The Bible as Revelation, Part 1

Recent debates in the Southern Baptist Convention and within some Baptist state conventions provide a clear example of a dividing line that exists on the doctrine of Scripture. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message identifies the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” This statement is not contained in the original 1925 version of the confession. I don’t know what motivated the addition of this statement in the 1960’s (a possible neo-orthodox influence?), but it is not my purpose to discuss Baptist history in this post. Baptist history illustrates a crucial theological point in this case, for in the 2000 edition of The Baptist Faith and Message, the Bible is identified as “God’s revelation of Himself to man.” The debate that has swirled around this issue has divided moderates, who argue that the Bible is a record of divine revelation, from conservatives, who argue that the Bible itself is revelation. It is my contention that biblically and theologically speaking, we should not hesitate to affirm that the Bible is indeed divine revelation, so long as we understand that it does not exhaust the category of divine revelation.

My theological conversation partner on this issue has been, for a few years now, Karl Barth. Barth belongs on the short list of my favorite theologians. One of the best things I did in the last three years was to sign up for a course on his theology, the content of which sowed the seeds of several further theological developments in my thinking, one of which may become a future dissertation. On the issue of Scripture as revelation, his thoughts have been quite stimulating, and while I respect the motives and the reasoning for his position, I have concluded that he was ultimately wrong. Although in his case, being wrong about the nature of Scripture did not do great damage to his overall theology, I believe generations that have followed have used his doctrine of Scripture (or something akin to it) to draw theological conclusions that are dangerous to the church, conclusions that he himself never would have sanctioned.

In continuity with his Reformed heritage, Barth understood the Word of God in a threefold way: Christ is the Word of God, Scripture is the Word of God, and church proclamation is the Word of God. Of course, the word “is” means different things in the previous sentence. In the case of Jesus Christ, he is to be identified as the Word of God in and of himself, at all times. He is the primary event of God’s revelation. However, Scripture and preaching belong to a different category. Scripture is a witness to the mighty, revelatory events of history. Therefore, Scripture cannot be strictly identified as the Word of God. It becomes the Word of God when God so chooses to use it that way; therefore, it is best to define it more as a vehicle for divine revelation than as revelation itself. Preaching, like Scripture, is the same thing–a vehicle for divine revelation. For Barth, revelation is always personal. It involves the self-disclosure of a Person to another person in an event that cannot be adequately described with human language. Therefore, to identify a book as revelation is to objectify and seek to contain a dynamic, mysterious concept that cannot be reduced to a static object. For Barth, conservatives had sought to tame God by claiming to have captured his Word in a book. One paragraph from his Church Dogmatics (Volume 1.2, p. 237) that captures the essence of this argument reads as follows:

We speak of real revelation only when we speak of the revelation which is real for us. It is the revelation which is attested to ourselves. It is the revelation which we ourselves adopt when it is attested. It is the revelation which reaches us. An objective revelation as such, a revelation which consists statically only in its sign-giving, in the objectivity of Scripture, preaching, and sacrament, a revelation which does not penetrate to man: a revelation of this kind is an idol like all the rest, and perhaps the worst of all idols.

I respect Barth’s motive here. Some have argued that Barth’s doctrine of Scripture stems from his inability to completely let go of the liberalism of his background. Maybe there is something to that theory, but we must also recognize that his doctrine of Scripture flows naturally from his doctrine of God, which is certainly light years away from that of Protestant Liberalism. Barth’s view of divine transcendence so exalts God over man that he was unable to conceive of an objective deposit of divine revelation that any man could hold in his possession. Fearing that an inerrant Bible would threaten the freedom of God to speak sovereignly and unpredictably in the event of revelation, Barth refused to identify the Bible as the Word of God, as equal to divine revelation, as inerrant and infallible, because to do so would be to limit God.

That, in essence, is Barth’s view of the relationship between Scripture and revelation. Something akin to it is represented in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which identifies the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” In part 2, I intend to show why I believe this model of revelation is theologically inadequate and why, therefore, we should affirm that the Bible is indeed revelation, though it does not exhaust the category of revelation.


3 Responses to “The Bible as Revelation, Part 1”

  1. Luke Smith Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    Congratulations, on the birth of your son Benjamin.

    I would suggest yet another reason for the 1963 distinction, namely the desire to recognize a difference between the scriptural function as means toward the ends of the self revelation of God, and the Incarnation. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.

    You would no doubt readily affirm the distinction between an angelic pronouncement and the virgin birth. The God-Man who walked talked ate etc. The full revelation of God is not in the pages of scripture, but in the incarnation.


    Luke Smith

  2. Ontario Emperor Says:

    I recently surveyed various views, including your own (or, more accurately, Barth’s), of inerrancy. There are a wide variety of views out there.

  3. Aaron Says:


    I think you are right. Thank you for that insight. Whether that stems from neo-orthodoxy is a question worth pondering. I hope to clarify in the next post how I agree with the 1963 statement as far as it goes, but I don’t believe it says enough about the Bible.

    And thanks for the congratulations!

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