The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part V: Holy Scripture

Part V: A docetic-dictated-propositional Bible

Growing up as I did within the folds of evangelicalism, I learned from a young age to have a very high doctrine of Holy Scripture. The Bible was to be revered as truly the Word of God. We had Bible drills in Sunday School and played Bible trivia games which tested our knowledge of obscure facts, usually a law in Leviticus or a name in Judges. And, of course, I prided myself on being the star student. (After one Bible trivia session, a man visiting the church came up to me and said that he saw in me a modern Gideon.) Finally, lest we forget, we sang, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”

Little did I know that I was witnessing a crisis in the church. I began to notice the problem when preachers would speak of Jesus as the Word, but then could not seem to decide whether they preferred to call Jesus or the Bible the actual “Word of God.” They were caught in a dilemma—mostly theological—and often they gave the impression of elevating the Bible over Jesus. However, the problem became blatantly evident this past year, in the wake of Bart Ehrman’s rise to popularity. Ehrman, as I have written before, is a Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton Seminary graduate who subsequently discarded with his evangelical upbringing and now embraces academic agnosticism, which essentially states, “I know too much to believe in God.” Ehrman’s problem is theological, in that the doctrine of Scripture which he was taught could not withstand the onslaught of textual criticism. Faced with the historical evidence, he could only reject the authority of Scripture. The problem for evangelicalism is that it has no response to Ehrman other than to reject textual criticism wholesale.

Here is where I enter the picture. On the one hand, I greatly value the high view of Scripture that evangelicalism gave me at a young age. On the other hand, I also value the academic enterprise of textual criticism and the historical-critical method. To view the two sides as mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy, not unlike the analogously false dichotomy between a doctrine of creation and evolution. One side does not cancel out the other. To put this in thesis form, in our doctrine of Holy Scripture, we must not so elevate the Bible as a spiritual document that we lose its historicality, and we must not so lower it as a human document that we lose its function as the Word of God, as the witness to God’s revelation. It is my contention that evangelicalism in America has fallen prey to the former, which has hindered both evangelicals in the academy and preachers in the pulpit. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of these heresies can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the Bible.

Beyond Inerrancy: I must make clear up front that inerrancy is not my sole target, though it surely falls under my criticism. Inerrancy is part of the problem, but more as the consequence and not the cause. I have already discussed inerrancy elsewhere; suffice it to say that this whole argument is really a complex debate between Catholicism and Protestantism that has its origin in the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate over Scripture is really a debate over authority. Where is ecclesial authority located? Is it in the church structure and leadership? in Holy Scripture? in ourselves? or elsewhere?

A quick history lesson is in order: First, the magisterial Reformers were upset over the abuse of authority being exercised by the leaders of the Catholic Church, who used their socio-political power for selfish ends. The Reformers placed the authority of the Bible as a damning witness over against the ecclesiastical structures which they viewed as hopelessly corrupt. Along with the elevation of the Bible, the Reformers—Luther in particular—made the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” a central tenet in their theology. Ecclesial mediation was drastically reduced and altered, though the magisterial Reformers still held on to the importance of the sacraments and tradition despite their clear break from Rome. Fast forward a couple hundred years. In the late 19th century, the world was changing at a dramatic pace. The industrial revolution, Freudian psychology, modern philosophy, textual criticism, and evolutionary biology all converged to create an environment seemingly inhospitable to traditional religious belief. The Catholic Church asserted its authority over against modernity by establishing the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, giving certainty to all teachings ex cathedra in the face of a changing world. Conservative Protestants, under the leadership of B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, acted similarly by instituting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. We can see here that modernity was a wedge that drove the two branches of the western church further apart by aggravating their own predispositions—Catholics toward ecclesial authority, and Protestants toward biblical authority. If Catholic made an idol of the church, then Protestants made an idol out of the Bible.

The question about the Bible is, at its heart, a question about authority. When put into this light, both sides of this debate are wrong to the extent that they reject the claims of the other party. (To be sure, both Catholics and Protestants, in general, have stepped back somewhat from these two positions. However, I still find the two positions to be a useful typology, even if they oversimplify what Catholics and Protestants truly believe.) Roman Catholics, in elevating ecclesial authority, threaten to forget that the institution itself stands under the divine No and Yes contained in the gospel witness. The institution is not God-on-earth but merely a witness to the Lord who judges heaven and earth and all people. Protestants, in elevating the biblical narrative, threaten to forget that this written Word of God belongs to and for the church as the people of God, and thus it is not to be viewed as an individual document to be read and interpreted by individuals (e.g., “God’s love letter to me”). The third (caricatured) position is that of the academic who views the biblical text as purely human and without authority, but who also rejects the authority of the church. Such a person makes an idol out of human knowledge.

The three idols—church, Bible, and human intellect—are each dangerous temptations. Those who wish to give the church worldly authority will always want the church to be divine; those who wish to give Scripture worldly authority will always want the Bible to be wholly divine; and those who wish to give human intellect religious authority will always want reason to be divine. My argument is that all three find their proper balance when placed in dialogical relation to one another under the lordship of the triune God. Of course, Catholics and Protestants would never see their positions as anything other than the necessary means of honoring God’s lordship, but it is my contention here to suggest the following: The church is only properly honored when it is a “creature of the Word” guided by the command of God in Scripture, aided by human intellectual pursuits, and ordered toward God’s purposes; the Bible is only properly honored when it is the “Word for the church,” read and interpreted by the people of God, and critically analyzed as a faithful and true witness to God’s revelation in human history; and human intellect is only properly honored when it is guided by the command of God given in Scripture to the church, ordered toward the purposes of God, and carried out by the people of God.

The Doctrine of the Word of God: Before I offer my practical suggestions for how to rectify the situation, I believe we can find an appropriate understanding of Scripture in the theology of Karl Barth. This is where we need to start. A doctrine of the Bible that upholds biblical authority as the sole witness to God’s self-revelation while also answering Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of its textual history are necessary in order for evangelicalism to have a voice worthy of being heard. As long as Ehrman remains unanswerable, evangelicalism shows itself to be like the ostrich who buries her head in the sand. For the Christian, this is not an appropriate response. Barth offers another way.

In both the Göttingen Dogmatics and in the Church Dogmatics I/1 (§4), Barth speaks of the “threefold Word of God.” By this he means the Word of God takes three forms, each equally important and necessary. We may think of concentric circles: in the middle stands the Word of God incarnate and revealed in Jesus Christ, in the next circle stands the Word of God written in Holy Scripture, and in the final circle we find the Word of God proclaimed and preached in the church. Each requires the other two. Barth is not speaking about three different Words of God, but always and only one Word. Barth thus writes the following on their unity-in-distinction:
It is one and the same whether we understand [the Word of God] as revelation, Bible, or proclamation. There is no distinction of degree or value between the three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repetition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. As the Bible and proclamation become God’s Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation they are God’s Word: the one Word of God within which there can be neither a more nor a less. ... So, to give a survey of the whole, the following brief schedule of mutual relations may be drawn up.

The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.

The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfills proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.

The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation. (I/1, 120-21)
Now to the average evangelical, Barth’s threefold distinction will sound rather confusing, because if she is anything like me, she will have been taught to identify God’s (special) revelation with the Bible. The two are indistinguishable. However, it is precisely this distinction between general and special revelation which Barth contests. What Barth strives to recover is the affirmation that Jesus Christ alone is God’s special or self-revelation. The Bible, he makes clear, is the witness to that revelation through the prophets and apostles who witnessed God’s revelation first hand. We are hearing the report of God’s actions in human history through the mediation of these human writers. The Bible is authoritative because these writers were so grasped by the event of revelation that they could do nothing but recount the details in their own cultural idiom. The biblical narrative is thus wholly human and yet wholly divine. Holy Scripture would be nothing without the commandeering force of God’s revelation upon those who witnessed God’s involvement in the world, but it would also be nothing without these human witnesses declaring God’s revelation in language that seemed appropriate to them at the time. In other words, we cannot divorce Scripture either from God’s history or human history.

Evangelicalism needs to come to grips with its relationship to both ecclesial authority and academic textual criticism. The way often chosen by evangelicals has been an individualistic hermeneutic, in which the individual Christian has the sole authority and power to interpret Scripture for herself, guided perhaps by the occasional sermon. What we commonly find today are scholars who have almost no biblical literacy and evangelicals who have almost no awareness of the history of these texts and their cultural-historical contexts. Ehrman learned about these contexts and felt he had to jettison the Bible’s authority. Is there another way? I believe when we distinguish between God’s revelation (in Jesus) and the human witness to revelation (the Bible), we have a way of preserving divine authority in and through Scripture without feeling threatened by the awareness of the Bible’s historical development.

All too often, evangelicals have opted for a docetic Bible—to use a christological heresy—in which Scripture is a divine text given directly by God. Evangelicalism leads toward a dictated Bible by speaking of it as God’s direct Word to humanity without reservation. The one major reservation should be that only Jesus is God’s Word to humanity, and even he is not a direct revelation. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is an indirect revelation mediated in the form of human flesh and then mediated again through the witness of Holy Scripture and the testimony of the church. Scripture is not revelation, but rather the witness to it. Hence the need to distinguish between the terms “revelation” and “Word of God”; the two are not coterminous. Finally, proclamation is the Word of God, but at one more remove from God’s revelation, mediated as it is, a third time, through the human agent who proclaims the gospel in the here and now. Human and ecclesial mediation is inescapable, but what we must never do is idolize such mediation such that the church or the biblical text becomes anything more than a witness to God’s acts in history.

Finally, a proper doctrine of God’s Word will insist on its nature as story, not as a collection of propositions. Theological and doctrinal propositions are important, but they are interpretations of the Bible, not part of the Bible itself. Of course, the Bible contains propositional truths—“the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)—but these must be situated in the context of the narrative of God’s acts in history. The Bible is not a collection of timeless truths or theological axioms, but is rather the witness to the complex relation between the holy God and sinful humanity. The Bible does not primarily tell us what to think, but rather declares who God is and what God has done, and thus, in light of that, who we are.

If I had to replace biblical inerrancy with any doctrine, I would choose the one articulated by Bruce McCormack in his essay, “The Being of Holy Scripture Is in Becoming.” McCormack coins the phrase “dynamic infallibilism,” by which he means the Scriptures do not have a fixed-in-stone inerrant essence but are rather made to be the infallible Word of God by the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit in the historical setting in which they are read and received. In other words, the Bible is a being-in-becoming that receives its identity as the authoritative witness to God’s revelation from God’s own agency; the Bible does not have authority in and of itself as simply a human document. It must “become” revelation to us, but such “becoming” is only possible by the power of God working in the present:
For particular individuals, God must first make the Bible to be what it is. The Bible must become what it is. And this is a becoming whose actualization rests solely at the divine discretion. The being-in-becoming of the Bible as Word of God, which took place “there and then” under the experience of inspiration, must take place “here and now,” so that the being-in-becoming of the Bible “here and now” is made to correspond to the originating “being-in-becoming.” Therefore, the “sacramental union” of divine Word and human word is a union that must always be realized in relation to particular individuals if what is true of the Bible “essentially” is to known as true by them.
A more in-depth explication of this doctrine will have to wait until another occasion. For now, I wish to offer my suggestions for how to reorient the direction of evangelicalism.

Solution: As Barth said, “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis.” Evangelicalism is plagued by a lack of knowledge of Scripture. But knowledge of what the Bible says is insufficient apart from the knowledge of why the Bible says what it does. The Bible is not a subject in itself; it is the record of many past witnesses who felt God’s claim on their lives and were compelled in spite of themselves to declare the truth of God as the truth of our lives. We must know the Bible, but we must know it as the witness to God’s revelation to the apostles and prophets. That means having the highest possible doctrine of Scripture, but never so high that we threaten to forget its very human history.

Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God honors Holy Scripture, but it also gives the highest honor to preaching as itself a mode of the Word of God in the present. Scriptural exegesis and theological investigation are only worthwhile if they translate into church proclamation. We honor the Word of God incarnate and written when we preach effectively and faithfully, never turning the Bible into an idol but also never turning it into just another human document of ancient history. The Bible is indeed living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. But it is only this because of the Holy Spirit and the power of God at work in the church. The church itself, for that matter, only has authority because of the God’s agency in the Holy Spirit who constitutes the church as the gathering of the people of God.

Finally, as Christians, we need to relearn how to read. We live in a media-saturated age when reality TV and .mp3 players dominate our world. Books are foreign to the rising generations. Biblical literacy gets worse and worse with each passing year. This does not bode well for the church, and the only way to rectify it is to follow the command of God to the Israelite people:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:5-9)



This was a very thoughtful post. I have one or two things that I want to talk to you about in person with regards to it, but that can wait. For now, I would like to ask you to clarify this statement:

"The biblical narrative is thus wholly human and yet wholly divine."

As I know you know, that's the Chalcedonian formula. Would you elaborate on this to make a distinction between the force of that formula here as opposed to its Christological force?
Anonymous said…
Well written post. Wish there were more like this in the world.

You stated:

"The Catholic Church asserted its authority over against modernity by establishing the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, giving certainty to all teachings ex cathedra in the face of a changing world."

I'd like to point out that this was a restatement of 1 Timothy 3:15 which states:

"... the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. "

As truth by its nature is always infallible, its isn't surprising that when the Pope pronounces the truth that it would be infallible. Ditto for you and I.

BTW, there have only been two offical ex cathedra pronouncements in the 2,000 year history of the Church. Though, some argue there's a third.

Just want to clear that up for some of the non-Catholics.

- Timothy
Ben Myers said…
Hi David -- thanks for your thoughtful post. I know what you mean about a "docetic" view of the Bible.

When I was growing up, we were exhorted to read through the whole Bible regularly -- and it was important to read all of it, without skipping even those genealogies in 1 Chronicles. For a whole week, my devotional "quiet time" could consist of reading genealogies, and of trying to extract some hidden "meaning" from them! Now that's biblical docetism!

(Incidentally, a humorous side-effect of this approach was that I knew several devout people who were always trying to read through the Bible: but, for understandable reasons, they had never managed to get past Leviticus....)
Anonymous said…
being an evangelical who has recently begun reevaluating his understanding of scripture (after reading Webster's Holy Scripture), i wonder if you could clarify a little more what you mean by Scripture "becoming the Word of God". (i know, i should probably read McCormack's thing at a time though).

i guess my question is, is that located in the text or in the believer (whether individual or the church) -- is the emphasis placed on becoming because the text has something lacking in it or because of our fallenness and need for the Holy Spirit to illumine the message of Scripture for the Church, and thus, it becomes God's Word to us? or is it something else completely which i am missing?

thanks for the help, i'm a regular reader and definitely appreciate your thoughts!


Thanks for the insightful question. Of course, Barth and McCormack would never wish to say there is anything lacking in the biblical text, unless we were going to say there is something lacking in all creaturely reality — including the world, humanity, and, yes, the Bible as part of this world. In other words, the reason the Holy Spirit is necessary to make this text the Word of God is the same reason the Holy Spirit is necessary to make this people the Church of God: there is an ontological chasm between God and the world, and this chasm can only be bridged by God. And it must be bridged in order for the Bible to become the Word of God and for this people to be the Church. So yes, it does have to do with our fallenness, but it mostly rests on the ontological question. Any thoughts in response?
J said…

Thanks for the short history lesson. I know that I'm not the only one who benefitted from it.

I also share a similar experience with Ben Myers, in that I was also encouraged to read the Bible cover to cover, geneologies and all, in order to find meaning in each individual verse. Sadly, this was also encouraged at every Bible study I participated in during High School. When you get a group of High School kids saying, "God told me that this verse means..." the results are often disasterous!
Shane said…
David, a niggling point. Having read no more of the mccormack essay than the bit you quote, nevertheless it seems that there is a difference between how you characterize what mccormack says and what that quote actually says.

You say: "the Bible does not have authority in and of itself as simply a human document. It must “become” revelation to us, but such “becoming” is only possible by the power of God working in the present."

McCormack says: "For particular individuals, God must first make the Bible to be what it is."

The difference is the difference between an ontological claim that the Bible is not inherently the word of God (your claim, as i understand it) and the epistemological claim that we can't recognize it's inspired status apart from God's revealing it (which is what it seems like McCormack says in this quote). I don't know what McCormack says in the rest of the essay, where he might embrace the ontological claim too, but it strikes me that the two aren't the same claim.
Shane said…
*sorry, sent that too soon*

it strikes me that the two claims are independent. You could believe the epistemological claim without believing the ontological one.

My uninformed, lay, gut response would be to say that the Bible is the Word of God (but not in the sense of being a divine hypostasis, of course) inherently, as such, by itself, etc., just as Jesus is the son of God, inherently, as such, by himself, and so forth, whether we recognize that fact or whether he is revealed as such.

Shane said…
**wait, another question.

david, i'm reading your response to daniel and it looks to me like you are grounding your rejection of the bible's inherent being-the-word-of-God on the barthian rejection of natural theology.

doesn't that seem a little extreme? If the Bible is now natural theology, has the category maybe expanded a bit too broadly?

The difference, as I see, is this:

Jesus is fully human and fully divine in an ontological sense, in that he is, in himself, very God and very human.

The Bible is fully human and fully divine only when the Holy Spirit actualizes it as the Word of God. It is not, in itself, the divine Word of God, but only when God works upon it by actualizing power of the Spirit.

Following from this observation is the further clarification that Jesus is "one substance with the Father," whereas the Bible never becomes an ontological extension of God. We could say that the Scriptures are fully divine only in the way that the church is fully divine — and this is only as each creaturely reality participates in the reality of God by the power and will of God. The community of saints and the Holy Scriptures are divine only in the sense that God has commandeered these creaturely realities to bear witness to Godself. (Jesus, in contradistinction to Scripture, does not simply bear witness to God but acts as God, because God has identified Godself with Jesus in the hypostatic union through the event of the incarnation.)

The community of the church and the writings of the apostles and prophets must be brought into correspondence to God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ontologically, Jesus Christ is the self-revelation of God. Ontologically, the church and the Scriptures are brought into correspondence to God by God's actualizing power so that they then bear witness to God's revelation.

Would you want to clarify this further? McCormack's essay speaks about this formula in relation to Scripture as well, and he clarifies it along similar terms. Perhaps I will devote a post to the essay in the future.

Thanks for the questions. A couple points are in order:

(1) McCormack's essay is all about the ontology of the Bible, and for both of us, the ontological and epistemological questions are closely interrelated.

(2) The Bible as natural theology is a valid concern insofar as Christians think that the Bible naturally witnesses to God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, McCormack and I are stating that the Bible is not in itself the Word of God. The category "Word of God" is not an essentialist term but more of an existential one, that is, it refers to how this particular text is the "Word of God to us." And the Bible is only the Word of God because God actualizes it as such. These Scriptures — and these Scriptures alone — are actualized by God to be the Word of God.

The Bible naturally, apart from God, is simply a collection of ancient texts written out of a particular cultural framework.

The Bible, when accompanied and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is the Word of God, the authoritative witness to God's revelation.
I think that speaking of anything other than Christ as "fully divine" is to muddle language needlessly. While I am sympathetic to employing the chalcedonain pattern for thinking through these kinds of things, I do not think that employing all the Chalcedonian language is necessarily a good idea.

The Chalcedonian pattern is a way of thinking about those things that are loci of both divine and human agency as being places of unity in distinction. This is different from speaking of things as fully human and fully divine.

This is muddled further when you start talking about actualized ontology, because it threatens to bring the christological application of the pattern closely togehter with non-christological uses. What I mean by this is that you have to do even more work to show why your method of speaking about the Bible as actualized into being fully divine does nto also apply to Jesus (when you tried this, you lapsed back into non-actualized terms).

Also, I'm not quite sure I want to call the Bible fully divine under any conditions. It is only ever human. It is sanctified, certainly, but not divine in any sense. We can talk about this more in person.

Those are just some thoughts.
byron smith said…
It is only ever human. It is sanctified, certainly, but not divine in any sense.
Same for the church? I was a little confused when you spoke of the church being divine. Though perhaps there are competing concepts of divinisation at work here.
Shane said…

you said, "The category "Word of God" is not an essentialist term but more of an existential one, that is, it refers to how this particular text is the 'Word of God to us.'"

I understand what you are saying, but my concern is that someone might want to take what you've said here and argue that any religious text (dharammapada, qu'ran, etc.) might become the Word of God existentially. In other words, I would like you to point out the uniqueness and exclusivity of the Bible whenever you make these kinds of points. Now obviously there are lots of different ways to do this, besides the one that i'm opting for, (i.e., saying that the Bible is the word of God in itself), but i think you do need to elaborate your exposition with some kind of restriction like this. why is it that only this text can become the Word of God?

Your point is well taken. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words. My original language was "wholly divine," not "fully divine." The former is better insofar as it refers to the wholeness of the object (i.e., Holy Scripture) that is divine, rather than the extent or level of that divinity. In other words, Jesus alone is fully God and fully human. Scripture is, as a whole, entirely a human text, but when it becomes God's Word to us, it functions wholly and entirely as the Word of God — not the word of some people long ago. The Word is entirely God's, and thus wholly divine. It is not partly God's Word to us and partly a human word to us. Do you see what I am trying to articulate in this?

Now to quote Barth:

"As the Word of God in the sign of this prophetic-apostolic word of man Holy Scripture is like the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ. It is neither divine only nor human only. Nor is it a mixture of the two nor a tertium quid between them. But in its own way and degree it is very God and very man, i.e., a witness of revelation which itself belongs to revelation, and historically a very human literary document. As such it does not violate the majesty of the one God in His distinctness from all that is not Himself. On the contrary, in its existence, i.e., even in its form (which is, of course, entirely grounded in its content) as the only word of man distinguished and separated in this way, it attests the uniqueness of the divine Majesty."

Of course, to clarify, Barth says before a little earlier:

"In contrast to the humanity of Jesus Christ, there is no unity of person between God and the humanity of the prophets and apostles. Again, in contrast to the humanity of Jesus Christ, the humanity of the prophets and apostles is not taken up into the glory of God. It cannot independently reveal, but only attest, the revelation which did and does take place in the humanity of Jesus Christ. But at this remove and with this difference, as this word of testimony, as the sign of the revelation which has taken place and does take place, and indeed, as we saw, as the sign posited in and with revelation itself, as the witness of witnesses directly called in and with revelation itself, Scripture, too, stands in that indirect identity of human existence with God Himself, which is conditioned neither by the nature of God nor that of man, but brought about by the decision and act of God. It too can and must — not as though it were Jesus Christ, but in the same serious sense as Jesus Christ-be called the Word of God: the Word of God in the sign of the word of man, if we are going to put it accurately."

McCormack says, in response to this passage, that Barth affirms, in distinction from what he says about the hypostatic union, an "indirect identity" between the human word and the divine Word in Scripture. The Bible is still wholly human and wholly divine, but there is not the kind of "union" which takes place in Christ. There is no intimate assumption of the human words into God's being and Word. If the hypostatic union was an actualization of God's unity with humankind, the Bible becomes God's Word through the dynamic actualizations by the Holy Spirit which take place in the present as God wills this text to become the Word of God to a particular person who is made to be the hearer of this word. I think Barth and McCormack articulate precisely what I am trying to affirm: not the actualization (or assumption) of the Bible as actually and truly divine, but the actualization of the Bible as a divine Word to and for us. The human words are not taken up into God's life, but they are accompanied fully by God's Spirit so that they function truly as the Word of God.

Shane, your concern is one that McCormack addresses at the start of his essay, that allowing the being of Holy Scripture to be a being-in-becoming threatens to make the status of Scripture as God's Word purely subjective. The problem, of course, is that it is never we who decide whether the Bible is God's Word, but always and only God.

Now the reason this particular text is God's Word and not another is simply because this text has been bears witness to God's self-revelation, something that we confess only because we, like the apostles and prophets, have been interrupted and redefined by the gospel kerygma such that we are those who are shaped by this text. We confess that in these texts, God bears witness to Godself. This happens through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as those who witnessed through these texts to the event of revelation. But the writing and completing of the canon is not the end of the story. This is where Barth differs from much of the tradition (particularly that of Warfield).

For Barth, the event of revelation is complete with the Spirit's work of creating hearers of God's Word. That is, Scripture is not self-evident; it does not naturally speak as the Word of God. True hearers of the Word are created by God as part of the faith-event. Here is the existential side of the issue. The Bible must "become" the Word of God. The event of revelation is entirely a divine event, in that God acted in the person of Jesus Christ (of course God also acted in the history of Israel as well), God inspired and guided the apostles and prophets and the church itself, and God now illumines and creates those who may hear and respond to this text. This is not only an epistemological question but it is, as McCormack argues, primarily ontological. The being of Holy Scripture is dependent on the actualizing power of God through the Holy Spirit, in which this text becomes the Word of God and this person becomes the hearer of the Word.

I suppose I didn't adequately answer your question about why this text, and only this text, is the Word of God. I guess I would have to say that this text was borne out of the event of the triune God's revelation, written by humans as those guided and captured by the grip of revelation on their lives (i.e., inspired), and read faithfully only by the accompanying power and will of God.
The quotes from Barth are from CD I/2, pp. 501 and 500, respectively.
Mike Skinner said…
nice, nice post.
Keep em coming,
Love in Christ
"The human words are not taken up into God's life, but they are accompanied fully by God's Spirit so that they function truly as the Word of God."

Much better, and very different from saying that Scripture is in itself "wholly divine."
I actually don't think the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Insofar as God accompanies, sanctifies, and actualizes this text to be the Word of God, it is a wholly divine Word. I think it's probably just a linguistic hang-up you have here. I am following Barth in applying the Chalcedonian formula, but I am still preserving the ontological difference between the two words — human and divine. I would say that in using the phrase "wholly divine," I mean an extensive application of divinity to Scripture — i.e., all of Scripture is the Word of God — rather than an intensive application — i.e., Jesus is fully and entirely God (and fully human).
My beef (or, 'hang-up' as your might say :-P ) is this - Scripture never ceases to be a completely human artifact. At no point and in no way does it 'become' divine in any sense. The Word of God (Jesus) comes to us by the working of the Spirit and through the instrumentality of Scripture. And so, by appropriation, we can say that Scripture has something like a 'divine' function, effect, whatever. But, I would never say that it's 'being' is in any sense divine. Through its function as a unique instrumentality, it is given a place in the three-fold word of God. But this instrumentality is entirely dependent on the fact that it is only ever a human artifact.

Now, I think that in your explanations, you expressed yourself in ways that I am happy to live with. And, if one put something like my above account in place in tandem with employing the chalcedonian patter, then I think one would be fine.
Fair enough, Travis. All I mean is that when Scripture functions (by the Spirit's power) as the Word of God, then Scripture is truly a divine Word.
Anonymous said…

The previous discussion has been quite helpful in clarifying my question. My question revolves primarily around the ontological/epistemological (objective/subjective) nature of the “becoming”. Still needing to read the McCormack piece, I am somewhat uneasy about referring to Scripture as something which ontologically “becomes” now. I absolutely agree that Scripture is a creaturely reality which has been caught up through the Holy Spirit to witness to God’s act of revelation in Christ and the history of Israel (and that “inerrancy” is neither helpful nor appropriate), but I am trying to figure out at what point this being “caught up through the Holy Spirit to witness to God’s act of revelation in Christ and the history of Israel” occurs. I am wondering whether the “becoming” the Word of God is a once-for-all (I hate to use the term “static”, but it is what comes to mind) event which occurred as God took up the culturally conditioned creaturely writings so they might bear witness to him as they were recorded.

My leanings I guess are on the subjective/epistemological side—that Scripture currently is the Word of God, but we are completely incapable of recognizing it as such, and are thus, dependent on the Holy Spirit (so that we might say that Scripture “became” the Word of God ontologically, but “becomes” the Word of God TO US today). If it refers to a present objective/ontological event which occurs currently, what changes? Whereas before it did not serve as witness to God’s acts, what about God working in it now makes it so? If it becomes the Word of God currently, the only picture I have is of an ontological change in which the grammatical-structures change so that whereas before they did not depict the reality of God’s movement in history, now they do. I realize that that is not what you are advocating, but at this point it is the only alternative I can conceive of!

Thanks again for the help!


I can't answer for David (although trying to is tempting), but I can tell you how I would make sense of your question. I would do so by making 2 points:

(1) Scripture's ontological being as a human document necessarily bears witness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ simply because God's revelation in Jesus Christ is the subject matter of Holy Scripture. So, Scripture is ALWAYS a human witness to divine self-revelation. If you are looking for something static, this is where to find it (although, when dealing with actualized ontologies on has to make even this contingent, but we need not get into that).

(2) Scripture "becomes" a divine Word (as David says, and a construction which I am quite happy with) only when the Spirit employs it as an intrument to reveal God through Jesus Christ. In other words, only when Jesus Christ comes to us by the power of the Spirit and through the mediating reality of Scripture. This is only ever an event. Indeed, it is a miraculous event because it is supranatural - Scripture in itself is not sufficient to provide for this kind of revelation of God.
I affirm everything that WTM said. Holy Scripture is always the human witness to God's revelation, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, it "becomes" the divine Word of God which guides the church in faith and practice.