The Bible as Revelation, Part 3

Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first if you missed them.

Thus far I have argued that the Bible is both a record of divine revelation and is itself revelation. The revelatory acts of God (culminating in the Christ event) are both recorded and interpreted by God for us in Scripture.

My purpose in this final post on the topic of the Bible as revelation is to interact specifically with the Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture. According to Neo-orthodoxy, the Bible cannot be identified as the Word of God. It is, rather, a vehicle for the Word of God. God revealed himself through his mighty acts in history, and these mighty acts were recorded by the biblical authors through a process of spiritual illumination. Revelation is a dynamic event, not a static deposit like the biblical canon. The Bible is a witness to revelation, but it is a fallible human witness. The Bible becomes the Word of God when God sovereignly chooses to speak through it in an event of Person-to-person revelation.

Allow me to explain this more fully by quoting from an interview of Karl Barth conducted by Donald Grey Barnhouse in 1934. The interview was republished in Eternity magazine in April, 1984:

[Barnhouse speaking]: I said, “There is one matter, however, to which I wish to return for the heart of the criticism of your theology has been your position as to the Word of God.” Our conversation on this point follows. Dr. Barth speaks first.

“I believe in the divinity of the written Word, but the difficulty with some is that they have gotten a divinity that is too human.”

“Do you believe that God speaks outside of the Bible?”

“No, there is no revelation apart from the Bible.”

“Then you would not agree with those who think that the writers of the Bible were inspired only as Shakespeare was inspired?”

“No, No. No. No. The Bible is the only source of divine revelation.”

“Now, Dr. Barth, perhaps we are just at the point that has caused the difficulty. You say that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation, but do you believe that all of the Bible is God’s revelation?”

Dr. Barth had a book in his hand. He divided a page with a gesture of his hand and said, “If this part of the Bible speaks to me, it is God’s Word to me.” And then indicating the other part of the page, “If this part does not speak to me, it is not God’s Word to me.”

That is enough to make some people’s hair stand on end, but I was convinced that there was something more that appeared upon the surface of his speech, so I said, “But Doctor, suppose the part that hasn’t spoken to you really speaks to me. Is it then God’s Word?”

“Certainly,” he replied. “It is then God’s Word for you.”

“And do you believe that the part which is God’s Word to me may someday become God’s Word to you?”

“Of course. Anything in the Bible may become God’s Word to me. This is why the Bible is the book of the church.”

“And is there anything outside of the Bible that can ever be God’s Word to any man?”

“No. The Bible is the only source of God’s Word.”

I quote at length because this is one of those rare occasions when Barth speaks with simple clarity, addressing questions that ordinary Christians are asking. More than anything I have read, Barnhouse’s interview has helped me grasp Barth’s doctrine of Scripture.

Now, I have three points of critique:

1. The Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture does not explain how the actual meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences of the Bible have any significance. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Whereas the propositional view [of divine revelation] highlights God’s use of the biblical words in the past (e.g., inspiration), Barth calls attention to God’s use (or not) of the biblical words in the present (e.g., illumination). The question to be asked of Barth concerns the relationship of the Bible’s quasi-sacramental mediation of Jesus’ real presence to the verbal meaning of the text itself.”

2. Defining revelation solely as a dynamic event is artificial. Events must be interpreted, and even the interpretation could be considered an event in itself. Although I am by no means well-read when it comes to the subject of speech-act theory, I do understand the basic premise that speech is itself an act. With our words we don’t just speak; we actually do things: we command, we inform, we question, we invite, we promise, we interpret, etc. Even though we often think of words and actions as things that belong to different spheres of life, so much of what we do is actually done by speaking. Consider the following examples:

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

“I object, your honor.”

“I want to order a number 3 with extra pickles.”

“The chair recognizes the gentleman from Pennsylvania.”

In every example, speaking constitutes the act by creating a new reality. A minister effects the pronouncement by his words. A lawyer objects with his words. A customer orders with his words. The chairman of a congressional session recognizes with his words. Words function. They actually do things. There are ways in which combinations of words may be defined as events.

This means that there can be no strict separation between revelation as event and revelation as proposition. The Bible itself is one of God’s mighty acts, which contains numerous components of revelatory action: promises, threats, commands, interpretations, etc.

3. Furthermore, the separation between personal revelation and propositional revelation is also artificial. What if I told you that I know my wife like no one else in the world knows her, but I just don’t know any facts about her? That would be insane! In a relationship, knowing someone includes knowing something about someone. There is no warrant for excluding propositional truths from the total package of personal divine revelation. When Isaiah, at his great theophany, heard the cherubim call to one another, he heard two propositions: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory!” He didn’t say, “Shut up, cherubim! I’m only interested in a personal relationship with God, and I have no need for your static theological propositions!” He fell on his face and cried, “Woe is me!” The theological propositions (expressed in praise, another speech-act) cannot be separated from the total package of the revelatory event. Our God is a God who speaks, not just in warm fuzzy feelings but in actual words, verbal symbols that constitute person-to-person communication. We cannot know him unless we know something about him, and what we know about him comes from what he has told us about himself. What he has told us includes propositional truth.

Therefore, I conclude that the Neo-orthodox doctrine of Scripture is ultimately found wanting, because it puts asunder what God has joined together: words and the Word, events and their divine interpretation, propositions and personal relationships. The Bible is, in its entirety and at all times, the Word of God.


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

  1. Luke Smith Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I appreciate your eagerness to engage thinkers like Karl Barth. I do find your assessment of his work somewhat cavalier, but hey I can be kind of touchy. I have only read Barth on my own so I concede that I may be misunderstanding….or at least not familiar with the entirety of his argument. With that caveat, I do not think you engage the reason he understands the Proclamation to be essentially related to the Written Word of God. I refer you to volume one part one chapter one section three pages 88ff. An underlying question that Barth is at least responding to is how does one assess the truth of proclamation. To simply dismiss his answer without resolving his question, is I think “wanting”. But I am eager to hear your response to his concerns.


  2. Aaron Says:


    I will be happy to read the relevant section and offer my thoughts, but that will have to wait a few days until finals are over. I don’t have a copy of CD 1.1, so I will have to go to the library to get it.

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