Some thoughts about the battle for the Bible, the inerrancy debate and the claim of some that the Bible was “given” to the Church and its contents “decided by” the Church….from Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, volume 1.1 pp 99-101 and from little old me in my study!

2. THE WORD OF GOD WRITTEN.  (p99)

Church proclamation must be ventured in recollection of past revelation and in expectation of coming revelation. The basis of expectation is obviously identical here with the object of recollection. Hoping for what we cannot see, what we cannot assume to be present, we speak of an actualised proclamation, of a Word of God preached in the Church, on the basis that God’s Word has already been spoken, that revelation has already taken place. We speak in recollection.

What is the meaning of this recollection of past revelation?….[it] might mean the actualisation of a revelation of God originally immanent in every man [Romans 1:20] i.e. of man’s own original awareness of God …of the timeless essential constitution of man himself, namely, his relation to the eternal or absolute….

pp 99-100 Augustine, following Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis (ἀναμνησις) understood “memoria” along these lines. Barth quotes Augustine  in Latin from Confessions, Chapter 10 on memory and the human yearning for happiness and for God. e.g. 10:20 (22) (trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford): “My question is whether the happy life is in the memory. For we would not love it if we did not know what it is. We have heard the term, and all of us acknowledge that we are looking for the thing….The thing itself is neither Greek nor Latin. Greeks and Latins and people of other languages yearn to acquire it. Therefore it is known to every one….”  cf also Book 1:1 “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Barth continues:  According to Augustine God is what we all seek as we all seek a “vita beata” (“blessed life”)…”Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: Late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into these lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.  [Augustine Confessions Book 10:38 (trans. Henry Chadwick)]

Barth also quotes Abraham Heidan, a C17th Calvinist who introduced Cartesianism into theology….What is the use of instruction or teaching.The “idea Dei” does not come to us from without (aliunde). It is “power known from  the beginning of our existence (“potentia nobis semper inexistens)”.

p100 Barth asks the hypothetical question: Why could it not have pleased God to be immanent to his Church, as the foundation which was hidden for a time, but which steadily endured because it had been timelessly laid, so that standing on it need only be a matter of profound self-reflection?…this being recollection of God’s past revelation? Why not? The neo-Platonist and the Catholic churchman could obviously exist quite well in personal union in Augustine. Why should not both have been right? ….The real reason is that God did not make this specific use of His freedom or potency….The Church is not alone in relation to God’s Word. It is not referred to itself or consequently to self -reflection. It has not the confidence to appeal to itself as the source of the divine Word in support of the venture of proclamation. 

 [When you think about it, how could the Church have the arrogance to ever consider itself to be the source of the divine Word. It is true that Christian believers in the third and fourth centuries, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, had to make decisions about which particular books and letters should become officially the “canon” of Holy Scripture. But these historic decisions did not suddenly transform these  writings into some supernaturally inerrant “Bible”.  The canon was developed and finally accepted by “the Church” of its day (C4th) simply to aid the fight against unhelpful heresy and to provide clear teaching to believers. The Church considered these early records of the witness to Jesus the Messiah to be the most useful and helpful to Christian believers and as a general principle they chose those documents with genuinely apostolic authorship or written by folk very close to the apostles e.g. Mark and Luke. The question of whether or not these documents were “inerrant” was not one that would have been on the minds of the Church Councils which decided upon the canon. Consider the following:

  1. It is quite possible that early papyri and phrases in the early Fathers contain authentic sayings of Jesus not included in the New Testament (see e.g. J.Jeremias: Unknown Sayings of Jesus, London, SPCK, 1958). The chronology of for example the Corinthian letters is not totally clear and it is probable that some letters or parts of letters of Paul to the churches he founded have now been lost. In some Old Testament passages e.g. 1 Samuel 13:1 the earliest texts have gaps.
  2. The canon was developed gradually within the Church with some books taking longer to be accepted and denied than others…some books like Jude contain ideas that are not entirely “orthodox”; other books  considered, but not finally included like The Shepherd of Hermas would have done the Church little harm.
  3. Even the finally accepted canon contained and contains material capable of different interpretations by sections of the Church some of which were ruled rightly or wrongly as heresy by the “Church” in the past, sometimes to the detriment of the Church e.g. Nestorian Christianity; the deutero-canonical books of the “Apocrypha” accepted as “The Bible” by the Roman Catholic Church; The division between Arminian and neo-Calvinist approaches to human free will in post-Reformation churches. the doctrinal divisions between Eastern and Western Christianity (The “Orthodox” Church); the fine divisions in trinitarian and Christological debates. (see J N D Kelly: Early Christian Doctrines, London, Adam & Charles Black, 1960; G L Prestige: God in Patristic Thought, London, SPCK, 1952 (1936) or even the C21st e.g.: Rob Bell: Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions, London, Collins, 2012.
  4. The Biblical text inevitably takes on different flavours when it is translated into other languages both in the early church and today e.g. the confusion over words like μετανοια  (“repentance”) in Greek becoming paenitentiae (“penitence”) in the Latin Vulgate.
  5. The criteria  for Biblical inclusion used by the early Church (e.g. apostolic authorship and/or folk who were close to the apostles e.g. Mark, Luke) are not completely clear cut e.g.  the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels we have do not contain authorial signatures or clear cut evidence of their author. Thus there is debate in the Church about apostolic authorship. e.g. Pauline authorship of Hebrews is not strongly held today but there is no clear consensus on who did write Hebrews. The same could be said for the Epistle of James.]
  6. The earliest Christian believers obviously became committed “Christians” without having the “official Bible” which was not designated as “The canon of Scripture” for three centuries. They used and shared a wide variety of texts, letters and translations some more helpful than others. In some repressive societies today Christian believers have to do without the Bible on pain of death.
  7. “The majority”  church can come to widely held and accepted decisions about Christian doctrine that were once strongly opposed by the “the Church” e.g. the role of women in Christian leadership.
  8. Inevitably “The Church” becomes inextricably bound to ecclesiastical and indeed secular politics resulting, both in the past and today,  to some folk being excluded or, in the past,  even executed,  for holding different interpretations of Scripture than those held by the prevailing “Church” of the day (or in the C21st the prevailing loudest voice whether it be the media, the Fundamentalist church or the Liberal Church.  In any case; both scholars and rank and file believers in every Christian denomination or tradition often do not necessarily hold as “Biblical truth”  ideas sourced or developed from the Bible prevailing in the tradition they belong to whether that is the Roman Catholic Church, the “Reformation” Church, the “Charismatic” Church, the “Puritan” Church or the “Evangelical” Church or a hundred other varieties of interpretation.

Do these seven points and no doubt many others mean that the Bible is not important for Christians or that it is not inspired by God’s leading and power? Not at all.  If the inspired Biblical writers had not committed  to writing their knowledge and personal experiences and visions of God,  our knowledge of the revelation of God in the Messiah Jesus would be severely impaired. Yes we would still have the scattered references to Jesus in Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny. Yes we would still have the scattered archaeological remains in the catacombs, in Capernaum, the Pilate stone and so on. Yes we would have the voluminous but sometimes inconsistent writings of the early Fathers although these would be much less consistent without the written Scripture; yes we would have the very confused and sometimes very unhelpful pseudepigraphical “Gospels” of various C2nd and C3rd Judaio/Christian/Gnostic sects but these are are fringe documents.  Yes we would have the creeds and conclusions of various early Christian Councils but these are simply doctrinal summaries. But these scattered and somewhat obscure evidences are paltry compared with the recorded words of inspired Old Testament prophets, wisdom teachers and historians and the apostolic and early Christian writers of the New Testament documents.

So the Bible is central to the Judaeo-Christian faith but we worship the triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not the Bible. Endless debates about the “inerrancy” of the Bible unhelpfully distract Christians whose vocation is to live and proclaim the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as the Lord of all creation, the Lord who, in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself, the Lord who is the  Redeemer of the whole of creation.

pp 100-101  Barth continues;….the basis of which alone [the Church] may actually venture its proclamation does mean for it a return to its own being, but to its self-transcendent being, to Jesus Christ  as the heavenly Head to whom it, the earthly body is attached as such, but in relation to whom it is also distinct as such, [and subject to error] who has the Church within Himself but whom the Church does not have within itself, between whom and it there is no reversible or alternating relation…He is immanent in it only as He is transcendent to it…..It has pleased God to be its God in another way than that of pure immanence.  [Phew!  hard paragraph but worth grappling with!]

p101…the distinction of the Head [God] from the body [the Church] and the superiority of the Head over the body find concrete expression in….Holy Scripture…which is there and tells us what is the past revelation of God that we have to recollect. It does so in the first instance simply by the fact that it is the Canon…that which stands fast as normative, i.e. apostolic, in the Church, the “regular fides”, i.e. the norm of faith, or the Church’s doctrine of faith….there then develops from the 4th century onwards the more specialised idea of the Canon of Holy Scripture i.e. the list of biblical books which are recognised as normative, because apostolic….

With its acknowledgement of the presence of the Canon the Church expresses the fact that it is not left to itself in its proclamation…the commission…the object…the judgment…the event of real proclamation must all come from elsewhere, from without, …with its acknowledgement that this Canon is in fact identical with the Bible of Old and New Testaments…this reference of its proclamation to something that is completely external is not a general principle…whose content might be this or something quite different….but ….a received direction…by which the very Church itself stands or falls.

p102  …in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary, but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips. In its form as Scripture, however, it does not seek to be a historical monument but rather a Church document, written proclamation. The two entities may thus be set initially under a single genus, Scripture as the commencement and present-day preaching as the continuation of one and the same event… Barth quotes Luther: “The Gospel simply means a preaching and crying out loud of God’s grace and mercy merited and won by the Lord Christ with his death. And it is properly not what stands in books or is made up of letters, but rather an oral preaching and lively word and a voice that rings in the whole world…we let John Baptist’s finger point and his voice sound: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’

Barth continues: In this similarity as phenomena, however, there is also to be found…the supremacy, the absolutely constitutive significance of the former for the latter, the determination of the reality of present-day proclamation by its foundation upon Holy Scripture…the basic singling out of the written word of the prophets and apostles over all the later words of men which have been spoken and are spoken today in the Church.

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1 Response to Some thoughts about the battle for the Bible, the inerrancy debate and the claim of some that the Bible was “given” to the Church and its contents “decided by” the Church….from Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, volume 1.1 pp 99-101 and from little old me in my study!

  1. Dave Prideaux says:

    Agree. I think once we free ourselves of the “inerrancy” debate we can step back and look at the bigger picture playing out in the bible. We can experience God’s love for us through the poems, letters and stories. We can learn how to best take on this life that we have been given with the love and hope that has been shown to us through past generations. We can get on with adding to the story…

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