Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life by J.I. Packer
This chapter tells a tale of events that I was privileged to observe at fairly close quarters, and in some of which I played a small part. At the risk of indulging an egotism that would be better mortified, I here narrate this story in some detail, partly to show my readers where I “come from,” as we say, and partly because these events may have significance for the future. The Puritan Richard Baxter, who across a three-hundred-year gap has been a sort of mentor to me in a number of ways, diligently chronicled the events of his own time, proclaiming himself a hater of false history who wanted the true facts known. Same here! And if readers find my reminiscences trivial, they have my full permission to skip them. For what they are worth, however, I present them now.
For the better part of half a century, first in Britain and then in North America, I with many others have been expounding and defending the
authority of the Bible as God’s true Word, the trustworthy and sufficient rule of faith. All that time I have known myself called to presbyterial ministry, that is, to be a shepherd of God’s flock, and I have fought this good fight (for such I have taken it to be) primarily for the furthering of pastoral goals: healthy spiritual life, strong churches and vigorous outreach with the gospel. I see biblical authority as methodologically the most basic of theological issues. And I have fought for it, not just for the sake of confessional orthodoxy or theological certainty or evangelical integrity or epistemological sanity nor to counter dehumanizing irrationalisms, though all those concerns have entered into what I have done; my affirmation and defense of Holy Scripture has been first and foremost for the sake of pastoral and evangelistic ministry, genuine godliness, the maturing of the church, and spiritual revival. By these things the glory of God and good of human beings are most truly advanced, and they simply are not found where the Bible does not have its proper place in Christians’ lives.
It is no news that not all who are called to academic work have a pastoral motivation, just as not all who are called to pastoral work have academic sensitivity to questions of truth.1 But I for one feel the constraint of both concerns together. So my goal in dogmatics is to find pure streams and to strain out sewage; in communication, to relay tested truth for believers to embrace and feed on as their own; and in polemics, to keep such communication from being obstructed by mental mistakes. One of my readers once told me that all my writings were spirituality really, and no estimate could be more congenial. But the constant burden on my conscience as I write has always been to find, focus and further God’s truth.
My story starts at Oxford University in 1944. Having been brought to faith in Jesus Christ out of empty religious formalism, I began devouring Scripture devotionally. When I had read it before, it had seemed uninteresting, but now it glowed and spoke. At the close of a Bible exposition forty-one days after my conversion I found myself certain, quite suddenly, that the Bible was not, as I had previously thought, a mixture of history,
legend and opinion requiring selective treatment as other human miscellanies do. I knew now that it was in its own nature a divine production as well as a channel of divine communication, triggering insight and praise.
Years later, when I found Calvin saying that through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit every Christian experiences Scripture speaking authoritatively as from God,2 I rejoiced to think that without any prior human instruction and certainly without any prior acquaintance with Calvin, I had long known that experience. When later still I found Cornelius Van Til characterizing the Bible by saying that Christ, his Lord, had written him a letter,3 my heart spoke its own “Amen” once more. The truth is that one element of the universal Christian experience into which the Bible leads is precisely the experience of the Bible challenging our thought and will with God’s authority and of our own inward inability to deny its divinity as it does so. That experience, by grace, has been mine throughout my Christian life — and is so still.
In the 1950s I often addressed student and church groups on biblical authority. When I was asked to write up a talk I had given rebutting a series of attacks by church leaders on what they called “our English fundamentalism” (specified by some as the religion of Inter-Varsity Fellowship reinforced by Billy Graham), what came out of the hopper was a full-length book that brought together much of what I had been saying over those years. Its title (apt enough, I think, though devised by the publisher, not me) was “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God,4 a defiant echo of the title of Gabriel Hebert’s critique, Fundamentalism and the Church of God, published the previous year.5
In his censuring of conservative evangelicals for obscurantist incompetence in biblical study and self-sufficient tunnel vision in religious relationships, Hebert had traversed well-worn territory. Throughout the twentieth century evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic had been execrated as the awkward squad in God’s church, for three reasons. First, they showed disrespect to the academic establishment by doubting such
“assured results” of higher criticism as the post-Mosaicity of the Pentateuch, the mythical character of the early chapters of Genesis, the seventh-century date of Daniel and the pseudonymity of Isaiah 40—66, the Fourth Gospel, the Pastorals and 2 Peter. Second, evangelicals treated Jesus’ demonstrable confidence in Scripture as decisive for their own and diagnosed Christians who disbelieved the Bible as disloyal to Christ. Third, they insisted that Christianity requires personal faith in Jesus Christ as one’s prophet, priest and king — an insistence constantly misheard as a demand for a stereo-typed sudden conversion. It was on these rather wearisome conventionalities that Hebert, in the style of a genial veteran instructing the foolish young, had rung the charges.
My book, which begged that the word fundamentalism be dropped, the infallibility of Scripture recognized and biblical evangelicalism acknowledged as mainstream Christianity, also said nothing that had not been said before. But appearing at a time when British evangelicals were looking for ammunition, it was kindly received and wisely read. It was published in America (though it was not addressed to the American scene, of which at that time I knew little) and it remains in print there. It has since 1996 been available again in Britain, where another book of mine, God Has Spoken, has long been making the same case in a less polemical and more pastoral way.
In the ongoing North American debate between evangelical and liberal Protestants, in which a large number of the former took the name “fundamentalists,”6 biblical inerrancy was from the first made the touchstone more directly and explicitly than was ever the case in the parallel debates in Britain.7 This I now think (I did not always think so) argues for clearer-sightedness in the New World, for without inerrancy the structure of biblical authority as evangelicals conceive it collapses.
Biblical authority means believing, affirming, applying and obeying all biblical teaching, both informative and directive, and submitting all human opinion — worldly, churchly and personal — to the judgment of
that teaching. This procedure assumes that all biblical teaching is trustworthy truth from God. It would, after all, be a Hitlerish negating of our rational humanity to demand total acceptance of what is not totally true. But if Jesus Christ and his apostles are trustworthy teachers, the assumption is justified. For the New Testament documents put it beyond doubt, as a matter of history, that these teachers, the founders of Christianity, viewed all Scripture, as such, as God’s abiding and reliable instruction, divinely authoritative against all human views that diverged from it.8 The interpretation of it could be, and was, disputed at key points, but its inspiration could not. “The Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn 10:35). It is inerrant.
Though inerrancy, like Trinity, is not a biblical word, it expresses a biblical thought. Inerrancy, meaning the full truth and trustworthiness of what the Bible tells us, is entailed, that is, necessarily and inescapably implied, by the God-givenness of what is written.
Certainly the confession of inerrancy needs to be circumscribed by precise hermeneutical guidelines. What is inerrant is the expressed sense (the meaning that can be read into the words when they are placed in a different context). Moreover interpreters are not inerrant, and time-honored interpretations are not always beyond criticism.
Certainly too the confession of inerrancy requires clarity about the extent of the biblical canon. Only God-given Scripture, as such, is to be believed inerrant and treated as a sure rule for faith and life.
The confession of inerrancy assumes awareness of the radical incompetence of our fallen minds in matters theological. Only so will God’s gift of the inerrant Book be properly valued, and only so will it be properly put to use as a light for our path. Only so will the Adamic delusion that we can know better than the Word of God be seen for the irreverence and folly that it is. And only so will we escape the related delusion that our right and duty to believe the Bible depends on our own ability to prove
it true. The veracity of God, its primary author, is the warrant for our believing it: “It is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”9
To disbelieve and try to correct any part of the Bible is always a recipe for some error about God and some ignorance of him as well as being a real if unintended insult to him. But those who heed the testimony of Christianity’s founders to the spiritual blindness of fallen humanity will not lapse in this way.
Given all this, it is plain that the confession of inerrancy will, and should, function as a basic determinant of one’s way of using the Bible. It prescribes the expository approach that seeks to see how one biblical passage fits with another — the approach that has been called the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith. It forbids all modes of opposing Scripture to Scripture, of positing real discrepancy and self-contradiction within Scripture, and thus, as it is sometimes put, of “criticizing the Bible by the Bible.” It requires that God be kept in view as the narrator of the history, the preacher of the sermons, the teacher of the wisdom and the deviser of the worship forms (prayer and praises) that Scripture sets before us. It requires that when the harmony and coherence of biblical statements escape us, we put this down to the inadequacy of our insight rather than the incompetence of God’s penmen. Inerrancy thus goes far to settle the shape of one’s biblical scholarship and the content of one’s eventual beliefs. North American evangelicals as a body have seen this, and they have confessed accordingly.
The Wenham Conference
However, there have been exceptions. And this explains why in 1966 I found myself in company with fifty scholars from ten countries at a ten-day private conference held in Wenham, Massachusetts. The conference was called in hopes of healing a breach that had developed between some faculty members and trustees of Fuller Seminary and the rest of North America’s evangelical academic world.10 Fuller had been founded in 1947 with a view toward opening an era of triumphant antiliberal scholarship and standardizing a broadly Reformed theology filtered through
an apologetic rationalism of a developed fundamentalist type. Fundamentalism had become a defensive mindset, prone to fit God into a ready-made conceptual box and forget his transcendence and incomprehensibility.
Fuller had recruited teachers who, reacting against what they saw as simplistic one-sidedness in their own fundamentalist upbringing, now declined to affirm the full truth of Scripture. Their reasons varied. Three scholars (two of whom were at the Wenham conference) appeared to hold, on the basis of observing the “phenomena” of the text, that some statements in Scripture on matters of historical, geographical and scientific detain are evidently “nonrevelational,” and of these some are equally evidently wrong.11 Another scholar (not at Wenham) seemed to think that the conceptual inadequacies of some parts of Scripture constitute mistaken assertions. Another seemed to decline the word inerrancy because it was associated with an inferior style of interpretation. Those who organized and funded Wenham wanted it to be a peace conference, either resolving the differences or showing that all were already agreed deep down. But all were not agreed, and peace was impossible, although a friendly communique was issued at the end. Division continued.12
The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
In 1977 concern over growing uncertainty among evangelicals regarding Scripture led to the formation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), on which I was privileged to serve under the vigorous chairmanship of James M. Boice. (Living in England at that time, I was in fact the entire reason for “International” since all other Council members were Americans living in the U.S.A.) The council announced “as its purpose the defense and application of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an essential element for the authority of Scripture and a necessity for the health of the church. It was created to counter the drift from this important doctrinal foundation by significant segments of evangelicalism and the outright denial of it by other church movements.”13
Over its ten-year life the ICBI mounted three “summits” for scholars
and leaders, dealing respectively with the meaning of inerrancy, the principles and practice of biblical hermeneutics and the application of a trusted Bible to key problems of personal and community life. It also held two major congresses on biblical faith and life today, and produced or sponsored a series of substantial books besides its Foundation series of dignified tracts.14 (See also p. 96.)
To round off the ICBI story, I move for a moment two years beyond my announced terminus to 1987. In that year the council closed down, believing that for the present its work was done. What had been accomplished? In the words of Dr. James Boice: “The literature produced by ICBI has been disseminated round the world; similar supportive organizations have been founded; and the three ‘Affirmation and Denial’ statements have achieved almost creedal stature in some quarters. The Council believes that many have been recalled to the highest standards of biblical that many have been recalled to the highest standards of biblical authority by these efforts.”15 I think this is so. By God’s grace, the inerrancy line was held and its strategic significance was made plain. Worthwhile new work expounding, vindicating and applying it was done. A far higher degree of consensus than could have been anticipated was achieved on difficult questions of interpreting and applying Scripture. And the model of noninerrantist evangelicalism that, until recently at any rate, remained part of Fuller Seminary’s stock-in-trade was made to appear more than a little eccentric and unfruitful.16 I continue to thank God as I remember ICBI.
The Evangelical Resurgence
But back now to things that happened before 1985. So far from standing alone or being a pioneer ICBI was from the first carried along on the crest of a large-scale wave of evangelical resurgence. This in its academic expression was under way on both sides of the Atlantic well before 1955, seeking not just to defend the faith but to recapture the theological initiative that had been lost through liberal capture of the major church establishments.
In Britain the resurgence effectively began in 1938 with the founding
of the Biblical Research Committee, later the Tyndale Fellowship, within the network of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (now Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) in order to nurture evangelical scholars and foster evangelical biblical scholarship.17 Now possessed of a superb research library (Tyndale House, Cambridge) and a first-class academic journal Tyndale Bulletin (currently published twice yearly), the Tyndale Fellowship has seen more than two dozen of its members teach theology in British research universities, over and above the far larger number who have held positions in Britain’s graduate theological colleges.
In the United States, B.B. Warfield (d.1921), J. Gresham Machen (d.1937) and his successor at Westminster Seminary, Ned B. Stonehouse (d.1962), had maintained a pattern of constructive academic interaction at a technical level with nonevangelical specialists in their fields. But it was the founding of Fuller Seminary in 1947 that marked the moment when the thought of a crusading counterattack on entrenched liberalism effectively took hold of American evangelical minds.18 (It was only in the 1960s that this vision seemed to be lost at Fuller; I continue to hope it is in the process of being regained.) Manpower for this new era of biblical scholarship soon emerged through the growth of the evangelical student movement in the 1950s followed by the Jesus movement of the next decade. The fallout from all this remains impressive enough to lead Richard Lovelace (and latterly, John White) to allege that a revival is now in process.19 The remarkable expansion of the evangelical seminary world during this fifty-year period has meant more posts for evangelical scholars and a corresponding increase in the output of literature elucidating the Bible as the Word of God and countering the erratic skepticism of liberal Bible work. A study of publisher’s catalogs over the past generation tells the tale.
Writing in 1985, Mark Noll gave details of “the profusion of outstanding commentaries . . . four academic series . . . six other semi-popular series . . . general dictionaries of theology, Christian ethics, and church history . . . several large introductions to the discussion of criticism as applied to both the Old and New Testaments . . . Bible translations . . . the fruit of
an academic rebirth.”20 In these enterprises, as Noll points out, British scholars led at first but their American colleagues are currently overtaking them, and Australian and Asian contributors to the mix have also appeared.
The reality of academic recovery, consolidation and staying power appears from many facts: the steady flow of critical21 and elucidatory books on the Bible from sizable firms like Eerdmans, Word, Baker, Zondervan and InterVarsity presses of Britain and the United States; the emergence of a small fleet of evangelical technical journals, with Britain’s Tyndale Bulletin as its flagship; the seminal influence of the quiet Scottish commentator, historian and textbook author F.F. Bruce, who supervised a record number of doctoral theses on biblical themes written by American scholars; the vigor of Britain’s Tyndale Fellowship and American scholars; the vigor of Britain’s Tyndale Fellowship and America’s own Evangelical Theological Society (founded in 1949, now over two thousand strong) and Institute for Biblical Research (created in 1970 for specialists and boasting a current membership of 150); the blossoming among evangelicals of “biblical theology,” understood as the unfolding of the progress of the historical-redemptive biblical message according to the analogy of faith,22 a discipline notably pioneered and programmed by Edmund Clowney;23 Westminster Seminary’s doctoral program in hermeneutics, which President Clowney saw into place, and parallel endeavors in other places; and the observable process whereby, while the number of veteran evangelical scholars grows steadily, leadership in the biblical fields, as elsewhere, increasingly passes to younger scholars. The advance since 1955 has been spectacular. Resurgent evangelical biblical scholarship has come to stay.
The purpose of academic biblical study in any age is that the Word of God may be preached and heard within the frame and mindset of that age — challenging it, no doubt, but first tuning in to it. The necessary disciplines are linguistic, for fixing the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek sentences; literary and historical, for focusing the message that each biblical book and each unit within each biblical book was conveying to its intended readership; theological, for integrating the various messages
into the total frame of God’s historical self-disclosure; hermeneutical, for transposing biblical teaching into different cultures without loss and seeing how it should shape service of God in our world today; and homiletical, for hammering home the awareness that God’s Word to the world in Scripture is personally addressed to every individual whom it reaches.
It is by blessing the practice of these disciplines, at whatever level each Bible student operates, that the Spirit interprets the Word. The true goal of biblical scholarship is to present an adequately interpreted Bible to preachers and Bible students — and so to the whole church. At this point the resurgent evangelical biblical scholarship is essentially traditional in both its method and its findings. Its own detailed technical work leads it so to be and takes its stand on essentials in the places where conservative Protestants have been standing ever since the Reformation. Advanced academic technique has confirmed the rightness of continuity with the evangelical past rather than encouraging novelty of belief. The militant conservationism in theology that marks mainstream evangelicals reflects their certainty that, given a trusted Bible to be expounded as a whole in its own terms, the key features of Christianity — the divine triunity; human fallenness; incarnation; reconciliation; new creation;; faith, hope, love — are found to be unambiguously plain and have, in fact, been found so for centuries. At the present juncture in Christian history, what is needed is not novelty but a renewal of this heritage through a return to its biblical roots — and, thank God, this is what seems to be taking place in the evangelical world.
Among nonevangelical Protestants, however, the story is different, though the goal of giving an interpreted Bible to preachers and to the whole church is formally the same. In these circles Scripture is seen as no more than human witness to God — uneven, fallible and sometimes wrong — and this inevitably affects theological method in drastic ways. For many years “critical” biblical scholarship (as nonevangelical study of Scripture
proudly called itself) made little of the theological, hermeneutical and homiletical disciplines and treated the deliverances of historical exegesis (that is, “what it all meant”) as the whole of biblical interpretation. Our fifty-year period, however, saw several endeavors against a “critical” background to recover the missing dimensions of interpretation, through which knowledge of the original significance might be made to show how life should be lived here and now (that is, “what it all means”). The three such endeavors that seem to have been most influential will now be reviewed.
Interpretation according to “biblical theology.” In the 1940s and 1950s, when I was in the process of my own theological formation, the movement in the world of “critical” study that took to itself the name “biblical theology” (not, as we will see, in quite the same sense in which modern inerrantists use the phrase) was riding high. It was, however, riding for a fall. This movement had broken surface in Britain in the work of such scholars as Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, Gabriel Hebert, H.H. Rowley, Alan Richardson and A.M. Hunter; in the United States in the writings of such as G. Ernest Wright, Floyd V. Filson, James D. Smart, Krister Stendahl, Paul Minear, Millar Burrows and Bernhard W. Anderson.24
The academic aim of this movement was to understand the Scriptures in terms of their contents; its churchly aim was to restore the sense that the Bible is revelation, a sense that two generations of criticism seemed to have effectively destroyed.25 Its central idea was that, without jettisoning the “assured results” of higher criticism regarding the composition of biblical books and the true shape of Israel’s history, the church should read the canonical Scriptures “from within,” that is, as expressions of a faith and a hope in the living God that we in this latter day must reappropriate. All Scripture, however uneven and unreliable in other respects, is a product of community faith in the almighty Creator-Redeemer, who finally and climactically made himself known in Jesus Christ. And no Scripture is properly understood except by coming to terms with that faith. It is profitless to know Bible history if one does not go on to grasp the truth about God that Bible history reveals. Joining hands at this point
with the theology of the “neo-orthodox” pundit, Emil Brunner, which was also riding high in the fifties, “biblical theology” proclaimed itself the key to a renewing of personal faith and churchly consciousness, and so of corporate Christian Life.
This approach led at once to a new seriousness in listening to the theology of the Bible’s own theologians and in taking to heart what they most emphasized, namely, the soteriology and eschatology flowing from their belief that their gracious Creator had acted mightily for them in world history in the past and would in due course do so again. That was gain. But the movement had an Achilles’ heel. It was trying to ride two horses, that is, to embrace the full biblical supernaturalism of theistic faith without letting go of the rationalistic and naturalistic antitheism of the Enlightenment, which had controlled the development of the “critical” movement from the first. Incoherence and confusion were the inevitable results.
Under interrogation “biblical theology” proved unable to clear its mind as to whether it saw itself as studying God’s self-revelation, which would of course be absolute and abiding truth, or simply the beliefs about God of certain Jewish and Christian writers. Beliefs about God, after all, however exalted and impressive in human terms, do not necessarily express absolute and abiding truth at all. It became apparent also that to gloss over this ambivalence, the movement had developed another one — a form of double talk about God in history that carefully avoided implying anything about God’s relation to the life we now live, since “God in history” meant no more than “Bible writers’ idea of God in history” (an “idea” that may or may not be true).26
Homiletically, therefore, the sound and fury of all the talk about the might acts of God proved in the end to signify nothing. Also in the interests of highlighting the distinctiveness of biblical material, exaggerated and simplistic claims were made about the theological unity of the two testaments, separately and together; about the characteristic uniqueness of Hebrew thought forms; and about the way word study illuminates the meaning of key Bible texts. When in due course it became clear that
these claims were overblown, the movement’s credibility was felt to be exploded.27
At this time “biblical theology” is in eclipse.28 “Critical” scholarship is currently preoccupied with the plurality and diversity of the Bible. Liberal churches generally have ceased to believe that any form of Bible-based renewal can help them. And evangelicals study the contents of Scripture on the basis that the text is God-breathed for our learning and that since its contents spring from one divine mind, its unity is a given starting point rather than a possibility to be debated. Falling between all three stools and with no one currently calling for its services, “biblical theology” as defined has no obvious future. Its legacy of theological dictionaries remains a valuable academic aid,29 but its program for restoring the authority of a well-interpreted Bible to the church must be held to have failed. The movement itself is dying, if not dead.
A variant of the “biblical theology” approach, separately developed but similarly motivated, is “narrative theology,” which focuses on the biblical accounts of God in action and draws its doctrine of how things are from the way God’s story is told. This approach has spun off much vivid evangelistic and pastoral teaching about letting our personal story become part of God’s story and has prompted much useful thought on how God involves us humans in his story and leads us into a life of Jesuslikeness thereby. But, like “biblical theology,” it cannot tell us whether biblical narratives are true or whether the Christ of the Bible is real, so that the skill of its exponents in highlighting the beliefs about God that the stories embody finally goes for nothing.
Scottish paper money is not accepted in England, nor are Canadian dollar bills accepted in the USA; in each case a currency change is necessary. In the same way, when the insights of “biblical theology” and “narrative theology” are expressed in inerrantist currency, they become valuable aids to grasping the scriptural witness to the living God. As systems alternative to the evangelical view and use of Scripture, both fail; as resources for enriching that view, however, each has helpful specifics to offer. But the Bible will not be known as the living Word of the living God
until the mainstream understanding of biblical authority takes hold of Christians once more.
Interpretation according to Karl Barth. To say that Barth (1886-1968) aimed to give the Bible back to the church would be true, but it would not be the whole truth. Barth was a brilliant and powerful systematic theologian whose goal, like that of the Reformers four centuries before him, was to give Christianity itself back to a church that had largely lost it. For more than a century theologians with the mindset of the Enlightenment in the various Protestant churches had been relativizing Christian faith and morals to the ongoing flow of secular culture. Barth sought to reverse this by setting forth the self-authenticating witness of a self-authenticating Bible to the self-authenticating risen Christ. This Christ, Barth argued, is present with us through the Spirit as one who by his death and resurrection has already reconciled our sinful race to our Maker.
In his unfinished Church Dogmatics, written on the grandest scale (six million words!), Barth’s constant theme was the sovereign freedom and amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is the incarnate Word of divine self-revelation, whom all Scripture attests as the source, focus and goal of everything that is. Barth’s plan was to offer a version of mainstream Christianity — trinitarian, incarnational, redemptive — that would checkmate the Enlightenment’s confidence in reason by being drawn wholly from Scripture and being methodologically impervious to any form of rationalistic criticism. He dismissed as invalid, irrelevant and irreverent all natural theology and apologetics, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, all claims that historical criticism deepens insight into the real meaning of the Bible, and all ideas of agreements with non-Christian religions.
Barth set himself to draw our entire knowledge of God from narratives in Scripture that show him in action, particularly from the gospel story of the incarnate Word and primarily within that story from Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost — the three supreme moments in the incarnate Word’s existence. To all of this, on Barth’s view, the New Testament witnesses historically in retrospect and the Old Testament typologically
So far, so good, one might think. But in Barth’s working out of his agenda, in which everything depended on how convincingly he handled the Bible, two major problems emerged.
First, Barth would not affirm the God-givenness of the biblical text as a divine-human product — God’s instructional witness to himself in the form of celebratory and didactic human witness to him. Barth saw, no doubt, that such an affirmation would require him to maintain the inerrancy of Scripture, and he shied away from that.30 Instead, he construed the inspiration of the text in terms of its instrumentality in God’s hands as his means of channeling to us his specific word of the moment, thus causing the written text to become the Word of God to us. That God uses Scripture in this way is an important truth in bibliology, and Barth does well to highlight it. But when he categorizes the text as fallible, inadequate human witness that God honors by speaking through it, Barth drastically loosens the link between what the human writer was expressing and what God means us to learn at this moment from the passage in its canonical context.
Barth’s approach opens the door to fanciful typology while closing it to any treatment of recorded divine commands as universal directives to be applied by systemic moral reasoning. These are daunting features of his position. Barth’s theological exegesis of the most general of biblical imperatives yields only indicatives, not imperatives, because his method requires him to treat the texts as human testimony to what God once said rather than as God’s direct indication to all readers concerning his moral will. Barth’s ethics prove to be a kind of situationism, or contextualism,31 whereby moral priorities are discerned through knowledge of the specific acts in which God’s purposes were revealed. Surely something has been lost here.
Second, the attempt to support Barthian distinctives by straightforward biblical exposition repeatedly fails. Barth’s negating of general revelation as a basis for natural theology; his insistence on the priority of Christ to Adam and of gospel to law (with the supralapsarianism, that is
the view that God directly willed the fall, that this involves); and his universalistic claim that all humankind, having been rejected in Christ’s death, was then elected in Christ’s resurrection (a claim that makes the nonsalvation of anyone at all an apparent impossibility, as Barth acknowledged) — none of these can be made good by any ordinary form of exegesis. Specific texts stand against them, and Barth’s speculative typology proves nothing.32
Barth’s work over half a century has certainly renewed in some quarters a sense that we must go to the Bible for God’s message. But it can hardly be said to have given the Bible back to the preacher and the church as a revitalizing force. Certain of Barth’s characteristics had a significant impact on the church: the novelty of his exegesis, which makes ingenuity seem more important than fidelity to the text in its context; the almost hypnotic elegance of Barth’s formulations, which leaves one feeling that any theology would do, provided it was beautiful; and Barth’s paradoxical use of our down-to-earth Bible to construct an abstract and seemingly nonhistorical scheme of conceptual Christocentrism, which, as R.H. Roberts puts it, “hovers above us like a cathedral resting upon a cloud, structurally detached from space-time reality.”33 These unique characteristics have spawned in today’s church an uncontrolled and currently uncontrollable theological pluralism based on selective and fanciful use of biblical material by each thinker. This pluralism, more than anything else, is Barth’s actual legacy to us. His theology will undoubtedly be the subject of much academic study for many years. But his adventurous expositions of Scripture, throughout Church Dogmatics and elsewhere, will ultimately, I think, be rated as experiments that failed in the end to cast much light on the message of the biblical text.
Interpretation according to Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann of Marburg, Barth’s contemporary, who died in 1976 at the age of 92, was another theologian who sought to give the Bible back to the preacher. But whereas Barth’s way of doing this was by Christocentric exposition, Bultmann’s was by radical “demythologization.” In addition to being a skilled New Testament exegete and critic, Bultmann was also Heideggerian existentialist
who insisted, on the basis apparently of the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realms brought up to date, that God cannot be an object of knowledge as “worldly” realities are. He hit the headlines by dismissing all New Testament affirmations about the words and deeds of God as myth, that is, a prescientific way of conceiving reality that is simply not open to modern-day Westerners. Myth may inform us about the person who utters it but not about anything else.
Bultmann assumed that we must, and do treat science as our sole source of knowledge about the external world. So all those formalized theological beliefs, which earlier generations thought that God himself had taught us, must be given up, and we must be clear that nothing really depends on knowing facts about Jesus. Yet if we ask the New Testament texts to speak to us about our own existence (defining that word dynamically and activistically, as is the existentialist way), they will do for us what we and all humankind most need, that is, they will draw nudge, drive or lure us into a new view of ourselves, so that we become persons who are no longer in the power either of the remembered past, through guilt, or of the unknown future, through fear. This new “self-understanding,” which thus brings freedom, is what the entire New Testament is about — and all that it is about.
The way into the new mentality is by decision, that is, by committing ourselves to embrace this new view of ourselves and live it out. And the benefit of the decision is conceived in existentialist terms: thus you achieve your authentic existence, which the New Testament calls eternal life. This, said Bultmann, speaking the language of what to him is New Testament myth, is our Easter, our coresurrection with Christ (although, of course, there was for Bultmann no more to it than our own decision). The only real act of God anywhere, ever, that Bultmann allows is the impact of Christian preaching. This preaching, by highlighting our inward predicament of guilt and fear and calling on us to decide to leave it behind, triggers the self-understanding that transforms our lives. Thus the preacher’s task is to practice
the discipline of demytholigization, in which he constantly explains this new self-understanding (nothing more, nothing less, nothing different) as being the whole of New Testament Christianity, and he exhorts us not to look for more. Such must be his lifelong pulpit ministry.
The remarkable influence that Bultmann’s hermeneutical reductionism34 has had over the past half century was due, no doubt, more to the academic brilliance of his various expositions and the filling of teaching posts in German universities with his technically well-qualified disciples than to any intrinsic wisdom or profundity in what he had to say. The gospel according to Bultmann is like the Cheshire cat’s smile in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, visible in the air after the cat had vanished. It is a phenomenon of reassurance, but there is really nothing there.
It seems clear that Bultmann’s idiosyncratic star, which in 1955 seemed to have risen above Barth’s, was by 1985 decisively on the wane. And it seems clear, too, that whatever else Bultmann has done, he has not given the Bible back to the preacher and the church in a way that can lead to new spiritual life.
Watchers of the professional theologians’ world will note a striking and significant parallel between the way current Protestant theology has dealt with the Bible on the one hand and the person of Christ on the other. In both cases the split is between those who call themselves liberals and progressives because they embrace the human-centered, rationalistic, antisupernatural, antitraditional, evolutionary mindset of the European Enlightenment, and those whom I call conservationists, who think this progressivism a perversity and hold to the old paths.
Conservationist reflection on both the divine-human person of Jesus Christ and the divine-human text of Holy Scripture starts by affirming the reality of the divinity and then celebrates the exaltation of the humanity in union with it, whereas liberal reflection on both starts by emphasizing the limits of the humanity and ends up scaling the divinity down. Liberals have thus developed Christology “from below,” viewing Jesus simply as a man through whom God showed something special, and bibliology “from below,” presenting the Bible as fallible human narration
and instruction through which God triggers attitudes of approval and endorsement or of disapproval and adjustment toward its contents. Conservationists think that this reductionism makes faith in Christ and in Scripture as modeled in the New Testament simply impossible. So the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment has precipitated a battle for the incarnation as well as for the Bible — one battle, in fact, in which the battle for the Bible has become part of the larger battle for the gospel.
Biblical theology, Barth and Bultmann all fell short, in their different ways, through conceding to Enlightenment prejudice at vital points, and any future bibliology and Christology that makes such concessions will likewise fail. In current culture the Enlightenment mindset, though sorely wounded by postmodernist reaction, is by no means dead, and it is certainly not dead yet in the world of Christian theology. So the battle for the Bible, the incarnation and the gospel must, it seems, continue for the foreseeable future.
My narrative has, I believe, hit the high spots of debate about the Bible in the West over the past half century, and I now conclude it.35 Surveying the story from the standpoint of the dual interest (academic and pastoral) I confessed at the outset, what are the appropriate comments to make on it? I offer the following.
First, a Bible that can be read and trusted by all Christians as straightforward instruction from God himself about his relation to his world and everything in it is a precious gift, one that the church and, indeed, the entire human race needs. Satanic strategy will certainly seek to obfuscate that instruction by one means or another through generating either some mistrust of the text or some mishandling of it in exposition. Our story bears witness particularly to the second type of obfuscation.
Second, we should be thankful to God both for the gift of Scripture itself and for all efforts to uphold its status as an authority and a means of grace to God’s people by vindicating its inerrancy and infallibility on the one hand and by expounding the salvation it sets forth in Christ on
the other hand. We should see these two endeavors as going together — needing each other for fruitfulness to the church and suffering together if either is undermined or neglected.
Third, we must allow our principles of interpretation to be determined a posteriori, from within the canonical Scriptures themselves. Since each book was written to be understood by its own first readers, our understanding of it must start from what it was expressing to them. And since all the books turn out when analyzed to be dealing, one way or another, with the history and scope of God’s salvation — past, present and future — and to be confronting their readers with the God who saves, our understanding of them must center here. This means that grammatical-historical interpretation from a redemptive-historical perspective must ever be our method. Furthermore, if biblical passages are not identified within the canon as, for instance, myth or type, we should resist the temptation to treat them as such. Our task as interpreters is to read out of Scripture what is demonstrably there, not to read into it what is possibly not there. Type, to be sure, is a biblical category, but is myth? Though this is not the place to argue the point, let me say, I think not.
Fourth, we must not view the methodological diversity of interpretive styles and conclusions in the modern church as anything but a tragedy. The theological pluralism and confusion of our day argues weakness of the flesh rather than vitality of the heart. It is cause for thanksgiving that evangelical theology all over the world, working as it does with an agreed method, remains fairly homogeneous and, if anything, slowly becomes more so. This is how under God it should be, as the Spirit works through the Word, and it is a process that we should try to further. But critical and corrective dialogue with nonevangelical theologies, constructed by use of a partly false method (as they all are), will have to go on. No serious, permanent rapprochement can be considered, even where by a happy accident views on particular subjects coincide, as long as methods diverge.
Evangelical method with the Bible is part of evangelical loyalty to the Bible, just as evangelical loyalty to the Bible is part of evangelical loyalty to Christ. And until agreement reaches to method, the battle for the Bible
in the pluralistic maelstrom of the Christian world today will have to be maintained. May God strengthen his servants to continue fighting the good fight.
Appendix: A Short Statement
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, its divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
From the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978