The Miracle of Scripture

What is so special about the Bible? Why do we keep talking about it? Why must Christians continually point to it as the way we know what is true about God?

Is there something miraculous about scripture? If so, what?

The answer that many of us encounter, and many of us cling to, is that the miracle is the perfection of scripture itself. Some might express this in terms of “inerrancy”: we believe the Bible, at least in part, because God has kept it perfectly free from error for us. Others might more generally refer to the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, majesty of style, and consent of all the parts.

No really. Some people do. I swear.

Such lofty exaltation of scripture can come at a price, however. For example, if someone holds scripture in high esteem based on a valuation of its inerrancy and then discovers that there are historical mistakes (e.g., Luke 2), unfulfilled prophecies (Haggai, Revelation), theological disagreements (Gen 1 & 2; Mark & John), or scientific problems (all the animals in the whole world on that Ark?), this can come with a loss of confidence in God, Christianity, the church, and one’s personal faith.

Might there be another way forward?

Karl Barth argues quite strongly that, yes, there is another way forward (Dogmatics ยง19).

The miracle of scripture does not consist in the fact that God kept the Bible free from taint of humanness, and especially of human limitation or sin.

Instead, the miracle of scripture consists, as in the salvation of humanity more generally, in the fact that God makes himself known through what is all too human, all too limited, all too often mistaken.

… the prophets and apostles as such, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.

To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.

And finally, this, which probably ends up going further than I’m entirely comfortable with, but by and large sums up some things I’ve been dancing around for years:

If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition… but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.

In other words, this is the Bible we actually have. To demand another, an inerrant one for example, is to demand of God what God has not seen fit to give. It is to spurn the gift given and demand something better.

If God is not ashamed of an all-too-human Bible, we should not be either. This human collection of documents is the actual Bible that is the Word of God.

9 thoughts on “The Miracle of Scripture”

  1. First off, thanks for this post. I’ve been following you for sometime and quite enjoy many of your views, am challenged by others, and encouraged by a great deal.

    With that said, I almost feel like this last few paragraphs are somewhat of a cop-out (which means I must have misread). That is, this argument would be slam-dunk, open and shut if the Bible was a static document given by God to the Christian church (or to the world, etc.). But it’s not. So the question then becomes, which Bible is the “given” word of God in which we can accept the human fallibility? If inerrancy was at one point a factor in eliminating from the Protestant canon such books as Judith, should those books be reinstated given that we now recognize it’s okay for the Bible to be fallible?

    I guess I mean to say, within a given tradition, holding the belief that the Bible is given by God is great. But when you begin to enter into discussion with other traditions, there is a real split over exactly what constitutes the Bible, yes? So then, at this point, doesn’t the notion of the “givenness” of the Bible by God break down in the face of the very human, very distinct historical traditions that underline and highlight what actually constitutes canon for a particular sect/denomination? Then, the question is not just of fallibility in the Biblical text given by God, but fallibility in humans even determining WHAT is given by God–which speaks against notions of closed canons, for instance, as well as this approach to inherent tensions in the biblical witness.

  2. Great stuff, Daniel, though you’ve remained in the register of description, not going into too much evaluation. I’d be interested to see your evaluative thoughts on this approach since Barth’s whole theology of Scripture hangs on the incarnational (Trinitarian) theological background he’s been developing. For Barth, its the incarnate Word that stands behind and is the basis/possibility of the written Word so that it is first the eternal, preexistent Word’s assumption of fallen flesh that stands behind this theology of the that same Word extending his earthly historical speaking through the written testimony of his apostles. All that to say, its Barth’s Trinitarian/incarnational theology that funds his doctrine of Scripture; you seem less than thrilled about the former so I’m interested about in your take about its connection to the latter.

  3. Excellent point Barth – it is a kind of ingratitude to insist on a better more perfect Bible than what we actually have.

    To respond to your third paragraph and the florid language you note that many employ in praise of scripture – I actually find this phenomenon a tad ridiculous. You can’t crack a commentary on any book of the Bible without having to endure several meaningless paragraphs about how “great” the poetry or prose or metaphor or whatever of this particular book is. How the commentator invariably thinks it is the best example of the thing it is and deserves to be admired purely for its aesthetic merit etc… etc…

    Everyone is welcome to their opinion and there are certainly passages of scripture I find appealing, but there are poems and stories and histories and philosophies I find more beautiful. I wouldn’t turn to scripture chiefly for its beauty. Even if I am the lone crackpot who finds large sections of the Bible dreadfully boring, or repetitive (I somehow doubt that), what is the point of the superlative evaluation of scripture? Can there really be a “best” in aesthetic terms? Would the Bible somehow be worth less if it could be objectively determined that it was not the most beautiful collection of writing that humans have produced?

    I don’t think the miracle of the Bible resides in the perfection of its parts, the beauty or majesty of the prose, or the way it all fits together (it doesn’t always seem to). I think the miracle of scripture is the long witness of the faithful that they have encountered the Word of God there. I wouldn’t read it at all if it weren’t for that witness. I read scripture for the same reason I participate in the eucharist – people I love and trust and people I admire who lived and died before me said that they met God there. Given that God has a habit of meeting people in surprising and ordinary places I would actually expect scripture to be highly ordinary.

  4. What Adam indicates and others seem to be searching for, is that there is more in Barth’s formulation. The Incarnation is key to his understanding of Scripture. Many people when pressed have a hard time admitting that Jesus took on OUR flesh and was truly human like us. Instead, they imagine him as being a perfect version of a new humanity without ever having to endure our own fallenness in any way. Of course, if that were true, then he never truly represented us. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

    The other supporting piece is Barth’s view of Word and Spirit. The Bible is the normative place for the Word to be communicated as the Spirit meets us there. As you mention, it is an act of grace.

  5. Do you still still have a job at Fuller?

    I used to experience terrors when the ideas you broadcast spooked into my thoughts. I kept coming back to the place expressed in your first paragraph. It is the question to Elijah, “Why are you here?” Each disappointment in what the Bible was not, was met with wonder at what the Bible is. I am fully satisfied that Lazarus was raised, but am discomforted that Matt, Mark, and Luke didn’t find the room to record it. So, I don’t know how to witness, my reason for the confidence of my faith sounds like a bunch of qualifications and modal verbs. But there is confidence and there is faith, and whatever it is I have, it is largely molded by scripture.

  6. I still have a great deal of difficulty working out what we can and can’t do with the Bible if we start from Barth’s position as you stated it. On the other hand, ANY responsible starting point that takes into account the historical/cultural/linguistic/geographic distance between us and the Bible (Lessing’s “great ditch”) has huge difficulties.

    But what are we to believe? What is our hermeneutic? How deeply compromised are the truth-claims of the Scriptures?

    No, of course that problem does not go away if we assume inerrancy. But I don’t have an alternative that works.

    PLEASE NOTE that this is NOT a sufficient reason for postulating inerrancy, nor is it my reason for doing so. It is a distinctly different question that I’m asking here. Thanks for any help you can give on the topic.

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