One of the battlefields of theology at least in America is the nature of Scripture. Is the Bible inspired, inerrant, infallible? Or is it just an old collection of myths and fantasies written by unenlightened, pre-scientific religious fanatics? Many who call themselves Evangelicals would use the words inerrant and infallible to describe the Bible. They might add that it is infallible in its original autographs. (Since we do not have any of these original autographs, but only copies that differ from each other, that seems to me like a meaningless distinction.) Other Evangelicals who may also call themselves Progressives prefer to describe the Bible as inspired rather than infallible. It may reflect the language and culture in which it was written and may contain some errors of fact, but it is still the Word of God.
In the section I read entitled “The Word of God Written,” Barth doesn’t use the categories of the debate in America. Instead he starts by talking about the Church’s proclamation which is based on past revelation and in expectation of future revelation. He asserts that the basis for this recollection of the Church is Holy Scripture. Barth calls attention to the Canon of Scripture and he reminds us in one of his small print sections that the word canon is from Greek and means rod, then ruler, standard, model, assigned district. He writes that for the first three hundred years of the Church the term Canon (which he always capitalizes) was used to mean that which stands fast as normative, that is apostolic or the Church’s doctrine of faith. Then from the fourth century onwards the term took on the more specialized idea of the Canon of Holy Scripture meaning the list of biblical books which are recognized as normative, because apostolic (p. 101).
At this point Barth doesn’t explore the subject of the formation of the Canon as fascinating as that may be, Instead he focuses on the fact of its existence that is “concretely external” and refers to it as “the working instructions or marching orders by which not just the Church’s proclamation but the very Church itself stands or falls” (p. 101). Later Barth asks, “What is it that makes the Bible of the Old and New Testaments the Canon?” (p. 107). He answers by saying It is the Canon because it imposed itself upon the Church as such, and continually does so” (p. 107).
Barth refers to Holy Scripture as the written proclamation of what was once proclamation by human lips. In that way it is more concrete than the word of mouth tradition of the Church. The Canon, Barth asserts, is what guides the Church, not an oral tradition or apostolic tradition as in the Roman Catholic Church. He says, “The apostolic succession of the Church must mean that it is guided by the Canon, that is, by the prophetic and apostolic word as the necessary rule of every word that is valid in the Church” (p. 104).
Barth writes, “The Bible, speaking to us and heard by us as God’s Word, bears witness to past revelation” (p. 111) “The Bible is not in itself and as such God’s past revelation” (p. 111) “Witnessing means pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another” (p. 111). In a small print section, Bart makes the analogy of the Bible to John the Baptist in a painting of the crucifixion. Barth says that the Bible is like John the Baptist’s “prodigious index finger” which points away from himself to Christ. Barth also says that what we have in the Bible are human attempts to repeat and reproduce the Word of God in human words and thoughts and in specific human situations.
I read in Eberhard Busch’s biography of Barth that the prolific theologian constantly had a painting before him as he worked – “The Crucifixion from the Isenheim altar, Colmar, by Matthais Grünwald a detail of which I have copied here. In it you can see John the Baptist pointing to Christ. Barth says that the Bible is like the finger of John the Baptist pointing not to itself, but to Christ.