangelical theologians.

First, we begin with an overview of Barth’s view of Scripture. Barth makes God’s self-revelation in Jesus the center-point of his theology. This is the anchor for his entire multivolume Church Dogmatics. The first volume of his Dogmatics is entitled The Doctrine of the Word of God, and Barth understands the “Word of God” here to be God’s self-revelation in Jesus, which he differentiates from the Bible itself, which he sees as a fallible human book. This applies not only to historical, geographical, and scientific material in the Bible (which would impact inerrancy), but it also “extends to its religious or theological content” Barth says (CD I/2, 509). The biblical authors thus “speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves” (CD I/2, 507).

For this reason, the Evangelical Princeton theologian Bruce McCormack describes Barth’s approach as “dynamic infalliblism” which expresses the idea that the Bible becomes infallible dynamically in the concrete moment when God addresses us by the Spirit through the text.

As McCormack stresses, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this makes things subjective in the sense that the Bible’s inspiration depends on whether we receive it as such. Rather, Barth places the authority not in our human hands as receivers, but in the hands of God. We do not make the Bible inspired, God makes it inspired. Just as God was active in inspiring the writers of Scripture, so too God must be active in illuminating the text for us as we read it in order for us to encounter the Word in that human text. As Barth writes in his earlier Göttingen Dogmatics, inspiration is an “act of God … in both the biblical authors and in ourselves. It is an act in which the Spirit speaks to spirit, and spirit received the Spirit.” (Göttingen Dogmatics, p. 225).

Note that this is different from the classical neo-Evangelical assumption that we have in the Bible objective truth in a book. We do not possess objective truth in a human book. God is objective, and we at best can come in contact with Truth through the Spirit’s working. The point therefore is that objectivity belongs to God alone, not to us, nor to a book apart from God. As Barth writes,

“The statement, ‘the Bible is God’s Word,’ is a confession of faith, a statement made by the faith that hears God himself speak in the human word of the Bible … this act of God upon man has become an event, therefore not to the fact that man has reached out to the Bible, but to the fact that the Bible has reached out to man. The Bible therefore becomes God’s Word in this event, and it is to its being in this becoming that the tiny word ‘is’ relates, in the statement that the Bible is God’s Word.” (CD I/1, 123-4)

A second focus of Barth’s understanding of Scripture is its focus on Jesus, and on the message of Scripture pointing us to Jesus. Expanding on McCormack, David Congdon writes,

“We cannot say that the biblical text qua text has two authors: divine and human. Rather, only insofar as the text bears witness to the kerygma of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit—and thus insofar as the community hears this kerygma in faith—can we speak about dual authorship.” (“The Word as Event: Barth and Bultmann on Scripture” p. 247)

That’s quite significant, because it points to the idea that it is ultimately not a text which is infallible, rather it is God in Christ who is infallible, and in whom we place our trust. Sola Scriptura is only properly understood when it is read solus Christus.

As a side note, let me mention that in his above mentioned article Congdon compares the work of Barth with another major figure from 20th century theology, Rudolf Bultmann. As Congdon writes,

"Scripture for Bultmann mediates the interrupting presents of the Christus Praesens, whereas Scripture for Barth mediates the self-proclamation of the historical Jesus Christ. In both cases, the human witness of the prophets and apostles becomes God's personal address to us today through the gift of the Hold Spirit." (p. 252)
Personally, coming from a Charismatic background as I do, I relate here more to Bultmann's focus than I do to Barth's. What is certainly significant is that these two theological giants are both pointing us to the conclusion that the Bible is a sacrament through which we can encounter the living Word of God. Scripture is the instrumentality of the Spirit. As the late Evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm notes, if the Bible contained the Word of God in itself, this would make it a magical book, rather than a spiritual one (Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God, p. 184).

Let’s consider how this all plays out in regard to how we read the Bible as sacred Scripture. First, this perspective recognizes that, just as we are flawed humans who are, in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so too the Bible is a flawed human book that is likewise indwelt by the Spirit, and thus inspired. The source of that life, however, does not reside in the book itself. Rather, its source is in the communicative act of the living God. That is how a flawed human book can nevertheless be inspired, and act as a vehicle for us to encounter the Word of God, for us to encounter the living Jesus in its pages.

In this, we cannot own the Word of God, we cannot claim to have captured it, or have a monopoly on the truth. At best, we can only claim to be captured by Jesus who is the Truth, and let the Truth have a monopoly on us.

Everything we hear from God will always be in the context of our own lives, with all of our blinders and biases intact. Because we are as humans involved in the process as hearers, we will get things wrong. Reading Scripture as Scripture therefore calls for openness, care, and humility on our part.

If we say “how can we be sure we wont get it wrong?” the answer is, and always has been, we will get it wrong. If we are looking for certainty in a book, we will not find it. What we can have however is faith. Or to put it differently, we can place our certainty in God, rather than in ourselves, in our doctrines, or in a book. The result of this kind of certainty beyond ourselves requires a lot of humility and a whole lot of grace – both towards ourselves, and towards others as we stumble together towards Jesus.

In the end, what is infallible is not a text, which we claim to posses – meaning that infallibility ultimately resides with a book apart from God, and therefore resides with the reader of that text. Rather, what is infallible is the Word of God, God’s own self-revelation in Jesus. In short, to borrow a very Tweetable phrase from Bruxy Cavey,

“I believe in the infallible word of God... His name is Jesus.”

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At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! This is exceptionally good. Now the question remains, how do I overcome the past indoctrination of textual inerrancy or infallibility held by brothers and sisters?

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, not to toot my own horn, but the path I took in Disarming Scripture was to begin with an authoritarian argument: we should read the Bible like Jesus did, and then, in showing how Jesus read Scripture, lead people to seeing that Jesus is all about setting us free from authoritarian thinking which sucks the life out of us. Who the Son sets free is free indeed!

At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, your horn definitely deserves a toot, it helped me a lot. But I'm thinking of others who are a much tougher nut to crack, they are hesitant to acknowledge problems with their belief system, they won't read a book, and if they did they would find fault without much contemplation. They like the sound of freedom and would like to experience it more fully not knowing their bondage is self-imposed. I haven't given up hope, I'm praying for them while trying to find a creative non-bookish non-lecture narrative.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Jeremiah said...

On Twitter you wrote:
"The Bible becomes infallible dynamically in the concrete moment when God addresses us by the SPirit through the text."

Couldn't this be also true with any text, Bible or otherwise? Like a novel, short story, movie, music, science, passing conversation, some other sacred text?

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Sounds like you are dealing with a spiritually immature person. So it's not a matter of them getting information, but of them maturing, growing to be self-reflective, thoughtful, and empathetic. I think the best you can do is model that for them.

It would also be good if they were part of a community that nurtured being self-reflective, thoughtful, and empathetic too. Rather than one that encourages the opposites of self-righteousness, authoritarian belief, and judgmentalism. That only works of the pastor is spiritually mature, and sadly a lot are not.

At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Let's think this through: Have you experienced that God could speak to you through other texts besides the Bible? I have. A song perhaps. Or a book. I've experienced that a lot.

Of course the person who wrote that song or book was in my experience almost always influenced by the Bible. Not in an intellectual way only, but in the sense of getting the heart of what the Bible was pointing to, and being able to capture that in their music or writing.

What I also experience is that the Bible, and in particular the New Testament, is the primary source for that connection, for opening up a window for Christ. Other sources seem to be derivatives. The Bible is the one that is closest to the source -- which was the first disciples direct encounter with Jesus, God incarnate. So the Bible, and in particular the NT, is core in connecting us to what they were connected to. This is what separates it from other books. (Note I think the OT plays a categorically different roll here from the NT).

However, it is a book, not the Word of God itself, and so what is infallible (meaning what we place our bottom-line trust in) is not the book in itself, but the Spirit who uses it as an instrument.

If we go with the instrument metaphor, we could say the NT is like a musicians favorite guitar, but that musician could play a beautiful tune on other things too. The real point is for us to hear the music.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

For Eastern Orthodox, only the Holy Trinity is infallible. The Scriptures are inspired by God, but their inspired meaning is, according to the Fathers, not in the letter, but in the "hearing" of them! They are properly "heard" only through Christ. There may be some technical differences between Barth's view as he articulates it and the Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture's inspiration (Barth being an inheritor of modern western theological and philosophical categories the Eastern churches never formally embraced). I'm only guessing here because I don't have in-depth study of Barth, but I sense far more overlap in his "Evangelical" view with Christians of the classical patristic era than that of modern "inerrantists," whose understanding of the nature of the Holy Scriptures and a correct hermeneutic is quite foreign, from what I understand from my own Eastern Orthodox tradition, to that of the early Church Fathers.

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, one can see Barth's Church Dogmatics that he is quite familiar with the patristic authors, who he frequently quotes from.

The Protestant idea of the "infallibility of Scripture" can be contrasted with idea of "papal infallibility" in the Catholic church, as two differing ways to deal with the problem of corruption in tradition.

That is, the patristic idea is that one goes by the "rule of faith" (meaning the Apostolic kerygma) and this "canon" is the measure by which Scripture is judged.

However, at least by the time of Luther (I'd say by the time of Constantine actually, and certainly by Augustine) there was quite a bit of corruption in the church as it became enmeshed with the state and money and violence. So the response of Protestantism was that we needed to get back to that original kerygma message which was found in Scripture read through the lens of Christ.

I think basically Luther got that right. I just think he messed it up in having the gospel apply only to heaven, and not the kingdom of God here on earth. The Anabaptists (who Luther persecuted) got that right. So I relate most to the Anabaptist's version of Protestantism.

My question for you is: How does the EO church address the reality of corruption in its own history? Do they have a way of addressing this? For example there has been quite a bit of enmeshing with the state with the EO church in Russia. I'm sure there are many other examples as well as they have also been enmeshed with the state. Any insights there?

At 1:39 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Hi Derek,

The only observation I can make about EO and enmeshment with the state is there are similarities where state - church relationships get too close anywhere you go. Having a state church is never a good idea from my perspective (and I'm not the only Orthodox who thinks this way--a lot of Russian Orthodox are critical of the Russian Patriarch's closeness to Putin right now as well, for instance). That said, in the East, the Church and state have never been blended the way they became in the West (this happened partly just so the Western half of the Roman Empire could survive all the barbarian invasions that began around the middle of the first millennium A.D. as East and West began their drift apart). This can be seen in the fact that today the Vatican is a state in its own right (there is no parallel to this in the East). In the East the bishops have never had authority over state affairs, though definitely they had influence (and not infrequently used it in a godly way to their own hurt--i.e., St. John Chyrsostem, who died in exile persecuted by the Empress for his unyielding prophetic critique of his culture and its rulers' worldliness). Other times, the rulers of Byzantium or Russia or wherever have significantly tried to interfere with Church affairs (and sometimes succeeded, e.g., under Peter the Great in Russia and under the Soviets where hierarchs who refused to be compromised were basically martyred or driven underground and into exile), but this has never been seen as proper in the East. There isn't quite the conflation of the two roles, and that at least in my mind keeps worldly and spiritual concerns more distinct and clear for EO. My observation is, though, even in the West, abuses of power sometimes attributed by modern minds to "the Church" were often the result of the state and not of the Church per se (for example the Emperor Constantine was not a bishop, so his actions shouldn't be seen as those of "the Church"). Individual clergy could often be corrupt (and that's true literally anywhere you go--even among Mennonites), but there were always godly ones, too, whom we remember as Fathers. Dogmatically and liturgically, there has been a high degree stability and continuity in the Eastern Church despite no central administration and despite the often messy doctrinal and political battles waged over the centuries. That, I think, is significant.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

(cont.) I'm rather fond of the Anabaptists and Quakers myself. It always helps that they didn't persecute and try to kill those who disagreed with them, unlike the Catholic Church, the "Magesterial" Reformers and Puritans!! :-) It's understandable given the conflation of Church and state in the Roman Church in their era, but, I'm still sad they tossed out so much of legitimate Church tradition (liturgical and sacramental understandings) along with the worldliness and corruption. It seems to me this continued the weakened connection with the early Church begun in the Middle Ages (and from an EO perspective not really corrected by the Reformation, which brought its own set of problems--including continued enmeshment of Church and state). A lot of the theological richness and depth of the early Fathers and the early Church's liturgy and faith were lost through all those developments in the Protestant West as well as the early Church's Christocentric and typological hermeneutic of the OT Scriptures some in the West are only now beginning to recover.

Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has written some eye-opening historical correctives of many modern myths about Church history in his books, The Rise of Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity, but he is basically, like many western Christians, completely blind to the Churches of the East and really only deals with Western civilization in his books.

The late Fr. Thomas Hopko of the Orthodox Church in America has a good podcast series on the history of the bishops of the Church at the Ancient Faith Radio web site (, under his podcasts, "Speaking the Truth in Love". I think you'll find Orthodox historians who are quite frank about the ups and downs of their own church history. I think it would be important for Western Christians to begin to read Orthodox histories of the Church. We have inherited a lot of Roman Catholic propaganda about the Eastern Churches and their theological dev't (half-truths and lies) here in the western church traditions.

At 5:46 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann is a readable and quite transparent overview of the history of the Eastern Church from an Orthodox perspective.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks ofGrace, that's helpful.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous SS said...

Hi Derek,

"What I propose is that as Christians we should not ultimately place our trust in a book, but rather place our trust in Christ."

Re the above: Does that accurately describe most Christians today? What I've found from cursory conversations with other believers is this: as regards to hermeneutical matters, they tends to almost always respond with some version of "I trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding me to interpret this difficult passage"

How is that different than placing our trust in Christ?


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